In the wilds of Mon­go­lia

Im­mer­sion in an other-worldly land­scape of horses, sand dunes and stargaz­ing

The Denver Post - - TRAVEL - By Nicole Evatt

I’m a city girl. I did not grow up camp­ing, have never pitched a tent and know noth­ing of the Girl Scouts be­yond Thin Mints or Samoa cook­ies. Cer­tainly no one would use the words “rugged” or “out­doorsy” to de­scribe me.

So I def­i­nitely had a few reser­va­tions when my hus­band sug­gested a va­ca­tion in the wilds of cen­tral Mon­go­lia.

My trep­i­da­tion only grew as I binged on travel re­views be­moan­ing makeshift bath­rooms and swarm­ing in­sects.

But I ended up lov­ing ev­ery minute in Mon­go­lia, a coun­try steeped in his­tory, stun­ning scenery and wel­com­ing lo­cals. I stepped out­side my com­fort zone and into the trip of a life­time. And here’s why you should too.

Get off the grid

Mon­go­lia, a coun­try of 3 mil­lion peo­ple slightly smaller than Alaska, is one of the most sparsely pop­u­lated places in

the world.

You can go hours, even days, with­out see­ing an­other hu­man while trav­el­ing through Mon­go­lia’s coun­try­side. In­stead, you’ll find a vi­brant blue hori­zon and empty, rolling grass­lands dot­ted with horses, cows, sheep, goats and yaks.

You’ll be forced to un­plug, as cell ser­vice and Wi-Fi is mostly nonex­is­tent out­side of the larger cities.

So say good­bye to Face­book rants and traf­fic jams and say hello to a seem­ingly end­less un­touched land­scape. Your only road­block is the oc­ca­sional cow.

Book a guide

As avid trav­el­ers ac­cus­tomed to DIY ad­ven­tures, we rarely book tours. But my top tip for this won­der­land is to find your­self an ex­pert.

There are few road signs and English is not widely used, so a lo­cal guide with knowl­edge of the routes and lan­guage is highly rec­om­mended.

You will also need a four-wheel drive ve­hi­cle to nav­i­gate the mostly un­paved ter­rain.

Our ex­pert, good-hu­mored guide, Munkh Bi­leg, whom we hired through No­madic Dis­cov­ery, tai­lored our pri­vate tour to our in­ter­ests and time con­straints to maximize our Mon­go­lian ex­pe­ri­ence.

We rode camels across sand dunes and horses at sun­set. We met herder fam­i­lies and sam­pled lo­cal cui­sine, in­clud­ing fer­mented mare’s milk and dried curds. Most of our days were spent off-road­ing over moun­tains and across rivers, sim­ply soak­ing in Mon­go­lia’s other-worldly land­scape.

Must-sees

For the his­tory buff: Er­dene Zuu Monastery is lo­cated in Kharkhorin, on the north­ern bor­der of the Ovorkhangai Province. Get your fill of or­nate Bud­dha stat­ues, elab­o­rate wall paint­ings and ar­ti­facts dat­ing back to the 18th cen­tury while ex­plor­ing the three re­main­ing Chi­nese-style tem­ples at one of the old­est Bud­dhist monas­ter­ies in Mon­go­lia.

For the na­ture lover: The Orkhon wa­ter­fall (also called the Ulaan Tsut­galan wa­ter­fall) is lo­cated in Ovorkhangai Province, around 75 miles from the town of Kharkhorin. A hike to the edge of this mas­sive, 65-foot wa­ter­fall of­fers stun­ning views of dark vol­canic rock sur­rounded by a lush val­ley.

Also, be sure to stop by the pris­tine Lake Ogii in the south eastern cor­ner of the Arkhangai Province. Like most of Mon­go­lia, it felt like we had trav­eled back to a time be­fore hu­mans as the only other vis­i­tors were a group of horses splash­ing and loung­ing about in the calm wa­ters.

For a glimpse of desert dunes: Elsen Tasarkhai is a sand strip lo­cated in Bul­gan Province. While we didn’t have time to ex­plore Mon­go­lia’s famed Gobi Desert, we made a quick stop at this 50-mile stretch of golden hills for a re­lax­ing tour via camels.

Ger life

As the sun sets there is lit­tle else to do be­sides stargaz­ing and cozy­ing in your ger (pro­nounced “gare”), a tra­di­tional no­mad home.

Ap­par­ently we were right on trend as an $8,000 ver­sion of the cir­cu­lar tent, or yurt, was fea­tured in the hol­i­day gift guide from Gwyneth Pal­trow’s life­style web­site, goop.

Our home base was the Tsagaan Sum hot springs and tourist camp in Kho­ton Soum, Arkhangai Province (ap­prox­i­mately 280 miles west of Ulaan­baatar).

The hus­tle and bus­tle of city life was but a dis­tant mem­ory as we fell asleep to the crackle of a wood­burn­ing stove and woke to the sounds of horses neigh­ing out­side our ger.

Good to know

The flies will swarm as soon as you step out­side, as will the mos­qui­toes. So pack bug spray and longsleeved lay­ers.

West­ern-style bath­rooms are few and far between out­side of Ulaan­baatar. Be pre­pared to cop a squat when na­ture calls.

Ulaan­baatar is Mon­go­lia’s bustling, traf­fic­jammed cap­i­tal city, but tourist at­trac­tions are few. Stop by a gro­cery store to load up on wa­ter, snacks and es­sen­tials. Then head to the coun­try­side.

Speak­ing of food, get ready for meat — mostly lamb, and lots of it. Mon­go­lian cui­sine is about as farm to fork as it gets. Re­frig­er­a­tion in the coun­try­side isn’t com­mon so your din­ner was likely plucked from the pas­ture that very day.

As­so­ci­ated Press file pho­tos

A group of horses wade in Ogii Lake in the Arkhangai province, Mon­go­lia.

The Er­dene Zuu Monastery is lo­cated in Kharkhorin, on the north­ern bor­der of the Ovorkhangai province, Mon­go­lia.

The sun­set over a ger at the Tsagaan Sum hot springs and tourist camp in Kho­ton Soum, Arkhangai province, Mon­go­lia.

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