EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELLING TO MONGOLIA
Mongolia plays by different rules. Travelling here requires a little more courage, a little more preparation, and a lot more acceptance of the unexpected.
If you are planning to explore the expanse of the steppe, the rugged golden Gobi, or the snow-capped peaks of the western provinces, we wanted to share a few things to help you prepare for your trip (physically & mentally!).
Traveling in Mongolia is one of the world’s last great adventures. Challenging, charming, utterly beautiful, knowing a little of what to expect before we went went a long way to help us relax into the experience. We’ve collated what we’ve learnt, our top tips & ideas, in the hope that it will help you do the same.
But first, here’s a but of a brief to help you travel deeper.
Mongolia lies in east-central Asia between China and Russia, it is a vast continental slab of land, with over 1.5million km2 of territory. It is the second biggest land-locked country in the world (after Kazakhstan). With a population of 3 million (bizarrely specific, often quoted, and probably inaccurate) Mongolia also has one of the lowest population densities in the world. The Gobi desert, the second largest desert after the Sahara, covers most of the south-east of the territory. The remaining land is then a combination of grassland and mountain ranges in the north and west.
Mongolia is synonymous with the Mongolian styled Man of the Millenium "Chinggis Khan" (yes, I'm afraid all our school books were wrong, Genghis is the wrong pronouciation). Before the great conquerer ran amok, the land of the Mongolians had already produced 3 grand empires; some of the earliest Chinese texts available are describing the hostile 'Hu' people on their northern border, which produced the Great Wall of China 1200 years before Chinggis was even born.
The 13th century was the Mongolian century; by 1206 Chinggis had united Mongolia, and when in 1294 his grandson Kublai Khan died, the Great Mongolian empire covered 1/6 of the world.
The next 200 years saw the continual decline of the gargantuan empire as it gradually split and collapsed. It was barely possible to keep even the Mongolian ancestral lands together under one ruler as the Chinese supported each claimant in turn to ensure chaos. By the 16th century the region was split into 10 rival regions. Finding opportunity in chaos, the Chinese ‘Machu’ took control of both inner & Outer Mongolia by 1694.
Mongolia was under Chinese control for 3 centuries, challenged once in a revolution in 1911 (un-successful) and the Mongolian revolution of 1921 (successful) which established independent rule once again. The Mongolian People's Republic was founded in 1924 with support from the USSR.
A Soviet satellite until 1992, the 27 years since have been spent developing democracy and capitalism, leading to strong culture clashes between old and young...
Mongolia's climate is as continental as they come; that means hot hot summers and cold cold winters... e.g. a difference in temperature from +45 degrees down to -50 degrees. The landlocked nation receives very little rainfall but very frequent weather variation.
For example we experienced the following.
Day 1: Sunny
Day 2: Snow storm
Day 3: Sand storm
Day 4: Fog
Day 5: Sunny
Day 6: Snow storm
Day 7: Sunny
The language spoken by all is Mongolian - with its roots & sounds closer to the nomadic tongues of the cultures to the west than to Chinese or Russian. In the north, some Russian is spoken and in the south, you'll find a small amount of Chinese. The written alphabet uses Russian cyrillic. Mongolian is a difficult language to get to grips with but learn the basics for thank you (bayarlalaa: pronounced buy-ehck-la) and hello (sain-uu) will earn you appreciative nods if you're sharing a ger with a nomad family.
The Tugrik is the local currency. In the major towns you'll find ATM and shops that accept international cards (VISA, Mastercard etc.) but outside of the few towns you'll need to rely on cash.
Where to stay in Ulaanbaatar
Whether you arrive in Mongolia by plane or train, you will probably start your journey in Ulaanbaatar, referred to as UB by the locals and translated as ‘Red Hero’.
UB gets a pretty bad wrap. Internationally known for it’s poor air-quality, legacy of particularly ugly communist architecture, and over-riding ‘grey’ demeanour, it’s unlikely to feature on Conde Nast Traveler’s list of ‘Top City Breaks’ for quite some time.
