With such a big, wide world to explore Mongolia, the least densely populated country on earth, doesn’t often appear on the bucket lists of many people. In fact beyond its capital city, Ulaanbaatar, most folks (myself included until I recently visited) would struggle to name any noteworthy sights. Instead, what probably springs to mind are images of Genghis Khan, the Khangan of the Mongol Empire; who from his birth in 1162 until his death in 1227 somehow managed to establish the largest empire the world has ever seen – somewhere around 11 million square miles. On a recent trip to Mongolia I was therefore pleased to find out that one of Ulaanbaatar’s classic day trip itineraries killed two birds with one stone; the opportunity to visit one of Mongolia’s top tourist destinations outside of the Capital city, Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, in addition to learning more about Mongolia’s most famous son at the Genghis Khan Statue Complex.
Genghis Khan Statue Complex
Located about 55km outside Ulaanbaatar the Genghis Khan Statue Complex was our first stop of the day. The 132-ft tall equestrian statue which is, as we were repeatedly reminded, the largest in the World (as if there’s a long list of gigantic equestrian statues to choose from) came into view from miles away – its giant stainless-steel metallic frame glinting in the sun. Put simply, this isn’t your average ‘man on horse’ statue – seeing as it cost $4.1 million to build and consists of 250 tons of steel I guess it needs to have a certain gravitas.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking; why on earth has the Government of Mongolia sanctioned the construction of a statue that honors a brutal dictator most commonly identified in the western hemisphere as a man who massacred civilian populations and led a horde of savages that terrorized half the world? Well, you see, in Mongolia Mr. Khan (better known as Chinggis Khan, which in Mongolian translates as ‘Universal Ruler’) is a hero; a man who established an empire and whose name and image now adorn everything in Mongolia from Vodka (Chinggis Khan Platinum is the best vodka I’ve ever tasted) to the National Square to packets of cigarettes. Of course, all of this becomes rather amusing when you consider that the man himself never permitted the use of his image in portraits, sculptures or currency. I mean, if you didn’t fancy your face on a tiny coin then how would you feel about being the focal point of a 132ft high world record-breaking statue?
Anyhow, I digress. The statue (and the world’s largest leather boot, which is located in the base of the statue) is now a focal point of tourism in Mongolia and is an absolute must for anyone visiting Ulaanbaatar. Legend has it that its location is the very spot where Chinggis found a golden whip (how true that is we obviously don’t know). Today, in addition to the statue itself, the complex is home to a museum which outlines the history of the Mongol Empire, a small café and, as you would expect, a gift shop. If you’re feeling particularly touristy on the day you visit then you can also opt to dress up as a Mongol warrior and sit in a fake yurt (known locally as a ‘ger’) to have embarrassing pictures taken. I have no doubt that you will later regret said photos when future employers find them on Facebook, but ‘each to their own’. Make sure you take the lift (or the stairs if you’re feeling energetic) to the head of the horse for great views of Chinggis’ face and the surrounding countryside.
Other the statue itself the surrounding complex is somewhat still under construction at the time of writing. However, there are a number of gers where you can stay overnight and a small collection of Mongol Warrior statues (much much smaller than Chinggis, obviously) that are worthy of a photo op. At the base of the statue you’ll also find some photo opportunities with the resident birds of prey and their handlers. Located 1km (walkable) up the road you might also spot the statue of Hoelun, Chinggis’ mother; a much less frequented site!
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
The second half of our day took us 30 minutes up the road to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which happens to be one of Mongolia’s most visited national parks (most probably because it’s the closest to Ulaanbaatar and locals head there over the weekends to escape the pollution). If you live in the US and watch ‘Amazing Race’ then you might remember that the park featured in series ten when contestants drove soviet-era military jeeps (although given the series aired in 2006 you might not remember it)!
If you’re looking for the opportunity to escape the city traffic, engage in a light spot of wilderness hiking (there are no formal hiking trails) and get back to nature in some stunning surroundings, then Gorkhi-Terelj is definitely the place to do it. So, what might you want to see and do whilst in the Southern portion of the park (the only part really accessible on a day trip or long-weekend):
Aryaval Monastery & Meditation center: Opened in 2006, the Monastery and Meditation center sits about 10km up the road from Turtle Rock (see below) with the main temple being dedicated to Kalachakra philosophy, or the ”wheel of time”. Seeing as there are many older and, frankly, more culturally significant monasteries in Mongolia (including in Ulaanbaatar) the real highlight of a visit to Aryaval is actually is prominent position sitting high up above the valley. This provides fantastic views on a clear day and a great photo opportunity. Of course, this also means that there’s a fair old hike up hundreds of steps and across a small suspension bridge to reach it…but it’s well worth the effort!
Turtle Rock: Before I arrived in Gorkhi-Terelj people had kept mentioning Turtle Rock. I’d also noticed that every single itinerary I’d seen to the park included a stop there. I therefore expected something magnificent. Let’s just say that I was a little underwhelmed. In fairness, what could I possibly have expected Turtle Rock to be other than a rock in the shape of a turtle. If rock formations that look like other things really ‘float your boat’ then you might also want to make a detour to check out the Old Man Reading a Book (Praying Lama Rock) – I’ll let you guess what that rock looks like!
Outdoor Pursuits: The main reason to visit the park is definitely the scenery twinned with the myriad of activities on offer in the park! The obvious activity choice (and the cheapest) is hiking. Unusually, the park doesn’t have any real hiking trails to speak of (or at least none that I could find), but some ‘off-roading’ is entirely possible. If donning a fetching pair of walking boots isn’t exactly your idea of fun then there are plenty of places to hire a horse and guide; particularly around Turtle Rock and onwards towards Aryaval Monastery (or at one of the many tourist ger camps). Other options include ATV tours, archery (available at a number of the ger camps) and rafting. If you’re interested in ATV tours or rafting then check out the additional resources section below for links to a couple of different tour companies that offer both.
Camping in a Mongol Ger: If you like to experience the ‘traditional’ way of life when you travel then a great option is to do an overnight stay in one of the ger camps. Admittedly, the camps are designed for tourists, so it’s not exactly traditional in the strictest sense but it’s still a lot of fun. The camps typically have restaurants and bars attached so that you can drink vodka and fill up on local cuisine before ‘hitting the hay’. Most camps also have a whole host of activities on offer.
Our tour was with ‘Local Friends in Mongolia’. Our vehicle was a bit more ‘rough and ready’ than some other companies but our guide was fantastic and the prices were by far the cheapest we saw. You can find their website here: https://localfriendsmongolia.wordpress.com/
Gorkhi-Terelj ATV Tour: https://www.fourwheeler.mn/terelj-day-tour
Gorkhi Terelj Rafting Tour: https://www.viator.com/tours/Ulaanbaatar/Terelj-River-Rafting-Tour-from-Ulaanbaatar/d22494-12979P7