Mongolia Travel Guide – Everything You Need to Know

Nestled between Russia and China, Mongolia beckons adventurous travelers with its vast, untamed landscapes and nomadic heritage. Renowned for the legendary Genghis Khan and the vastness of the Mongolian steppe, this landlocked country offers a unique blend of ancient traditions and rugged natural beauty. From the serene expanse of the Gobi Desert to the dramatic peaks of the Altai Mountains, Mongolia is a haven for those seeking an escape into the wilderness. Nomadic hospitality, the vibrant Naadam Festival, and the timeless allure of the nomadic way of life make Mongolia a destination where history, culture, and the raw beauty of the great outdoors converge to create an unparalleled adventure.

What’s the Best Time to Visit? 📅

The best time to visit Mongolia as a tourist largely depends on your preferences for weather and the type of experiences you seek. Mongolia experiences a continental climate with distinct seasons. Here’s a breakdown of the seasons:

  1. Summer (June to August):
    • Best Time for Travel: This is the peak tourist season when temperatures are milder, ranging from 20°C to 30°C (68°F to 86°F).
    • Activities: Summer is ideal for outdoor activities, such as trekking, horseback riding, and attending festivals. The countryside is lush and vibrant during this time.
  2. Autumn (September to October):
    • Weather: The temperatures start to cool down, ranging from 10°C to 20°C (50°F to 68°F).
    • Activities: Autumn offers beautiful landscapes with changing foliage. It’s a good time for trekking, and you can still experience the nomadic way of life.
  3. Winter (November to February):
    • Weather: Winter is cold, with temperatures often dropping below freezing. In January, temperatures can reach -30°C (-22°F).
    • Activities: Winter is suitable for those interested in experiencing Mongolia’s unique winter festivals, ice festivals, and winter sports. The landscapes are covered in snow.
  4. Spring (March to May):
    • Weather: Spring sees a gradual warming, with temperatures ranging from -5°C to 15°C (23°F to 59°F).
    • Activities: Spring is a transitional period, and it’s a good time for birdwatching and witnessing the renewal of the countryside. Nomadic families begin moving to their summer pastures.

Considerations:

  • Mongolia’s climate can be extreme, so pack accordingly based on the season of your visit.
  • The Naadam Festival in July is a major cultural event featuring traditional Mongolian sports, making it an exciting time to visit.

Ultimately, the best time to visit Mongolia depends on your interests. If you prefer milder temperatures and lush landscapes, summer is ideal. If you want to experience winter festivities and snowy landscapes, the winter months are suitable.

What’s the Best Way to Get Around? 🚌

Getting around Mongolia as a tourist requires planning, as the vast and diverse landscapes present various transportation challenges. Here are some ways to navigate the country:

  1. Domestic Flights:
    • Advantages: Mongolia has domestic airports in major cities. Domestic flights are the quickest way to cover long distances.
    • Considerations: Flights may be limited to certain regions, and schedules can be affected by weather conditions.
  2. Overland Tours and Guided Trips:
    • Advantages: Joining an organized tour with a local guide and driver is a popular option. It provides access to remote areas and ensures a smooth journey.
    • Considerations: Mongolia’s vastness makes overland travel time-consuming, but it allows you to experience the diverse landscapes and nomadic culture.
  3. Local Buses:
    • Advantages: Buses connect major cities and towns. They are economical and offer a chance to interact with locals.
    • Considerations: Schedules may not always be reliable, and routes can be limited, especially in rural areas.
  4. Shared Taxis and Minivans:
    • Advantages: Shared taxis and minivans operate on popular routes, providing flexibility and faster travel.
    • Considerations: Availability may vary, and vehicles might not be as comfortable as private transportation.
  5. Renting a Car:
    • Advantages: Renting a car allows you to explore at your own pace, especially in more remote areas.
    • Considerations: Mongolia’s road conditions can be challenging, and navigation might be difficult. Ensure your vehicle is suitable for off-road driving.
  6. Motorcycle or Bicycle:
    • Advantages: For the adventurous, exploring Mongolia on a motorcycle or bicycle can be a rewarding experience.
    • Considerations: Conditions may be tough, and it’s essential to be well-prepared with suitable equipment and navigation tools.
  7. Camel or Horse Trekking:
    • Advantages: In certain regions, especially the Gobi Desert, camel or horse trekking offers a unique way to experience the landscape.
    • Considerations: This is more of an activity than a primary means of transportation, and it requires proper planning.
  8. Local Airlines for Remote Areas:
    • Advantages: In extremely remote areas, local airlines and charter flights may be available.
    • Considerations: These services may be expensive and are subject to weather conditions.

