Mountains in Mongolia © Honza Soukup
Mongolia is an unlikely tourist destination but one that proves irresistible to lovers of wide-open spaces, untamed wilderness and raw natural beauty. Outside of the capital Ulaanbaatar, where over half the population lives, visitors encounter a land blissfully unaffected by the modern world. It is a journey back in time where nomadic lifestyles are perfectly in tune with the natural rhythms of the landscape, and the people are renowned for their warmth and hospitality.
Mongolia is three times the size of France and twice the size of Texas, yet with under three million people, it is the most sparsely populated country on earth. The main economic activity is livestock tending, although the country's considerable mineral wealth is beginning to be exploited.
Key attractions are the Gobi Desert with its astounding Khongor sand dunes; the varied sights of Gorkhi-Terelj National Park; vast and pristine Khövsgöl Lake near Moron; and Karakorum, former capital of the Mongol Empire and home to Mongolia's most important monastery. From desert steppes to snow-clad mountains, explorers and adventurers come from far and wide to brave Mongolia on horseback and embark on camel trekking, 4X4 excursions, rock climbing expeditions and desert safaris.
Ulaanbaatar itself is more a functional centre with few must-see attractions to speak of. One worthwhile site, however, is the National Museum of History (with an entire floor dedicated to Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire). Under his grandson Kublai Khan, Mongolia became the world's first superpower, spanning from modern-day Korea to Poland and encompassing 22 percent of the globe at its peak. Ulaanbaatar is also the main transport hub for Mongolia, with the only international airport, Chinggis Khaan International Airport, located 12 miles (18km) southwest of the city.
Following almost a century of Soviet domination, Mongolia became a democracy in 1990, but was left with the consequences of the USSR's anti-religious violence. The most destructive consequence of that regime was the systematic eradication of the native Buddhist faith. Over 7,000 monasteries were destroyed, with only four surviving; over 20,000 monks were killed. Today, Buddhism is once again flourishing and people are rejoining the traditions that have sustained them for centuries.