Eight hundred years ago the Mongols won an empire on horseback. Follow their path from their ancient capital, Karakorum, up the stunning Orkhon Valley, past waterfalls, hot springs and ancient Buddhist retreats. This nine-day itinerary is perfect for travelers looking for a moderately difficult horse trek that combines history, culture and natural beauty.

Highlights

  • Explore the ancient wonders of Erdene Züü Monastery
  • Imagine the grandeur of Karakorum on a visit to the town of Kharkhorin
  • Ride to the 17th-century Tövkhön Monastery, the hermitage where Zanabazar crafted some of his best works of art
  • Camp by the wildflower-strewn shores of Lake Shireet, the largest of the eight lakes at Naiman Nuur National Park
  • Spend time with a nomad family, milking the cows, sheering the sheep and playing anklebone games with children
  • Hike over dunes and past eerie rock formations on your way to Erdene Khamblin Monastery in Khögnö Khan National Park

Overview

This trip is for active travelers looking for a moderately strenuous multi-day horse trek that combines cultural activities, riding, and camping. Approximately three to four hours a day are spent in the saddle, with plenty of down time for relaxing in camp and visiting local families. Travelers should be comfortable with wilderness camping.

The trek passes through a variety of landscapes, including steppe and forest, before reaching the gorgeous Naiman Nuur (Eight Lakes) National Park. A half-day is spent in Kharkhorin, home to Mongolia’s first Buddhist monastery and the remains of Karakorum, the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire. Accommodation is in tents and ger (yurt) camps.  

Detailed itinerary

Day 1: Welcome to Mongolia

Bronze statue of warriors guarding the entrance Government House in Ulaanbaatar.

Arrive at Chinggis Khaan Airport, a 20-minute drive from downtown Ulaanbaatar. Explore the Mongolian capital on foot, starting from Sükhbaatar Square and the Government House, guarded at its entrance by an enormous bronze statue of Ghengis Khan. Tour the nearby National History Museum, chronicling, among other things, the rise and fall of the Great Mongol Empire. Enjoy a meal of traditional Mongolian food, known for its organic boiled meats and dumplings.

Finish the day at the Tumen Ekh Music Ensemble, a great experience for music lovers wanting to hear traditional Mongolian live music, including horse head fiddlers and the haunting sounds of khöömi (throat singing).   

Day 2: History of the former capital of the Mongol Khans

A wall of 108 stupas surrounds Erdene Züü Monastery.

Travel 225 miles from modern capital Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin, the location of the ancient capital Karakorum. Founded by Ögödei Khan in 1235, Karakorum was once the capital of the world’s largest empire, visited by merchants, diplomats, and craftsmen from across the Eurasian continent. Few vestiges of the ancient capital remain today – bricks from the city were used build 108 enormous stupas surrounding the nearby Erdene Züü (Hundred Treasures) Monastery. Spend the afternoon touring the active monastery and the Museum of Kharkhorin. Close to the town, on the right bank of the Orkhon River, a number of ger camps offer food and overnight lodging. 

Day 3: Let's ride!

Nomadic horseman traversing the steppes of Mongolia.

Your horseback adventure begins by traveling upstream along the Orkhon River, towards the Orkhon Valley. Registered on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, this valley is a favored place for nomads to graze their livestock in summer. Visits to local families offer first-hand experience with the nomadic lifestyle. It’s customary to bring a token of your appreciation, however small, such as a bag of fruit or gifts for children. Complete the day by camping by the Khujirt River, close to the village of Khujirt, known for its hot springs.

This is the first of a nine-day journey to Naiman Nuur (Eight Lakes) National Park. A logistics support vehicle is available for the initial six days. Equipment and bags are transferred to yaks for the final three days. Must-bring items include a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, insect repellent and rain gear. 

Days 4-5: Discover the Orkhon Valley

Tövkhön Monastery, the workshop of the sculptor Gegeen Zanabazar

The ride continues across grassy steppe, home to grazing herds of yak, sheep, goat, horse, and cattle. In the warm summer months, nomad families will be busy with daily chores including milking animals and shearing sheep and goats. Break at a spot called ‘Bend of Uurt’, in the foothills of the Khangai Mountains, for a beautiful panoramic view of the Orkhon River.

