As Seen in…
Places to visit in Mongolia and on our Mongolia tours
Why visit Mongolia?
Whilst the earliest humans who wandered the ‘Land of the Eternal Blue Sky’ – evidence of whom resides in the petroglyphs of camels, mammoths and big cats in Khoit Tsenkher’s caverns – may have lived a very different existence, the horse-riding nomadic culture that still dominates Mongolia today has its origins as long as 5,000 years ago.
Nowadays, an incredible 30% of the 3.3 million population still favours a nomadic lifestyle, from the ‘Little Gobi’ goat and camel herders of Elsen Tasarkhai who sell cashmere amidst a quasi-desert duned landscape of oases, dried lakes and elm coppices, to the ger dwelling thousands who have flocked to the fringes of Ulaan Baatar’s capital to enjoy the benefits of the city from the traditional hide, carpet and wooden-poled dwellings of their forebears.
From the Bronze-Age Scythians to the 3rd century B.C. Xiongnu empire that stirred the Chinese Emperors to complete the Great Wall of China to withstand their threat, the Mongolian culture was defined by its warrior-led identity and conquering prowess. Through the first millennium A.D., dynasties arose that were the talk of afeared nations from Byzantium to Bombay and the rise of the Khan-led culture had its flowering in the rule of the self-styled Chingghis (or Genghis) Khan (or Khaan!) who united the different ethnic groups and swept irresistibly across Asia and Easter Europe at the head of a brutally successful Golden Horde in the early 1200s.
His conquered lands stretched from Poland to Oman to Cambodia and to Korea, encompassing 22% of the planet’s land-mass and over 100 million people became his subject, roughly a third of all humans on the planet. The resulting trade freedoms brought wealth to the East, yet began immediately to founder upon his death, as the empire was divided into 4 khanates. One of these, for a while led by the fabled Kublai Khan, dominated China and ‘Outer Mongolia’ for 100 years; by 1368 though, the Mongols were expelled and retreated to their homelands to return to their traditional ways. The Mongol Khans were then characterised by internal conflicts and intermittent decades of unification. One such moment of concord followed the arrival of Buddhism in the 16th century. The founding monastery at Kharkhorin, Chingghis’ capital, can still be visited, sitting amidst expanses of grasslands and surrounded by the sacred number of 108 gleaming white stupa.
As elsewhere, the remaining three temples there speak more of absence than particular glory, ravaged by the Soviet purges of the 1930s and 40s. As in the case of Amarbayasgalant Monsatery, once shrine and tomb of the great yellow-hat Buddhist cleric and poet Zanabazar, the opulence of the foundation is gone and only since the 1990s and independence have the monks returned. However here, as in many other sacred sites, the gentle sense of spirituality is undeniable and many flock to its walls as pilgrims and to rest a few days amidst the community. The 20th century purge of Buddhism by Stalin’s regime was not unique however: the Qing Dynasty won decisive victories against Mongolia in the 17th century and all but annihilated its population.
Curiously, the position of the country since then has perhaps been its salvation: both the Chinese and later the Russians allowed Mongolia to remain as a cultural buffer, forbidding Chinese immigration there in the former case, and later the Russians insisting on its independence as a nation since the collapse of the Qing regime in 1911. Russia, despite installing a communist government, saw Mongolia as a natural bulwark against Chinese encroachment and effectively secured its position as a modern nation by forcing through its acceptance as such by the UN in 1961. Such support came at a huge cultural cost.
Roughly a third of all males were monks at the start of the 1900s; the execution or transportation of the majority to gulags in the late 1930s was a brutal case of religious cleansing which took a full 60 years to overcome; ‘cleansing’ on ethnic grounds was similarly dramatic. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Mongolia has experienced a cultural and economic revival. The capital is a rapidly growing city, almost half of all citizens now living there and tourism has been a dramatic success. This is partially owing to the sustained ancient traditions and the fascination with Chingghis Khan at the height of his powers: visitors can ascend the colossal statue close to Terelj and wonder at the immense panoramas from the comfort of his horse’s head.
Similarly, Mongolia offers some of the planet’s most unspoilt landscapes and threatened mammals like the snow leopard, Siberian ibex, Gobi bear and Asiatic wild ass are to be found in its wild hilly tracts and amidst the eerie beauty of the Gobi Desert in the south. Gray wolves are common and nature lovers flock to enjoy the lovely lakes which are still a stronghold of the 6 crane species which struggle elsewhere. Perhaps most memorable and most intrinsically linked to the nomadic culture are the takhi – wild horses – which are Earth’s last true horse populations in their original glorious habitats.
These were in fact rescued as a species in the 1990’s after virtual extinction, but nowadays, to follow them along the dancing grasses of the Terelj National Park and watch them gallop with abandon across the plain seems to forge an unbreakable link to the dramatic and glorious past of this proud nation.