Local herders with their camels |  <i>Cam Cope</i> A lush alpine meadow high in the Harhiraa mountains of Mongolia |  <i>Tim Cope</i> Archers at Naadam Festival, Mongolia |  <i>Caroline Mongrain</i> Kazakh Eagle hunter in Mongolia |  <i>Alison Wright</i> A young Mongolian boy herds Bactrian camels |  <i>Cam Cope</i> Travel in Mongolia involves some long driving days, but the sheer beauty of the steppe makes it all worthwhile |  <i>Tim Cope</i>
  • Mongolia Gap Year

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    Our commitment to provide a proper duty of care guides everything we do

    World Youth Adventures has an unblemished record in the operation of school & youth adventures

    We will only operate tours in accordance with strict operational standards that have built our reputation as leaders in the student travel industry

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    Three decades of tailoring successful student expeditions adds another dimension to the overall student experience

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    Thanks to careful management and thorough consultation with local partners our track record is exemplary

    Our industry leading risk management procedures have become a skill that we continue to refine

    All of our school group experts are highly trained and experienced consultants who have safety as their number one priority

    Expert leaders, risk assessments, quality inclusions and your financial security all come standard when travelling with World Youth Adventures

    Learn more about our safety practices on our Safety page

    Playful children in Mongolia&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Cam Cope</i>

    World Youth Adventures is committed to responsible travel and true sustainability

    The World Expeditions Travel Group has assisted with community projects to assist local schools and hospitals. This includes; Providing school bags and text books to 20 children in South Gobi Province; Donated medical and dental equipment to hospitals in Khovd and Bayankhongor provinces as well as Bogd sum in Uvurkhangai province; Donated a computer and printer to schools in Khovd and Bayankhongor provinces; Our volunteer dentist and doctor worked in Gobi for 3 days and gave a treatment to local herdsmen free of charge; Constructed two water wells in South Gobi province.

    We educate our travellers with each of them receiving specific information about Mongolian nomadic culture and we provide many opportunities for them to interact with local people on tour so that knowledge is shared and the culture is understood and appreciated.

    We hire horses and camels from local people and we also hire local people as the horse and camel guides. Additionally, we carry all food supplies for our trips from Ulaanbaatar to ensure that we do not deplete the food resources of small communities that we pass through.

    Many of our trips are in National Parks and protected areas and so while guiding we are supporting research on the bio diversity of these areas and on rare animals: Wild Camel-Khavtgai, Wild Sheep –Argali, Wild Goat (Ibex), and Yangir.

    We discourage our travellers from purchasing water in plastic bottles. Instead we make available to them sanitised boiled water and encourage them to re-fill their one water bottle. To conserve water we provide travellers with a washing bowl for clothes, and we avoid the use of soap and other chemicals in rivers, streams and lakes.

    Well-defined environmental plans exist on every trip within this country

    Learn more about our commitment, and view our free Responsible Travel Guidebook, on our Responsible Travel Page

  • Camel riding at Mingsha Dunes in western China&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Peter Walton</i>

    The world famous Gobi Desert is an astonishing region blessed with true remoteness and rugged beauty. The impressive Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, named for the mountain range which flanks the eastern half of the park, is the largest national park in Mongolia and home to the largest sand dunes in Mongolia at Khongoryn Els. Due to the sound the dunes make on a windy day they are known as the 'singing dunes'.The Flaming Cliffs near Bayanzag is where the American explorer and naturalist, Roy Chapman Andrews, led a series of dinosaur expeditions in the 1920s. The dinosaur skeletons he discovered are now kept in the Natural History Museum of America. At the Valley of Yolyn Am there are solid ice formations, even in the heat of the Gobi summer. You can experience this region on a series of day walks, jeep rides and a camel trek with local nomads, whilst staying in traditional 'Ger' camps with Mongolian families.

    The Altai and greater Altai Range: To the far west are the mountains of the Altai, home to several small and intriguing ethnic groups. Here you will witness authentic Mongolia, such as the Kazakh eagle hunters, as locals ply about their daily routines as they have for generations. The greater Altai is said to be at the very heart of Asia. Iranians, Turks, Mongols, Kazakhs, and many other people trace their history back to the people who came from the Altai and moved down to the steppe to tame horses, yaks, and camels. Even today the Altai splits Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Russia and is the meeting point of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Shamanism.

