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Remote Mongolia is attracting millennials

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                                Nomadic homes called “gers” sit near the Elsen Tasarkhai in Mongolia, a long stretch of sand known as the mini Gobi Desert.


    Nomadic homes called “gers” sit near the Elsen Tasarkhai in Mongolia, a long stretch of sand known as the mini Gobi Desert.

                                Chuluut Gorge is a popular stop for Mongolians on road trips across the country, and now tourists, too. A growing number of young people are preferring less curated travel experiences, so why not Mongolia?


    Chuluut Gorge is a popular stop for Mongolians on road trips across the country, and now tourists, too. A growing number of young people are preferring less curated travel experiences, so why not Mongolia?

It was near midnight, in a storm, on a dirt road in the middle of Mongolia. Still, the river seemed manageable.

My cousin Cole Paullin and I were searching for a place to camp, and I was exhausted from a long day of fording streams in our rented four-by-four truck.

“Seems fine,” I said. “Go for it.”

Cole accelerated, and the front tires plunged off an unseen embankment, slamming onto the rocks below. We were perched at a precarious angle, and the front half of the truck was submerged. Water intruded through a crack in the door, lapping onto my feet. I imagined our rental deposit draining downstream.

Drawn by the noise, two young men came over from a nearby tent camp. One waded toward the car into the waist-deep water with a message typed on Google Translate: “This is dangerous.” I was too embarrassed to be scared.

I lent him my rain jacket as he made some calls. Thankfully, there was cellular service. Within an hour a man with a truck and a tow strap arrived. We reversed at full speed while he accelerated, extricating us from the river.

“That was Disneyland, dude,” said Cole, 27, channeling the slang of his native Los Angeles. “What a ride.”

Cole and I live on different continents — he’s in Philadelphia and I’m in London — but once a year we convene somewhere new for an outdoors trip. This year we decided to take a weeklong drive across Mongolia.

Over the past decade, millennials like me — those born between roughly 1981 and 1996 — have been seeking out remote places like Mongolia, while other tourists crowd Santorini, the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum. It may be a reaction to a world that’s increasingly condensed into our phones, where the same few destinations pop up again and again on Instagram grids and travel blogs. What we have gained in accessibility, we have lost in serendipity.

The Mongolian government has been trying to capitalize on this desire for less curated travel. It has invested in a digital marketing campaign targeting people ages 23 to 40. It has also invited social media influencers to come to Mongolia and post videos of the country’s verdant valleys, Caribbean-blue lakes and orange sand dunes. According to a 2019 survey cited by Mongolia’s tourism ministry, 49% of visitors to the country were under 40.

Tour operators are catering to this growing interest, helping young people see the Golden Eagle Festival, an annual gathering of nomadic hunters — male and female — and their eagles; join the Mongol Rally, a driving odyssey across Europe and Asia; or ride in the Mongol Derby, a roughly 600-mile horse race.

“The world is getting smaller, and everyone’s looking for the new frontier,” said Sangjay Choegyal, a 36-year-old living on Bali who has visited Mongolia eight times. “The next place is Mongolia.”

For adventure seekers

When Cole and I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, in late July, the line for foreign arrivals crowded the new immigration hall at the airport.

Olivia Hankel, a 25-year-old woman from Oregon, had come to train for the Mongol Derby. Willie Freimuth, a 28-year-old paleontology student from North Carolina, had returned for a second year to study fossils. And Choegyal had flown in with friends for a road trip to the Orkhon Valley, a lush expanse of central Mongolia.

“When you talk about a trip to Mongolia, it always fills up pretty quick,” Choegyal said.

In 2022, Mongolia had nearly 250,000 visitors, more than six times as many as the year before, when the country was emerging from pandemic isolation. The majority of those visitors were from nearby countries, including Russia, South Korea and Kazakhstan. But the number of visitors from Europe and the United States rose more than 500% between 2021 and 2022.

“I think you can have a much more interesting, transformative and engaging experience in a Mongolian outhouse than you can at the Taj Mahal,” said Tom Morgan, founder of the Adventurists, a company that hosts extreme trips in the country. And, he advised, “It’s better not to plan.”

Tent with 4 tires

Cole and I hadn’t planned much. We arrived with only our backpacks and a rental car booking from Sixt — one we weren’t sure was real. Sixt’s Mongolian offices operate by bank transfer, and before we arrived we had sent more than $2,000 to their account. I worried it could be a scam.

We were relieved when we arrived at Sixt and found it had our booking. Then we got the bad news: A previous group had wrecked the SUV we had requested. A 3,000-mile trip on the country’s many dirt tracks had destroyed the bottom of the car. The agent offered us a Russian-made UAZ pickup truck equipped with a rooftop tent. It didn’t have a stereo, and the air conditioning was a faint stream of hot air, but it was sturdy.

We were lucky to get it. Sixt was almost fully booked — as were other providers in the city.

“We sold out three times this season. So we added more dates,” Max Muench, 31, a co-founder of the travel company Follow the Tracks, said. His company, which started running tours in 2022, helps clients book cars and gives them tablets loaded with maps they can use to navigate while offline. “Especially now after COVID, people want to feel a sense of freedom again,” he said. “And they’re looking for it in the vast emptiness of Mongolia.”

Guided by Google Maps

We soon discovered what that emptiness looked like.

Roughly half of the country’s more than 3.2 million people live in the overcrowded capital, a tangle of roads and new high-rises fraying in every direction. But around a quarter of Mongolia remains nomadic, living on the edgeless steppe in “gers,” round tents made of wood, tarp and animal skins or fabric. They move with their herds as many as four times a year.

As we drove out of the city, guided by Google Maps, the sky stretched so wide the horizon seemed to curve. A herd of horses gnawed at the grass, swishing their tails at flies. We were seeking out the herd’s distant relatives as we aimed the truck toward Hustai National Park, a refuge for what the Smithsonian calls the last truly wild horses left in the world.

After nearly an hour on a dirt road, we pulled up to a small, dusty entrance gate. I asked the national park manager, Batzaya Batchuluun, whether visitors ever had a hard time finding the place. “Most people come with a guide. But young people like you are starting to show up on their own,” he said. “They have phones. They get here eventually.”

Mongolia is surprisingly connected. Despite the long stretches between villages, we got cellular internet service on much of our drive (using a Mongolian SIM card). One day as I was watching camels in the desert, I was even able to do something absurd: try my luck with Ticketmaster for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour tickets. (Like so many others, I was disappointed.)

The Mongolian government has been working to expand online access to citizens and tourists. An estimated 84% of the country has access to the internet, and gers often have solar panels, keeping each family’s cellphones charged. The government has also been working to pave the roads from Ulaanbaatar to popular destinations.

Along came a spider

After days of slow, off-road driving, we finally arrived at sparkling blue Khuvsgul Lake — our final destination. We wanted to spend the night in a ger, so we called Erdenesukh Tserendash, a 43-year-old horse herder who goes by the nickname Umbaa. His number was on Facebook.

Umbaa, his wife and two sons welcomed us into one of his family’s tents, lit by bulbs hooked to car batteries. For dinner, the family served boiled sheep and horse meat on a communal tray with carrots and potatoes. After dinner they cracked open the bones and sucked out the marrow, and before bed we sipped tea with yak milk. As I lay there scrolling, in the light of my phone, I noticed something on my face and swatted. It was a spider the size of a quarter.

The next day, Umbaa took us on a full-day horse ride. We cantered across meadows of wildflowers, saw reindeer and climbed a mountain overlooking the lake, lazing in the sun for lunch, an idyllic finale to our journey.

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