A Brief History of Mongolia and Why You Should Visit the Asian Steppe
Mongolia is a vast country that has intrigued travelers for centuries, and its history is just as fascinating as its culture.
Mongolia is a vast territory occupying a large part of the Asain steppe. It is a land that has fascinated so many of us for a very long time and there are many reasons why one should visit Mongolia. It was from here that the Mongols under Genghis Khan broke into the steppe and conquered much of the world.
Today, Mongolia is a beautiful part of the world to visit and a land full of adventures just waiting to be experienced. The inhabitants of this land have been nomads for thousands of years. A way of life greatly facilitated by the domestication of the horse. It is believed that the horse was domesticated somewhere in this vast Eurasian steppe. After that, the nomadic and pastoral Mongolian way of life could really take off. Today, most people in Mongolia are Buddhists and the culture remains quite traditional.
History and context of Mongolia
While in the West (and in most other parts of the world) people remember Genghis Khan as a bloodthirsty conqueror, it is important to be sensitive about this in Mongolia. For them, Genghis Khan is a national hero and a great figure of the past and he is highly revered. After all, he was the one who put Mongolia on the map – before and after the Mongol Empire, the world took little notice of Mongolia. When the Mongol Empire reached its height, it was the largest contiguous empire in history (the British Empire was the largest, but it was not contiguous).
For much of its history, Mongolia was under the rule or suzerainty of China, including under China’s last dynasty, the Qing dynasty. But when the empire imploded in the early 1900s, Mongolia managed to become independent with the help of Russia.
Mongolia: the facts
- Population: 3.3 million
- Capital and largest city: Ulaanbaatar
- Independence: 1911 (declared Qing dynasty)
- Cut: 1.56 million square kilometers or 600,000 square miles
Today, Mongolia is a large country with a small population, in fact, it is the 18th largest country in the world in terms of area. Today the nomadic past remains very strong in the country and about 30% of the population remains nomadic or semi-nomadic. Despite a rapidly growing population, Mongolia remains the least populated country in the world. So expect to travel for miles without seeing a single soul. Of the approximately 3.3 million people in the country, about half live in the capital Ulaanbaatar.
- Fun fact: Mongolia was aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and even asked to be annexed by the Soviets – but the Soviets refused
When to go and what to do
Mongolia is normally warm or hot in summer and you can go later in spring, summer or early fall (although summer is best). But avoid going there in winter. Winters here can be extremely cold and temperatures can drop to -30°C or -22°F. Mongolia as a whole is high in altitude and cold and of course it is a steppe so there is no has nothing to break the winds that sweep the land. Ulaanbaatar holds the record for the coldest capital in the world with average temperatures of -1.3°C or 29.7°F.
Traveling in Mongolia means exploring the great outdoors and the steppe. Things to do therefore include visiting local people and villages and sleeping in their traditional yurts (the traditional mobile home/tents). Of course you should go horseback riding! There’s nothing more Mongolian than horseback riding.
- Visa requirement: Americans 90 days visa-free; Canadians and Germans 30 days visa-free; For most other western passports Visa required
There are a variety of tours you can choose from. Here is one for example:
- Duration: 15 days
- Or: Around Mongolia
- Cost: From $3,155
- To note: You will be very remote and experience a lot of traditional Mongolian culture
Another very popular experience is to travel overland from St. Petersburg or Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Mongolia, then through Mongolia and ending in Beijing China. This trip is breathtaking, but the distance to cover is vast, so you are on the move most of the time and unable to see anything deep.
Traditional cuisine is mainly meat-based, so vegetarians may struggle to find meat-free food, especially once outside the capital. Moreover, horse is very central in the traditional Mongolian way of life and horse is a common meat and part of their usual cuisine. It is also very common to eat camel here. The main sources of meat are sheep, goats, cattle, horses, yaks and camels. While you’re here, be sure to try the horse and camel milk – beware though, it tastes strong!
Most travelers coming to Mongolia don’t come here to see monumental buildings or enjoy the vibrant nightlife. A big part of Mongolia’s appeal is the vast steppe, openness and emptiness of the region as well as seeing the culture of the people who live here. Traveling in Mongolia involves lots of horseback riding, camping (in large, comfortable yurts), and exploring a culture vastly different from that of the West.
Next: The 10 best horseback riding tours on the planet
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