    Terelj National Park, Mongolia&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Caroline Mongrain</i>

    Ancient nomadic traditions, lush undulating steppes, snow-capped mountains, fertile river valleys and steep gorges, the otherworldly Gobi Desert, medieval Buddhist temples, a complex history and a humble, generous people: Mongolia is a fascinating travel destination steeped in the history and cultures of Central Asia. For the country’s rural nomads, the essence of daily life has not changed much since the Middle Ages. And yet, Mongolia has emerged from decades of Soviet influence as a humble, hopeful and harmonious new democracy, with a modern capital city and a sense of Mongolian culture and identity that is stronger than ever.

    The term Mongol or Mongolian refers to the various ethnic and tribal groups who are bound by a kinship of common language and nomadic traditions. Ethnically, Mongols are fairly homogenous, with the Khalkha ethnic group representing more than 80% of the population and the balance being a variety of closely related Mongol tribes including the Oirat, the Chahar, the Bargut, the Daur and the Buryat. Owing to various wars and migrations, the Mongols are now found throughout Central Asia, but predominantly across the vast Mongolian Plateau, which encompasses the sovereign country of Mongolia (historically known as Outer Mongolia), and Inner Mongolia, now an autonomous region of northern China that accounts for 12% of China’s landmass.

    Mongolian history is well documented thanks to the meticulous annals kept by the Chinese, and one particularly important Mongolian classical text known in English as The Secret History of the Mongols, written for the Mongolian royal family in 1240, following the death of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan, the leader of the powerful Mongol Empire. Beginning with folkloric/mythological elements, the text goes on to provide a comprehensive account of the life of Genghis Khan, the building of the Mongol Empire and an historical account of the Empire’s movements and conquests, finishing after the death of Khan with a weighing up of the strengths and weaknesses of the Empire.

    The Mongol people’s earliest confirmed ancestral link is to the Xiongnu people of the 5th century BC, although Mongols could possibly be related to the much earlier Shang Dynasty of the 2nd millennium BC. While the Qin and Han Dynasties were unifying China into a royal empire in the 3rd century BC, the Xiongnu were building a confederation of different Mongolian tribal clans. Several centuries later, weakened by war with China and among its own members, the great Xiongnu empire broke down. Some of the disbanded empire’s southern tribal groups were absorbed into the Chinese imperial state, but others from the north migrated westward. Some historians believe the descendants of these tribes resurfaced in Europe in the 5th century AD among the Huns, the nomads whose ferocious warriors stirred unparalleled fear in Europe as they controlled a powerful empire in the 4th-5th centuries.

    The Xiongnu were followed by a Turkic people whom the Chinese referred to as the Tujue, who controlled the Mongolian steppes in the 6th-7th centuries. The Turks, like the Huns before them, and like many successive waves of nomadic peoples after them, chose the fertile valley straddling the Orkhon River in central Mongolia as the base for their settlement. Much of what we know today about human settlement in medieval Mongolia comes from the many archaeological ruins and monuments found in the Orkhon Valley region. Ruins and inscribed monuments here tell us about the region’s Turkish (6th-7th centuries) and Uighur (8th century) empires, but it was during the 13th-14th centuries that the region reached its cultural apogee when Genghis Khan made the Orkhon Valley city of Karakorum the capital of the powerful Mongol Empire.

    During the Orkhon Turk era, China’s Tang Dynasty was rising in power and by the early 8th century had established sophisticated systems of governance and administration and triggered the cultivation of an arts and culture Golden Age. It was in the records of the Tang Dynasty that the tribal name Mongol is first found, then vanishing from historical documents until the 11th century when it was found again in reference to the Khitan, a Mongol people who ruled China’s Liao Dynasty in the 10th-12th centuries. The records of the Khitan Liao mention their affiliation with a mysterious tribal confederation known as Khamag Mongol Uls (Nation of All the Mongols). When the Liao Dynasty fell, their regions in China were taken by another Chinese empire known as the Juchen-Jin, who switched their allegiance from the All the Mongols over to a tribe called the Tatars, beginning an ongoing feuds between All the Mongols and both the Tatars and the Juchen-Jin.

    In 1162, a great-grandson of the greatest ruler of All the Mongols was born: Temüüjin, who would later be known as Genghis Khan. Born into a powerful family, Temüüjin inherited many bitter feuds—with the Tatars, the Juchen-Jin, the Merkit and among the ruling clans of All the Mongols. Temüüjin’s family fell on hard times during his teens: he was orphaned, and power passed to other Mongol clans. Regardless, Temüüjin skillfully rebuilt his power through strategic marriage alliances, working for a more powerful prince and taking an anda (blood oath) of allegiance to Jamuka, a powerful Mongol political and military leader. Most importantly, Temüüjin recruited many nökhör, comrades who had renounced all family and clan ties in favour of complete allegiance to their chosen leader. Many of Temüüjin’s most trusted and brilliant army generals were nökhör who had pledged themselves to him, and Temüüjin was never betrayed by any of his nökhör.

