Northern Mongolia is an area of stunning scenery. Hugging the border with Siberia, it is known best for it large, crystal clear lakes but also has its share of forested mountains and meadows. Among the ethnic minorities that are found here are Buriats (Buryats), Uriankhai and Darkat people as well as the Tsaatan reindeer herders. In the summer it rain quite a bit which can be inconvenient but also adds to the region’s lushness.

Wildlife found in the central and northen forest areas of Mongolia include wolf, wild boar, elk, roe deer, brown bear, wild cat, musk deer, marmot, muskrat, fox, steppe fox and sable. In the lakes there are Dalmatian pelicans, hooded cranes, relict gulls, shelducks and bare-headed geese. The taiga forests are the same as the taiga that dominate Siberia. Trees found here include Siberian larch, which can reach a height of 45 feet, birch trees and Siberian and Scotch pine. As one travels from north to south the forest become slightly less dense.

Sukhbaatar (260 kilometers north-northwest of Ulan Bator) is situated near Mongolia's northern border with Russia. Named for revolutionary war hero, Damdiny Sukhbaatar, it the site of several small industries that produce beverages, flour, building materials and other goods. The Trans-Mongolia Railroad — the main railway between China, Ulaan Baatar and Russia — stops here. The population of Sukhbaatar (also spelled Schbaatar or Shbaatar) is around 20,000. unavailable. The scenery in the area is beautiful but there isn’t much to do.

Tsetserleg (nine hours by jeep west of Ulaan Baatar) is a pleasant town on the way to Tekhiin Tsagaan Nuur and Khovsgol Nuur and is not so far from Karakorum. Many people stop here for the night. There is good museum housed in a 16th century temple, with displays of costumes, weapons, tools and musical instruments. There are even some English captions as well as some nice hikes in the hills around the town. One popular destination is an abandoned temple on the edge of a cliff.


Darhan (219 kilometers northwest of Ulaan Baatar) is Mongolia's third largest city, but it only has around 85,000 people. It is he home of several mines and factories. Darhan is a relatively new city. Financed and constructed in 1961 by the former Soviet Union and several Eastern European nations, it was built where it was to take advantage of the nearby Trans-Siberian railroad and some mineral deposits and quickly developed into an industrial center with factories producing construction materials, reinforced concrete, bricks, synthetic fibers, and wood and steel products. There is a small monastery and museum. Cultural entertainment in the city is provided by the Darhan Music and Drama Theater.

Darhan is situated in a valley near the Hor Gol River and is nearly surrounded by mountains. It is cold much of the year. The average mean temperature -2°C (28°F). Factories in Darhan today produce consumer goods, carpets, foodstuffs, clothing, sheepskin, and textiles. The city's industries remain productive due to the ample reserves of coal, marble, limestone, sand, and clay located near Darhan.

A huge power plant, fueled by coal from the Sharin coal mine, provides energy for the city's industries. In addition to industry, Darhan is the site of an important science institute. This institute, the Research Institute of Plant Growing and Land Cultivation, is dedicated to the improvement of agricultural production and farming techniques in northern regions of Mongolia.


Erdenet (380 kilometers northwest of Ulaan Baatar, accessible by train) is Mongolia's second largest city, but it only has around 100,000 people. It is located near the large Erdenet Copper Mine. There is a museum with thousands of precious stones and minerals found in northern Mongolia, and a Culture Palace and Sports Palace. Tours of the mine are available and there is a lookout platform where the Selenge River flows through the town. The scenery on the train trip to the town is nice but much of the trip takes place at night.

Erdenet is located in a mountain valley. It town has traditionally had a large Russian community because the Soviet Union helped build the mine and Russia part owns it. Today it is one of the more economically well off places in Mongolia and is the second best place to stock up on supplies. There are several non-mineral factories that manufacture carpets, foodstuffs, and processed timber. The carpet factory about two kilometers from the center to the east and was founded in 1981. About 2,000 tons of wool are processed in the factory which employs about 1,100 people. Erdenet is connected via railway with Ulan Bator and is also accessible by air and a paved highway.

Erdenet is located in a mountain valley. Tourists are allowed to visit the mine by appointment. It is in the eastern part of the city, about six kilometers from the centre. Other sights include: The Mining Museum, in the Culture Palace on the central town square; the The Aimag Museum; The Fraternity Monument, on a hill offering a scenic view of the whole city in the northeastern part of Erdenet; a new temple with a large Buddha statue; and amusement park, east of the center. Amarbayasgalant Monastery is a Buddhist monastery about 60 kilometers northeast of Erdenet. Erdenemandal (near Erdenet) is set along the Khanui River and is the site of several deer stones and ancient tombstones of the Mongol period carved with images of animals.

