Nearly half of Mongolia’s three million residents are nomads, and most of the rest live in Ulaanbaatar—the country's capital and largest city. The cultural, economic, and transportation hub on the Tuul River is the starting point for two-humped Bactrian camel treks and other exotic Gobi desert expeditions, but its ten museums, close proximity to national parks, and collection of imperial palaces and Buddhist monasteries qualify Ulaanbaatar as a destination rather than way station.
Wander through the Narantuul, a 2,500-vendor, open-air market; visit Gandan Monastery—Mongolia’s largest functioning Buddhist monastery—and the adjoining Megjid Janraisig and Kalachakra Temples; and view Stone and Bronze Age artifacts, sacred relics, and fossilized dinosaur bones and eggs found in the Gobi at the National and Natural History Museums. During the July 11-13 National Holiday, Ulaanbaatar hosts the nation’s largest Naadam Festival, a legendary cultural celebration featuring wrestling, archery and cross-country horse racing competitions, plus traditional costumes and dance.
Pictured here: Huge golden Buddha at Gandan Monastery