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Discovering Mongolia

The Gobi Desert, located in the south of Mongolia just above the Chinese border is made up of just 1% sand. The rest is covered in sprawling steppes of primary grasslands much like the plains of Montana and Southern Patagonia. This year, the area has had the most rain in 30 years and as a result, the expanses of grasses are an incredible, lush green. During a recent trip, however, this breathtaking scenery was only the first of the many surprises the country had in store for me.

One of my favorite moments of the trip proved how ill-prepared I was for not only the beauty of the landscapes but the warmth of the people. We asked our guide, Anand, if we could visit a local family since we had heard so much about the culture of the steppe. Anand asked which ger (a Mongolian yurt) we would like to visit while driving back from our hike, and we pointed to one far off in the distance. The driver made a hard left towards the ger and my group of seven showed up on the families’ doorstep unannounced. The father, a man in his late 20s (though he looked decades older from exposure to the elements) came out to greet us. After a brief dialogue we were welcomed inside and introduced to his wife, two daughters and infant son. We sat cross-legged on the ground and ate boortsog, traditional Mongolian fried dough, while we talked about their plans for the coming months and our lives back home. In any other culture, showing up unannounced would have been an unthinkable and strange imposition, but here, it is life. Neighbors take in neighbors—and strangers—as a matter of survival and community spirit. Our interaction was real, deep and spontaneous.

My adventure was full of meaningful moments like this, but also of situations that could be considered inconveniences. Mongolia is not a destination for everyone and a trip there requires a great sense of adventure. Below are four things you must know before considering a trip to Mongolia.

Mongolia Four to Know

1. Mongolia is an adventure.

Mongolia is a destination for people who want to explore—on foot, on horseback, on camels or in jeeps. Throughout a trip to the country, you will be one of very few visitors, and sites like ancient petroglyphs sit devoid of tourists. Meals will be set up in the middle of an untouched desert overlooking singing sand dunes with not a manmade item for as far as the eye can see. With that sense of freedom, certain concessions must be made. Having such a unique experience requires you to venture to a part of the world that is essentially undeveloped. The country's best lodge has only communal showers and dim, solar-powered lighting. However, the bedding, heating, and food are all of a very high standard.

2. Mongolia is off-the-grid.

One of the most beautiful aspects of travel is that it allows us to escape our everyday reality. We are able to put behind our routine and step into another through the intoxicating smells, curious sounds, and exotic cultures we encounter. But modern-day travel only allows us to place one foot into our destination while keeping the other firmly rooted at home via technology like email, cell phones, and face time.

Visiting a country as remote as Mongolia allows—and forces—guests out of and away from normal life. Without the burden and convenience of connectivity, you have the opportunity to connect with the people and surroundings around you. Detoxing from the modern world, I was given the opportunity to travel the way people did in past centuries, when adventure meant something else. Eating dinner under a tent while watching the sun set on the Flaming Cliffs and camping under the bright Gobi sky, I was present with no distractions.

3. Mongolia is big. And it is spread out.

To get to the Gobi Desert, Western Mongolia and Lake Hovskol, visitors must fly into and out of the capital of Ulaanbaatar. There is no flight from the Gobi to Lake Hovskol, a common circuit for an itinerary. In addition, car rides are long and roads are often nonexistent. Extreme weather conditions and permafrost often mean that roads are potholed or merely dirt roadways. One day we spent over 4-hours in the car going over bumpy roads and off-road terrain in order to reach our final destination. Helicopters are available for charter and Indagare members can contact our Bookings Team to inquire about transportation options.

4. Mongolia should be experienced now.

Mongolia is sitting atop of some of the world’s most extensive mineral deposits, including one of earth's largest gold mines. The economy is constantly in flux and the country has recently been dubbed the “Asian Wolf,” with what some predict as unstoppable economic growth. Tourism is likely to change along with the arrival of foreign investors to the country. In addition, many traditionally nomadic herders are moving to the city to chase economic opportunity. Travelers who want to experience the true Mongolia should visit now, while it is still relatively undiscovered and the countryside is populated. During my trip, we visited the local South Gobi Naadam Festival where locals come from all over to compete in archery, horseback riding and wresting. Out of 10,000 people, I was one of about 20 foreigners.

Travelers interested in visiting Mongolia will need at least a week to fully experience the country. In addition, travelers may want to consider small layovers in either Moscow or Beijing in order to break up the length of travel and jet-leg. An ideal trip would include just one night in Ulaanbaatar followed by a night outside of the city in the Gun Galuut National Park for horseback riding. This would be followed by four days in the Gobi Desert and would include highlights like camel riding, camping under the Gobi sky, visiting Nomadic families, star gazing and hiking the Yol valley. There is also the option to add-on time in the North or West of the country. In Late September/October, the Golden Eagle Festival takes place in the Altai Mountains of Western Mongolia and is a fascinating look into the lives of Kazakh hunters. Likewise, much of the world’s best Taimen fishing is located in Northern Mongolia near the Siberian border and Lake Hovskol. In order to begin working on a trip to Mongolia, contact Indagare’s Bookings Team.

Published onSeptember 3, 2014

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