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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Mongolia.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Mongolia.
Canada – Bolstered by the wave of positivity unleashed by its energetic new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and with dynamic cities that dominate global livability indexes – plus its reputation for inclusiveness and impeccable politeness – the world’s second-largest country will usher in its sesquicentennial in 2017 in rollicking good health. Marking 150 years since confederation, the birthday party promises to be heavy on bonhomie and highly welcoming to international gate-crashers. The weak Canadian dollar means visitors should have plenty of pocket money to spend on Canada’s exciting fusion food and mysteriously undeerrated wine.
Colombia – Decades of civil war and violent crime meant Colombian passport stamps were once for hardcore travellers only. Fast-forward to the present day, and the lost years seem but a dust speck in Colombia’s rear-view mirror. There are no world wonders here, but the country’s mix of vibrant culture, nature and hospitality is a rich tapestry woven by welcoming arms. More than a decade into its dramatic about-face, this South American jewel is even expecting a visit from the world’s No. 1 Catholic. When Pope Francis kisses Colombian soil in 2017, it will mark the Andean nation’s first papal visit in 30 years.
Finland – Long fought over by Russia and Sweden, Finland finally gained independence in 1917, The Finns will celebrate their centenary with gusto: expect everything from outdoor concerts and communal culinary experiences to sauna evenings and vintage travel poster exhibitions. There’s even anew national park: 27,000 acres around the village of Hossa, studded with pine forests and crisscrossed with rivers. With the country also playing host to the World Figure Skating Championships and the Nordic World Ski Championships in 2017, there’s never been a better time to discover Finland’s proudly unique culture and landscapes.
Dominica – Locals joke that if Christopher Columbus rose from the grave and returned to the Caribbean, Dominica is the only island he would still recognise. One glimpse of its prehistoric ferns and deserted shores, and you’ll see what they mean. For decades, an absence of shiny white beaches has helped keep at bay the resort development that has swept through other parts of the Caribbean, Coconut palms are the only skyscrapers you’ll see here. Visit before Dominica gets its first large-scale chain resorts in 2018, which will pave the way for anew era of tourism.
Nepal – Even natural disasters can’t keep Nepal down for long. The 2015 earthquakes caused devastation, but what is most striking from a traveller’s perspective is not how much was lost but how much remains. Landmark temples crumbled, but others came through with just the odd tile out of place, and whole swathes of the country escaped serious damage, including most of the popular hiking trails, Nepal has all the skills required to repair monuments and infrastructure, but what it does need is income. By visiting Nepal now and supporting local culture and people, you could help a nation rebuild and bounce back even stronger.
Mongolia – In 2017 Mongolia will raise the curtain on a b rand- new capital – city airport, a state-of-the-art facility that symbolises the rapid modernisation of this country of steppe nomads. Ulaanbaatar has been the biggest beneficiary of an economic boom – the capital’s transformed skyline bristles with glass and steel towers. At the centre of this development is a £380 million Shangri-La hotel complex, to be completed by 2017. Beyond the city lies Mongolia’s stunning and sparsely populated countryside. Lake Khovsgol, known as the Blue Pearl of Asia, is an undoubted highlight. In 2015 the lake was connected to Ulaanbaatar by paved road, cutting driving time by 10 hours.
Mynmar – Change has been a long time coming in the nation also known as Burma, but the election of the first civilian government in half a century has all eyes on the future. No-one is pretending that all of Myanmar’s problems have gone away, but things are moving in the right direction, and Southeast Asia’s most secretive country is now poised to receive an influx of travellers. Visiting comes with challenges, but the reward is a window onto a vanishing Asia, where the difficulties of travel are part of the appeal. You’ll find a land with more stupas than office towers, where life moves to the timeless rhythms of chanting monks and monastery bells.
Ethiopia – With its own calendar (where else can you get 13 months of sunshine?), timekeeping, script, language, cuisine, church and coffee, Ethiopia is as exotic as countries come. And whether you’re hiking through the Simien Mountains to see wildlife that roams nowhere else on Earth, climbing to a church carved into a remote cliff face in Tigray, or boating across the waters of Lake Tana to visit an age-old monastery, you’ll be overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape. In 2017, new airline links will make the country more accessible than ever; be one of the first to get on board.
