MONGOLIA IS RENOWNED for the hospitable nature of its people. This is in part due to its history of nomadism. In a country of vast skies and rolling hills that stretch to all horizons, those living there must unite in order to survive. As the local saying has it, one man alone is like a single finger - weak and vulnerable.With friends, the group forms a fist.
It's a little ironic then, that Mongolia's most famous son, the 13th-century ruler Chinggis Khan (never say Genghis), is among history's most ruthless and feared warriors, one who demanded absolute loyalty and capitulation from all those he conquered. Chinggis established what was to become the largest land empire the world has ever seen, stretching from Eastern Europe to the east coast of China and down to central India. His image is everywhere in Mongolia – statues, banknotes and postage stamps – but he's also there in less tangible ways. When gazing into the unforgiving light across the never-ending plains – a sight that's remained largely unchanged since the Great Khan's day – it's easy to imagine him and his phalanx of warriors thundering past on horseback, kicking up clouds of dust, swords catching the eternal summer sun.
And the grasslands are not hard to reach from the country's capital, Ulaanbaatar. Leaving the city involves driving along some fairly busy roads past cheerless Russian-built housing blocks, but as the centre gives way to the suburbs, the view changes. And for suburbs, don't read picket fences and manicured lawns, but gers – the Mongolian equivalent of the yurt tent, each within its own compound and usually accompanied by a couple of tethered scrawny horses and a pick-up truck. Eventually, this in turn gives way to the landscape for which the country is famous – endless rolling grass plains, fringed in places by craggy outcrops and sparse stands of aspen and birch. Sparse might well be the most apposite adjective for Mongolia; it would well describe the population of 3 million in an area something like the size of Western Europe. But it's this emptiness that makes it so compelling, so preternaturally beautiful.
One of the best places to experience this for those who don't want to travel too far from the capital is at Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, some 60 kilometres to the northwest of Ulaanbaatar. And one of the best ways of seeing it is to stay in a tented camp. Alungoo Camp is a collection of wellappointed gers, each with en-suite facilities but otherwise authentic, with simple wooden furniture and single beds that function as seats during the day. The felt sides of the gers can be rolled up at the base to provide ventilation, though at night the wood stove that sits as the centrepiece of the structure may be needed.
The camp provides plenty in the way of traditional food, drink and entertainment (the latter including a game of sheep-knuckle bones and dressing up in the local garb), but it's when everyone's in bed – especially at dawn – that the real magic of the place becomes apparent. The sounds are hauntingly eerie – the susurration of wind on grass and the plaintive calls of cuckoos, while herds of semi-wild horses snort, whinny and neigh their way around the camp. The night skies are spectacular – with no light pollution, the Milky Way and unfamiliar constellations track silently across the heavens. It's a wonderful sight for those who can stay awake after sampling the local vodka.There's plenty to experience in the national park; one must-see is Turtle Rock, which does in fact look like a turtle – a very large one – and not just a rock that's said to look like a turtle, which is so often the case. Not far from the park is Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue, a 40-metre-high monument of the great man on horseback. Visitors can ascend to the top for views over the surrounding countryside, peering out from the horse's mane. Or they can visit 13th Century National Park, a collection of gers fit for royalty, and for other classes, such as shamans and soldiers, as well as a replica of Chinggis Khan's own accommodation that's especially impressive.
Another eye-opening experience is to visit a nomadic family in their ger – the real deal is not that different from the luxury version at Alungoo, though while it probably lacks an en suite bathroom, it may have a satellite TV dish and fridge. Life in these tents goes on as it has done for centuries, and that life revolves around the animals:sheep, goats, horses and cows, the nomadic people moving with the animals as the seasons dictate. Curd, cream and cheese are dietary staples, and their production involves a lot of heating, straining and pressing.Visitors will be invited to try these dishes along with a simple but surprisingly tasty dough, and those who offer it will do so in the genuine spirit of hospitality that leaves the longest-lasting impression of this wonderful country.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
The Shangri-La, Ulaanbaatar extends Mongolia's age-old tradition of hospitality
Today's visitor to Mongolia will find the spirit of hospitality intact. Since the demise of the Soviet Bloc, the country has been increasingly open to foreign investment, especially in the mining sector, and today's warriors equip themselves not with bow and arrow but with wheeled case and laptop. Until now, there had not been much in the way of suitable accommodation in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Never slow to seize an opportunity, Hong Kong-based Shangri-La group this summer opened the Shangri-La Hotel, Ulaanbaatar, bringing to the city a new era of high-end hospitality and laying down the gauntlet to the industry.
There's an undeniable feeling of newness to the property: carpets untrodden, sofas un-sat-upon, beds not slept in, and everything looking like the cellophane wrapping's just come off – which indeed it has. Essence of Shangri-La, a floral, musky scent, wafts through the capacious corridors. And though the main hotel building is finished and open for business, the adjacent Shangri-La Centre is still under construction. It will house luxury apartments, a shopping centre, offices, a sports club and a swimming pool, and is set to open in the autumn of 2016.
The hotel itself is exactly what one would expect from a group that has made its name in the field of supreme comfort. Comprising 290 spacious rooms, the property has elements of Mongolian culture throughout, whether it's the traditional dress of the doormen or the geometric copper and wood sculptures and wall decorations. The Mongolian theme is taken to the restaurants, too, or at least some of them. The country won't top the vegetarian's destination of choice list any time soon (after all, it's hard to imagine Chinggis Khan tucking into a nut loaf and wheatgrass smoothie to celebrate conquering Central Asia), and the sight of a spit-roasted sheep greets visitors to the all-day dining venue, Café Park. That's not to say that it's all flesh and blood. Naadam – named for the country's summer sports festival – serves up fine dining and cocktails and a spread of mainly Western cuisine, while Hutong, which opens this month, specialises in northern Chinese dishes.
Many visitors will be in Ulaanbaatar for business, and the hotel has made a strong bid to corner the market. It has, for instance, the largest ballroom in the city, the size of an Olympic swimming pool, which can hold up to 1,200 people with all the high-tech specs demanded by modern commerce.
Venturing further afield, there's plenty to see in the city in the form of museums, temples, grand Soviet-era public spaces and statues aplenty of Chinggis Khan and his generals, but there's no doubt that, for many, the steppes are the real star; the Shangri-La can help with tours.