In 1866, a volume was discovered in Beijing’s Imperial Palace Archives, believed to be written by a member of Chinggis Khaan’s clan. The Secret History of the Mongols documents the life of the most extraordinary military strategist the world has ever seen, who amassed the largest land empire in known history.
Its publication made Chinggis Khaan (also known as Genghis Khan, although this new spelling reflects how it has always been pronounced in Mongolian) known around the world; he still evokes an image of indomitable might, and remains synonymous with the country he ruled 800 years ago. “If people know nothing about Mongolia, they still know Chinggis Khaan,” said my guide for the week, Khaliun Dashtumur (whom I called “Hali”). “It’s a point of pride for us. We conquered half the world.”
Last year, an elegant new museum dedicated to him, and to the history of the Mongols, opened in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Shortly before its completion, the country inaugurated the $650 million Chinggis Khaan International Airport, built a superhighway connecting it to the city, and dropped most visa requirements for Western visitors. Having shed its Chinese overlords in 1921, and, in 1990, the Soviet ones that followed, Mongolia—a representative democracy eternally sandwiched between these two formidable powers—is now wide open to the world.
Drinking with Goats
The country is purchasing more aircraft, and there will soon be a direct route from San Francisco to Ulaanbaatar. But, for now, flights are limited and can be somewhat unreliable. Remoteness, adventure, and cultural richness are precisely the qualities that burnish Mongolia’s allure. As an advocate for growing the country’s tourism industry, businessman and philanthropist Jalsa Urubshurow was decades ahead of the curve. A Kalmuck (ethnic Mongolian Buddhists who were repeatedly forced from their lands), his family was re-settled in New Jersey after World War II. Born there in 1955, he went on to found Nomad Framing, one of the largest home-construction companies in the United States. In the immediate post-Communist era, he created Nomadic Expeditions, and geared it toward introducing travelers to the country of his heritage. “I’m American, but I’m also Mongolian, and I really wanted to share Mongolia with the world,” he says.
We were sitting on the porch of Three Camel Lodge, his property in the Gobi Desert in Outer Mongolia, 400 miles from Ulaanbaatar. I was entranced by the flock of cashmere goats drinking at the well that Urubshurow preserved and expanded. Smallish, muscular Mongolian horses trotted east, painting a dark line on the horizon. Located near snow-leopard habitats, glacier-slicked valleys, fossil-rich canyons, and rippling dunes, the lodge delivers the sensation of being at the farthest end of the earth.
The bartender blended a cocktail of local vodka and sea-buckthorn juice. (The berries thrive in Mongolia’s harsh, landlocked soil.) “I’m from Jersey, so I had to build a great bar,” says Urubshurow with a laugh. It’s an elegant, saloon-like structure, built of stone from nearby Havtsgait Mountain and larch wood from Mongolia’s Siberian borderlands.
A well-stocked canteen is just one of many surprises at Three Camel Lodge. The talented Mongolian chef, Munkhtsetseg Nasanbat, was trained by a cousin of Urubshurow’s who worked at the Four Seasons and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York. The guest rooms are individual, traditional gers (the Mongolian term for a yurt) lashed together with camel leather and clad with canvas and sheep’s felt, and the king-size bed is draped in fine-cotton sheets. “We were glamping before anyone knew what the term was,” says Urubshurow.
But the ultimate luxury here is the warm, attentive service and the unexpected, mind-clearing pleasures of the landscape. They can be found in deep-blue skies over the Central Asian steppe, the rapid shift from light to dark at nightfall, and watching herds of sheep from the veranda over a superb cup of coffee. “It can really have an impact,” Urubshurow tells me. “You can’t get this anywhere else on earth.”
Impact now goes both ways. Three Camel Lodge is a member of the Beyond Green portfolio, an ecologically progressive hotel group that pledges to turn buzzwords into accountable practices. The organization aims for experiences that have positive environmental, social, and economic repercussions on communities—travel that gives rather than takes, while also adhering to more than 50 indicators that align with global sustainable-tourism standards and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
“We were glamping before anyone knew what the term was.”
One of the many benefits is reflected in the lodge’s hiring and training of mostly local staff: a majority comes from the South Gobi province. Many of the employees are from nomadic families, including general manager Buya Munkhbayar, who is just 31.
