Every year in July, Mongolia comes alive with a summer spectacular unlike any other. Naadam, which literally means “games”, refers to Mongolia’s traditional “three games of men”: Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, and archery. In reality, however, Naadam is a nationwide celebration of the country’s history, culture, and independence — and this is your chance to get in the thick of the action.
With a small group of up to 24 travelers, you’ll cheer along with locals at the opening ceremony of the games, marked by exuberant parades. Watching the competitions and cultural performances, it quickly becomes clear why UNESCO included this festival on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But that’s not all you’ll experience on this adventure…
Building up to the excitement of Naadam, you’ll enjoy 20 included features and Cultural Discoveries that open your eyes to Mongolian history, culture, and daily life. Draw on the chaotic, yet inspiring, energy of the nation’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, and witness the living beauty of the Gobi Desert as you listen to its “Singing Sands,” and gaze in awe at its “Flaming Cliffs”. You’ll also get a glimpse into the lives of Mongolian nomadic families — including herders of the two-humped Bactrian camel — and even stay in a traditional Mongolian ger!
Your trip also includes an additional country: South Korea. Cultural highlights like the UNESCO-listed Changdeokgung Palace, a special visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and sumptuous Korean BBQ await in its capital city, Seoul.
This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure — and one that offers the best value of its kind. Join us and make this the year that you visit Mongolia and revel in the splendor of Naadam!
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Board your overnight flight to Seoul, South Korea today.
Arrive in Seoul, South Korea
We arrive in Seoul tonight and transfer directly to our deluxe hotel in the heart of South Korea’s capital. An evening arrival affords us the luxury of settling in and getting a good night’s rest before beginning our discoveries.
Explore Seoul and the Korean Demilitarized Zone
We’ll enjoy breakfast at the hotel before meeting for a Welcome Briefing and reception, and then spend the day touring Seoul’s historical monuments. Your first stop is Changdeokgung, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Korea’s “Five Grand Palaces.” The entire complex of halls, pavilions, gardens, gates, bridges, and shrines was designed to harmoniously blend with the park-like setting.
Next, embark on an electrifying and sobering excursion to the world’s most heavily armed border. The Demilitarized Zone, separating North and South Korea, is at roughly the 38th parallel. The DMZ was formed in 1953 when the North and South Korean governments agreed to an armistice (with prodding from their respective Chinese and American allies). On average, the buffer zone is about 2.5 miles wide and though it is lined with troops, electric fences, land mines, and tank traps, it has also become a pristine nature reserve. When the two Koreas need to negotiate, they enter the DMZ at the village of Panmunjom and confer at the JSA (Joint Security Area). Heavily armed North and South Korean soldiers stand off here in a tenuous truce, and this is as close as you can get to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea). You will also have the chance to enter one of the four tunnels beneath the DMZ that were secretly dug by the North Koreans and later discovered.
Also featured is the Dorasan Station Observatory, where you can peer through binoculars across the border into the North. You’re going to want to have your camera or GoPro ready — the entire experience is thrilling and is filled with opportunities to take great photos to show friends and family back home! We’ll enjoy lunch at a local restaurant here.
This evening, join your fellow travelers for a Welcome Dinner at a traditional Korean restaurant.
Discover Seoul’s palaces and villages; fly to Ulaanbaatar
Today you’ll continue to peel back the layers of Korean culture, starting at Gyeongbokgung, another of Korea’s “Five Grand Palaces.” Built in 1395 as the main residence of the ruling Joseon dynasty, this palace complex has undergone several restorations, as well as repeated destruction during the 16th-century Japanese invasions of Korea, WWII, and the Korean War. However, the splendor of what remains is enough to explain why Gyeongbokgung is called “the palace greatly blessed by Heaven.” While there, we will visit the on-site National Folk Museum, where you’ll learn about everyday Korean life through the ages.
Today’s special lunch — Korean barbecue, or galbi — has become immensely popular around the world, and you’ll see (and taste!) why during this delicious meal. You’ll not only enjoy some of the delectable dishes that have garnered such fame, but also learn more about their preparation and prevalence in Korea. Then, walk through a time warp at Bukchon Hanok Village, a neighborhood that has preserved its traditional Korean houses known as hanok. Our walk leads us to the Insadong neighborhood, a popular enclave of art galleries and old tea houses. Here, you will attend a class on making traditional bamboo Hanji fans.
At the end of our tour, we’ll transfer to the airport for our flight to Ulaanbaatar.
Explore Mongolia’s capital on a comprehensive tour
Today, we embark on a panoramic city tour, which will introduce us to important sights of Ulaanbaatar, including Sukhbaatar Square (where the leader of the country’s revolution, Damdin Sukhbaatar, declared independence from China in 1921) and the National History Museum. A local guide will lead the way through Mongolia’s largest museum, which holds nearly 60,000 artifacts relating to the history of Mongolia and central Asia.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll visit the unforgettable Genghis Khan monument. Standing at 131 feet, atop a 33-foot-high coliseum, this stainless-steel behemoth is the world’s largest equestrian statue and a fitting tribute to a man who stood larger than life. Exhibits within the coliseum depict important events in Genghis Khan’s life, including his legendary discovery there of a golden horse whip that foretold his destiny. You can take an elevator and emerge to gaze at the lush Mongolian steppe from a deck atop his steed’s head.
