Songwriters describe Mongolia as the Land of the Blue Sky, in part because its endless horizon provides the mostly stark landscape with its most vividly self-descriptive feature. At the same time, though, few places in the world can boast being as empty while at the same time being as interesting.
Throughout its known history, Mongolia has given birth to wanderers and nomads. Its children, who live in a country roughly the size of the American state of Alaska (landwise, the 19th largest country in the world), learn to cross great distances with relative ease, and to appreciate everything that nature yields to them. Although the number of Mongols is nearly four times the population of that state, Mongolia boasts the lowest population density of any independent country in the world (1.7 persons per square kilometer, or 4.4 persons per square mile!). This low density becomes truly astonishing when realizing that this country, at one point in its history, nearly conquered the world from the back of a horse!
From the verdant green of its northern hills to the dunes of the Gobi Desert that it shares with China to the south, hidden treasures await discovery by visitors. In the far west, some 17 cultures share the Altai foothills city of Khovd, including the noted marksmen of the Uriankhais, capable of hitting a thrown leather ball with a rubber-tipped arrow from impressive distances. This is the gateway to the Altai Tavan Bogd (or Five Saints) National Park, home to five sacred mountains, including the tallest of Mongolia, Kuiten Uul (4,374 meters or 14,580 feet elevation), and the Tsambagarav National Park, home to yet another sacred mountain (4,208 meters or 14,000 feet elevation). Along its far east frontier, the town of Choibalsan, the country’s fourth largest city, was near the site of the most important unsung battle of World War II, the Battle of the Khalkin River (or Khalkyn Gol). Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov earned his first Hero of the Soviet Union medal here in an important defeat of the Japanese Army in 1939 that helped free Siberian and Trans-Ural forces for eventual use against the Nazis, and provided a testing ground for the tactics used by the Soviets in Stalingrad. The Zhukov museum in the town is a suitable pilgrimage destination for true World War II aficionados.
The most popular sites, however, are reserved for travel near the capital Ulan Bator, or from Dalanzadgad, the largest Gobi Desert town, site of the immense Oyu Tolgoi or Turquoise Hill copper mine, and tourist base for Mongolia’s three most popular desert attractions: the Yolyn Am or Valley of the Vulture, the Khongoryn Els or Singing Sand Dunes, and the Bain-Dzak or Flaming Cliffs. The Yolyn Am, about an hour outside of town, provides not only great viewing of passing yol, a type of Old World vulture, it also is the location of a nearly year-round ice field that stays preserved from the excess heat of the nearby desert within a deep gorge. The Khongoryn Els are perhaps the largest dunes in the country, and as the name implies, they sing with the movement of wind over them. The Bain-Dzak, named for the color of the sandstone in which the cliffs give off during sunset, owes its fame to Indiana Jones-like American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, who in 1923 was the first to uncover a nest of whole dinosaur eggs here while actually seeking out clues about the origin of mankind. The area continues to yield new fossils.
Of course, most travelers, particularly those touring by train, will concentrate on Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. With 40 percent of the country’s population, or about 1.2 million people, this greatest of modern Mongolian cities is for the most part a grandly disappointing collection of Soviet-era drabness that hasn’t yet found its national character. However, it boasts a collection of cultural sights that make it a must-see city. Outside of museums (the greatest of which are perhaps the vast Natural History Museum and the spectacular one dedicated to Bogd Khan, the enigmatic Mongol emperor who came to power when Outer Mongolia declared independence from China in 1911), and the statues of Sukhbaatar Square (the symbolic center of Mongolia), the most unique attractions are the Gandan and the Choijin Lama monasteries. For those in search of less exotic pastimes, Peace Avenue and Circus areas are the shopping districts of the Mongolian capital.
However, without a doubt, there exists a best time of year to visit the country, and that is during the annual Naadam sports festival. For three days, July 11-13, the nation’s best athletes gather to compete in the traditional Mongol “three games of men”: wrestling, horse racing, and archery. (Although men remain the only competitors in the wrestling competition, women do compete in the equestrian and archery contests.) This incredibly popular event captures the attention of all Mongolia, and is becoming more renowned internationally. In 2010, the games joined the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
This hardly brushes the many things to see near Ulan Bator, including the beautiful Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. There are few places so empty and so interesting as Mongolia. That, more than anything, provides the best reason to see it for yourself.