Set camp and take the horses up a mountainside to Tövkhön Monastery, where Mongolia’s first Bogd Gegeen (Buddhist pontiff) created the Soyombo alphabet. Located at 7614 feet (2312 meters) above sea level, the monastery offers excellent views of the Khangai Mountains. A pair of light binoculars will come in handy when viewing the landscape. 

Day 6: Mogoit hot springs and relaxation

Mogoit hot springs
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Ride south towards the mountain range that outlines the valley, crossing ancient lava flows that are a testament to the volcanic activity of the region. High up in a neighboring valley, ride through larch forests until reaching Mogoit hot springs, a perfect spot to unwind in hot water pools. Camp is set near the springs.

Day 7: From tent camping to living in a ger

Rural Mongolians live in gers, which can be easily taken apart and moved to different pastures. 

Spend a day with a nomad family, a great opportunity for those wanting to learn more about Mongolian culture. Watch the milking of the animals and learn how different dairy products are produced. Chores complete, sit down for salty milky tea and gossip with the nomad family. In the evenings, join the children for games played with sheep anklebones, used like game pieces or dice (each side of the bone represents a different type of animal).   

Day 8: Riding towards the Naiman Nuur (Eight Lakes) National Park

Goats enjoying the view of the Ulaan Tsutgalaan Waterfall.

From the family camp, saddle up and continue to the mighty Ulaan Tsutgalaan waterfall, a white flood of water tumbling over black volcanic rock. This stunning 16m high waterfall formed was formed 20,000 years ago by volcanic eruptions and an earthquake.

The ride continues to the entrance of the Naiman Nuur National Park, across a steppe scattered with edelweiss, and later through a forest of larch and pine trees. Overnight accommodation is made at a ger camp at Boorgiin Oroi, the final stop before entering the Eight Lakes National Park.  

Day 9: Self-sufficient ride between mountains

Looking down from the pass to Naiman Nuur National Park.

The trek continues over Khangai Nuruu pass, where the grassy steppe gives way to a varied landscape of larch and pine forests, wildflowers, wild roses, junipers, gooseberries and wild onions – an ideal area for amateur botanists. After passing Lake Bugat the trail continues through forest to reach Lake Shireet, the largest lake in the park (3.86 sq miles) and the highest at 7762 feet (2386 m). Pack a bathing suit for a dip in the cool waters of the lake.

Day 10: From lakes to rivers

Horses and the mounts take a water break.

Break camp, mount up and ride around to the opposite bank of Lake Shireet. Two other lakes, including Lake Shanagar, are passed before the trail exits the national park. The trail enters a forested area to the craggy Bayarag Pass and finally the tempestuous Shuranga River, where camp is set for the night.  

Day 11: Back to the Orkhon, last ride

Yakkity Yak. These powerful beasts haul gear over the mountains on the final three days of the trek.

Prepare for a change of scenery as the trail on Day 11 meanders through a variety of landscapes. From the Shuranga River, continue to the scenic Bayan Lake, home to several species of birds, including ducks and common crane. The familiar sight of gers are found further along the trail as it reenters the steppe land. A traditional Mongolian barbecue (khorkhog) marks the final night on the trail. The meal involves adding meat, potatoes, water and scalding hot stones to a sealed metal container, which is then heated over a fire.

Day 12: Sand dunes, rocky formations, and monastery

Sand dunes near Khögnö Khan National Park.

Transfer by vehicle today east to the rocky outcrops of Khögnö Khan National Park, a 49 sq mile area of semi-desert, steppe, taiga and unusual rock formations. The nearby sand dunes located along the western edge of the park are nicknamed the “Mini Gobi”. Hike along narrow paths to 17th-century Erdene Khambiin Monastery, built by the famed Zanabazar in honor of his teacher, Lama Erdene.

Day 13: Back to Ulaanbaatar

Night view of the Government House in Ulaanbaatar.

Transfer back to Ulaanbaatar. Enjoy final views of the grassy steppes, herdsmen with the flocks of sheep and smoke puffing from distant gers. Once in the capital, take the opportunity to visit a monastery or museum, or just relax at a cafe or restaurant. Pick up some souvenirs at the famed State Department Store. 

Day 14: Departure from Mongolia

Leaving, on a jet plane...

Breakfast at your hotel followed by airport transfer. Check in and send some postcards from the departure lounge.