Magical, Mystical Mongolia: 10 Things to Know

January 29, 2020 Updated: January 29, 2020
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Genghis Khan. That’s about the only connection most people make when they hear of Mongolia. But I knew there had to be more to the country that just that, and I wanted to see for myself.

What follows are 10 fascinating things I discovered about Mongolia during my visit.

Ulaanbaatar
A view of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. (saiko3p/Shutterstock)

1. The Capital Is Ulaanbaatar

It’s pronounced: Ooohh Laaaan Bahhh Tour. It was a quick 1.5-hour plane ride from Beijing, China. At first, I was surprised to see how developed the city was, with large skyscrapers, a Subway restaurant, and a distinctly modern vibe. However, when I learned that 45 percent of Mongolia’s entire population lives there, it made a lot more sense.

I was as equally taken aback by the beauty of the people. The Mongolians seem a perfect mix of Chinese and Eastern European facial features, often with high, bubbly, and truly adorable cheekbones. I spoke to a number of foreigners in the capital, and most are in the mining business, which accounts for 80 percent of Mongolia’s exports. My most memorable adventure in the big city was a trip to the local bookstore at the multi-story shopping mall, where I bought my first “Learn Mongolian” textbook.

Statue of Genghis Khan
Statue of Genghis Khan, Ulaanbaatar. (Maykova Galina/Shutterstock)

2. Mongolian Uses Cyrillic

While Genghis Khan implemented the Uyghur script as Mongolia’s alphabet, under Russian influence in the 1940s, the country used Latin (no joke) for a short period and then transitioned to the Cyrillic alphabet. Today, the country uses what’s known as Mongolian Cyrillic, which is virtually the same as the Russian alphabet with the addition of a couple of letters.

3. A Long History With China

Aside from a short history with Russia during the Cold War period, Mongolia also has a long history with its neighbor to the south. Was China once part of Mongolia, or was Mongolia once part of China? The best answer, I think, is both. Although Ghenghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire, it was his grandson, Kublai Khan (of Marco Polo fame), who conquered China in 1279 to establish the Yuan Dynasty. So the Mongols ruled China for about 100 years—until they were kicked out. However, in the 1500s, the tables turned as Tibetan Buddhism began to spread to Mongolia. Soon, the Qing Dynasty in turn absorbed Mongolia, which became a part of China for about 200 years. Finally, in 1911, Mongolia established independence from China. However, the Buddhist influences remain, even to this day.

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A lone horse back rider, riding through a vast Mongolian landscape. (Max Power Photo/Shutterstock)

4. More Than Half of the Population Is Buddhist

So strong was the Tibetan Buddhist influence on Mongolia that today, a majority of the 3 million population is Buddhist. The rest of the population is mostly non-religious, with a spattering of people who follow other religions.

5. There’s a Huge Rock Shaped Like a Turtle

In Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, also referred to as the Terelj tourist district, there’s a big turtle. A huge turtle. All made of rock. And apparently, completely forged by Mother Nature. It’s a sight to see. It’s 79 feet high, and yes, it looks exactly like a big, lazy turtle, walking across the plains. The turtle, as well as Terelj’s natural beauty, is an hour’s ride from the city. I took a cab, for the express purpose of finding the riding stables that I heard were nearby.

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The Aryabal Temple in Terelj National Park. (RPBaiao/Shutterstock)

6. Mongolia Reminded Me of a Marriage Between Switzerland and Iraq

While in the cab heading to Terelj, I couldn’t help but think of my time living in Switzerland and also my time with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Switzerland had the rolling hills, big mountains, beautiful rivers, and lots of cows. Iraq had sprawling deserts, fascinating architecture, and lots of sheep. Well, put that together, and you have Mongolia, a truly beautiful sight to see. It’s also home to one of the oldest remaining nomadic cultures in the world. As I was pondering all this, suddenly I saw it: the turtle! And nearby, horses!

7. Yes, You Can Gallop Across the Mongolian Plains

After you’ve found the turtle, if you’re eager to feel what it was like to be an ancient Mongolian warrior, you can go on a horseback ride adventure across some plains and into the woods, and pass a Buddhist temple up on a mountain as well, all on the back of a Mongolian steed. It’s a memorable adventure, and worth the one-hour cab ride there to Terelj. You can even have lunch in a yurt.

8. Yurts Stand Next to Skyscrapers

Just to be clear, yurts look nothing like skyscrapers. They just like to hang out together in Mongolia. You see, yurts are the Mongolian version of tents, and they remain one of the mainstays of the Mongolians’ historically nomadic way of life. On your way to Terelj, you’ll see many of them along the side of the road, in clusters of 20 or 30 at a time, maybe more. However, curiously, you’ll also see them in Ulaanbaatar—right next to modern skyscrapers. Why? While there is a push in the city to become more modern, there is still a strong connection to the historical past. Further, as you can imagine, those who live in yurts aren’t likely to be able to afford to live in a skyscraper. Housing is one of the issues the city has been facing in recent years.

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Turtle Rock, Gorkhi Terelj National Park. (wonderlustpicstravel/Shutterstock)

9. Mongolia Holds Some World Records

The most curious fact about Mongolia is that it has a huge landmass, but is sparsely populated. In fact, it is the world’s most sparsely populated sovereign state in the world. All of Mongolia has a population of just 3 million (about a third of the population of New York City) and yet, it has the landmass of all of Western and Eastern Europe combined. This makes Mongolia the 18th-largest country by landmass and the world’s second-largest landlocked country behind Kazakhstan.

10. Americans Don’t Need a Visa

Back in 2014, there were only a handful of countries that had such “no visa” arrangements with Mongolia. Today, there are about 20. If you’re an American, or a passport holder of one of these 20 “no-visa-needed” countries, you can just get on a plane and go to Mongolia.

And yes, you should go to Mongolia. I absolutely plan to visit again in the future. If you’re in Asia, make sure you add Mongolia to your itinerary, and if you have time, also check out the Gobi Desert, which is yet another of Mongolia’s marvels.

Сайн яваарай! = Have a good trip!

Attorney Monroe Mann, Ph.D., MBA, is the founder of the worldwide not-for-profit friendship community BreakDiving.io. He’s the author of “Successful New Year,” “Time Zen,” and “T.R.U.S.T.” He travels, codes, and studies languages. For more info, see MonroeMann.com and Youtube.com/monroemann