It’s a land of vast steppes carpeted with khaki grasses, of shimmering rivers slicing through swards, of viridescent hills lining the horizon. A place where lofty mountains hide Jurassic treasures, undulating sand dunes wait to be explored on camelback and arid canyons are set ablaze in the waning afternoon sun.
This is Mongolia – a landlocked nation between Russia and China, covering some 1.5 million square kilometres (that’s slightly smaller than Queensland) and inhabited by just over three million people. Considered the most sparsely populated sovereign country on the planet, it boasts a rich and complex history and intriguing legends. Marco Polo traversed these steppes on his voyages in the late 1200s and it was the birthplace of one of the world’s most intriguing and famous warlords, the country’s founding father, Genghis Khan.
While Mongolia has a surprisingly modern side – the capital Ulaanbaatar is a sprawling, bustling, industrialised centre with vibrant nightlife – what most people come for is the wide, open spaces.
But in a country so sparsely populated, which wide-open spaces should you choose? The shimmering 136-kilometre-long freshwater lake Khovsgol with its alpine scenery (and weather to match) tempts, as do the dense forests and green valleys of Gorkhi Terelj National Park, famed for its hot springs and striking rock formations. Head west for the remote, snow-capped Altai Mountains, or south to the dry plains of the coldest desert on earth, the Gobi, where you can hike rugged canyons, ride Bactrian camels and scramble over sand dunes. Make time, too, for Buddhist monastery Erdene Zuu Khiid which, surrounded by green fields, is a humbling tribute to the serene belief of enlightenment. (There’s a deep spiritual undercurrent here: despite it’s communist past, more than half of Mongolia’s population is Buddhist.)
And, of course, there’s the fascination of witnessing a centuries-old nomadic culture. More than a third of Mongolia’s population lives in the countryside, following a seasonal routine, herding sheep, goats, camel, yaks and horses.
Book at Three Camel Lodge to experience the Gobi the way desert nomads do (but with a slightly more luxurious edge); join Lightfoot travel in the Altai mountains for an authentic homestay with Kazakh eagle hunters; or opt for Abercrombie & Kent’s 12-day cross-country adventure, which includes the fanfare and ritual of the annual Golden Eagle Festival as well as an exploration of the Gobi.
Traversing this country in the manner of the nomads also means travelling through a kaleidoscope of shades – as slate steppes become emerald prairie that then evolves into amber canyonlands. Overhead, it’s all brilliant, big-dome skies in azure, cerulean and cobalt, perhaps with an occasional sweep of ivory cloud. At night, the inky firmament is candescent with stars – a gentle, overhead reminder of our tiny place in the universe.
Image credit: Timothy Allen and Tuul & Bruno Morando