    Temüüjin married his first wife in around 1178, the beautiful 17-year-old Börte who was stolen shortly afterward by a rival tribe, and it is thought that it was while on mission to retrieve her that young Temüüjin decided to aggressively push his empire forward. A young but respected leader, adept at tribal warfare and with a growing following, Temüüjin continued to gather loyal comrades and was proclaimed ruler of All the Mongols in 1206, with the rank of Khan (Emperor) and the title of Genghis (aka Chinggis), an honorific title synonymous with another Mongolian word, dalai (as applied to Tibet’s Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama).

    Up until this point, nomadic clans had already invaded China many times. However, previous armies had failed to first subdue all of their nomadic rivals, leaving themselves open to attack, and so no clan had yet ruled China in its entirety. Genghis Khan was the first to properly sweep into Mongolia’s furthest reaches before heading south to China. Genghis began systematically taking control of major tribal groups in western and northern Mongolia, before taking northeastern and northwestern China, western Inner Mongolia; exploiting the soured relationships between subject tribes and their imperial masters. Genghis sacked the Jin capital city of Zhongdu (now Beijing) in 1215, leaving one of his best generals to control the country while he headed westward, defeating the last remaining powerful Mongol tribes, before taking over Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

    With vast lands now under control, urban and agricultural resources secured and the Mongol Empire a wealthy and powerful juggernaut, Genghis turned his focus back to China, tasking his sons and generals to push the empire forward into Russia and eastern Europe on his behalf. Before Genghis could move his main forces to China, however, he would need to defeat the wealthy Xi Xia Kingdom. The massive Mongol army achieved this in 1227, annihilating the Xi Xia empire, but it was on this campaign that Genghis died, aged 65. Following Genghis’s death, the Mongol Empire gave rise to several new states, as the vast Mongol-controlled regions were divided up between each of Genghis’s four sons, to be ruled as separate vassal khanates (kingdoms). Two years later, third son Ögödei was named successor as the new Great Khan (Emperor).

    First son Jochi’s khanate, known as the Golden Horde or Kipchak Khanate, was particularly successful, with the kingdom’s territory extending from Siberia to Romania at its peak. It was under its greatest khan, Öz Beg (1312–41) that the Golden Horde gradually converted to Islam and Turkish language. Second son Chagatai’s khanate also controlled vast grazing lands and many nomadic groups, and fourth son Tolui supervised the Mongol Empire for the two years that it took to confirm third son Ögödei as the new Khan. Tolui’s son Kublai succeeded his father and went on to successfully invaded China, establishing the powerful Yuan Dynasty. While it was a Mongol state and considered a successor to the Mongol Empire, the Yuan Dynasty was an official imperial Chinese dynasty, controlling all of China as well as most of modern day Mongolia, with Kublai as its Great Khan and also Emperor of China, moving the capital of his empire from Karakorum in Outer Mongolia to the city now known as Beijing. It was during Kublai’s reign that the Red Hat branch of Tibetan Buddhism was first introduced to the region, where it was popular among aristocrats.

    Kublai would become well known and romanticised in European thanks to one man, the Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo, who met Kublai in 1266, while on his famous 24-year excursion in Asia. Marco Polo spoke many languages, was well connected, and had excellent knowledge of geography, commerce, international currencies, shipping routes and other essential mercantile subjects, and so Kublai Khan welcomed Marco Polo and his family, employing Marco Polo in a high level administrative post with the aim of lessening the Yuan Dynasty’s commercial reliance on China. After 17 years working in Kublai’s court, Marco Polo’s detailed account of the Mongols and his travels in the East would provide significant knowledge to Europeans about the East, its politics, administration, geography and culture. Kublai died in 1294, and the Yuan Dynasty went through a series of weak rulers until 1368, when the Chinese imperial Ming Dynasty toppled the Yuan. It was the Ming who would construct Beijing’s royal palace complex, the Forbidden City, and the bulk of the Great Wall of China separating China from southern Mongolia, as well as extending heavy cultural, artistic and political influence throughout Asia over their nearly three hundred year reign.

