The Mongolian Steppe
Credit: Ashok Sinha / Getty Images

Why: Known for its vast grassland plains surrounded by mountains and desert, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated independent country in the world. But the legendary steppe of Genghis and Kublai Khan will not remain untrammeled for long. "Now is the time to see Mongolia. The Eastern Steppe is 250,000 square kilometers — roughly the size of Oregon — and is one of the last wild landscapes that can extend for literally hundreds and hundreds of miles," says Peter Zahler, Deputy Director of the Asia Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Although the Mongolian government recognizes the need to protect these areas and is very interested in wildlife conservation, there is an enormous amount of mineral wealth and it is one of the biggest drivers of the Mongolian economy," says Zahler, adding that the government has issued mineral exploration licenses for most of the country. Fueled by a mining boom, Mongolia's economy grew at a record 17.5 percent in 2011. According to Citigroup Global Markets, it will continue to grow at an average of 9.7 percent, the fastest in the world, through 2030. That means the great wide open spaces of Mongolia are shrinking at an ever faster pace.

What to do: In 1992, Nomadic Expeditions began leading trips to Mongolia. Founder Jalsa Urubshurow served as adviser to the prime minister of Mongolia on tourism, and designed and founded Three Camel Lodge, an award-winning eco-lodge in the Gobi Desert, home to 600 foot sand dunes, the Flaming Cliffs, ancient petroglyphs, and unparalleled hikes in places like Yol Valley.

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