Pope Francis heads to Mongolia this week, an unlikely choice given the isolated nation's small Catholic community, but a strategic one due to the young democracy's geographical position between two superpowers.

In venturing to the sparsely populated, vast Buddhist-majority nation, the pope may be eyeing Mongolia as a way to help build bridges with its neighbors China and Russia, given its strategic location and neutrality in the volatile region.

The trip, which involves a nine-hour flight from Rome on Thursday to the capital of Ulaanbaatar, will also be closely watched as a stamina test for the 86-year-old pope, who underwent hernia surgery in June and suffers pain when walking.