    The Ming pushed deep into Mongolia, destroying the ancient capital of Karakorum and forcing the Mongols into Outer Mongolia, but failed to establish control over the Mongols, with whom clashes were unending. In the absence of ultimate rule, different nomadic groups began to rise again, including the Oirat who established control over the Turkic lands that now constitute China’s Xinjiang province, and began to push into Tibet, beginning a long standing feud with the Khalkha people, a nomadic Mongol tribe who had become a militarised nation under Genghis Khan. But by the mid-16th century, control over the Mongols had passed to Altan Khan, who ruled the Mongols from the Ordos Plateau of northern China. After a meeting with the high lama of the Yellow Hat branch of Tibetan Buddhism, Altan converted to the faith, restoring the Mongolian patronage of Tibetan monkhood that had existed previously under the Yuan Dynasty. Altan was an ambitious leader who sought to emulate Genghis, and was successful in developing trade and agriculture and challenging the Oirat in Tibet, and the Ming in China.

    However, by 1644, the powerful Manchu people—descendant from one of the Mongols’ great rivals, the Juchen-Jin—had gained control of Manchuria (northeast China), moved southward to conquer Beijing, and by 1680 had control of all of China under the Qing Dynasty, the last of the imperial Chinese dynasties. A shared hatred for the Oirat and promises of aristocratic titles and privileges convinced the Khalkh to fight alongside the Manchu, enabling them to annihilate the Oirat. Relations between the Mongols and the Manchu deteriorated in the peacetime that followed, as the economy stagnated and the Chinese had little incentive to financially support the Khalkh troops who were of decreasing military value. The Manchu maintained a powerful and well-ordered government, tripling the population compared to the Ming Dynasty, but the empire became weakened from 1800, although it was not until the 1911 that the dynasty would be overthrown. Japan and Russia were both trying to extend their reach into Qing territory, sparking the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).

    It was the events of the 1911 Republican Revolution that finally toppled the Qing Dynasty, with the monarchy abolished and a new government established under the Republic of China. The Manchu high officials were forced to leave Mongolia, and the Javzandamba khutagt, Mongolia’s spiritual leader, was declared the head of state, Bogd Khan (Holy King). Two years later in the city of Niislel Khüree (now Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital), Mongolia and Tibet signed a treaty proclaiming both countries as sovereign states separate from China and free from the rule of the Manchu. However, Russia and China released a declaration in the same year claiming Chinese suzerainty over Mongolia, and true independence would not be achieved until 1921.

    Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Soviet power spread eastward across Russia from St Petersburg, sparking a turbulent period in which Chinese troops stormed the Mongolian capital of Niislel Khüree, overthrowing the Bogd Khan. Underground resistance groups had begun to spring up in Mongolia and the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), a coalition of Mongolian revolutionaries, reached out to the Soviets for assistance. The Russian imperial army entered Mongolia from eastern Siberia, driving the Chinese occupation out of Niislel Khüree in February 1921 and restoring the Bogd Khan to the throne. The MPP quickly appointed a new government and prime minister, with the Bogd Khan its constitutional monarch. The period that followed was marked by ongoing power struggles between communists and nationalists, and an increasingly paranoid government. In 1922, Mongolia’s prime minister, along with a founding member of the MPP, were charged with “counter-revolutionary activity” against the government and executed. The founding MPP member who orchestrated the executions would then himself be executed for the same charges two years later. In 1924, the capital city of Niislel Khüree was renamed Ulaanbaatar (“Red Hero”), and following the death of the Bogd Khan, the country was declared the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) on 26 November 1924. The new MPR government sabotaged attempts to search for a reincarnation of the Bodg Khan, and by 1929 the government had imposed a law refusing any reincarnations.

    By the 1930s a new threat to Mongolia had revealed itself: Japan, who had occupied Manchuria and were looking to annex parts of Mongolia. The threat of the Japanese sparked a mass political hysteria, with charges of counter-revolutionary activity and spying for the Japanese leading to the arrest of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, who were forced to admit guilt to bogus charges, and promptly executed. Buddhists were slaughtered en masse, monasteries and temples destroyed and lamas shot or taken to forced labour camps. Throughout the 1930s and 40s Mongolia was effectively cut off from the rest of the world, with its only political and financial ally being the Soviet Union. In 1946, the traditional vertical Mongolian script was abandoned in favour of the Cyrillic alphabet (the script used for Russian language). The decades that followed were marked by ongoing conflicts with China, and between Soviet and Nationalist ideologies, but it was also a time of transition for the country’s political structure, economic development and international relations.

