The Altai Mountains
At Mongolia's western reaches lies a wilder and more unpredictable landscape dominated by the craggy peaks of the Altai Mountain range.
With just over two million inhabitants, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world and the sense of space is epic.
Freed from its Soviet chains traditions are strong with Buddhism slowly reasserting itself, as is the nomadic lifestyle so alien to the socialist model. Even in Ulaanbaatar half the population still live in gers, the traditional circular Mongolian tent.
Expect remote and wild panoramic scenery ranging from lush grassy steppes to craggy desert, rolling sand dunes and soaring mountains. There are few internal flights so moving around the country is either done overland using 4×4 vehicles or via one of the few internal flights. Distances are great so expect long journeys. The further west you travel, the more remote Mongolia becomes as you approach the Altai Mountains and the border with China.
Over 70% of the Mongolian population remain nomadic and travelling across the flat open steppe you will still encounter isolated family ger (yurt) encampments whose occupants will inevitably offer you hospitality. To experience the true essence of the country, spend time travelling by the traditional mode of horseback, camel or yak. The wiry little thirteen-hand ponies will seem a little small, but their stamina is legendary – they carried Genghis Khan across Asia.
A holiday to remote Mongolia used to mean staying in basic accommodation but this is no longer the case. There is now the opportunity to stay in small, private ger camps in unspoilt landscapes with modern comforts such as ensuite bathrooms, private chef, excellent guides and a support team. Ger camps can be set up in the most remote and magical locations which can range from a riverside setting to rugged desert landscape or endless grassy steppe, far from any day-trippers. They are then dismantled, leaving no evidence of their existence, ensuring these beautiful landscapes remain untarnished. Some camps work with local communities enhancing what is a truly Mongolian experience.
There are two well known festivals in Mongolia, both of which offer a fascinating and authentic insight into Mongolian culture.
Naadam Festival: Travel in July when people from all over the country flock to watch and participate in the festivities. Men and women compete in the three national sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing.
Golden Eagle Festival: In September Eagle Hunters gather in the mountainous Altai region of the country to compete with their magnificent raptors, showcasing the speed, agility and accuracy of their birds.
A selection of activities and experiences you could consider including in your holiday to Mongolia.
Stay in a traditional ger, spending time with a nomadic family.
Discover Mongolia’s rich birdlife, including passerines, water birds and of course raptors.
Visit the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag, where the American expedition of the 1950s uncovered a great haul of dinosaur remains.
Wrap up warm for a winter adventure on Khovsgol Lake when the water freezes and people take to the ice for sledging and ice fishing fun.
See the Kazakh Eagle Hunters in all their finery – meet the hunters, their families and their birds, and learn about the skills involved in the capture, training and use of eagles as hunters.
Visit Gandan Monastery just outside of Ulaanbaatar – the largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia.
Search the mountain landscapes for wildlife including snow leopard, saiga antelope, pallas cat and argali sheep.
Explore Hustai National Park where Przewalski horses, once close to extinction, now run wild.
Travel in July during the Naadam Festival when people from across the country gather to compete and watch the traditional sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing.
Drive overland via Karakorum, the ancient walled city which was once the capital of the Mongolian Empire.
A passion for travel runs right through every one of our experts - meaning they're always ready with first-hand insight about their specialist countries.
Paul, our Mongolian expert, joined Steppes Travel in 1994 and has visited Mongolia numerous times. His most recent adventure was with his son when they experienced a yak trek, staying in yurts as they travelled, as well as visiting a nature reserve where they found eagles and argali sheep.
It was my passion for languages that first encouraged me to leave the UK behind and grab my rucksack. Since then, it’s been a mixture of intriguing cultures, jaw-dropping landscapes and the wonder of seeing animals in their natural habitat that sees me continuously extending my travel wish list.
Paul Craven designed a really good itinerary in Mongolia, taking in the Eagle Festival, for a sole traveller at relatively short notice. My guide was a bird watching expert so I saw lots of birds and animals as I had hoped - he was an excellent guide and travelling companion making the trip really special.
Some of the wonderful places to stay that we frequently recommended.
