Mongolia Country Profile

‘From the air Mongolia looks like God’s preliminary sketch for earth, not so much a country as the ingredients out of which countries are made: grass, rock, water and wind.’

(Stanley Stewart, In the Empire of Genghis Khan)

Mongolia in the 21st Century is a country of contrasts. A vigorous new democracy surrounded by timeless landscapes.

Modern issues include land degradation, mineral extraction, the impact of climate change and social inequality. As with elsewhere in the world, the younger generation are moving away from the more traditional lifestyle.

However, it is an exciting country to visit. Ulaanbaatar with its frontier energy where the affluent urbanites embrace consumerism and capitalism. One of the last surviving nomadic cultures with herders that still move with the seasons and whose attitude is still profoundly connected with the great open spaces, the sacred landscapes, with nature and the elements.

‘From the air, Mongolia looks like God’s preliminary sketch for earth, not so much a country as the ingredients out of which a country is made – rock, grass, water and wind.’

Stanley Stewart – In the Empire of Genghis Khan

The 3rd millionth citizen was born on January 24th 2015. Mongolia is said to be the least densely populated independent country in the world – with an average of 1.7 people per square kilometres. (The population density of Ulaanbaatar is 245 people per square kilometre – 2010 Census). The land mass is the size of Western Europe – all 1.56 million sq km of it.

Mongolia has an average elevation of 1,580 metres above sea level (over eighty percent of the country lies above 1000m). The whole area was lifted to very high levels by successive geological upheavals and as a result is a deeply eroded mountainous country, with snowcapped mountain ranges, forested slopes, open-high plateau steppe land, rolling into semi-desert and cold, sandy desert in the extreme south.

Chinggis Khan

‘Until the 20th century there was never a ‘Mongolia’ whose boundaries were fixed and accepted.’

Charles Bawden, The Modern History of Mongolia

Chinggis Khan, together with his sons and grandsons conquered the most densely populated civilisations of the thirteenth century. At its zenith, the empire covered between 11 and 12 million contiguous square miles.

Since earliest times tribes moved across the great Central Asian plains – a fluid changeable nomadic society. Prior to the Mongols, two other main waves of nomadic tribes rode their horses across Mongolian Plateau to challenge the world, each producing its own distinctive influence – the Huns and the Turks.

A combination of shamanistic and Buddhist belief remains to this day as an easy and unselfconscious part of Mongolian life. The main religion is Lamaism, which is the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Until the 16th century, shamanism was the dominant religion in Mongolia.

Paralleling the Stalinist period in the Soviet Union, communists held massive religious purges in the 1930s. More than 700 monasteries were destroyed and thousands of monks were killed.

In the post-socialist period, Buddhism is experiencing a resurgence and young people are again learning Buddhist practices from their elders who still remember them from their own childhoods. A percentage of the population are Christian and Muslim.

Mongolian herders typically refer to their livestock as mal or tavan khoshuu mal (Five Snouts) and themselves as malchin (herders).

There are roughly just over 207,000 households in Mongolia who are dependent on livestock for their living or to supplement their income. 146,000 of these are specifically herder households spread throughout the immensity that is Mongolia.

In 2013, the 45 million livestock population was made up of 322 thousand camels, 2,620,000 horses, 2,908,000 cattle/yaks, 20 million plus sheep and over 19 million goats. In 2017, there were up to 80 million head of livestock.

Traditionally herders have grazed animals by rotating animals over shared pasture according to the seasons. Depending on the characteristics of the environment and the climate, some pastoralists will move hundreds of miles while others only move short distances. Similarly, in some areas or during certain years, herders may make frequent moves in a year, whereas in other areas they may move just a few times.

The majority of the population of Mongolia are Khalkha Mongols, but there are minority groups.

There include the Kazakhs, Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority group with approximately 100,000 living in the provinces of western Mongolia. Roughly 80 families are eagle hunters – hunting with eagles (‘berkutchi’) is a form of falconry traditionally found throughout the Eurasian steppe.

Another ethnic group are the Tsaatan – a community of nomadic reindeer herders who live in the several thousand square kilometre habitat classified as taiga in the Tsagaan Nuur region of northern-most Mongolia. Ethnically, the community identifies as Dukha, but their lifestyle as reindeer herders earned them the Mongolian name Tsaatan, which means roughly ‘with reindeer’.

