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What Should I Know About Mongolia?

A map including Mongolia.
Kublai Khan founded the Great Khanate, which included Mongolia and China.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Images By: Moustyk, A. Omer Karamollaoglu
  • Last Modified Date: 23 March 2014
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Mongolia is a large country in East Asia. It covers 604,000 square miles (1,564,000 sq. km), making it a bit smaller than the state of Alaska. It shares borders with both China and Russia.

Mongolia has been lived in since the Stone Age, with nomadic tribes crossing the steppes. With the introduction of iron, Mongolia began to take a more important role in some neighboring regions. The Mongolians, who would occasionally form large groupings of nomadic tribes, were then able to pose a threat, or at the least an annoyance, to neighboring Chinese states.

In the 3rd century the Mongolian state of Xiongnu formed, creating the first state in Mongolia. This kingdom eventually spread all the way south to the Great Wall of China, which had been built to help repel Mongolian raiders such as these. Seeing this as a threat, the Han dynasty in China invaded, but were repelled and the Mongolians pushed south into Han China, eventually forcing the Han Emperor to submit to the Mongolians, recognizing their ownership of all land north of the Wall and giving them annual tribute. The Xiongnu would eventually emigrate west, reaching Europe in the 5th century and achieving infamy as Atilla’s Huns.

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Various factions then rose to power in Mongolia, expanding and consolidating their territory, and seizing parts of northern China. Various Turk groups achieved power in the following centuries, culminating in the defeat of a Tang Chinese army of nearly 500,000 soldiers in the 8th century. Power then transferred to the Uighurs, then the Kidan. The Kidan controlled a state that included most of modern Mongolia for more than two centuries, eventually falling to the Jurjens.

Near the end of the 12th century a cunning chieftain named Tamujin used his military prowess and force to unite all the Mongol tribes. He took the name Genghis Khan, and conquered much of the known world, forming the largest empire in history. When he eventually died, the Mongol Empire broke into four parts. The Great Khanate, founded by Kublai Khan, included Mongolia, as well as China. By the late 14th century the Chinese had driven the Mongolians out of China, destroyed much of the culture the Khans had achieved, and sacked their capital, although the Mongols retained control of Mongolia.

For the next few centuries the Mongolians would occasionally raid China, usually for economic concessions. The 16th century saw a cultural renaissance, as well as a widespread conversion of the country to Buddhism following a meeting between a power ruler and the Dalai Lama. In the early 17th century the Manchu in China invaded and captured a great deal of Mongolia, consolidating their power and retaining it until just into the 20th century, when, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Mongolia reasserted its independence in 1911.

This independence was short-lived, however, and the Chinese reclaimed the country in 1919. The newly-formed Soviet Union came to their aid, however, helped repel the Chinese and allowed Mongolia to again declare independence, although this time with close ties to Soviet Russia. Mongolia remained aligned with the Soviets for the next few decades, implementing Stalinist purges and Communist agendas through World War II.

In 1990, following the democratization and liberalizing of the Soviets, Mongolia began their own path towards democracy. In 1992 a new Constitution was ratified, which was pro-Capitalist, allowed for free religion, and allowed for multiple parties. Since then the country has continued to open itself to Capitalism, and has developed quite a bit economically.

Mongolia is in many ways an untamed country. From the amazing Gobi desert, to the many nomadic families still living relatively traditional lifestyles throughout the country, the country offers many scenic opportunities for visitors. Places like Tavanbogd National Park and the Four Holy Peaks of Bayansurkh, Chingeltei, Songino Khairkhan, and Tsetseegum are all especially touted for their natural beauty, but really anywhere you go will likely awe you. Living with a host family is one of the best ways to travel in Mongolia, and a number of groups exist to help you set this up. Horse tours across the steppes and the Gobi are also very popular, but it’s important to plan your trip during the right time of year, depending on what you want to do. What might be the ideal time to visit Ulaanbaatar to miss the cold could be the worst time to visit the Gobi, when the heat will be unbearable. In a nation where weather plays such a pivotal role, it is important to plan carefully around the seasons.

Flights into Ulaanbaatar arrive regularly from Berlin, Beijing, and Moscow. You can also arrive by rail from either Beijing or Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, or travel overland from either of these countries, assuming you have the time and the weather is right.

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