When planning transportation in Mongolia, it’s crucial to consider the distances, weather conditions, and the level of adventure you seek. Many travelers opt for a combination of transportation modes depending on the regions they wish to explore.

What’s the Official Language?

The official language of Mongolia is Mongolian. Here are some basic Mongolian phrases that may be helpful for tourists:

  1. Hello – Сайн байна уу (Sain baina uu)
  2. Goodbye – Баяртай (Bayartai)
  3. Thank you – Баярлалаа (Bayarlalaa)
  4. Yes – Тийм (Tiim)
  5. No – Үгүй (Ugui)
  6. Excuse me / I’m sorry – Уучлаарай (Uuchlaarai)
  7. Please – Гэж байна уу (Gej baina uu)
  8. How much is this? – Энэ нь хэдэн вэ? (Ene n khedn ve?)
  9. Where is…? – … хаана байна вэ? (… khaana baina ve?)
  10. Help! – Туслаач! (Tuslaach!)

These basic phrases should assist you in navigating everyday situations and interacting with locals. Mongolian pronunciation may be challenging at first, but locals will appreciate your efforts to communicate in their language.

Where to Stay? 🏨

In Mongolia, as a tourist, you can find accommodation options ranging from traditional nomadic ger camps to modern hotels in urban areas. Here are some suggestions on where to stay in Mongolia:

  1. Ulaanbaatar:
    • Hotels: The capital city, Ulaanbaatar, offers a range of hotels catering to various budgets. You can find international hotel chains, boutique hotels, and guesthouses.
    • Ger Camps: Some ger camps are located on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, providing a unique experience of staying in traditional Mongolian gers while still having access to the city.
  2. Ger Camps in the Countryside:
    • Traditional Gers: Experience traditional Mongolian nomadic life by staying in gers in the countryside. Ger camps are often set in picturesque locations, providing an authentic cultural experience.
    • Tented Camps: In more remote areas, tented camps may be available for those seeking a closer connection to nature.
  3. National Parks and Natural Reserves:
    • Eco-Camps: In national parks and natural reserves, you may find eco-camps that offer comfortable accommodations with minimal environmental impact.
  4. Local Guesthouses:
    • Community-Based Tourism: In some areas, community-based tourism initiatives offer guesthouse stays, providing an opportunity to interact with local communities.
  5. Western Mongolia (Bayan-Ulgii Province):
    • Ger Camps and Homestays: In the western part of Mongolia, known for its Kazakh culture and stunning landscapes, you can find ger camps and homestays.
  6. Gobi Desert:
    • Ger Camps: Explore the vast Gobi Desert by staying in ger camps that offer a blend of comfort and a taste of nomadic life.
  7. Khuvsgul Lake:
    • Lakeside Camps: Enjoy the pristine beauty of Khuvsgul Lake by staying in camps along its shores, offering tranquility and breathtaking views.

When choosing accommodation, consider the type of experience you seek, whether it’s a more urban stay in Ulaanbaatar, an immersion into nomadic life in the countryside, or a combination of both. It’s advisable to book accommodations in advance, especially during peak tourist seasons.

What to Eat? 🍽️

Mongolian cuisine reflects the nomadic lifestyle and the harsh climate of the region. Here are some must-try foods in Mongolia:

  1. Buuz (Бууз):
    • Description: Buuz are traditional Mongolian dumplings filled with minced meat (usually beef or mutton) and sometimes onions. They are typically steamed.
    • Experience: Buuz are a staple during Mongolian holidays and celebrations, and trying them offers a taste of authentic Mongolian comfort food.
  2. Khorkhog (Хорхог):
    • Description: Khorkhog is a traditional Mongolian barbecue. It involves cooking meat (often lamb or goat) with vegetables and stones heated over an open fire.
    • Experience: Khorkhog is not only delicious but also a cultural experience, as the cooking method is unique to Mongolia.
  3. Khuushuur (Хуушуур):
    • Description: Khuushuur are deep-fried pastries filled with minced meat, typically beef or mutton, and sometimes onions.
    • Experience: Often enjoyed during festivals and gatherings, khuushuur are a savory treat with a crispy exterior and flavorful filling.
  4. Airag (Айраг):
    • Description: Airag is fermented mare’s milk, a traditional Mongolian beverage. It has a slightly sour taste and a low alcohol content.
    • Experience: Trying airag provides a glimpse into the nomadic way of life, as it has been a traditional drink among Mongolian herders for centuries.
  5. Tsagaan Idee (Цагаан идээ):
    • Description: Tsagaan idee, or “white food,” refers to dairy products like aaruul (dried curds), cheese, and yogurt.
    • Experience: Dairy products play a significant role in Mongolian cuisine, and tasting various forms of tsagaan idee is a must.
  6. Boodog (Боодог):
    • Description: Boodog is a unique Mongolian dish where meat, usually marmot or goat, is cooked inside the animal’s skin, along with hot stones, over an open flame.
    • Experience: Boodog is not only a culinary experience but also a cultural one, showcasing traditional nomadic cooking methods.
  7. Tsuivan (Цуйван):
    • Description: Tsuivan is a noodle dish made with stir-fried meat (often beef or mutton), vegetables, and handmade noodles.
    • Experience: Tsuivan is a hearty and satisfying dish, commonly enjoyed in both rural and urban settings.

Trying these dishes will give you a taste of Mongolia’s rich culinary heritage and the nomadic traditions that influence its cuisine.

What to See? 🔍

Mongolia is a vast and diverse country with stunning landscapes and a rich cultural heritage. Here are some must-see places for tourists in Mongolia:

  1. Gobi Desert:
    • Description: Explore the vast and unique landscapes of the Gobi Desert, known for its towering sand dunes, rocky canyons, and diverse wildlife.
    • Highlights: Khongoryn Els sand dunes, Flaming Cliffs (Bayanzag), Yolyn Am (Ice Valley), and the stunning landscapes of the Gobi.
  2. Khuvsgul Lake:
    • Description: Khuvsgul Lake, located in the northern part of the country, is one of the largest and deepest freshwater lakes in Central Asia.
    • Highlights: Pristine waters, picturesque landscapes, and opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, and cultural experiences with the local Tsaatan people.
  3. Terelj National Park:
    • Description: Terelj National Park, located close to Ulaanbaatar, offers a mix of natural beauty and cultural attractions.
    • Highlights: Turtle Rock, Aryabal Meditation Temple, and opportunities for outdoor activities such as hiking, horseback riding, and visiting nomadic families.
  4. Karakorum and Erdene Zuu Monastery:
    • Description: Karakorum was the capital of the Mongol Empire, and Erdene Zuu Monastery, built in 1586, is one of the oldest and most significant monasteries in Mongolia.
    • Highlights: Historical artifacts, religious art, and the unique blend of Buddhist and shamanistic influences.
  5. Hustai National Park:
    • Description: Hustai National Park is known for its successful reintroduction of the Przewalski’s horse, an endangered wild horse native to the steppes of Central Asia.
    • Highlights: Opportunities to see the Przewalski’s horse in its natural habitat, as well as other wildlife such as marmots and red deer.
  6. Orkhon Valley:
    • Description: The Orkhon Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is known for its historical and cultural significance, including ancient archaeological sites and nomadic traditions.
    • Highlights: Tuvkhun Monastery, Kharkhorin (Karakorum), and the scenic Orkhon River Valley.
  7. Altai Tavan Bogd National Park:
    • Description: Located in the far west of Mongolia, Altai Tavan Bogd National Park features diverse landscapes, including high mountains, glaciers, and alpine lakes.
    • Highlights: The Five Holy Peaks, Potanin Glacier, and opportunities for trekking and mountaineering.
  8. Khustai National Park:
    • Description: Khustai National Park is known for its successful reintroduction of the wild Przewalski’s horse, an endangered species.
    • Highlights: The chance to see Przewalski’s horses, as well as other wildlife such as marmots and red deer, in their natural habitat.

