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A vast country spanning the steppe and deserts of Northeast Asia, Mongolia has maintained much of its centuries-old nomadic tradition. Although low on distinctive, historical "sights," it is of significant interest to those seeking a unique culture, rough scenery and wildlife. Horse treks through the country with camping in the traditional gers are a perfect way of discovering the traditional Mongol way of life. Mongolia has a unique and durable traditional culture, centered around the herding lifestyle. Herders remain semi-nomadic, moving their animals with the seasons as they have for centuries. Half of Mongolia's population is rural, and tending to livestock remains the backbone of the Mongolian economy.
Despite the popular image of Mongolians as nomadic herders, it is an increasingly urbanized country. Over a third of Mongolians live in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Other major urban centers are Darkhan and Erdenet. In these cities, especially Ulaanbaatar, there are still a number of Buddhist sites, testament to the once profoundly Tibetan-Buddhist character of the culture before Communism.
Traditionally, Buddhist monasteries were centers both of learning and of power in Mongolia. In the 1930s, this power became the focus of a ruthless series of purges that reached a climax in 1937. Most of the country's monasteries were destroyed, and as many as 17,000 monks were killed. Today only a few original monasteries remain, but others are being slowly reconstructed and restored. With many temples becoming increasingly crowded with worshippers, Mongolia is once again embracing its Buddhist heritage. The Dalai Lama is an enormously popular figure and has visited the country several times.
Most visitors to the country spend their time in the central areas close to the capital. Terelj, within easy reach of Ulaanbaatar, is one of the most active centers of tourism, with opportunities for hiking, rafting, horseback riding and rock climbing. Kharkhorin (Karakorum), the former capital of the Mongol Empire, is home to the country's most important monastery and serves as a convenient base for visiting other nearby attractions. The northern Khovsgol region, with its beautiful alpine lake, is a popular area for tourists, and the vast Gobi region has also become a common addition to a touring itinerary. For travelers wishing to get off the beaten track, eastern Mongolia remains mostly unexplored and the far west offers remote lakes, snow-capped mountains and the unique culture of the resident Muslim Kazakhs.
Since ancient times, the Soyombo ideogram has been the national emblem of freedom and independence of the Mongolians. At the top of the ideogram is a flame, which symbolizes blossoming, revival, upgrading and continuation of the family. The three prongs of the flame signify the prosperity of the people in the past, the present and the future. Below the sign of the flame there are the sun and the crescent, traditionally symbolizing the origin of the Mongolian people. The combination of the flame, the sun and the crescent expresses the wish: May the Mongolian people live and prosper. The triangles at the top and bottom of the Soyombo are a general expression of the people's willingness to defend the freedom and independence of the country, while the rectangles are the symbols of honesty, justice and nobility. The fish, in Mongolian folklore, is a creature that never closes its eyes, i.e. remains vigilant. The two fish in the emblem symbolize the unity of the people: men and women. The cumulative meaning is: May the whole people be united, wise and vigilant. The two vertical rectangles on the sides of the emblem signify fortress walls and are a graphic representation of the ancient Mongolian saying: 'Two men in friendship are stronger than walls of stone". In the Soyombo they have the meaning: "May the whole people be unified in friendship, and then it will be stronger than the stone walls of a fortress".