    In 1990, significant reforms were made to Mongolia’s constitution allowing new political parties, multiparty elections, a presidency and a new legislative structure; and by the following year the Soviet Union had collapsed, ceasing to exist as of 26 December 1991. Throughout the 1990s, vestiges of the Soviet Union were stripped away and Tibetan Buddhism flourished once more, however, Mongolia faced many significant problems. Foreign aid was sought to plug the giant void left by the Soviets, further democratic reforms were made to Mongolia’s constitution, economic reforms were slowly implemented, but with a revolving door of political leadership stalling the processes of change. All the while, the issues of poverty and a lack of employment plagued the people of Mongolia. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the country worked to gradually reestablish itself but was cursed with an increasingly volatile domestic political situation.

    Although Mongolia’s culture, political life and economy suffered greatly under previous occupations and governments, things have steadily improved, with new governments making significant progress in establishing democracy and protecting political, religious and cultural freedoms. Despite all of the drama of the past, the humble hospitality and rich culture of the Mongolian people rises above the country’s dark and complex history.

  • Prayer wheels at Aryabal temple&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Caroline Mongrain</i>

    Ethnically, Mongols are fairly homogenous, with the Khalkha being the largest ethnic group, representing more than 80% of the population. Other ethnic groups a variety of closely related Mongol tribes including the Oirat, Chahar, Bargut, Daur and Buryat; as well as Turkic peoples who mostly live in western Mongolia including the Kazakhs and Tuvans.

    Mongolia’s official religion statistics (as of 2010) are Buddhist 53%, Muslim 3%, Christian 2.2%, Shamanist 2.9%, other 0.4%, none 38.6%.

    Tibetan Buddhism flourished in Mongolia during the Qing Dynasty, prior to which animism and shamanism were widely practiced. Elements of animism and shamanism have survived and been incorporated into Mongolia’s Buddhist faith. Buddhism was banned (and atheism promoted) by the revolutionary government in the 1920s, with monasteries destroyed, religious treasures stolen and thousands of lamas (Buddhist teachers/clergy) murdered or enslaved in labour camps. Since the 1990s, Tibetan Buddhism has once again flourished.

    Mongolia’s Muslim population is mostly Kazakh people living in the west of the country, and the country’s Christians are found mostly in Ulaanbaatar.

    Mongolia is the world’s most sparsely populated independent country, with only 3 million or so people spread over a vast area. Population is concentrated in the fertile central-north region of the country, where the bulk of the country’s best pastures and crop growing areas, industrial facilities and transport infrastructure is found. Some of the country’s desert areas are completely uninhabited.

    Mongolia has a long tradition of nomadic livestock herding, in which herders follow fertile pastures around the country, living in the traditional Mongolian dwelling, the ger (called a yurt in other countries). The Mongolian ger is a tent-like, single-roomed dwelling comprised of a round wooden lattice wall, wooden poles leading to a conical roof, with the structure insulated with layers of felt and then covered with an outer layer of thick white canvas. Gers are strong and durable, warm in winter, cool in summer, easy to erect and dismantle, and light and simple to transport by packhorse, yak or camel. A significant number of herding families still live in the nomadic tradition, moving their ger around fertile pastures to support their livestock, and many urban families live in permanent ger encampments in the outlying districts of Mongolia’s major cities.

    The unforgiving nature of life on the cold steppes means that hospitality is absolutely central to the Mongol nomadic lifestyle. A rural ger owner will welcome friends and strangers alike without hesitation, offering food and shelter. There is a growing tourism industry enabling visitors to stay in gers with Mongolian herding families, providing local families with a sustainable income stream and offering visitors a wonderful chance to encounter Mongolian culture.

    When nomadism was discouraged in favour of sedentary settlements by the socialist government, permanent ger encampments were established near major farming areas, and more ger encampments began to fringe the capital of Ulaanbaatar during the 1990s when unemployment began forcing rural families to the city for work opportunities. Many impoverished families today live in these ger encampments surrounding the capital and other urban centres, many without electricity, clean water or sanitation.

    Life in contemporary Mongolia is a unique mix of ancient nomadic traditions, shamanic and Buddhist beliefs, and a growing commercialism and infiltration of external—largely, Western—influences. After decades of suppression of any sort of Mongolian nationalism, many people are now actively working to promote and preserve Mongolia’s national cultural identity—as well as the country’s ethnic minority cultures—with new festivals and cultural initiatives cropping up each year.

    Western attire is common among urban residents and increasingly so among the rural population, but you will often see men and women dressed in the national costume, the deel, a long unisex gown/coat of coloured patterned silk, with a thick wool-lined winter variation.

    Ornate decorations on ger, Mongolia&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Caroline Mongrain</i>

    Mongolians are a polite and modest people, so ensure you dress in a respectful and modest way at all times, avoiding revealing clothing (or nudity).

    Remove shoes and hats before entering a temple or shrine.

