Mongolia is wild in every sense of the word.
While technology has made its way into the society – it’s not unusual to see herders chatting on smartphones while tending to their animals – the vast countryside remains seemingly untouched since the days of Genghis Khan.
Part of the reason is its size. With an area of approximately 1.6 million square kilometers, Mongolia is about four times as big as California and more than six times bigger than the entire United Kingdom.
Getting from one province to another involves days of driving over some of the roughest terrain on the planet, often across vast stretches of empty space. Sometimes the only company for miles is the herds of horses, yaks and sheep found grazing on the plains. Other times its the vultures seen circling above.
While the landlocked country is mostly covered by steppes, you also get to see marvels such as lakes, canyons, sand dunes and cliffs along the way.
Mongolia’s weather conditions are just as varied. From the near arctic weather in the northwest where reindeer still run wild to the green larch forest in the northeast to the bone-dry conditions of the Gobi Desert, Mongolia has got every climate covered.
Sometimes, all four seasons can be experienced in one day.
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With more than one third of its three million inhabitants living as nomads, Mongolia is one of the few countries where visitors can still experience a genuine nomadic lifestyle.
Family stays offer a glimpse on what it’s like to live an itinerant lifestyle and a chance to experience the famous Mongolian hospitality.
“You can simply turn up unannounced and the Mongolian household will gladly offer you food, a bed and even tend to your horse,” says Timur Yadamsuren, local guide and country manager for Intrepid Travel in Mongolia.
In fact, they don’t believe in locking their gers – the felt homes they dwell in. They simply leave its door open to allow access to any passersby in need food or a rest.
Lucky visitors may be invited to a private shamanic ceremony in which a traditional healer is said to travel to an alternate reality to communicate with spirits and other beings.
Many Mongolians still observe such ancient beliefs to this day and often approach a shaman to receive blessings, cures or hints about their future.
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Walking with the dinosaurs
Mongolia’s also the place where American adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews discovered unhatched dinosaur eggs among other significant finds in the 1920s.
The epicenter of this discovery is South Gobi’s Flaming Cliffs – considered one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites.
In other parts of the world, such a location might have been kept off-limits to the public. Not in Mongolia.
Standing on the ground where dinosaurs once roamed, it’s hard not to be thrilled by the prospect of finding even a small bone fragment on the sandstones.
During our visit our guide lets slip that she knows where to see one. We find it concealed under a small rock at the base of a cliff. After carefully moving the topsoil using her bare hands, she unearths a fully formed backbone.
Although she admits that it hasn’t been verified yet, she’s convinced it belongs to a dinosaur. Whether it’s the genuine article or not, Mongolia may offer one of the closest experiences uncovering dinosaur fossils in the wild.
As the sun starts to dip lower on the horizon, its rays cast brilliantly against the rugged sandstones, turning them a vibrant orange.
The brilliant sunset is just one of many awe-inspiring moments this country has to offer.
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Nila Sweeney is a Sydney-based writer and photographer. A former CNN producer, Sweeney has written on a range of topics including personal finance, lifestyle and current affairs.