Ever since Genghis Khan encouraged his people to live by the sword, not the plow, Mongolians have been nomadic herders, holding to their horse-based culture and leaving vast tracks of ruggedly beautiful countryside virtually untouched over the centuries. To experience the land and spirit of this traditionally hospitable nation that’s half the size of Europe (and fiercely independent since breaking free in 1990 from the Communist rule that began in the ‘20s), get on a horse or jump in a jeep to ride through a largely undisturbed landscape – one of Asia last wild places.
Small, organized groups head out from Lake Hovsgol, known as the “dark blue pearl” and one of the deepest freshwater lakes in the world. Ride through forests of Siberian larch trees and magenta fireweed before descending to the grassy steppe of the Darhat Valley, a huge basin edged on three sides by mountains. You might encounter isolated campsites made up of gers (known elsewhere by the Turkish word “yurts”), the traditional felt-covered homes of nomadic herders who customarily invite visitors in for a bowl of mutton soup or a cup of airag, fermented mare’s milk. You may also meet the Tsaatan, an ethnic minority that raises, rides, and herds reindeer and lives in the taiga forest.
The region of Arhangay is known for its beautiful scenery of forests, rivers, and mountains, and in its small towns, races among the stout and sturdy Mongolian horses take place during colorfulNaadam, a 3-day national holiday held each July. Headlining the Festival are the Three Manly Games (EriinGurvanNaadam) that epitomize the culture of Mongolia: archery, wrestling, and horseback-riding, with participants in traditional dress. More than 1,000 years old, and with its roots in the hunting expeditions of the Mongolian army, this Olympics-like sporting competition is a timeless test of strength and endurance held throughout the country, it’s experience most genuinely in smaller towns with fewer tourists – though it’s a heart-stopping sensation to witness the horse race just outside the capital of Ulaanbaatar, a more professional (and crowded) affair during which more than 600 horse charge across the open steppe in a headlong gallop on a 10-mile course.
BEST TIME : May – Oct to avoid cold weather; early Jul for Naadam festival.