When visiting the planet’s more remote corners, it’s almost reassuring to see that some traditions have stood the test of time. Few people treasure their centuries-old rites more than the nomadic tribes of Mongolia’s steppe. Without cities and monuments to recall their past, it’s these rituals that bind their society, with the role of the shaman central to their remembrance. Hamid Sardar immersed himself in the tribes’ way of life for 16 years for his debut book Dark Heavens – a visual account of a people who continue to defy the tick of modernity.
The barren, unforgiving enormity of the Gobi can be overwhelming. However, this expanse of largely empty land has many hidden charms – literally so in the shape of its legendary dinosaur fossils. The area’s endlessly atmospheric shifting dunes, gaping canyons and two-humped camels are just as likely to move you in one way or another. Jutting out of the surrounding flatness, Bayanzag is the site of countless dinosaur bone and egg finds.
It’s also home to the ‘flaming cliffs’ – twice a day, these steep rock faces take on a fiery appearance when struck by the rising and setting sun. On the other end of the temperature scale, the ice-filled gorge at nearby Yolyn Am is a year-round testament to the brutally low winter temperatures in this area. It’s easiest to get to both from provincial capital Dalanzadgad. Further west you’ll find Khongoryn Els, a collection of 300m-high dunes with peerless views of the desert stretching off in every direction arrive early for untouched dunes.
This is also the best place to take a ride on a double-humped bactrian (or Gobi) camel. A herder is likely to approach you when you arrive. Further wildlife can be hard to spot as animals can see you from far away, but snow leopards, Asiatic wild asses and Gobi bears all make their home in the desert. The Gobi is difficult to traverse without your own transport or as part of a tour. Never leave a town without a full supply of food and water.
Geographically more aligned with Siberia than Mongolia, the dense forests and immaculate lakes of the north constitute the country’s crown, and Khovsgol Nuur is the jewel at its centre. When the surface of this 262m-deep lake unfreezes in April, a handful of hardy fishermen set out in search of the large species within, including sturgeon, lenok and salmon.
Khovsgol is a supreme area for horse-trekking and hiking. Guides are easy to come by in Khatgal on the southern tip of the lake. You’ll likely encounter herds of yak and, when riding through the forest, keep your eyes peeled for bears, wolverines, ibex and sable. There are countless serene rivers to wild camp by but beware that nights are chilly, even in mid-summer, due to the area’s high altitude. The Tsaatan (reindeer people’) live in the hills around the northern shore of the lake. Fervent practitioners of shamanism and truly nomadic in lifestyle, this tiny group of herders uses its animals for food, milk, clothing, art and transport. They live in isolated tepees and move often so can be hard to find.
Take a good guide (from Khatgal) and allow ample time. If you’re incredibly lucky you may witness a shaman dance, during which the dancer is transported to the other world’. Beware of tourist-entrapping Tsaatan cultural villages’ set up along the western lakeside. Much closer to the capital is the Amarbayasgalant Khiid. This Buddhist monastery was built by a Manchu emperor in the 18th century and houses 37 temples, hundreds of impressive statues and intricate thangka (traditional Tibetan scroll paintings). Around 100km west of Ulan Bator is Khustain National Park where some of the few remaining Przewalksi’s horses (the only surviving wild relative of the domestic horse) have been successfully re-introduced.
The west is a rugged land of permanently snow-dusted mountains, desert plateaus, huge salt lakes, traditional eagle hunters and a fascinating hotchpotch of contrasting cultures. The towering Altai Mountains (many over 4,000m) are windswept and wild; some are supposedly still-unclimbed. Glaciers shimmer on their shoulders and snowstorms are common in summer. Icy meltwater trickles down and forms powerful rivers that feed a variety of fishable lakes, both saltwater and fresh. The predominantly Kazakh town of Olgii has an airport and is the best base for hiring guides.
