Why one visit to Mongolia is never enough

When I think about Mongolia I conjure up open spaces and vast steppes with views to distant mountain ranges, and the friendly horse-riding nomads who live in yurts and tend to their mixed herds of goats, sheep, cattle and camels during the summer months. This is an accurate overview, yet there is so much more to discover about this amazing landlocked alpine country that it remains, for me, an exciting, remote and unspoiled destination.

I first visited nine years ago, trekking in Western Mongolia with a local botanist from the University of Ulaanbaatar.

With horsemen and camels carrying our gear, we ascended the side of a glacier and photographed on rocky screes some of the most exquisite high-altitude perennial plants I have ever seen.

I fell in love with Mongolia back then and vowed to return, however it took nine long years before I was in a position to assemble another group and set up a trek, this time around the forests and lakes of Central Mongolia. It was an astonishing experience.

The capital city had changed dramatically during those years, with new modern glass buildings amid the sturdy Soviet-era architecture and the precious remnants of an ancient Buddhist past. Once more we were focussing on the botany of the region, yet there were so many visual and cultural riches be embraced. 

Initially our vehicles took us cross country to a small township for few nights to celebrate the famous Naadam Festival. I had missed this annual spectacle the first time around and wasn’t sure quite what to expect – although I was told the locals dubbed it ‘the three games of men’: wrestling, archery and horse racing. 

We found ourselves in a comfortable modern hotel with excellent food and after lunch we wandered down to the showgrounds to find the entire town and surrounding villages had turned out in colourful national dress and in high spirits. I could never have imagined sitting with rapt fascination for hours, cheering with crowds as the burly (and scantily clad) wrestlers gradually eliminated each other in a contest that was as much about brain as brawn.

We rose before dawn to stand at the finishing line of a horse race where the jockeys we all under the age of thirteen. We were pleasantly surprised that there were now female archers in the competition, and that their skills were equally to the men. It was an unforgettable two days.

Then upwards we travelled to a high valley with seven lakes where we walked for days and camped in glorious locations exploring out in search on of new and interesting plants. The bird and animal life were also fascinating and we loved the herds of Mongolian horses that galloped around our campsites in the evenings, sticky-beaking as horses always do.

The lakes and forests captivated us as we walked, talking and learning so much from our local guide and botanist (also both women) and our enthusiastic support crew.

One night they treated us to a concert of local folk music around a bonfire. One of many magical moments. 

On our way back to the capital, to prepare for our flight home, we stopped in a National Park in search of the rare wild Petrowski’s horses that had become extinct in the wild, but have now been re-established from a breeding program using animals from our own Dubbo Zoo and a similar zoo in Germany. To see these rare creatures now back where they belong sent a shiver up my spine.

Mongolia, I’ll be back. 

Words by author, gardener and avid traveller Mary Moody, who regularly leads tours with World Expeditions.

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