On the Road, Again
In Mongolia, 30 percent of the population is nomadic; it is one of the world’s most resilient cultures. “In most destinations, there is a historic aspect to how the Indigenous people lived. Here, it’s a living culture,” explains Mongolian-born Undraa Buyannemekh, president of Nomadic Expeditions and Three Camel Lodge. When she was earning her master’s in international relations, at California State University in Sacramento, she spent summers with her herding family back home.
My days sped by in a flurry of outings and meals in the large, orange dining ger. Urubshurow chose this building site for many reasons, including the volcanic outcrop it abuts, which offers boundless views of sunrises and sunsets. There is also a dizzying scope of landscapes and historical sites nearby—the Gobi’s 500,000 square miles contain 33 separate geological zones.
One morning, we hiked the Yolyn Am Valley as white lammergeier vultures flew overhead. The air was scented with wild juniper and mint, and cows grazed along the gorge, where there was a cool running stream. Mongolia is in a state of long-term drought, punctuated by calamitous rainstorms in the summertime. “Some of the animals in the desert look so tired from thirst,” says Hali Dashtumur, who is also a geneticist.
In Khaan’s cavalry, Mongolian horses were considered superlative. But I skipped the ritual of riding one; instead, I pedaled a bicycle into a sandstorm and a well-behaved herd of goats. Later, I took a camel trek along the sharply peaked Moltsog Els dunes. The animals were owned by Buyankhuu Bataa, a nomad and herder, whose family welcomed us into their ger, serving tea and cubes of fried dough before leading us across the sand. My blonde ride, a female of a certain age, was shedding her winter hair.
It was good fortune to be in Mongolia during Naadam, an annual festival of Mongolian cultural tradition that takes place all over the country. To participate, we drove an hour to the small town of Bulgan to witness competitions in wrestling, archery, and horse racing. It is believed that Khaan valued expertise in these physical pursuits for his warriors.
Today, the jockeys on horseback are as young as eight years old. The course was nine and a half miles long, and the tiny children (both girls and boys) seemed to hover weightlessly over their horses, thundering across the finish line. Under the blistering sun, I sipped a drop of airag, fermented mare’s milk, also a Naadam tradition. I was told its health benefits outweigh the drink’s bitter taste.
With Dashtumur, we scaled a ridge to a windblown hilltop to see Bronze Age petroglyphs carved into flat basalt surfaces: gazelles, ibex, camels, rams, always horses. Then it was on to the Flaming Cliffs, the location of a 1923 paleontological expedition with New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where the first dinosaur eggs—the Protoceratops—were unearthed. Its leader, Roy Chapman Andrews, is thought to have been the inspiration for Indiana Jones. As Chapman’s crew did, we encountered a sandstorm that whipped up and stopped us cold. Respect for the vicissitudes of nature comes with this barren territory, and Mongolia’s nomads have understood this for millennia.
The morning of my departure, my flight from the regional airport at Dalanzadgad was canceled. In travel, adversity brings opportunity, so we drove nine hours across the desert to Ulaanbaatar. Finally, it rained, which turned the dirt roads into mud. Vista after vista, the land’s raw beauty unfolded as the Toyota S.U.V. wound between herds of camels and horses. Packed, stony earth turned into mountain steppe, and then into lush fields that recalled my New England home, and, finally, into capital-city traffic.
Mongolia’s recent catastrophic floods and unpaved roads suggest that the country’s infrastructure may struggle to keep pace with its ambitions. Flight disruptions meant an extra-long trip home, and the persistent rain didn’t help. I confess, I was in a foul mood.
But once I was rerouted through Seoul, and left Ulaanbaatar, I softened. “You make a commitment to come here,” Buyannemekh told me at Three Camel Lodge. “It’s not like hopping a plane to Paris.” And that is why I will return. When the memory of the canceled flight fades, it is the indelible sense of the place that will endure.
This story was produced with assistance from Beyond Green, Three Camel Lodge, and MIAT Mongolian Airlines
Marcia DeSanctis is a contributing writer at Travel + Leisure and writes essays and stories for Vogue, Town & Country, Departures, and BBC Travel. Her new book, a collection of travel essays called A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life, is out now