Erdenet Mine

The Erdenet Mine exploits Asia's largest deposit of copper ore and is the fourth largest copper mine in the world. It is owned by the Erdenet Mining Corporation, a joint Mongolian-Russian venture, and accounts for a majority of Mongolia's hard currency income. Erdenet mines 22.23 million tons of ore per year, producing 126,700 tons of copper and 1954 tons of molybdenum. The mine accounts for 13.5 percent of Mongolia's GDP and seven percent of tax revenue. About 8.000 people are employed in the mine. [Source: Wikipedia]

The mine in Erdenet produces about US$1 billion worth in copper and molybdenum a year. In this mid 1990s it accounted for 70 percent of Mongolia’s foreign currency and harvested around 200,000 tons of copper and 11,000 tons molybdenum a year. At that time refining and processing at the plants ate up as much as 70 percent of Mongolia’s electricity. A great effort has been made to make sure the electricity is kept running for the mine which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Supplies are brought in and metal is carried out on a railroad that connects with the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian Railway.

Erdenet was founded in 1976 following the construction of a huge copper-molybdenum processing plant. This plant, funded by both the former Soviet Union and Mongolia, was the largest of its kind in Asia and produces 90 percent of Mongolia's total mining output. The copper and molybdenum deposit at Erdenetiyn-ovoo was discovered by Mongolian and Czechoslovak geologists in the mid1960s and was developed with massive Soviet assistance in the 1970s. Erdenet's development required the construction of a branch railroad line from Salhit, near Darhan to Erdenet; a highway from Darhan to Erdenet; a water pipeline from the Selenge Moron; an electric line from the Soviet Union; and factories, housing, and other facilities. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

A Mongolian-Soviet construction force numbering 14,000 built the Joint Mongolian-Soviet Erdenet Mining and Concentrating Combine, which included a mine, a concentrating plant, a material and technical supply base, a mechanical repair plant, and a high-capacity thermal and electric power plant. The first stage of the Erdenet combine went into operation in 1978, with a planned output of 50,000 tons for 1979. *

With the completion of the fourth stage in 1981, planned annual production capacity was 16 million tons of concentrate. From 1979 to 1982, Erdenet's output of concentrates amounted to 250,000 tons of copper and 3,400 tons of molybdenum, with concentrates containing 33 percent copper and 50 percent molybdenum. In 1983 the Erdenet combine was completed. During the Eighth Plan, annual capacity was to reach 20 million tons. *

Amarbayasgalant Monastery

Amarbayasgalant Monastery (340 kilometers northwest of Ulaan Baatar, 60 kilometers northeast of Erdenet) is the second largest and arguably the most beautiful and unspoiled monastery in Mongolia. Located among lush mountains on the Seleng River, which flows into Lake Baikal, this Tibetan Buddhist monastery was built between 1727 and 1737 by the Manchu Emperor Yongzheng to honor Zanabazar, the famous religious leader and artist who is regarded as the reincarnation of a famous lama. Amarbayasgalant means “Monastery of Tranquil Felicity.” Zanabazar mummified body is entombed in a stupa here. In 1936 there were 2,000 monks here. The monastery partially destroyed on the orders of Khorloogiin Choibalsan — Mongolia’s Stalinist leader — in 1937 and reconstructed after 1975 using financial aid provided by the UNESCO.

Amarbayasgalant Monastery was one of the few monasteries to survive the purges of the 1930s (only 10 or the original 37 buildings were destroyed) although many religious items were looted by the Communists. Restoration of the site began in 1975 and was completed in 1998. There are currently several dozen monks living in the monastery. Some are quite young. They dress in saffron robes and sometimes blow their conch shell horns. There are lovely pastures and wildflowers in the nearby Burengiin mountains.

The Amarbayasgalant Monastery is the biggest Buddhist center in Northern Mongolia. According to Mongolian historical sources, it was Mongolia’s greatest pilgrimage Buddhist Center in the 18th and 19th centuries. Amarbayasgalant Monastery and its Surrounding Sacred Cultural Landscape was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Amarbayasgalant Monastery is the most authentic of the Buddhist monasteries that have been preserved in Mongolia after the 1930s political upheavals. Although, it has been damaged during these political victimization of national and religious culture, 28 temples were survived and protected by the State since 1944.