Set apart from the main range stands Otgon Tenger (3,095m), Mongolia’s Olympus, where the gods are said to dwell. Although remote, the mountain’s environs offer wonderful hiking or horse treks through the alpine scenery. Being a sacred site, it’s illegal to climb the mountain but it can be circled in a few days. Hire guides in nearby Uliastai (2hr flight from Ulan Bator).
Even citizens of Kazakhstan cite West Mongolia as the best place to see traditional Kazakh customs, dress and sport. Their community centres around Olgii but spreads across the Bayan-Olgii region. The Kazakh are incredibly welcoming; you’ll likely get to see inside their large, richly decorated yurts, which are furnished with a mishmash of Islamic and Central Asian motifs. A great way to experience Kazakh culture up close is the Eagle Festival in Olgii (first weekend in October); see Kazakh men with trained eagles compete in hunting for marmots, foxes and wolves.
Near the Siberian border, the freshwater Uiireg Nuur (lake) nestles at 1,425m with an imposing backdrop of 3,000m peaks. Traditionally Mongolians don’t eat fish so the lake has ample grayling and Altai ide, and provides a rare habitat for swan geese, kestrels and fish eagles.
Usually written off by visitors due to its perceived inaccessibility, East Mongolia is worth any extra legwork. The largely uninhabited landscapes encompass forests, desert, volcanic peaks and grasslands, all presided over by pure, blue skies. Moose, Siberian musk deer and brown bears inhabit the forests while thousand-strong herds of white-tailed gazelle bound across untouched grasslands. The East is also the historical heartland.
Experience a little of Mongolia’s history with visits to Genghis Khan’s alleged birthplace, Dadal, or track down his remote coronation site, the beautiful lake at Khokh Nuur (you’ll need a guide). Explore the eerie remains of the 300-year-old Soviet-sacked Baldan Baraivan monastery that was once home to an estimated 8,000 monks (although only a handful remain) or wander among the scattered relics and monuments of the brutal 1939 battle with the Japanese at Khalkhin Gol.
Further north, the extinct, forested volcanoes in the Khan Khentii Mountain National Park (or Strictly Protected Area as they’re often known in Mongolia) are ideal for a hike or horse trek. The crystal waters of the Tuul River sweep through the mountains providing excellent rafting, fishing and wild camping. Choibalsan (2hr flight from Ulan Bator) and Ondorkhaan (5hrs by road) are good place to hire guides/vehicles for expeditions.
As my sturdy Mongol pony plodded sedately forward, I scanned the rolling grasslands. The sun was sinking; green was melting into all shades of gold and a brilliant-blue ceiling yawned overhead, reaching towards the horizon. I heard the thump of hoof-beats, carried on the breeze, and spotted a lone rider racing towards me. The stocky man with wide eyes and a wider smile leaped from his horse’s bare back and shook my hand vigorously.
He spoke no English but pointed to a white speck a couple of miles away and beckoned. We cantered to his circular tent where the family welcomed me. Mutton, singing, dancing and many vodka toasts ensued. This was the third such nights entertainment in three days. Mongolian hospitality is as generous as it is inescapable.
Larger than France, Germany and Spain combined – some 1,565,000 sq km – and with only 2.9 million people, Mongolia is ideal for a spot of adventure. It has Siberian lakes and forests in the north, glacial mountains in the west, undulating steppe grasslands in the centre and east, the indomitable Gobi spanning the south, and rushing rivers throughout. Mongolia’s scale means that – unless you’re planning on taking internal flights – you’re likely to be located in only one or two areas.
But the country you voted Top Emerging Destination is as diverse as it is vast, so there’s a good chance that wherever you explore, you’ll be able to partake in whatever gets your pulse racing, whether it’s hiking, riding, rafting, climbing, biking, off-roading, archery, birding, falconry or just being awed by the immensity of it all.
The future has arrived in Mongolia, both in the high-rises of its capital, Ulaanbaatar, and in the vast emptiness
If the Buddha were living now I think he would use social media,” said Baasan Lama, the fresh-faced abbot of Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s oldest monastery. He flashed a luminous smile. “I already have a Facebook page.” From the folds of his thick red-and-gold robes, he pulled a small book he had published four months earlier that offers 108 tips for right action in a scattered world. “Short,” he told me, in no-nonsense English. “People don’t like to read long books these days!”