This evening, enjoy a buffet dinner back at the hotel.
Experience the Festival of Three Games
After breakfast, we’ll transfer to the National Sports Stadium to experience the pageantry, excitement, and athleticism that is Naadam. It begins with parades, an opening ceremony, and a speech by the Mongolian president. There will be more cultural performances before the first event commences: Mongolian wrestling. This single-elimination tournament pits up to 512 pairs of wrestlers against each other in nine or ten rounds. The first man to touch the ground loses and the victor is deemed an arslan, or “lion.” Next, we visit the archery field and watch as male and female teams vie to hit 33 targets. The final event is a race that celebrates the Mongolian tradition of horsemanship. Riders aged 5 to 13-years-old saddle up on thousands of horses from all over Mongolia, racing up to 18 miles. You will enjoy a boxed lunch as we cheer on the racers and return to the capital in the late afternoon.
Your day will end with a special Naadam dinner tonight.
Fly to the Gobi Desert to experience its beauty and wildlife
A morning flight brings us to the South Gobi Desert and our first desert camp resort, Dream Gobi Camp. Here you will take in the stupendous beauty of the steppes from your own ger, a round Mongolian tent made of felt and wood. Settle in, relax, and explore the facilities before we ride out to the Yolyn Am Gorge. Here, we behold a rugged oasis of sheltered canyons, unique wildlife, and a river of ice known as the Gobi Glacier. Keep your eye out for furry pika and birds of prey like the golden eagle or saker falcon. Before returning to camp, we’ll also peek into the nature museum at the park’s entrance. Tonight after dinner, relax by the fire or do some stargazing beneath Mongolia’s “eternal blue skies.”
Singing Sands and two safaris: 4 x 4 Desert Safari and Camel Safari
Today we leave Dream Gobi Camp and embark on a 4x4 desert safari to Khongoryn Els, a dreamscape of shifting dunes whose colors change with the light and whose sand particles emit a hypnotic “singing” sound.
In this more westerly location, you’ll enjoy a different desert perspective from your lodgings at the Gobi Erdene Camp. In the afternoon you will ride back across the magnificent dunes on a “ship of the desert,” a two-humped Bactrian camel. This camel safari takes about half an hour and allows you to experience this unique form of transportation amid the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert. Should guests not wish to ride a camel, there is also an opportunity to do some light trekking near the oases at the Khongor sand dunes. Later, enjoy a relaxing evening.
Marvel at the “Flaming Cliffs” of Bayanzag
Our leisurely morning includes a ride back across the desert to the Dream Gobi Camp. After lunch, we’ll explore Bayanzag to admire its flaming “Red Cliffs.” It was here that the American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews unearthed the world’s first-discovered dinosaur eggs and other important fossils, such as the Velociraptor and Protoceratops. Andrews himself was said to have been an inspiration for the Indiana Jones character of Steven Spielberg’s epic adventure films. We’ll enjoy a bit of light trekking around the site before savoring a delightful picnic dinner. Imagine the scene: the light of the fading sun painting the cliffs as we enjoy our meal, perhaps recounting the day with fellow travelers as you soak in the stunning scenery. It’s the perfect ending to a remarkable day.
Inside Gandan Monastery and the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts
Flying from Dalanzadgad, we arrive back in Ulaanbaatar and spend the morning at Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, whose collection of Mongolian art from prehistory through the early 20th century is the best of its kind. It is also a repository of works by Zanabazar, a 17th-century artist and Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader who is known as the "Michelangelo of Asia."
Continue on to Gandan Monastery, Mongolia’s most important Buddhist center. Built in 1809, this is one of few institutions that survived the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. You’ll get a chance to see this active monastery, where 600 monks maintain long-standing Buddhist traditions. After lunch at a local restaurant, enjoy the afternoon at leisure.
A delicious Mongolian feast awaits tonight as we attend our Farewell Dinner, along with a marvelous musical performance — a Vantage Exclusive. You’ll be dazzled by the costumed folk dancers and Mongolian throat singers, masters of an art form in which individual singers are able to produce multiple tones at once.
After dinner, we transfer to the airport for our overnight flight to Seoul.
After arriving in Seoul in the early morning hours, you’ll have use of a day room near the Incheon Airport. Take some time to rest and relax with a leisurely breakfast. After lunch on your own, transfer to the airport for your flight home.
Important Notice: The above day-by-day itineraries are preliminary and therefore subject to change. If changes occur while on tour, you will be notified by your Vantage Adventure Leader or regional expert.