Mongolia has the lowest population density among all the countries in the world. There are only two people for every square kilometer of Mongolian land. By this statement, you can surmise that nature still rules, in this country.
But Nature takes on a completely different context. Whereas you’ll perhaps imagine endless pastures, waterfalls, or dense forests (although there’s that, too), Mongolia is really more well-known for its empty deserts and the people who have learned to live with such topography and have even found sanctity in it. It is not lush, so much as vast. Mongolians, especially the traditional nomads, have learned to utilize whatever the terrain has given them. They have learned to rely on nature that nurtures no matter what, with a resilience that has made their keen survival skills world-famous.
If you want to explore Mongolia’s open spaces, here are some national parks to start with. You’ll find that this list is an example of how nature has always provided them with more than enough.
The Gorki-Terelj National Park is found 55 kilometers (34.18 miles) east of Ulaanbaatar, a two-hour trip, by bus. It is perhaps the most accessible park from the capital. It houses around 250 species of birds and bears. For those who crave a bit of height, rock climbing is also a popular activity in the park because of the numerous rock formations near the entrance such as the Melkhi Khad, or Turtle Rock. In the flatlands, you’ll see a meadow of edelweiss and wildflowers where the Tuul, Terlj and Baruunbayan Rivers, also flow. If you like the concept of glamping, then the first 20 kilometers (12.42 miles) of the park, is for you. It has a combination of ger camps, restaurants, and the like so that you don’t have to rough it, that much. The rest of the park, though, is untamed and purely wild, so that chunk of it isn’t accessible to vehicles.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
Address: Tuv Province, Mongolia
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2. The wild horses of Hustai National Park
Hustai National Park or Khustain Nuruu National Park is a 50-hectare (123.55-acre) expanse of land, in the Tov Province, that houses over 450 different species of vascular plants and 44 species of mammals, including the Mongolian gazelle, red deer, roe deer, wild sheep, the Mongolian marmot, gray wolves, corsac foxes and Eurasian badgers. It is also particularly famous for the wild horse, the Przewalskis, also known in Mongolia as the takhi. While mammal life is alive and about, the insect world is particularly interesting here, as well. The park has around 385 different species of insects from ants, butterflies, bush crickets, and grasshoppers. The park is around 100 kilometers (62.14 miles) southwest of Mongolia, so you’ll have to stay here overnight, which is great, as most of the wildlife, including the famous takhi, usually come out at dawn. There’s a ger camp and a restaurant here.
Hustai National Park
Address: Tuv Province, Mongolia
Website: Hustai National Park
3. The icy peaks of Yolyn Am (Dalanzadgad)
Yolyn Am is also known as the Ice Valley or Vulture Canyon. It’s geography, including its steep valleys, lack of wind, and thick rock, help keep the cool temperatures here, so that there’s glacier formation almost all year long. Yolyn Am is famous for its bird life. It houses numerous types of aerial creatures, including the bearded vulture. Yolyn Am is found in the northeastern part of Zuun Saikhan Mountain. Part of its allure is the claustrophobia-inducing exit. It starts off very wide at the entrance and then tapers down to a narrow gorge. Sometimes, when strong wind and rain pour into the valley, it freezes the corridors of the valley and turns them into thick icy walls, that stretch for two to three kilometers. It is really a sight to behold, especially when juxtaposed with the summer weather.
Yolyn Am in Gurvan Saikhan National Park
Address: South Gobi, Mongolia
Book a tour: Yolyn Am in Gurvan Saikhan National Park
4. The sacred mountains of Altai Tavan Bogd National Park (Olgiy)
This national park holds the five sacred mountains of Altai, on the borders of southwest Mongolia, shared with China and Russia. Here, you can see the snowcapped peaks of Altai Tavan Bogd. Unlike the mountains of Nepal, that require heavy technical skill from its climbers and trekkers, the Altai Bogd is quite accessible including Potanine, its most accessible snowy area. For those who want a challenge though, you can climb Mount Malchin, Nairamdal and Khuiten. These are three that have altitudes of 4,000+ meters (13,000 feet) above sea level. There are medium mountains as well, those that are 2,000 to 3,000 meters (6,562 to 9,843 feet), where you can spot some wildlife, such as the argali, the Siberian ibex, red deer, beech marten, black grouse, and golden eagle. You’ll also find archaeological treasures here, such as the Altai petroglyphs, a collection of over 10,000 rock paintings in a 15 kilometer (9.32 mile) part of the valley, that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
Address: Western Mongolia
Website: Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
Blame it on Casablanca, but many of us seem to have a romanticized view of what desert life really is. In reality, deserts like the Gobi are vast, bleak and very harsh. There is kilometer after kilometer of sand and isolation. WiFi, if any, is unreliable, just like the water supply. Many travelers who have visited here, in the long haul, are forced to face the elements, but it continues to be one of Mongolia’s most visited areas because it’s an experience like no other. There are dinosaur fossils, canyons, and mile-high sand dunes. You get to experience a traditional desert caravan, by staying with the camel herders and camping out, under the stars. Okay, so it’s still pretty romantic.
Address: Southern Mongolia
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The real Mongolia
For you to see the Mongolia that has been widely celebrated, you’ll have to get out of Ulaanbaatar - the capital, most developed, and most populous part of the country. The rest of the country, though, has remained virtually untouched. Provinces remain small. Communities remain intimate. In many ways, this has preserved much of its true treasures - the wildlife, culture, and rugged terrain. Mongolia is one of those countries that has clearly proven that progress need not directly battle with nature, all the time. Whatever it’s doing, here’s hoping it doesn’t change.