Visitors from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s boomtown capital, kept bundling into the small room where I was sitting with the Hamba Lama Baasansuren, as he is officially known, to receive his blessings and teachings. Not many minutes earlier, in the 17th-century whitewashed prayer hall next door, I’d listened to him lead chants while younger monks pounded drums.
The bulging-eyed black demons on the walls, the red-and-gold benches, the fragrance of juniper incense, and the flickering rows of candles and butterlamps all made me feel as if I were in Tibet.
The complex contained temples that looked Chinese and gers (the domed white felt huts also known as yurts) with chapels inside. A brick wall surrounded it, mounted with 108 tall, white stupas that seemed to ward off the emptiness of the Orkhon Valley, once the centre of the Turkic, Uighur, and Mongol empires and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Erdene Zuu, locals had told me, stands on the ruins of Karakorum, the city that Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei built in 1235. Driving here across unending grassland, I’d seen only a handful of lonely white gers against the wide horizon and a few crop-circle gatherings of goats beside Bronze Age burial mounds.
Though Baasan Lama is only 37, he has spent the past 24 years in the temple, having taken on robes after his country emerged from 70 years of Soviet-imposed atheism. Now the strapping lama was presenting me with a sleekly produced CD he’d released to go with his book, featuring sing-along Buddhist chants that had become instant hits with the iPhone-tapping, Lexus-driving, sushi-and-Gucci movers of Ulaanbaatar. As two ‘monklets’ offered us cups of fermented mare’s milk and bowls of noodles with thick beef, the lama continued his impromptu discourse. “I’ve read the Bible,” he said. “And the Koran. I think that if Jesus and Mohammed and the Buddha were alive now, they would be good friends.”
Ever since Genghis Khan encouraged his people to live by the sword, not the plow, Mongolians have been nomadic herders, holding to their horse-based culture and leaving vast tracks of ruggedly beautiful countryside virtually untouched over the centuries.
To experience the land and spirit of this fiercely independent but traditionally hospitable nation, which has been autonomous since the 1920s, get on a horse yourself and take a ride through a land that betrays virtually no sign of the modern world. Organized treks head for one of Mongolia’s best-kept secrets, Lake Hovsgal.
A hundred miles long and 12 miles wide, it is one of the deepest and sweetest freshwater lakes in the world. West of Hovsgal lies the Darhat Valley, a huge basin surrounded by rugged mountains on three sides, resembling Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And within miles of the Russian border, visit the summer camp of the Tsaatan, or Reindeer People, an ethnic minority that raises, milks, eats, and rides reindeer.
The horse’s role in Mongolian life is brought into colorful focus during the Naadam Festival, held each July. Herdsmen and women of all ages from all over Mongolia – many on horseback – come to the capital of Ulaanbaatar for two raucous days of socializing and unbridled competition in the age-old sporting events of horse racing, archery, and wrestling.
The equestrian events are the festival’s highlight, held on the rolling, grassy steppe outside the city. The sight and sound of 600 horses charging in a headlong gallop over a 10-mile course is a heart-stopping sensation, and only the celebration that follows – with its open-hearted Mongolian hospitality, drinking, and food – can match it.
Gobi simply means “desert,” and of all the world’s arid lands, this remote region – lying between Siberia to the north and the Tibetan Plateau to the south – has the greatest air of mystery. Stretching for 1,000 miles west to east, the Gobi is divided politically into two sections: half in Mongolia proper and half in the area of northern China called Inner Mongolia. Either side can be visited, but the Mongolian side has a little more romance and several million fewer people.
Contrary to the sterile sameness that the word “desert” may suggest, the Gobi holds many fascinations, and not just paleontological. It is a place of subtle colors that change with the day’s light, of stark skies and vast spaces, an utterly silent landscape punctuated by the occasional ger (yurt), the Mongolians’ round, white, tentlike homes.
These cheerful people, who subsist on the animals they herd, are naturally generous, feeding and feting foreign guests who show up at their door unannounced. Their simple lifestyle continues in quiet, unspoiled isolation, much as it has for thousands of years.