If you could take a martini shaker and add a dash of vast landscapes of the Gobi, sprinkle in a twist of the snow capped mountains of Bayan-Ölgi and the dramatic gorges and lakes of Khovsgol and then add in the Ger tents of the nomad and the cry of a soaring golden eagle… Shake it all up and top it off with some of the oldest Buddhist temples and ruins, abundant wildlife and legendary hospitality you will find anywhere, and you come up with a recipe for one of the most inviting and beautiful countries in the world.
Since the fall of communism, Mongolia has done just about everything in its power to open itself up to the world. While the old traditions survive and the wild nature is still mostly intact for the adventurous traveler, Mongolia has also reached out to the West for economic and cultural ties.
One of the highest countries in the world, Mongolia is a land of harsh extremes—snowy mountains, wide expanses of grassy steppe, and windswept desert with a people that are inviting and virtually still untouched by major tourism.
Capital city: Ulaanbaatar (population 1.2 million)
Population: 3 million
Time zone: (GMT+08:00) Irkutsk, Ulaan Bataar
Electricity: Type C (European 2-pin) Type E (French 2-pin, female earth)
Best time to visit Mongolia
Mongolia has an extreme continental climate due to its inland location. The best time for traveling is from May to October when the weather is pleasant. Due to the popularity of the Naadam Festival, July is the busiest time to go; it can get crowded, but Ulaanbaatar buzzes with an incredible vibe during this time.
Culture and customs
Mongolia is known for its strong nomadic traditions, but life has recently become more urbanised for many citizens in this sparsely populated country. Almost 50% of the population live in or near an urban centre, while the other 50% live a semi-nomadic lifestyle in the countryside; although, settled agricultural communities can be found in rural areas and are growing each year. Despite this change in lifestyle, the rich nomadic heritage remains strong and traditional Mongol songs, dance, stories and clothing are still celebrated, especially during festivals and national holidays.
Many Mongolian people are Buddhist - this is evident in the monasteries and temples that populate the urban areas as well as the remote regions. Shamanism is also still in existence in some of the more isolated regions of Mongolia where the proud cultures have been somewhat protected from modern influences.
A common thread that links most Mongolians is respect for family and the importance of hospitality.
Probably borne from the nomadic way of life, sharing with others and receiving guests with grace is a common theme that recurs in Mongolian society. Harsh conditions, a changeable climate and the uncertainty of nomadic life mean that most Mongolians go out of their way to provide a safe haven for family, friends and guests. It is for this reason that turning down food or not accepting a warm welcome is not advisable.
Geography and environment
Bordered by China and Russia, Mongolia is a land of mountains and plateaus, grasslands, marshes and deserts. Even though Mongolia is landlocked, Lake Khovsgol (one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes) provides 70% of Mongolia’s fresh water. This ancient lake provides much of the drinking water for the animal and human population, with the surrounding areas providing lush habitats for wolves, ibex, deer and bears. Due to Mongolia’s significant seismic activity, there are also many hot springs and volcanoes throughout the country.
Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, leaving much space for nomadic herders to roam. The fast-growing capital city of Ulaanbaatar is an exception, being home to high-density housing, universities and financial institutions. As an economic centre and transport hub, Ulaanbaatar has all the modern conveniences expected of an international city.
History and government
The area now known as Mongolia has been inhabited for more than 800,000 years. Archaeological evidence, such as rock paintings, points to groups of hunters and gatherers living throughout Mongolia in prehistoric times. Mongolia’s early history is colored by battles and invasions, with various nomadic empires laying claim to the land. The most famous of these was the Mongol Empire, created by Genghis Khan in 1206. This empire was known as the largest land-based empire of its time and had great success invading and claiming foreign territory, before declining due to infighting, disunity and the rise of neighboring territories.
Modern Mongolia is an interesting mix of Mongol, Chinese and Russian influences. Rising up to gain independence from decades of communist rule, modern Mongolia is becoming more fast-paced and globalized as the years go by. Holding its first democratic election in 1990, Mongolia now enjoys a time of relative peace and stability, with tourism, agriculture and mineral resources providing more abundance and improvements in infrastructure and living conditions.
Mongolia is one of the only legitimate democracies in Asia. Democracy has given foreign investors enough confidence to stick with Mongolia during hard biggest mining companies in the world. Tourism, along with mining and cashmere, has become a key feature of the economy. It is true that the poor infrastructure and short travel season have kept receipts small, but a growing network of ger camps cater to travellers seeking ecotourism adventures.
Without fences or private property to restrict a travelers movement, Mongolia is a perfect destination for photography enthusiasts.
Like us, most travelers come for Naadam, or the Golden Eagle Festival in western Mongolia..
Outside the villages it’s easy to meet nomad families whose relentless sense of hospitality can at times be nothing short of overwhelming.
As a travel destination, Mongolia is a special place for people who enjoy culture, the outdoors and adventure. Immersing oneself in the Naadam festival, the Golden Eagle Festival and the urban culture and then heading out on the vast plains, riding horses and camping with nomad families, Mongolia offers the chance to step back in time to a simpler way of life. It is an invigorating and exhilarating place to visit, and remains one of the last unspoiled travel destinations in Asia.
I believe that one must first understand our past before we can understand our future… and because I have sat many times with nomadic farmers and eagle hunters that embrace a tradition almost 1000 years old as a way of life, I have gotten a better understanding of their history, and now want to continue to share and photograph their future with you.
That is why I continue to plan to visit the country every year. To see the list of trips I lead in Mongolia, please visit this link, http://www.kevinpepperphotography.com/workshops