    Always bow before monks or before an altar.

    Do not step in front of monks during chanting in a temple.

    Do not take photographs in temples unless local permission has first been obtained.

    Take small denomination notes in local currency to leave as offerings at temples and shrines.

    Always spin prayer wheels in a clockwise direction, and always walk around shrines or burial sites, or inside someone’s ger, in a clockwise direction.

    When entering a ger, be careful to step over, and not ON the threshold, which is considered a sign of disrespect.

    Never step over someone’s feet, or a plate of food.

    When passed a drink, accept the drink with your right hand, supporting the underside of your right elbow with your left hand.

    Mongolians do not use family names (a person’s second name is usually a variation of their father’s given name) and so people should simply be addressed or referred to by their given name.

    Avoid asking questions such as “When (what time) will we arrive?” or “How many (animals/livestock) are in your flock/herd?” as it is a long-held belief among locals that to answer these kinds of questions will attract terrible luck.

    Mongolians are extremely welcoming and generous, and are also very relaxed. No one is ever in a hurry – so make sure you bring plenty of patience, and never raise your voice.

    An archer takes aim in Mongolia's Nadaam Festival&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Rachel Imber</i>

    Mongolia is short on public holidays (most are normal working days anyway), but has two major holiday celebrations—Naadam and Tsagaan Sar—which are lavish, colourful multi-day affairs. A handful of smaller Mongolian festivals have cropped up in recent years in an effort to preserve and celebrate Mongolian culture.

    Naadam is one of Mongolia’s two major holidays and the best time to experience Mongolian culture. This three-day festival of Mongolian heritage includes Buddhist ceremonies, military marches, colourful national dress, dance, music, plus plenty of eating, drinking and merrymaking. The main event of the Naadam Festival, however, is the two-day tournament celebrating the country’s three beloved traditional sports: wrestling, archery and horse racing. Naadam is held from 11-13 July each year with the major tournaments and festivities happening at Ulaanbaatar stadium and around the capital, but smaller Naadam celebrations happen throughout the country.

    Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian New Year) falls between January-February each year in line with the Mongolian lunisolar calendar. It’s the country’s major festival for families—a joyful time for spiritual reflection, visiting loved ones, gift-giving and eating with family and friends. With Mongolia’s national culture, religion and food on show it’s another excellent time to visit the country.

    If you happen to be in Mongolia in winter, Thousand Camel Festival is one of the most interesting smaller celebrations on offer, with people coming together in the Gobi Desert to celebrate the Bactrian camels which nomadic herders in the Gobi region are so reliant on. Expect colourful traditional dress, dance and music and exciting camel races and camel polo competitions.

    Also in winter is the Ice Festival, in which locals gather near Hovsgol Lake for ice-skating races and ice sculpture.

    Mongolians of Kazakh ethnicity celebrate their culture with Nauryz (aka Nowruz, the Persian spring equinox festival), observing the coming of spring and the Kazakh New Year each March.

    The annual Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival (September) and Golden Eagle Festival (October) celebrate Mongolia’s history of falconry.

    Nomad’s Day Festival is a fun two-day celebration of Mongolia’s nomadic traditions that happens each year on 17-18 September, south of Ulaanbaatar.

    Other important dates are: New Year’s Day (1 January); Constitution Day (13 January); Women’s Day (8 March); Mother & Children’s Day (1 June); Genghis Khan’s Birthday (14 November); and Mongolian Republic Day (26 November).

    Total population is 2,953,190 (2014 est.), making Mongolia the 139th most populous country in the world, growing at an annual rate of 1.37%.

    With less than 2 people per sq km (less than 5 per sq mi), Mongolia is the least populated independent country in the world.

    The median age is 27.1 years, with 26.8% aged 0-14 and 4% aged 65+.

    Sex ratio is 1.05 males to 1 female.

    An estimated 68.5% of the total population live in urban areas, with an average annual rate of urbanisation at 2.81%. The balance of Mongolians live semi-nomadic and nomadic pastoralist lifestyles.

    Khalkh 81.9%, Kazak 3.8%, Dorvod 2.7%, Bayad 2.1%, Buryat-Bouriates 1.7%, Zakhchin 1.2%, Dariganga 1%, Uriankhai 1%, other 4.6%

  • A lush alpine meadow high in the Harhiraa mountains of Mongolia&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Tim Cope</i>

    Mongolia’s location deep within central-eastern Asia, at generally high elevation and latitude and far from the moderating effects of any ocean or significant body of water, gives it a classic continental climate with long cold winters, short mild-to-hot summers, and dramatic annual and diurnal (daily) temperature fluctuations.