Arriving at Three Camel Lodge you are met by a line of broad, smiling young Mongolian faces. They don’t need warning – they can see your vehicle from miles and miles away, with nothing else to clutter up the uninterrupted view apart from a few sheep, yaks and ponies. The forty-individual handmade gers are large and comfortable, featuring traditional furniture, a wood-burning stove, camel hair blankets for additional warmth and artwork from around the country.
Jalman Meadows ger camp is an authentic low impact camp offering comfortable ger accommodation as well as separate library, dining and shower gers. The valleys surrounding the camp serve as winter grazing areas for the local nomads and the grasslands burst with the colour of wildflowers in the summer. Hiking, horse-riding, rafting and kayaking are amongst the activities on offer and the camp provides the opportunity to experience the wildlife, culture and landscapes of Mongolia.
Located midway between Ulaanbaatar and Hustai National Park, HS Khaan Resort is a luxury ger camp. The 26 individual cottages are housed in traditional, circular canvas ger structures, but with all the interior comforts of a hotel room. Comfortable beds with mosquito nets, ensuites with porcelain bathtubs and all with panoramic views over the open steppe. Facilities include a choice of restaurants and a terrace area that makes the most of the far-reaching views.
British passport holders do need a visa for travel to Mongolia. Proof of travel insurance, as well as your accommodation or itinerary in Mongolia, is needed along with the completed visa application and your passport. Once obtained the visa is valid for up to 30 days within six months from the date of issue.
Flights from the UK to Ulaanbaatar operate with Aeroflot via Moscow which takes approximately 10 hours or Turkish Airlines via Istanbul which takes approximately 14 hours.
Mongolia is not a gastronomic destination and the staple cuisine is largely based around meat and milk with limited availability of vegetables or spices for local people. As a western traveller in Mongolia, you will be served a good range of western foods often including noodles, rice and pasta plus imported vegetables and fruit. Local delicacies that are certainly worth trying include mutton dumplings, noodle soups and the local tipple known as airag which is fermented mares milk.
With such vast landscapes, it can be hard to see the wildlife in Mongolia, but it is there! In Hustai National Park, around a two-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar, there are wild Przewalski horses which were once close to extinction. Throughout Mongolia, there is the chance to see small mammals such as marmot, gerbil, squirrel and Mongolian fox. Herds of Siberian ibex, deer and gazelle as well as the world’s largest wild sheep, the argali. Birdlife is extremely varied with many migratory and indigenous species including passerines, water birds and many raptors. Pallas cat is notoriously shy and hard to spot as is the snow leopard which frequents the far western Altai Mountains.
The season for travel to Mongolia is very short with reliable weather only from mid-June through to September. During high season from June to August the climate should be warm and dry, possibly with some thunderstorms and a higher chance of rain in August. It is also possible to travel in May and September although the weather is more changeable and some of the traditional camps may be closed.
The time of year that you are visiting will determine the day and night time temperatures during your trip, but generally, in Mongolia, you can expect summer temperatures to be around 20 degrees centigrade in the mountains and drop to around freezing or a little above at night. It can reach around 30 degrees centigrade in Ulaanbaatar during the summer and in the Gobi Desert temperatures can reach 35 degrees centigrade or higher.
However, please note that particularly for women, dress can be a sensitive area. While most clothing is acceptable please bear in mind that you may feel more comfortable if you refrain from wearing short shorts or tight clothing, particularly in rural areas.
Mongolia has fewer festivals compared to its neighbouring countries. February – Tsagaan Sar – the New Year.
July – Nadaam – This is Mongolia’s most well-known festival. It is known as the eriyn gurvan naadam, after the three ‘manly sports’ of horse-racing, archery and wrestling. It takes place every year between 11-13 July in Ulaanbaatar. Naadam Festivals also take place throughout the month of July across the countryside.
Mongolia is eight hours ahead of GMT. In the western provinces of Bayan-Ölgii, Uvs and Khovd, Mongolia is seven hours of GMT.
Approximate travel from London to Ulaanbaatar is nine hours via Moscow.
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