At a new camp in the steppes of central Mongolia, explore the country's natural wonders on the adventure of a lifetime.

A herd of horses thundered down a slope, through tall grass feathered with golden light. The animals, including the one I was riding, charged across the wide, unbroken steppe of central Mongolia, their tails fanning out and their manes flapping wildly. In the lead was Dashaa Lkhagvajav, who sported the trilby hat commonly worn by herders in Mongolia. He stood up straight in his metal stirrups, his body raised above the traditional wooden saddle, the reins in one hand, riding with ease. At the start of our ride, he had warned me, “Mongolia’s horses are half-wild because they spend most of their time roaming freely across the grasslands. We only occasionally bring them in.” Having successfully rounded the herd up, we all cantered back toward camp. 

My husband, Mark, our two young sons, Archie and Zac, and I were on the southern fringe of Hustai National Park, about 60 miles west of the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. We were there to experience a new camp, Mandala Nomadic, by the travel company Panoramic Journeys. The camp consists of a set of private ger (felt-walled tents), each of which serves a different purpose: there’s the home of the nomadic host family, a kitchen, staff quarters, guest quarters, and a tent for relaxing and socializing. The idea is to provide luxury accommodation (which is limited in Mongolia) in spectacular locations, while teaching visitors about nomadic life and providing the host family with financial support. Mandala’s first site opened in southern Mongolia’s Semi-Gobi Desert in 2018. 

“The name Mandala means ‘a sacred place,’ ” said Temuulen Enkhbold, our guide. “It’s represented in Buddhist artwork by colorful geometric symbols.” (Buddhism is Mongolia’s predominant religion.) 

Nearly half the country’s population remains nomadic, and during our summer visit, we passed families as they migrated to their autumn pastures, some with camel caravans — though these days, most use trucks. Mongolia has many camps that allow travelers to experience the portable domed tents most people live in, but they are often big and shared with other tourists. At Mandala, it was just us. 

As we returned to camp with the horses, we saw Zukar Amankyeldi, the camp butler, who was wearing a turquoise deel, or overcoat, and on her outstretched hands she had draped a khadag — a silk scarf that’s a Mongolian sign of greeting. 

Spreading 1,486 miles from east to west, Mongolia is the world’s second most sparsely populated country. It’s a place where steppe eagles sail the skies, swooping down so close that you can almost touch them, and waves of black and white yaks drift across the land, their long fur swishing like curtains. It’s a place where mare’s milk is fermented into a nutritious, alcoholic drink called airag (it’s sweet and sour and slightly fizzy) and morin khuurs — wooden fiddles that curve up into the form of a horse’s head — are played. 

Horses have a significant role in Mongolia’s culture. From these rippling steppes, Chinggis Khan (a.k.a. Genghis Khan) rode out in the early 13th century to forge the world’s largest contiguous empire, reaching from the Sea of Japan to Vienna. To this day, Mongolians remain fiercely proud of Khan, and his image appears everywhere: the airport is named after him, as is the leading brand of vodka, and we saw statues of him throughout the capital.

When we arrived at Mandala Nomadic, we were shown to our sleeping ger. There were modern upgrades, like a double bed dressed in linen, and an adjoining bathroom ger with a shower and a composting toilet. It had typical décor, including pretty felted-wool rugs and wooden furniture painted in shades of orange, all made by local craftspeople. In the center was a stove, with the chimney rising through the roof. There was also a multipurpose “magic ger,” where we ate our meals and relaxed. This tent contained a record player, traditional games (like shagai, played with the ankle bones of sheep or goats), and an easel with paints and sketchbooks. Meals were a mix of European and Mongolian dishes. We had khuushuur (meat-filled pastries), served steaming hot, and khorkhog, a traditional style of barbecue in which goat is cooked with hot rocks in a sealed metal urn until deliciously tender.

On our first day, we visited the ger of our husband-and-wife hosts, Batmunkh Tserenjav and Jargalzaya Enkhjargal. They laid out a feast for us: bowls of sweets, dried curd, parcels of fried dough, and rich, velvety cream from their cows, which we spread onto hunks of bread. Like all of Mongolia’s nomads, the family migrates seasonally in search of new pasture for their animals, so Mandala Nomadic operates only from June to September. After that it is taken down and stowed in Ulaanbaatar until the next year. The three children had recently left to live at school; most nomadic children board, as the distances are too far to travel daily. “Education is altering nomadic life,” Enkhbold said. “Many youngsters today want jobs in the city.” 

Climate change is also having an impact on the traditional lifestyle. (Ulaanbaatar is one of the globe’s most polluted cities because of its continued reliance on coal.) “The grass is now drier, shorter, and not as green,” Enkhjargal said. “And we have harsher winters.” This is why a portion of the cost of staying at Mandala goes into projects that address the climate emergency. One initiative supports young Mongolian climate campaigners, like Anu-Ujin, an 18-year-old who makes crafts from recycled goods. 

One day, we climbed a mountain behind the camp, walking past tortoiseshell butterflies as they looped over purple alpine asters. At the summit, we watched red deer run up a facing mountainside and gazed down at the valley. The land was unplanted and untended; there were no fences or hedges, barely any trees, and no signposts or road markings. I spotted a scattering of ger, which glowed a brilliant white, like full moons.

After we descended, we found a surprise lunch waiting for us on the bank of the river Tuul. The camp chef, Tuvshinjargal Munkhtsetseg, was barbecuing skewers of beef, chicken, and yellow peppers over hot coals. As we ate, a cascade of cows, goats, and sheep, led by a horseman, poured down over a distant hillside. 

Most travelers to Mongolia do a “circuit tour,” during which they move to a different camp every night. But we were lucky to spend five nights at Mandala Nomadic. Our boys flew colorful kites and practiced two of Mongolia’s most popular national sports, archery and wrestling, with Enkhbold, who showed them how to trip or lift their opponent. 

Hustai National Park, which surrounds the camp, was created in 1998 to preserve Przewalski’s horse, Central Asia’s last surviving wild horse species, as well as to protect other native animals, including Argali sheep, Pallas’s cat, which is around the size of a house cat; and Mongolian gazelles. During our visit, we spied Siberian marmots and heard whirring grasshoppers, and woke at dawn to track wolves.

Much to the thrill of our sons, we spotted a male wolf with the help of Tserenjav (who also works as a park ranger) and watched the animal skulking over a mountain ridge in front of us. “We believe that wolves are our ancestors,” he told us. “These sacred creatures are our totem animals.”

On our last day, we kayaked along the fast-flowing Tuul. Two whooper swans, their necks held out like rods, floated above. Then, suddenly, a herd of at least 30 horses dashed through the water in front of us, creating powerful waves. 

All too soon, it was time to leave. As we drove away from the camp, I glanced back and saw Enkhjargal throw some milk into the sky — a gesture to bless our journey. 

Where to Stay

We spent a night at Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace in Ulaanbaatar, where most visitors begin their trip. Mandala Nomadic is a two-hour drive from the capital. A stay includes exclusive use of the furnished ger, a chef, butler, English-speaking guide, and airport transfers. Panoramic Journeys can organize other experiences throughout the country.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "The Great Wide Open."

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2024-06-25T16:35:53Z dg43tfdfdgfd