Mongolia is a country of rich culture, nomadic people, and beautiful vast landscapes. It only opened up to foreigners recently, and is therefore less influences by the West than many other countries. If you are coming from Russia via the Trans Mongolian railway, you will arrive in the very early morning in the capital Ulaan Bataar. This capital is not the main attraction of Mongolia, and there is only really one thing you should see before you leave to go explore the rural parts of the country: the Gandantegchenling Monastery (try saying that three times in a row!). This is home to 150 Buddhist monks, as well as some impressive statues. As you enter the gates, you can either turn right and follow the wall around the compound and see all the smaller temples right away, or you can follow the boulevard and go straight to the largest temple; inside this, you will find a 26 m tall statue of Buddha. Inside this statue is a traditional Mongolia Ger (a tent), furniture, and thousands of prayer notes. You have to pay a donation to take pictures, but you are free to move around the statue while turning the many gold prayer wheels that surround it.
If you would like to go to lunch in Ulaan Bataar, go to Genghis Khan Square and find the road next to it called Amaryn Gudamj. At the end of this street, there is a small discreet sign with two kids eating dumplings above a restaurant that serves some of the best warm noodle soups and traditional dumplings in the capital. The atmosphere is not overly warm, and the staff do not speak English, but the food is worth it. Point to the Buuz on the menu – that means dumplings – and go up to the counter to get a cup of warm Mongolian salted milk tea.
Once you have finished lunch, it is tie to leave the chaotic capital! Get a cramped mini bus to the city of Zuunmod, approximately an hour from the capital. Once you get to this city, tell one of the waiting taxis you would like to go to the Mansjuri Monastery. This lies in the oldest national park in the world. It is an old temple, that was somewhat destroyed when the Soviet Union tried to get rid of religion in 1937. But the Soviets overlooked a temple, and did not realize the full extent of the Buddhist drawings and messages on the mountain behind the temple. Explore these, by going to the right behind the ruins of the old temples – there you will see three small caves on the mountainside, which each contain a large painting and many offerings. Although there is a lot of money on the floors of these caves, these are offerings by the locals to the Gods and it is deeply offensive to touch it. If possible, spend a few nights in the Ger camp, next to the Buddhist temple ruins and go hiking each day. There are two camps, one of which has a restaurant, yet you should make sure to call ahead to ensure that they are open and you need to bring food in case they are closed unexpectedly. It is also advisable to bring matchsticks to light fires inside the stove in the Ger tents, as this will be your only source of heating.
Mongolia is a country of beautiful varied landscapes, and if you have more time, go to one of the many national parks around the country to explore vast dessert, mountains, reindeers, camels, and more stars at nighttime than you knew existed!
Image 1: http://www.mongols.eu/monasteries-in-ulaanbaatar/
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Togchin_temple_ruins_-_Zuunmod_(Mongolia).jpg