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Mongolia is a land of vast open spaces and otherworldly grandeur. The nation’s nomadic peoples have been crossing back and forth across the steppes for thousands of years, invariably accompanied by processions of yaks, horses, and herds of livestock. Mongolian culture is both ancient and fabled, the Empire of Genghis Khan as yet unmatched as the largest land empire in the history of the world.
Mongolia is one of the oldest inhabited spaces on earth. Extremely ancient pre-human homo erectus fossil remains have been excavated in the country, along with stone age settlements pre-dating horse-riding nomadism. For many millennia, the region was dominated by warring tribal factions, until eventually, a succession of empires arose, starting with the Xiongnu empire. Also known as the Hun, they perturbed the Chinese so much that they were forced to build the Great Wall of China to keep them out. In 1206, during the time of Genghis Khan, the Mongol hordes rose to dominance once again, ransacking Europe as far as Poland. Under Kublai Khan, the Mongolian Empire reached east as far as the Korean peninsula, before finally fragmenting, over a protracted period, into warring tribal factions.Read more
Today, Mongolia is a sparsely inhabited, highly mystical setting. Buddhist monasteries, stupas, monuments, and prayer flags punctuate the landscape, known as ‘The Land of Blue Skies’ . To the south, the arid expanse of the Gobi Desert sweep across the border with China, a terrain best suited to hardy camels. To the north and west, across the border with Russia, the land rises to steppe, hills, and rugged valleys, eventually climbing to mountain ranges and glacial lakes, highly inhospitable country in winter.
Shamanism is alive and well among Mongolia’s nomads, who regard the natural world around them – the sky, peaks, rivers, lakes, clouds, rain, and snow – to be alive and communicable. The river Tuul, one of the longest rivers in the country, is particularly revered by them, as is Hovsgol Nuur, one of the highest freshwater lakes in Asia. Rituals, songs, chanting, and herbs continue to play a role in traditional medicine, whilst horse-riding and equestrian skills – including spirited horse-races that thunder for miles across the open countryside - are the foundation of Mongolian cultural identity. Wrestling and archery, too, are particularly celebrated as ‘manly sports’, especially during the festival of Naadam in Summer.Â
Mongolia became independent in 1924 and allied itself with the USSR to avoid falling under Chinese control. In 1990, following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, democratic elections were held for the first time in its history. Recently, since an ideological shift to free market economics, Mongolia has begun to exploit its prodigious mineral resources. It remains an impoverished place, rapidly polarising, some 20% of its population living on less than US$1.25 / day.
Places of interest in Mongolia
Larger than the area of Switzerland, the Gobi Desert lies in the southern part of Mongolia and crosses the border...
Contrasting with the deep solitude of the sparsely inhabited Mongolian countryside, the capital city of Ulaanbaatar...
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