At the heart of Central Asia lie the natural and cultural riches of Mongolia, where a population of just three million inhabits 1.5 million square kilometres of mountains, desert, forests, and steppe. Discovering this land of prehistoric rock paintings and mysterious stone carvings, two-humped camels and the world’s last surviving wild horses, and nomadic herdsmen continuing a way of life that has persisted for thousands of years, is as much a journey back in time as an expedition of exploration.
Mongolia is perhaps most famous as the land of Chinggis Khan, the 13th century leader whose empire had such a profound effect on the histories of Europe and Asia. The story of the Mongolian Empire’s conquests is one of great drama and courage, innovation and world trade, and the cross-cultural exchange of technologies and ideas that shaped the world for centuries to come. Few tangible monuments of this era remain, but Chinggis Khan’s achievements and far-reaching influence are a source of great pride in Mongolia, where a nomad’s son grew to lead the world’s greatest empire.
Traces of a more ancient history can be found beneath the sands of the Gobi, buried in far corners of the steppe, and painted on the rock faces of the Altai Mountains. Since the early 20th century, Mongolia has been among the most important locations for paleontologists in search of dinosaur fossils, while archaeologists seeking evidence of prehistoric humans search for relics, burial mounds, and “stone men” throughout the country. Even tourists exploring the Gobi can find bone fragments at the legendary Flaming Cliffs, or discover petroglyphs left behind by artists of the Stone Age.
A wealth of more recent artistic treasures, particularly Buddhist painting, sculpture, and architecture, can be found in Mongolia’s monasteries and museums. Since the fall of the communist regime in 1990, a renewed interest in traditional arts has flourished both within Mongolia and abroad, among them the haunting sounds of hoomi throat singing and the lyrical chant of “long songs” dating back thousands of years. Finely detailed zurag-style paintings and thangkas are some of the foremost examples of Mongolian creative expression, while the 17th century Buddhist sculptures of Zanazabar are at the pinnacle of Mongolia’s artistic heritage. Ancient crafts have been handed down through the generations, including the art of making fine leather boots, handcrafted silver work, and embroidery, while the construction of gers, the movable felt and canvas dwellings of Mongolia’s nomads, continue an impressive tradition of craftsmanship that stretches back hundreds of years.
The importance of Buddhism is not limited to the arts, as it has been an integral part of Mongolian society since the 1500s, when a Mongolian tribal leader first bestowed the title of Dalai Lama on a monk from Tibet. With the birth of democracy in the late 20th century came a rebirth of Buddhist activity in Mongolia’s monasteries, while the beliefs and rituals of shamanism, the region’s oldest religion, are of no less significance. Essential to the deep respect for the Earth that is a defining quality of Mongolia’s nomadic culture, shamanism continues to be the foundation of the Mongolian view of nature as an object of reverence. Few of those who travel in Mongolia – whether to the mountains and lakes of the north and west, the unforgettable landscapes of the Gobi in the south, or the vast steppes and grasslands stretching between them – fail to be moved by the beauty of the land and the commitment of its people to conserve and protect it.
One of the world’s most diverse and exciting outdoor adventure destinations, Mongolia is a haven for trekking, kayaking, horseback riding, and fishing, as well as wildlife viewing and birding. One-tenth of Mongolia’s territory has been set aside as part of a system of protected areas, providing habitat for plant and animal species that have all but disappeared from the rest of the continent. Additionally, the government has pledged to increase the system of protected areas to 30% of the country, resulting in the largest national park system in the world. Sheltered among the nature preserves and uninhabited wilderness that cover so much of Mongolia are unusual wildlife species such as the vulture-like Lammergeier, Gobi bear, snow leopard, Argali mountain sheep, and Przewalski’s horse.
More than its history and arts and landscape, though, it is the people of Mongolia who are its greatest treasure. Tsaatan reindeer herders living in the forests of the north as they have for thousands of years; Kazakh nomads of the western mountains maintaining the proud tradition of hunting with Golden Eagles; and the nomads of the steppe and Gobi tending their sheep and camel herds; characteristic of them all is the hospitality and kindness for which Mongolians are famous.