But it’s not as bleak as it sounds. We were fortunate to experience the city first as it crawled out of winter, and again in the throws of spring, and the difference was remarkable. Whilst traffic is a never ending problem, the air quality improves in the city as the temperature increases, and the monotonous grey is broken up by tree & flowers in bloom. As with everything, judging a book by it’s cover is always a rookie error, and we were consistently (and pleasantly) surprised, that behind the gloomy, beaten looking exteriors of the buildings, were beautifully styled restaurants, bars, super markets & shops. Evidently it’s easier to spruce up a couple of rooms than it is the exterior of an entire 40 story building…
The same can be said, in part, to accommodation options in the city. We will be the first to admit that we stood in veritable horror outside the hostel we booked when first arrived in UB. It looked like a particularly unloved tenement block, in the dregs of a particularly unloved city. But once inside, we found a cosy apartment, a welcoming host, clean beds & towels, everything we could need for a pleasant stay.
The same was the case for the other guest-houses we visited whilst researching which tours to take around the country (more about that here). So here’s a list of places to check-out (and not be alarmed by their exteriors)
For the Savvy
Sun-path Mongolia Tours & Hostel - Clean & bright guest-house, friendly, well reviewed tours. From £9 per night for a dorm bed.
Khuvsgal Lake Hostel - Very modern, clean & fresh dorms & private doubles centrally located. From £9 per night for a dorm bed
Woodpeckers Inn - Really pleasant & cosy Hostel, friendly English speaking owners who can help plan you trip. From £6 per night
Golden Gobi - Popular, good atmosphere, perhaps a little noisy but with a happy crowd. Well reviewed & professionally run tours to south & central Mongolia. From £6 per night for a dorm bed.
For the Glam
Holiday Inn UB - If you don’t want to risk it, and just want a clean, reliable bed somewhere central, the HI delivers exactly what you’d expect. It also doesn’t look too bad from the outside either. From £65 per night.
How to book a tour in Mongolia?
For more information on how to book a tour in Mongolia, take a look at our more detailed post all about exactly that, here.
What is the food like in Mongolia?
Mongolian food is not a celebrated cuisine (sensing a theme?). Recipes have evolved around food as sustenance; calorie heavy-weights to help nomads fend off the cold and hunger whilst spending hours in the saddle on the steppe. High in fat, high in protein, high in carbohydrate.
Of course Ulaanbaatar is a different story, and various types of quality international cuisine can be found all over the city at a reasonable price - most notably, Korean food. But If you’re heading into the Mongolia interior for any significant length of time, be prepared to put on a little extra insulation.
Dishes you will (/should) probably try at some point include:
Khuushuur (Pronounced Horeshure) - Deep fried pastry parcels with a mutton, camel or beef filling
Tsuivian - Fried noodles, meat (usually mutton) & vegetables
Noodle soup - as it sounds. Homemade noodles cooked in a salted broth often with added fat or camel hump. If you’re lucky this will also include dried-meat, something of a treat and little like mutton jerky.
Boortsog - Dough fried in mutton fat
Mongolian Barbecue - A joint of (probably mutton), long cooked in a pan over the stove with vegetables & potatoes
Aarul (or qurut) - Kind of like a dried goats curd. It is made from drained, sour milk that has been left outside to dry. Its rock hard & never goes off! Nomads often suck chunks of this after dinner.
Salt milk tea - a few tea leaves are taken of a brick of tea, mixed with heating milk with added salt. Its pretty good once you become accustomed to it
Home-brew vodka - Often made from fermenting Tarag (see below)
Tarag - Yak or cow milk yoghurt
Camel milk - very, very (very) tangy
Airag - The famous one. Fermented mares milk, very popular throughout the Mongolia. This is usually only drunk in summer, but can be kept through autumn. It is rarely available during spring as the foals have a monopoly so we didn’t get to try it, but apparently it tastes a little like severely gone-off milk…
What to Expect when staying in a Ger
Staying in a Mongolian ger is without doubt a rite of passage when visiting Mongolia. It’s an experience in itself, and offers a wonderful insight into the lives of the world’s most hospitable people.
There are a plethora of rules and a whole set of traditional etiquettes to observe when staying in a ger, or spending time with nomads. Some are observed more than others, but we’ve collated the ones we came across to help you out a bit here - We even fact checked them with our guide to make sure we weren’t just parroting inaccurate information we’d picked up online - so you can parrot away in confidence!
