As one of the most sparsely populated countries on Earth, Mongolia is an ideal getaway from busy urban life in the West. During the 13th century, however, when Genghis Khan united the Mongol tribes and defeated many neighbouring peoples, the Mongolian Empire was at its height. Landlocked Mongolia is a place of magnificent steppe landscapes, inhabited mainly by herds of wild antelope, donkeys, and yaks.
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Situated in east-central Asia, Mongolia has an area of 1,565,000 sq km (604,250 sq mi) making it the largest landlocked country in the world. Mongolia is bordered by Russia to the North and by China to the South. Mongolia is essentially a vast plateau with an average elevation of 914 to 1,524 m. The capital of Mongolia is Ulaanbaatar, located in the central North. Mountainous sections are found in the west, where the peak of Nayramadlin Orgil (Huyten Orgil) of the Mongolian Altay Mountains rises to a height of 4,374m. The southern part of the country is occupied by the Gobi, a rocky desert with a thin veneer of shifting sand.
In the early 1990s, after 70 years of a Soviet-style one party state, democracy and privatization were introduced; but the economy collapsed after the withdrawal of Soviet support, triggering widespread poverty and unemployment. Despite growth since the 1990’s around one third of the population still live below the poverty line – with one-quarter of Mongolians living on less than $1.25 US a day.
For centuries, Mongols have been herding cattle and horses and about one third of the population are still nomadic or semi-nomadic today. Mongols pride themselves on being skilled horsemen, and horse races are a favourite pastime. Nomadic families will travel large distances to attend the biggest games at the annually held Naadam Festival. Mongolian culture is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and ancient Shamanist practices, with priceless religious artefacts found in newly reopened monasteries.
As of 2014, Mongolia has a population of 2.88 million people. The major industries in Mongolia include construction, mining (coal, copper, molybdenum fluorspar, gold), along with oil. When travelling through Mongolia, expect a bumpy ride, Mongolia have around 50,000 km of roadways, of which only 1,724 km are paved. Miat-Air Mongol is the principal airline in Mongolia, which operates out of Chinggis Khaan International Airport (ULN) in Ulan Bator.
In 2013, there were 418,000 international visitors to Mongolia. On a trip to Mongolia, try not to miss the mystical and enthralling throat-singing. A stay in the round and cosy felt tents of the hospitable nomads will be another unforgettable experience, rounded off with a bowl of warm tea and a hearty lamb dish. Additional points of interest include the Trans-Siberian Railway, a railway that runs 1,496 km in length, connecting Mongolia with both China and Russia (Ulaanbaatar has been connected to the Railway since 1939). Furthermore, check out the largest monastery in Mongolia, Gandan Lamasery in Ulaanbaatar, and the ruined city of Karakorum, once the capital of the Mongol Empire. Be aware that tourist facilities can be in short supply, and prices may be high in isolated areas.
Ethical Travel Issues and advice
- There are no road signs in Mongolia. Always hire a tour guide to avoid getting lost.
- If you are in the open countryside and you see a lasso or a pole standing vertically in the ground avoid the area as it is a request for privacy
- Despite harsh government repression, mining activists continue to protest against corruption and concessions to foreign-owned companies. Exercise caution if social unrest arises near you.
- Please see our Orphanage Tourism page for more info & advice
- Mongolian people are pretty tolerant and won’t be annoyed if you don’t know or forget their intricate social customs
- Items that are placed on a table, like cigarettes, become communal and may be shared without asking
- It is customary to offer tea/fermented milk/food when a guest arrives. Don’t refuse it, take with your right hand, supporting your elbow with your left hand, and just pretend to taste and leave if you don’t like.
- Don’t show the soles of your feet or put your feet up on chairs, but it is normal to sit on beds.
- Shake somebodies hand if you accidentally stand on their foot
- Don’t talk to people over the threshold of the ger
- Women don’t sit cross-legged
- Whilst riding or trekking try to look out for Duran holes – these small guides pig like creatures dig burrows that you might break your ankle in
- Don’t stoke ger dogs – they are working guardians not pets
- Be aware that any fur products that you buy aware that furs maybe from the black market and illegal to export. Snow leopards, in particular, are becoming rarer.
- Please take a biodegradable, chemical free shampoo and body wash in case of swimming in lakes and rivers which are people’s water supplies are filled with animal life
- The desert seems harsh and strong but is a fragile ecosystem. Don’t buy fossil souvenirs and take only photos. Please, please take all rubbish with you even if locals don’t.
Mongolia enjoys 257 days of sun a year, typically being the focus of high pressure due to its altitude which averages 1500m. It has a long winter from November to April, with lows of -40 ˚ and Spring runs from May to June. The summer can bring highs of 40 ˚ and the most rain. However the rain is not really something to worry about with an average of 15 inches a year compared to a UK average of 39 inches. Most tourists come from June to August and it is advisable to bring factor 30 or higher sunscreen. It is still possible to visit in the Winter.
Being so vast has always meant that people have been privileged as important over land. Now there are 4 areas that have been protected by UNESCO as outstanding examples of steppes landscape, nature reserves and culture and 13 on the tentative list.
Ulaanbaator remains on the top 10 of the most polluted cities in the world due to the burning of raw coal for industry and to keep homes warm, and the high levels of smokers make indoor pollution an additional issue. Smog blights the city. There have been new apartments built to rehouse the ger districts with subsidised mortgages and although some have been filled the main group than benefits from this is developers as many people cant afford the deposits needed
In the city, it is common to see local women dressed in short skirts and vest tops but if you do this too you will encourage views of Western women as ‘sluts’. In the countryside, it is advisable to cover cleavage, shoulders, and knees. Although locals would not admit to being offended they might likely be, especially in sacred areas.
Hospitality is a matter of great pride. It is normal to be late. Handshakes are common but hugs are not. It is more acceptable for men to drink than women.
The nomads typically survive on a diet of meat in winter and dairy in summer, supplemented with wheat, rice and potato crops which have been introduced from other lands. Whilst they have thrived on this diet it might be a good idea for Westerners to take multivitamins. Some people struggle with the fermented flavours of the dairy products, and all parts of the animal are used.
The most popular vegetables are carrots, onions and cabbage and most are imported from China so when leaving the cities it is a good idea to stock up. Vegetarians and Vegans make up 1% of the population or around 30,000 people. It is a good idea to warn home stays ahead of your visit of any dietary needs and to take dried or tinned things with you. In Ulanbaator there are many veggie restaurants and a few chains in the cities of Erdenet, Uvurkhangai, Bulgan, Khutul and Darhan
Out of twelves listed languages, Halh Mongolian is the official one. It has its own alphabet, a Cyrillic one, or might be spelt phonetically in latin on social media. Many older people might also be fluent in Russian and whereas the government is fully behind the younger ones who are making moves to learn English but might also know some German, Korean or Mandarin.
The country converted to Tibetan Buddhist after 1578 when the military began to partner with the religious elite although the leaders were converts from the 13th Century. It mixed well with the ancient worship of the sky, ancestors and animist spirits as mediated by a shaman. With communist revolution came change. Mongolia went from having hundreds if not thousands of monasteries owning 20% of the countries wealth and being connected to a third of the population in the 1920’s to there being none in the 1940’s.
Priceless religious artefacts have been discovered in monasteries that are now reopening after decades of repression under Soviet rule. The largest one, Gandan Lamasery in Ulaanbaatar, is open to visitors. There is a resurgence of interest in meditation stimulated by tourist fascination and 53% of Mongolians describe themselves as Buddhist.
After Buddhism most of the population are atheist although shamanic rituals continue to be practised. There are a very few muslims and christians too.