ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia >> I’m a city girl. I did not grow up camping, have never pitched a tent and know nothing of the Girl Scouts beyond Thin Mints or Samoa cookies. Certainly no one would use the words “rugged” or “outdoorsy” to describe me.
So I definitely had a few reservations when my husband suggested a vacation in the wilds of central Mongolia.
My trepidation only grew as I binged on travel reviews bemoaning makeshift bathrooms and swarming insects.
But I ended up loving every minute in Mongolia, a country steeped in history, stunning scenery and welcoming locals. I stepped outside my comfort zone and into the trip of a lifetime. And here’s why you should, too.
Get off the grid
Mongolia, a country of 3 million people slightly smaller than Alaska, is one of the most sparsely populated places in the world.
You can go hours, even days, without seeing another human while traveling through Mongolia’s countryside. Instead, you’ll find a vibrant blue horizon and empty, rolling grasslands dotted with horses, cows, sheep, goats and yaks.
You’ll be forced to unplug as cell service and Wi-Fi is mostly nonexistent outside of the larger cities.
So say goodbye to Facebook rants and traffic jams and say hello to a seemingly endless untouched landscape. Your only roadblock is the occasional cow.
Book a guide
As avid travelers accustomed to DIY adventures, we rarely book tours. But my top tip for this wonderland is to find yourself an expert.
There are few road signs and English is not widely used, so a local guide with knowledge of the routes and language is highly recommended.
You will also need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the mostly unpaved terrain.
Our expert, good-humored guide, Munkh Bileg, whom we hired through Nomadic Discovery, tailored our private tour to our interests and time constraints to maximize our Mongolia experience.
We rode camels across sand dunes and horses at sunset. We met herder families and sampled local cuisine, including fermented mare’s milk and dried curds. Most of our days were spent off-roading over mountains and across rivers, simply soaking in Mongolia’s otherworldly landscape.
>> For the history buff: Erdene Zuu Monastery is in Kharkhorin, on the northern border of Ovorkhangai province. Get your fill of ornate Buddha statues, elaborate wall paintings and artifacts dating back to the 18th century while exploring the three remaining Chinese-style temples at one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia.
>> For the nature lover: The Orkhon waterfall (also called the Ulaan Tsutgalan waterfall) is in Ovorkhangai province, around 75 miles from the town of Kharkhorin. A hike to the edge of this massive, 65-foot waterfall offers stunning views of dark volcanic rock surrounded by a lush valley. Also, be sure to stop by pristine Lake Ogii in the southeastern corner of Arkhangai province. Like most of Mongolia, it felt like we had traveled back to a time before humans, as the only other visitors were a group of horses splashing and lounging about in the calm waters.
>> For a glimpse of desert dunes: Elsen Tasarkhai is a sand strip in Bulgan province. While we didn’t have time to explore Mongolia’s famed Gobi Desert, we made a quick stop at this 50-mile stretch of golden hills for a relaxing tour via camels.
As the sun sets there is little else to do besides stargazing and cozying in your “ger” (pronounced “gare”), a traditional nomad home.
Apparently we were right on trend as an $8,000 version of the circular tent, or yurt, was featured in the holiday gift guide from Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website, Goop.
Our home base was the Tsagaan Sum hot springs and tourist camp in Khoton Soum, Arkhangai province (approximately 280 miles west of Ulaanbaatar).
The hustle and bustle of city life was but a distant memory as we fell asleep to the crackle of a wood-burning stove and woke to the sounds of horses neighing outside our ger.
Good to know
The flies will swarm as soon as you step outside, as will the mosquitoes. So pack bug spray and long-sleeved layers.
Western-style bathrooms are few and far between outside of Ulaanbaatar. Be prepared to cop a squat when nature calls.
Ulaanbaatar is Mongolia’s bustling, traffic-jammed capital city, but tourist attractions are few. Stop by a grocery store to load up on water, snacks and essentials. Then head to the countryside.
Speaking of food, get ready for meat — mostly lamb — and lots of it. Mongolian cuisine is about as “farm to fork” as it gets. Refrigeration in the countryside isn’t common, so your dinner was likely plucked from the pasture that very day.