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Mongolia is an unlikely tourist destination but one that proves irresistible to lovers of wide-open spaces, untamed wilderness and raw natural beauty. Outside of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, where over half the population lives, visitors encounter a land blissfully unaffected by the modern world. It is a journey back in time where nomadic lifestyles are perfectly in tune with the natural rhythms of the landscape, and the people are renowned for their warmth and hospitality.
Mongolia is three times the size of France and twice the size of Texas, yet with under three million people, it is the most sparsely populated country on earth. The main economic activity is livestock tending, although the country's considerable mineral wealth is beginning to be exploited.
Key attractions are the Gobi Desert with its astounding Khongor sand dunes, the varied sights of Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, the vast and pristine Khövsgöl Lake near Moron, and Karakorum, former capital of the Mongol Empire and home to Mongolia's most important monastery. From desert steppes to snow-clad mountains, explorers and adventurers come from far and wide to brave Mongolia on horseback and embark on camel trekking, 4X4 excursions, rock climbing expeditions and desert safaris.
Ulaanbaatar itself is more a functional centre with few must-see attractions to speak of. One worthwhile site, however, is the National Museum of History (with an entire floor dedicated to Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire). Under his grandson Kublai Khan, Mongolia became the world's first superpower, spanning from modern-day Korea to Poland and encompassing 22 percent of the globe at its peak. Ulaanbaatar is also the main transport hub for Mongolia, with the only international airport, Chinggis Khaan International Airport, located 12 miles (18km) southwest of the city.
Following almost a century of Soviet domination, Mongolia became a democracy in 1990, but was left with the consequences of the USSR's anti-religious violence. The most destructive consequence of that regime was the systematic eradication of the native Buddhist faith. Over 7,000 monasteries were destroyed, with only four surviving and over 20,000 monks were killed. Today, Buddhism is once again flourishing and people are rejoining the traditions that have sustained them for centuries.
Spend a single night in Mongolia under a canopy of stars and it's easy to mistake it for another planet. There are few tarred roads in this rugged terrain and the main urban centre, Ulaanbaatar, is small, so don't expect modern luxury. Rather, people come here for its natural beauty, unaffected by the bustle, stress and pollution of modern life. Every journey through the wilderness here is an adventure into remote territory.
Mongolia is famous for its landscape, with the ice-capped peaks of Bayan-Olgii, the roaring river mouth at the Yolyn Am, the surreal white limestone cliffs at Tsagaan Suvarga and the lush lakes in the Khuisiin Naiman Nuur Nature Reserve. Strap up your boots and step down the rough and rewarding pathways of Mongolia. Whether for hunting, fishing, horse riding or trekking, most tourists come in the summer.
A visit to Mongolia is incomplete without accepting local hospitality and experiencing their traditions. The famous Nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols exists as part of everyday life here and the people are warm and friendly to foreigners, and proud to share their customs and heritage.
The Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape is located in central Mongolia, about 225 miles (360km) west of the capital Ulaanbaatar. This fascinating area was inscribed in UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 2004, lauded as a living exhibit of nomadic pastoral traditions dating back well over two millennia. The trip to the site through the desolate interior is a pleasure in and of itself, but the crowning jewel of the region is the ruins of Karakorum, the historical centre of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Kahn. Once the most powerful and wide-reaching empire in the world, visitors to the Orkhon Valley will have the opportunity to explore the possible ruins of the famed Xanadu Palace, as well as some excellent 8th-century Turkic memorials bearing runic inscriptions. It's a must-see attraction, both for those interested in Mongolia's imperial history and for those seeking wide open space and uninterrupted views of the country's steppe-strewn landscape.
The Amarbayasgalant Monastery (the 'Monastery of Tranquil Felicity') is one of the few Buddhist temple complexes in Mongolia that wasn't completely destroyed by the Soviets in 1937. Located in Mongolia's northern province of Selenge, the monastery is situated in a beautiful and unusually fertile valley, in the shadows of the sheer cliffs of Mount Burenkhan. The monastery itself was built between 1727 and 1736 and conforms to a Chinese style of architecture characterised by intricate symmetrical patterns. It is surrounded by wild plains and cherry groves and, most interestingly, scattered among the cherry trees are Turkic-era graves of various geometric shapes, dating back to the 3rd century.
For those who are serious about exploring Mongolia's furthest corners - or for those deeply interested in the origins of mankind - a trip to the Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai is a highly recommended tourist activity. These complexes are home to the largest, best-preserved and oldest collection of rock art in north Asia, and the petroglyphs themselves document over 12,000 years of Mongolian culture. The earliest images date from the Late Pleistocene era (about 10,000 BC), and depict a cultural landscape where the surrounding valleys provided a habitat for hunters of big game. Fascinatingly, the rock art images then extend into the Scythian and Turkic Periods, and show the transition firstly to a herding culture, and then to the horse-dependent, nomadic kind of lifestyle for which Mongolia is famous. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai provide visitors with an enthralling and authentic cross-section of 12 millennia of Mongolia's history.
