There are few 'last frontiers' left in the world of tourism, but Mongolia is certainly among them. With Alter do Chão now a stop for cruise ships and Bhutan almost mainstream, where is an global adventurer to go? Try Mongolia. There is plenty of room to roam. A big country with a tiny population, Mongolia is one of the least densely populated nations in the world. Comparing to Australia, Mongolia is roughly one-quarter the size but has only one-tenth the population.
What Mongolia does have a lot of is extraordinary scenery serving as a backdrop to its fascinating cultures. Except on the busy roads of the capital, Ulaan Baatar, a sense of space is omnipresent as mountains rise to touch sunny blue skies across much of the country. The landscapes are unlike those anywhere else in the world, as are the people.
Most of the rest of the world knows very little about Mongolia. The country's inhabitants are as unique as their landscapes. Staunchly self-reliant yet kind toward strangers, Mongolians embody their culture's spirit of independence proudly. Existing as they do between Russia and China, two of the world's biggest countries, Mongolians remind themselves that, at one time, it was they who ruled much of the known world back in the days of Gengis Khan, known in Mongolia as Chinggis Khaan.
Mongolia is now on the rise economically thanks to a mining boom. The national capital, Ulaan Baatar, is growing into a busy city, and the current international airport is slated to be replaced by a much larger facility as business and leisure air travel, both domestic and international, grows along with the country.
Ulaan Baatar has several places of interest that provide insight into the national psyche. Museums such as the Choijin Lama Temple Museum and the Museum of Natural History present more formal displays that contrast with the playful Museum of Puzzles, a surprisingly engrossing establishment where hours can be spent figuring out "How did they do that?"
Beyond the capital, Mongolia comes into its own. The nomadic lifestyle is still very real; there are ample opportunities for visiting local people in their homes, giving city dwellers a fascinating glimpse of a traditional way of life that continues for the most part unaltered from tradition.
MIAT Mongolian Airlines is Mongolia's aerial lifeline to the outside world. MIAT's flights from Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong are the main routes used by travellers coming in by air; there are several domestic airlines for getting around within the country. For Australians, MIAT's interline agreement with Cathay Pacific provides easy access to Mongolia from all mainland capital cities via Hong Kong International Airport.
Once on the ground, Juulchin Tourism Corporation can take care of every detail of an itinerary to any part of Mongolia, which sees several annual cultural festivals attracting increasing numbers of international visitors throughout the year. While the famous Naddam Festival held each July is perhaps the best known of Mongolian festivals, others such as the fantastic Golden Eagle Festival in western Bayan-Olgii province are showing up on the radar of savvy travellers looking for something different in their experiences. Hardy souls brave the winter cold to attend the celebrations associated with Tsagaan Sar (Lunar New Year), usually held in late January or early February.
Tomorrow: sightseeing in Ulaan Baatar