3 July 2023

I know next to nothing about Mongolia. So I visit.

Mongolian history dates to the Stone Age, its first recorded empire dating 3rd century BCE. The rise of Chinggis Khan in the early 13th century spread the Mongolian Empire across Eurasia. Difficult to imagine what drew the Khan and others to cross this vast expanse of desert. Dark splotches are shadows of clouds drifting across a bleak landscape.

After Chinggis Khan’s death, his grandson Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty which ruled for a century before fragmenting into several Khanates, most notably being the Golden Horde. In the 17th century the Qing Dynasty ruled until a series of independence movements broke up the dynasty. The Soviets moved in around 1911 until a peaceful democratic revolution occurred in 1990. Today, Mongolia is a democratic country and a developing economy and attracts over 300,000 tourist a year. In 2023, I am one of them.

Is Mongolia China? No. Mongolia is an independent country sandwiched between China and Russia and is often referred to as Outer Mongolia. Inner Mongolia remains an autonomous region of China equivalent to a province. Inner is in China – Outer is not.

Government Palace in Sükhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia, with the support of the Bolsheviks, declared itself independent in 1921 and became subservient to Moscow. After the USSR collapse in 1990, Mongolia established a multi-party government and a market economy. Over 191 countries recognize Mongolia. Its capital is Ulaanbaatar and our first destination.

China has made an effort to normalizeMongolian relations, respecting its sovereignty and independence. In 1994, the Chinese signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation and has become Mongolia’s biggest trade partner and source of foreign investment. I expect to see that big CCCC (China Communications Construction Company) sign signifying Chinese infrastructure investments and a lot of “Made in China” labels in the markets.

I suppose if asked why tourists want to visit Mongolia, most people are going for the gers, Mongolian life with a tourist’s glam-camping experience. Or they have the desire to witness the expert horse riders or eagle hunting. Or maybe they seek to learn about Chinggis Khan. All these reasons work for me.

Interesting historical facts:

Chinggis Kahn at Government Palace

Chinggis Khan did sleep here, among all the other places he slept. He fathered at least 9 children but married over 500 women, so half of Eurasia could possibly be DNA linked to the Mongol ruler. In the 13th century, his empire spread throughout much of the Eurasian landmass and was the biggest land empire on Earth. His grandson, Kublai Khan, overran China and set up the Yuan Dynasty, including much of present-day China.

After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, the conflict between Mongols and the Chinese continued until both Mongolia and Inner Mongolia were fully incorporated into China in the late 17th century. Ordos, Inner Mongolia, is home to the Chinggis Khan Mausoleum, where rumor says he lived in retirement. The Chinese built the mausoleum as a place of pilgrimage to honor a ‘Chinese’ national hero. Most Mongolians argue this point. Mongolia’s Chinggis Khan International Airport was our point of arrival.

Erdene Zuu Monastery

Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia by the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) and there are interesting parallels between Mongolian and Tibetan culture. Although the Mongols returned to Shamanism (religious practice involving a shaman interacting with the spirit world) after the Mongol Empire collapsed, there was a return of Buddhism in the late 16th century and today over 51% are practicing Buddhists. I appreciate that all temples in Mongolia allow shoes to be worn.

A huge difference between Mongolia and Inner Mongolia is the language. In Mongolia, Cyrillic replaced Mongol script. Inner Mongolian Chinese use Mongol script as seen on Chinese banknotes. Although the spoken language is still similar, this original Mongolian script is more widespread through Inner Mongolia than Mongolian itself. I might be able to read some of the Cyrillic but there is no hope of reading Mongolian script.

Due to size and diversity, climate is wide-ranging. The terrain is one of mountains and plateaus, and the Gobi Desert. The highest point, Khüiten Peak at the western tip of Mongolia, is 14,350 ft and part of the Altai Mountains. The border between China and Mongolia runs across its summit; unknown if the Chinese guard this line. The lowest point is Lake Hoh Nuur at a surprising 1,840 ft. I had assumed the Gobi would be below sea level. Not the case.

