Mongolia doesn’t crop up on many travelers lists of must see destinations, but for the intrepid traveler willing to rough it a bit, it can be a very interesting and rewarding destination.
Sandwiched between Russian and China, modern Mongolia didn’t stand much of a chance of preserving it’s history and traditions. Historically the Mongols were the conquering hoards of both China and Russia leaving a wide path of destruction and desolation in their wake. Regarded by Russia and China to be little more than barbarians, much attempt was made by both countries to ‘civilize’ the Mongols by the imposition of their culture or beliefs on Mongolia. The Mongols however are a proud and resilient people, who have survived in the face of adversity and are now plotting a much more independent course.
Mongolia is a huge country consisting of taiga, seemingly endless steppes, and vast deserts. Eco tourism is beginning to be a big industry, and there are many awe inspiring natural sights to see. Although the communists were ruthless in destroying monasteries you can still see some very impressive Buddhist temples, preserved as museums or as a showplace to illustrate the ‘freedom of religion’ under the communists.
Ulaan Bataar or ‘red city’ the capital of Mongolia is a good place to start your visit to Mongolia. It is central, and a good base for transportation and arranging visits to more remote areas. It is also a good place to get an idea of Mongolian culture and history as it has several very good museums and probably the best infrastructure in the country.
Some museums you will want to visit are the Museum of Natural History, the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Mongolian History. If you are planning to travel outside of Ulaan Bataar for any Eco tours the natural history museum will give you a good idea of the plant and animal species endemic to the area, and also of the different types of terrain and climate in Mongolia. The Zanabazar Museum is very interesting. Of particular note are the fine silver sculptures by the Mongolian artist Zanabazar after whom the museum was named and a couple of paintings by Sharav. These paintings depict nomadic life in just about all of its facets. Some very normal and intimate acts are shown along with daily life, and celebrations. You will find many prints of Sharav’s work in Mongolian shops for sale as souvenirs.
The Museum of Mongolian History is interesting particularly for it’s collections showing life in the pre-Soviet phase of Mongolian history. It explains the similarities between Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhism and the past relationship between the two countries.
There are some very interesting monasteries in Ulaan Bataar as well as a couple of fascinating historical sights. The Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan (the last Khan of Mongolia prior to communism) is a great place to visit. The Khan was a lover of exotic animals and there are many examples of them in his palace. On the grounds of the Palace is a ger (Mongolian yurt) made out of snow leopard skins. You can also see diplomatic gifts to the Khan from both China and Russia. The palace itself is not an impressive building, and was patterned after Russian buildings of the time. The Bogd Khan was one of the few Mongolians who actually lived in a house.
The Gandantegchinlen Khiid is one of the few monasteries in Mongolia to escape destruction. It was kept as a show place for taking foreign diplomats to show the tolerance of religion. It is a good place to see Mongolian Buddhism in action. You will see older people in traditional silk robes and may even witness a wedding procession. The hall of the Buddha has a huge Buddha statue several stories tall and many paintings lining its walls. If you come in the morning you may seem the resident monks performing ceremonies, and hear the novice monks chanting Buddhist scriptures. The chants are mesmerizing.
The Museum of the Chojin Lama was once one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia. It was spared destruction under the communists and kept as a museum of the feudal past. The range of temples here, the paintings and the thangkas are captivating.
In the center of Ulaan Bataar is the huge Sukhbataar Square and the Palace of the People. It is a monument constructed in the Soviet Stalin style. It still functions as a government building. The square is open and often hosts concerts in the summer. The area around the square is an interesting place to walk and there are some cafés and restaurants.
If you are in Mongolia in July, don’t miss Naadam, participants compete in the three manly sports of wrestling, archery, and horse racing. The contestants wear colorful and bizarre costumes of a small pointy hat, a kind of cloth halter with long sleeves and matching speedo type trunks. The festival takes place over three days and includes demonstrations of Mongolian music, throat singing and poetry.
Ulaan Bataar is the place to arrange trips to other parts of the country. These can range from day visits to the nearby Zuunmod and the ruins of the Manzshir Monastery which is in the process of restoration after being razed in the 1930’s. The setting is particularly beautiful, in a tree lined valley.
Bogdkhan Uul is a natural area which was made into a type of national park in 1778. It has a good array of wildlife and is a great place for hiking and horseback riding. In the northeast part of Mongolia is the beautiful Khonsvol Nuur, a huge and very clear lake in a forested taiga area. There are a couple of Eco tour areas and camps here. Some good travel agencies in Ulaan Bataar for trips to other areas of Mongolia are Karakoram Travel http://www.gomongolia.com, Nomadic Journeys http://www.nomadicjourneys.com, and Bluesky Travel http://www.mol.mn/bluesky
Mongolian food is nothing to write home about, and vegetarians will be miserable. Some of the more edible Mongolian staples are buuz or mutton stuffed steamed dumplings, and khuurshuur or mutton pancakes. Mongolian food consists largely of greasy mutton and flour. Luckily Ulaan Bataar has some good Chinese restaurants. and a good German pub/restaurant called Khanbrau. If you want to try Mongolian food there are some places near the Palace of the People. A good place also is the Mongolian restaurant at the Bangyol Hotel.
No matter what you do in Mongolia, it is a place you will not soon forget!