The area is also home to another of Mongolia’s ethnic groups – the Darkhad who make their home in the Darkhad Depression.

Western Mongolia

Western Mongolia is dominated by the Mongol Altai Mountains. This major mountain chain is Mongolia’s highest – where summits reach 4000m plus and are covered with permanent snow, ice and glaciers. For me, within this incredible region of cold permanently glaciated peaks, alpine lakes and hidden valleys you feel as if time is standing still – these vast and timeless landscapes will make you think and reconsider your priorities.

Provinces and Place Names Include:


Uvs, Khovd, Bayan-Olgii, Zavkhan

Place Names:

Tavan Bogd National Park, Kharkhira Mountains, Tarvagatai Uul National Park, Tsambagarav Uul National Park

The Gobi

Provinces and Place Names Include:

Provinces: Dundgobi, Omnogobi, Dorngobi, Bayankhongor, Gobi-Altai

Place Names: Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Tsagaan Suvraga, Gobi Gurvan Saikhan,

Bayanzag, Khogoryn Els

The Gobi occupies much of southern Mongolia and north-eastern China – it is a mid-latitude desert, covering an area of roughly 500,000 square miles (making it the 5th largest in the world).

  • The Mongolians say that in the Gobi there are are 33 types of desert – from rocky massifs to flat pavement-like areas of super-arid desert, from poplar-fringed oases to outwash plains and areas of sand dunes.
  • The Gobi is a rain shadow desert formed by the Himalaya range blocking rain-carrying clouds from reaching the Gobi from the Indian Ocean.
  • The soil in the Gobi is not necessarily barren – it is only made so by the lack of rain. With moisture, the Gobi blooms – it becomes a green desert.
  • The Gobi provides a lesson in the changing nature of Earth’s environment. Eighty million years ago (the Late Cretaceous Period), it was a landscape of open grasslands – a savannah type landscape where dinosaurs dominated. Gobi fossils include species that bridge the transition between the age of the dinosaurs and the age of mammals.

Eastern Landscapes

The vast far eastern landscapes of Mongolia are characterised by flat treeless plains, rolling hills and a significant number of important wetlands – the eastern steppe is also home to one of the world’s last great populations of the White Tailed Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa). The north-east is dominated by the history of Chinggis Khan and the Khan Khentii Mountains, stretching to the northern border with Siberia. The Secret History of the Mongols states that Chinggis Khan was born in Khentii Province at the headwaters of the Onon and Kherlen rivers, near the border of modern Mongolia and Siberia. According to the legend written in the Secret History the Mongols originated in the mountain forest when a Blue-Grey Wolf mated with a Red Doe.

Provinces and Place Names Include:


Khentii, Dornod, Sukhbaatar

P lace Names:

Khan Khentii Mountains, Dadal, Toson Khulstai Nature

Reserve, Shiliin Bogd Mountain

Central Mongolia

The diversity of the terrain of central Mongolia leads to an incredible wealth of natural beauty and wildlife and a strong nomadic culture. Also, the Orkhon Valley UNESCO World Heritage Site provides a rare slice of tangible Mongolian history. Spending time here allows you to touch base with the epic history of this country including visiting Kharkhorin – known as Karakorum, the ancient capital of Ogodei Khan and the home to Mongolia’s oldest monastery – Erdene Zuu. Central Mongolia is also dominated by the glorious Khangai Mountains which form a stunning wild backdrop to the region.

Provinces and Place Names Include:


Tov, Arkhangai, Ovorkhangai,

Place Names: Khustain Nuruu National Park, Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Khogno

Khan Nature Reserve, Ogii Nuur, Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Kharkhorin,

Tsetserleg, Ulaan Tustgalan, Naiman Nuur

Northern Mongolia

For me, northern Mongolia is not just the highlights listed in the guidebooks such as Lake Khovsgol but also the quieter places inbetween that make this region so special – the ancient deer stones, meadows of wild alpine flowers, winding rivers, volcanic landscapes. Not only is it rich in biodiversity but rich in culture as well. The several thousand square kilometre habitat classified as taiga in the Tsagaan Nuur region forms the northern-most tip of Mongolia and provides the home range for the world’s southern-most indigenous reindeer population.

Provinces and Place Names Include:


Selenge, Khovsgol, Bulgan

Place Names:

Amarbayasgalant Monastery, Selenge River, Khovsgol Nuur, Darkhad Depression

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