However we also wanted to share a bit more about what you should expect when spending time in a ger, so you can prepare appropriately…
The number one rule for staying in a ger that is worth repeating here is that, as a visitor, you should only ever sit on the left hand side when you enter. Never to the right, and never at the centre top unless specifically invited. You’ll soon get into the habit. It became second nature to proceed to the left as soon as we were through the door.
Aside from that, a couple of things to consider:
There’s no such thing as a toilet, bathroom, shower room, wet room or any equivalent room. At best you will find a very deep long-drop toilet somewhere outside (usually at least 50ft away from the ger and any animal sheds). Sometimes with a door, sometimes with a roof, sometimes with neither nor walls. The worst case scenario isn’t if the family has no toilet - nature loos are fine, dig a little hole & be on your merry way - The worst case scenario is actually a long drop toilet that isn’t that long a drop… or even worse, full. Cripes.
In a similar vein, you’ll be going without a shower for a fair few days. I think we got to 10 days without a wash, which was certainly a new experience. Our only advice here is BRING WET WIPES. You’ll be a stinky, stinky cretin otherwise.
If you are staying in a ger overnight, don’t expect to have any privacy. If you’re lucky, the family may have a spare ger specifically for visitors that they might put you, your group & your guide up in, but the likelihood is you’ll be kipping on their bedroom floor, good and cosy with everyone else in your group. Lots of changing of pants whilst in sleeping-bags & sleeping fully-clothed then.
For the full guide on ger rules & etiquette, you can take a look here.
Horse riding in Mongolia
Chances are taking a ride on a horse is on the top of your list of things to do whilst exploring Mongolia. The country is famous for it; warriors riding for days across the steppe, nomads relying on them for their livelihoods, herders racing around the mountains collecting up goats & sheep. The country has bred some of the fittest & most resilient ponies on the planet. To not take the opportunity to ride when in Mongolia is to not participate in one of the country’s most ancient & respected activities. In other words, you kind of have to.
There are however a few things to bear in mind when taking a trip on horse-back in Mongolia, especially relevant if you’ve never ridden before, or are a little nervous.
To help you out, we’ve written a complete beginners guide to horse riding in Mongolia here.
Worth noting that Mongolian’s don’t name their horses (we nicknamed ours: Penelepony & Horsecules if you’re interested… ) so start thinking of some good ones. It’s also not really normal to pet them or feed them treats, so as tempting as it is, try not to go in for a hug…
What to Pack for a trip to Mongolia?
The answer to this is of course, ‘it depends on the weather’, but we’ve given it a whirl & are writing a packing list - Stay tuned.
We visited Mongolia in May, which was somewhere between winter, spring & summer - Who knows. Most people will visit in July in order to see the famous Naadam sporting festival. As we’ve mentioned, the climate is VERY continental, so expect heat in the summer, ice in the winter, and a bit of everything in between.
Packing essentials worth repeating include: Wet wipes, loo-roll, vodka, snacks.
Tips for DIY Travel in Mongolia
If you do choose to travel independently though Mongolia, have chosen to rent a car or a van, or a simple grouping in with a bunch of others, there’s a couple of other helpful tips we picked up along the way that we’d recommend you consider:
Bring a spare tyre. In fact, bring two
Bring a Jerry can of extra fuel. In fact, bring two
Make sure you have the contact number of someone in Mongolia who might be able to help you if anything goes wrong
Bring a spade. Even in the most bad-ass 4x4…. Definitely, absolutely, bring a spade.
Bring a massive torch
Bring extra blankets
In especially remote regions, drive in convoy with others tourists where possible
If hiking alone, riding alone, or even driving, keep an eye on where you can find fresh water. Where there are rivers & steams you will probably find nomads not too far away who can help you out if you out if anything goes wrong
Beware of the dogs.
We hope that’s given you a little crash-course intro to help prepare you for a trip to Mongolia. it is the most incredible country, roamed by the world’s most hospitable people.
We are writing more about Mongolia whenever we can, so have a little browse below for other useful articles to help you travel deeper.
As alway, feel free to leave us any comments or questions!