Huge country, diverse landscapes. Gorkhi-Terelj National Park at 5,000’

The Gobi, ranging from cold desert to grassy steppes, comprises over 500,000 square miles, most of which lies in China. Temperatures vary widely making it hard to pack clothes. Percipitation ranges from next to nothing to 7-14” a year. Mongolia not only experiences dust storms (a reason to use all those left-over masks) but blizzards; winters are long, cold with temperatures -40º F, and summers short when temperatures can reach over 100º F. Some nomads abandon nomadic life (hopefully temporarily) due to dzud, extreme weather in long, cold winters in which large numbers of livestock die. To be a Mongol, one must be of hardy stock.

Ger on the steppes of Mongolia
Mongol nomad family of 4.

Yes, there are many Mongols who remain nomadic and survive from the land and through herding. More than a quarter of Mongolians are nomads. They live in traditional felt gers. Having seen how felt is made while traveling in Kyrgyzstan, making a ger is quite an accomplishment. Mongolians love meat, mostly mutton, goat and horse meat. Because of the extreme continental climate, vegetables are limited. Influenced by both Chinese and Russian cooking, cuisine is predominantly a mix of dairy (including curds and fermented Yak milk), delicious Buuz, their version of meat-filled steamed dumplings, and lots of animal fats. Cooking can often be over dry animal dung. One learns you use what you have. In other words, Adapt or Die. And like many rural areas, little home distilleries produce what I call “rot gut” alcohol that can remove paint.

The eco-system of the Gobi is fascinating as is how people have adapted to survive. Gobi rangelands are fragile and easily destroyed by overgrazing, which results in expansion of the true desert, a stony waste where not even the hardy Bactrian camels can survive. The desert experiences rapid changes in temperatures of as much as 60º F in 24 hours. There is light rain in sections, monsoons in the southeast, and frost and occasionally snow occurring on its dunes. At the same time, the Gobi supports unique animal species including marbled polecat, onager wild ass, sand plover and rare snow leopards and Gobi bears.

Like many ecologically unique areas in the world, it is threatened by humans. The Gobi is expanding through desertification (loss of productivity due to natural processes or caused by humans whereby fertile areas become arid).The southern edge into China is seeing the loss of over 1,390 sq mi of grassland each year. Dust storms are increasing in frequency causing further damage. And overgrazing, particularly of goats, and off-road vehicle use exacerbate problems.

Bactrian camels are native to the Central Asian steppes and recognized by its distinctive double humps. Most are domesticated and serve as pack animals. Generally they are larger than a dromedary and weigh as much as 1400 pounds. Their long eyelashes and sealable nostrils help to keep out dust in sandstorms. Two broad toes on each foot and undivided soles adapt to walking on sand. Their thick, shaggy winter coat tends to peel off when warmer temperatures arrive making them look like they have had a very bad haircut.

When walking they use both legs on the same side as opposed to diagonals as done by most other quadrupeds. They can reach speeds of 40 mph but rarely feel the need to rush. The Bactrian is a fascinating animal which our own U.S. army tried to import for the Camel Corps during the Civil War. Plan failed and their ancestors can be seen roaming around the American southwest deserts.

Marco Polo, at about 17 years of age, left Venice to travel across the Mongol Empire. He passed through this area on his way to the court of Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan (grandson of Chinggis). Though some believe Polo could speak Mongolian (though no Chinese), he spent most of his time in the service of the Khan in what is known now as Beijing, China. Polo introduced paper money into Mongolia in the late 13th century.

A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings.

Facts I just like to contemplate – there are about 3.2 million people in the 19th largest county in the world where sheep outnumber people 35-1 and horses are as numerous as people. Mongolia is “the land of blue sky” with at least 250 sunny days a year but the sun just isn’t that warm because of altitude. However, ice cream is most popular in the winter, mostly because there is no need for refrigeration. 

Mongolia is proving a most fascinating country. Traveling to learn more.

Categories: Travel


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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