    A major feature of Mongolia’s climate is its zuds (or dzuds), harsh winter conditions that kill millions of head of livestock each year, devastating Mongolia’s pastoral economy and the livelihood of its people. Mongols classify four different types of zud: white, black, cold and ice/iron. The white zud occurs when heavy snow stops animals from accessing the grasses beneath. The black zud occurs when freezing temperatures and a lack of snow cause drought, depriving animals of grasses. The cold zud occurs when temperatures are so low that animals must conserve energy rather than graze. The ice/iron zud occurs when heavy rains freeze on the ground, stopping animals from accessing the grasses beneath. In each variation, millions of animals can be lost, and herders can face multiple zuds in a bad year.

    Precipitation is generally low, with Mongolia being well known for its remarkable number of clear, sunny, blue-sky days, averaging between 220-260 per year. Pre-Buddhist animist Mongols worshipped the “Eternal Blue Sky”, and Mongolia is lyrically referred to as “The Land of Eternal Blue Sky”.

    Having said that, the weather is unpredictable and can turn ugly in an instant, with thunderstorms, hailstorms, sandstorms, heavy rains, ice, snowfall and fierce blizzards being a part of life.

    Mongolia experiences extreme annual and diurnal (daily) temperature fluctuations. The temperature can vary as much as 44°C (80°F) between January and July, and variations of up to 30°C (55°F) in happen a single day.

    In the capital of Ulaanbaatar, average daily temperatures vary from a minimum of -25°C (-13°F) to a maximum of -14.4°C (7°F) in January; to a minimum of 10°C (50°F) to a maximum of 21.8°C (71°F) in July.

    Russia to the north; China to the east, south and west.

    1,564,116 sq km / 603,909 sq mi (19th largest country in the world)

    Mongolia is ranked 111th out of 178 countries (with an improving trend) on the Environmental Performance Index (2014)—which quantifies and benchmarks performance of government environmental policies and outcomes.

    Environmental issues include severely polluted air in Ulaanbaatar; deforestation; overgrazing; soil erosion; desertification; environmental damage caused by rapid urban growth, mining and industrial activity; limited freshwater resources.

    Natural hazards include droughts; dust storms; forest and grassland fires; harsh winter conditions.

    Mongolia is a signatory to various international environmental and conservation agreements.

    Mongolia’s vegetation can be discussed within four basic divisions: mountain forest-steppe, steppe, semi-desert and desert. The majority of the country is covered in steppe pastures that feed the immense herds of grazing livestock which far outnumber the country’s human population. With no permanent agricultural crops, arable land accounts for only 0.39% of Mongolia’s landmass.

    The slopes of Mongolia’s northern mountains are home to sections of the coniferous forest biome known as taiga (aka boreal forest). This mountain forest zone is home to Mongolia’s most diverse distribution of plant and animal life. Wildlife includes lynx, brown bears, wolverines, maral (red deer), roe deer, musk deer, wild boars, sables and squirrels, and it is in the taiga that the nomadic Tsaatan (Dukha) people raise herds of reindeer, among the forests of Siberian larches and cedars, spruces, pines, firs, birches, poplars and aspens.

    The intermontane basins and river valley areas are home to the steppe vegetation that covers around three-quarters of the country. It is upon these seemingly never ending grassy steppe pastures that Mongolia’s nomadic pastoralists herd millions of grazing livestock, including sheep, cattle, yaks, camels, horses and goats. Pastures are comprised mostly of couch grass, feather grass, wormwood and a variety of different fodder grasses, and brightly coloured wildflowers carpet the steppes in the summer months. The steppes are also home to wild species such as snow leopards, Mongolian gazelles, marmots and argal (wild sheep).

    Semi-desert is found in the upper fringes of the Gobi in southern Mongolia and in the Great Lakes Depression to the west. Sheep, goats and camels feed on drought-tolerant scrubs, bushes and woodlands, with underground springs supporting oases of poplars and elms. Moving southward, the semi-desert gives way to the barren true desert conditions of the Gobi. Water holes in the semi-desert and desert regions occasionally attract rare wildlife such as wild camels, wild horses, wild Asian asses and Gobi bears.

    A wide variety of bird, fish and insect species are found in Mongolia’s steppes, rivers and freshwater lakes.

    Trekking towards the Most Pass in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia.&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Alan and Julie Marshall</i>

    Mongolia’s biggest drawcard for visitors is the incredible beauty of its pristine natural environment. With a scant 3 million people inhabiting a 1.5 million sq km (579,153 sq mi) area, the majority of the country is vast, uninterrupted wilderness.