Mongolia's extreme continental climate features long, freezing winters and short summers, when most precipitation falls. The country receives an average of 257 cloudless days a year.
Rainfall is highest in the north, which averages between 20 and 35 centimetres per year, and lowest in the south, which receives 10 to 20 centimetres. Most years, some parts of the Gobi region in the far south don't receive any precipitation at all.
Eastern Mongolia's climate and landscape have more in common with northeastern China than Central Asia. Winds are less violet and temperatures are less severe than in western Mongolia, where winter daytime temperatures drop to -4ºF (-20ºC).
The high season runs from June to August, when conditions are mostly warm and dry, with some thunderstorms. May and September account for the shoulder seasons, when the weather can be changeable. Winds, dust storms and frigid temperatures characterise the low season, which lasts from October to April.
Mongolian is spoken by at least 95 percent of the population and Russian is the most commonly spoken foreign tongue, followed by English. (Korean and some European languages are spoken by Mongolian expats who've worked or studied abroad.)
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. European two-pin plugs are standard.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months from the arrival date in Mongolia. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months from the arrival date in Mongolia. A visa is required.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months from the date of arrival in Mongolia. No visa is required for stays of up to 30 days.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months from the date of arrival in Mongolia. A visa is required.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months from the date of arrival in Mongolia. A visa is required.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months from the date of arrival in Mongolia. A visa is required.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months from the date of arrival in Mongolia. A visa is required.
Foreign passengers to Mongolia who do not qualify for visa exemption and who are holding confirmation of a pre-arranged visa, can obtain a single-entry visa on arrival at Chinggis Khaan International Airport (ULN), for a fee, provided that (i) their passport is valid for at least one year beyond the date of their arrival in Mongolia; (ii) they are in possession of two passport photos; (iii) they are arriving from a country without diplomatic representation of Mongolia; and (iv) a sponsor in Mongolia submits a request on their behalf to the Mongolian Immigration Authority. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
No particular immunisations are required for travel to Mongolia, although standard vaccinations like hepatitis A and B, typhoid, and rabies are recommended. Vaccines for meningococcal disease are recommended for extended stay or prolonged contact with the local population. Traveller's diarrhea is the most common complaint, and altitude sickness may be experienced in the Altai, Hangayn, or Khangai Mountains. There have been no infectious outbreaks reported in the last few years.
It is advisable to only drink boiled or filtered water in Mongolia, and avoid raw and unpeeled fruits and vegetables. In addition, long clothes will prevent bug bites and related illnesses. Medical facilities in Mongolia are limited, so travel insurance with evacuation provisions is recommended. There are some private hospitals suitable for foreigners in Ulaanbaatar, and be prepared to pay up front and claim back later. Some Western medications are not available, so it's advised to pack important medication, accompanied by a doctor's note explaining the need and purpose.
Travellers to Mongolia should not be unduly concerned about their personal safety. As in every city, exercise caution in Ulaanbaatar, especially at night, as theft has been known to occur. Watch out for pickpockets at the airport. Be careful when using public transport, or when driving yourself around Mongolia - there are few paved roads and road conditions can be poor, and visibility (especially at night) is often less than ideal. There are occasional protests and demonstrations, which should be avoided where possible.
The most important aspect of Mongolian social etiquette is the ideal of hospitality. Mongolians are famously welcoming of foreigners, although they expect - in return - that visitors show respect for Mongolian culture, by being enthusiastic and compliant guests. This means accepting food and drink (even alcoholic drinks) when it is offered, however it is not required that people drink the beverage. Travellers who enjoy 'roughing it' will probably find more success in Mongolia if they maintain their personal appearance - dirty clothes, long hair, and unkempt beards are generally frowned upon.
Friends of the same gender will often hold hands or put their arms around one another and Mongolians are quite physically affectionate too, although not overbearing. Vodka-drinking is an inveterate feature of Mongolian culture, and being able to 'hold your liquor' is probably your shortest route to social acceptance. Although there are some harsh standards of conduct, and high expectations placed on Mongolian women, these do not apply to foreigners.
The international access code for Mongolia is +976. The outgoing code is 00, followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). City/ area codes are in use. Regarding mobiles, purchasing a local prepaid SIM card can be a cheaper option, as international roaming costs can be high. Many pubs, coffee shops, guesthouses and restaurants in Ulaanbaatar offer free wifi, though visitors may struggle to find internet access in the countryside.
Travellers to Mongolia may bring with them up to 200 cigarettes/50 cigars/250g of tobacco, one litre of vodka, two litres of wine, three litres of beer, and personal goods valued up to US$1,000. Pornographic materials and narcotics are prohibited.
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