“ The complex of Amarbayasgalant Monastery was built during 1727-1736, in the honour of Undur Gegeen Zanabazar, the first Bogd, Buddhist leader of Mongolia. He was also a Founder of the Mongol School of religious art and created the minted Buddha Statues that are now highly respected and recognized worldwide. The architectures of this monastery are in perfect harmony with nature and environment. It is situated in the cul-de-sac of a long, deep valley backed by the sheef cliff of Burenkhan Mountain against which the monastery is built. The valley is well-watered by the Evin River and has long been renowned for its rich vegetation and pasture land. In particular thick groves of native Mongolian cherries have attracted people since ancient times until the present and are the reason for the association of this valley with theologies of fertility, re-birth and gardens of paradise. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]

“The valley is covered throughout its extent with Turkic-era graves of various geometric shapes marked out in large boulders. These important archaeological features which date from the 3rd-7th centuries are the indication that the valley has long-standing sacred associations for the people of Mongolia, associations which continued and uninterrupted into the Buddhist era when they were re-validated by the construction of Amarbayasgalant Monastery on this historic site.

“Originally, Amarbayasgalant Monastery consisted of over 40 temples built on the special terrace, surrounded by a wall, measuring 207x175 meters. The monastery has a symmetrical construction. According to which the buildings are hierarchically arranged along the central axis so that all the important buildings run down the centre to north and south. This layout of the Monastery is similar to the general layout of Manchu-style spatial planning of Imperial Palace but stylistically its art has tributary Chinese architectural influences. The size of its Tsogchin (Main) temple is 32x32 meters Its construction expresses the planning features of the Mongolian national architecture and engineering solutions are very original. One of the interesting solutions is routing of roof water through the inside of four columns, under the floor, through stone grooves and away from the Tsogchin temple.

Tekhiin Tsagaan Nuur (Great White Lake)

Tekhiin Tsagaan Nuur (600 kilometers west from Ulaan Baatar) means Great White Lake. Surrounded by extinct volcanos, it is just as beautiful and receives fewer tourists than more famous Lake Khovsgol. The finger-shaped lake covers 300 square kilometers, is 20 kilometers long and 16 kilometers wide and four to 10 meters deep, and is located at an elevation of 2,060 meters. The water is extraordinarily clear, and the fishing and birdwatching are very good. The lake was formed when lava from a nearby volcano dammed the Suman River, which had cut a large gorge through the basalt rock in the area.

The lake around 16 kilometers long, east to west, and around four to six kilometers wide, north to south. It is part of the Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park. Entrance to the park is not very much. A ger on the side of the lake costs US$15 a night. Fisherman come to take advantage of the large numbers of sturgeon in the lake. Horses can ne rented for about a US$10 a day from local people. There are some lovely horseback rides and hikes through lava fields and fir forests. Most people visit Tekhiin Tsagaan Nuur on a helicopter tour from Tsetserleg, which in turn can be reached by MIAT plane.

According to Lonely Planet: “It takes around two hours to walk from Tariat to the northeast corner of the lake (six kilometers). Here you'll find the largest concentration of ger camps, plus some shops selling drinks, snacks and cooking provisions. It's just about perfect for camping (though there are a few flies in summer). According to legend, this lake was formed when an elderly couple forgot to cap a well after fetching water. The valley was flooded until a local hero shot a nearby mountain top with his arrow; the shorn top covered the well and became an island in the lake (Noriin Dund Tolgoi).”

Horgo Mountain

Horgo Mountain (near Tekhiin Tsagaan Nuur) is an extinct volcano that rises to the east of the lake. From the top there are splendid views of the lake and the landscape that surrounds it. The crater is about 200 meters wide and 100 meters deep. The northern slope is covered by Siberian larch. One of the more interesting sights is the so-called Basalt Ger, on the side of the mountains, It is a large solidified bubble of lava with a broken pieces on one side, which makes a natural door. Its height is 1.7 meters. There are basalt that resemble stone gers.

The Dalbay Valley where Horgo Mountains and Tekhiin Tsagaan Nuur are located falls in the part of Central Asia where the extensive Eurasian steppe meets the vast boreal forest — the taiga. This region of transition runs most of the length of Lake Khovsgol and Tekhiin Tsagaan Nuur, where a succession of valleys have warmer south-facing slopes of close-cropped steppe grassland, and colder north-facing slopes cloaked in larch forest.

These valleys are populated by nomadic Mongolian families, and the open steppe maintains grazing herds of yaks, cows, sheep, goats and horses. Climate projections for the region predict significant warming over the coming decades, and monitoring over the past 40 years has shown that a significant increase in temperatures has already occurred. [Source: Laura Fox, New York Times, June 27, 2011. Fox is a researcher with the University of Pennsylvania. She is studying the effects of climatic warming on steppe vegetation in Mongolia.]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mongolia tourism and government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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