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Khalkh Mongols are the dominant ethnic group (90 per cent). Other major groups are the Turkic-speaking Kazakhs (four per cent) mainly in the northwest, Chinese (two per cent) and Russian (two per cent). However, more Mongolians live outside Mongolia than in it -- about 3.5 million in China and one million in Russia.

RELIGION: Mainly Tibetan (Lamaist) Buddhist; four per cent Muslim. Religion has seen a phenomenal revival in recent years.

TOPOGRAPHY: Mongolia is the largest landlocked country in the world -- covering 1.565 million sq. km -- and one of the highest, with an average elevation of 1,580m. Its highest peak, Tavanbogd Uul, in the Altai mountains, reaches 4,374m. The Selenge river flows from the Hangayn Nuruu range to Siberia, bypassing the huge Hovsgol lake, which holds up to two per cent of the world's fresh water. The semiarid Gobi desert supports sheep, goats and camels, and is rich in wildlife. Much of the rest of Mongolia is grassland.

CLIMATE: The `Land of Blue Sky' has over 260 sunny days a year. As Mongolia is so far inland, its climate is extreme. In the sub-arctic winters temperatures of -30 [degrees] C are common, and have been known to drop to -50 [degrees] C in the steppe; in summer, temperatures in the Gobi desert shoot up to 41 [degrees] C. The altitude ensures that nights are always fresh.

HISTORY: Ghengis Khan, the `universal king', unified a nation torn apart by clan warfare and transformed it into a growing empire. His grandson, Kublai Khan created the largest empire the world has ever seen, which at its height in 1280 reached from Korea to Hungary and south to Vietnam. Kublai's death in 1294 was the turning point, after which the empire declined. …


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