    The major defining features of the country are expansive steppes, lake-studded basins, forested high mountains interspersed with lake-studded basins, and desert.

    With an average elevation of 1,580 m (5,184 ft), Mongolia is one of the world’s highest countries. Its three major mountain chains are the Altai, Hangayn and Hentiyn ranges.

    The Altai (aka Altay) mountains are a complex system extending 2,000 km (1,200 mi) through Central Asia in a southeast-northwest direction from the Chinese side of the Gobi Desert, through Mongolia to Russia’s western Siberian plain. The Mongolian Altai contain the country’s highest peaks, with Hüiten Peak being the highest point at 4,374 m (14,350 ft).

    The Hangayn (aka Khangai or Changai) mountains extend 805 km (500 mi) in a southeast-northwest trend in central Mongolia, feeding the Selenga River and developing into the Great Lakes Depression to the west. The Hentiyn (aka Khentii) mountains extend from the Ulaanbaatar region in a northeast direction to the Russian border.

    The areas between and around these mountain ranges of the north and west are filled with important basins including the Great Lakes Depression, Lake Khövsgöl and the World Heritage Listed Uvs Lake Basin.

    The elevation then generally slopes downward towards the vast upland plateau that fills most of the country. This central bulk of the country is composed of extensive grass-covered steppes with low hills and gentle undulations, with the stubby cones of hundreds of extinct volcanoes dotting the hilly plains of the east. The southern part of the country is an expansive plain punctuated by eroded low ranges and periodic oases, with the plain extending southward to the northern margins of the Gobi Desert.

    The Gobi Desert covers the southern third of the country, extending across the border into China’s Inner Mongolia region. The Gobi is home to many spectacular natural features, including its expansive sandy undulations, giant basalt columns, mountains, a small perennial glacier and the stunning deep gorges of the Yol Valley.

    The fertile Orkhon Valley straddles the banks of Mongolia’s longest river, the Orkhon, with the valley being home to the ruins of two significant medieval cities. The Orkhon flows northward to meet the Selenga River, which then flows northward to drain into Siberia’s Lake Baikal.

    Uvs Nuur Basin (2003) The Uvs Nuur Basin, found along the Russian border in northwest Mongolia, is a remote and dramatic landscape that provides sanctuary for a high diversity of plant and animal life, as well as containing a significant number of archaeological sites. With an area of 10,688 sq km (4,127 sq mi), the vast Uvs Nuur Basin contains a variety of natural environments including mountains, steppes, desert, semi-desert, and the lakes and extensive wetlands of the saline Uvs Lake system from which the property takes its name.

    Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape (2004) Sprawling along the fertile banks of Central Mongolia’s Orkon River, this large property contains a high density of significant archaeological monuments and artefacts. Among the ruins are the impressive palace, temples, monasteries and administrative buildings of Karakorum, the capital of Chinggis (Ghengis) Khan’s vast Mongol Empire during the 13th and 14th centuries, along with many other artefacts and ruins dating back as far as the 6th century. With present-day Mongolia representing only a fraction of the lands controlled by the Mongol Empire during Khan’s reign, Karakorum bears witness to a defining time in Mongolia’s history, and captures the marriage of nomadic pastoralism with the wealth and sophisticated cultural, religious and administrative structures of the Mongol Empire.

    Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai (2011) The Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai encompass the three separate sites of Tsagaan Salaa-Baga Oigor, Upper Tsagaan Gol and Aral Tolgoi, which together provide a remarkable record of prehistoric human culture in the region spanning a period of 12,000 years. The many rock carvings and monuments contained within the sites have contributed greatly to our understanding of prehistoric Asian civilisation, reflecting the changes from the 11th century BC until the 8th century AD, from large game hunting, to herding, to horse-dependent nomadic pastoralism.

  • World Youth Adventures can tailor make a school expedition to Mongolia to your school’s budget and curriculum requirements.

    Talk to us about your next school expedition, or if you need some ideas check out the trips below.

  • Capital City:  Ulaanbaatar
    Time zone:  Mongolia is +8 hours ahead of UTC/GMT
    Language:  Mongolian (official)
    Currency:  Tögrög
    Highest Mountain:  Hüiten Peak
    Highest Mountain Elevation:  4,374 m / 14,350 ft
    Three equal vertical bands of red (left), blue (centre) and red (right), with the “soyombo” national emblem centred over the left-hand red band. Red symbolises progress and prosperity; blue symbolises the sky; the “soyombo” emblem symbolises fire, sun, moon, earth, water, peace and balance.