These are just a few examples of the breathtaking and culturally rich destinations Mongolia has to offer. Whether you’re interested in history, nature, or nomadic culture, Mongolia has something to captivate every traveler.

What to Do? 📸

Mongolia offers a wide range of unique experiences for tourists, allowing them to immerse themselves in the country’s nomadic culture, stunning landscapes, and rich history. Here are some must-do things for tourists in Mongolia:

  1. Experience Nomadic Culture:
    • Description: Stay with a nomadic family in a traditional ger (yurt) and experience the nomadic way of life. Participate in daily activities like herding animals, milking livestock, and learning traditional crafts.
  2. Ride a Mongolian Horse:
    • Description: Mongolia is known for its small but sturdy horses. Take the opportunity to go horseback riding in the vast steppes, experiencing the nomadic lifestyle from a different perspective.
  3. Attend Naadam Festival:
    • Description: Naadam is Mongolia’s traditional “Three Manly Games” festival, featuring wrestling, horse racing, and archery. Attend this lively event, usually held in July, for a taste of Mongolian sports and culture.
  4. Explore Ulaanbaatar:
    • Description: Visit the capital city of Ulaanbaatar to explore museums, historic sites, and vibrant markets. Don’t miss the Gandan Monastery, the National Museum of Mongolia, and the Sukhbaatar Square.
  5. Visit Gandan Monastery:
    • Description: Explore Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, one of the most important Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. Witness religious ceremonies and view the impressive Migjid Janraisig statue.
  6. Hike in Terelj National Park:
    • Description: Head to Terelj National Park for hiking adventures with stunning views. Visit iconic landmarks like Turtle Rock and Aryabal Meditation Temple while enjoying the natural beauty.
  7. See Ancient Petroglyphs:
    • Description: Visit the UNESCO-listed petroglyphs in the Gobi Desert or the Bayanzag area to see ancient rock carvings depicting scenes from daily life, animals, and rituals.
  8. Experience Eagle Hunting:
    • Description: In the Altai Mountains, witness the ancient art of eagle hunting practiced by the Kazakh nomads. Local eagle hunters showcase their skills, and visitors may have the chance to interact with these majestic birds.
  9. Visit Karakorum and Erdene Zuu Monastery:
    • Description: Explore the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire at Karakorum and visit Erdene Zuu Monastery, surrounded by impressive walls with 108 stupas.
  10. Discover Genghis Khan’s Statue Complex:
    • Description: Visit the Genghis Khan Statue Complex, featuring a colossal statue of Genghis Khan on horseback. Climb to the top for panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes.
  11. Take a Camel Trek in the Gobi Desert:
    • Description: Experience camel trekking in the Gobi Desert, where you can explore the vast landscapes and sand dunes, especially at Khongoryn Els.
  12. Attend Traditional Mongolian Performances:
    • Description: Enjoy traditional Mongolian performances featuring throat singing, traditional music, and dance. Many cultural shows are held in Ulaanbaatar.

These activities provide a diverse and immersive experience, allowing tourists to appreciate Mongolia’s unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty.

Culture and Safety 🦺

Culture in Mongolia:

1. Nomadic Heritage:

  • Nomadic Lifestyle: Mongolia has a strong nomadic culture, and many people still live in traditional gers (yurts) and follow a pastoral way of life.
  • Hospitality: Nomadic families are known for their warm hospitality. It’s common for visitors to be offered traditional dairy products, such as airag (fermented mare’s milk) and kumis.

2. Religion:

  • Buddhism and Shamanism: Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, has deep roots in Mongolia. Shamanistic practices are also prevalent, and you may encounter ceremonies and rituals during your travels.

3. Naadam Festival:

  • Traditional Sports: The Naadam Festival, held annually in July, showcases Mongolia’s “Three Manly Games”: wrestling, horse racing, and archery. Attending Naadam provides insight into traditional sports and cultural festivities.

4. Language:

  • Mongolian Language: The official language is Mongolian, written in the Cyrillic script. While English is not widely spoken in rural areas, you’ll find more English speakers in urban centers.

Safety in Mongolia:

1. Nomadic Hospitality:

  • Safe Environment: Mongolia is generally considered safe for travelers. Nomadic communities are welcoming and accustomed to hosting visitors.

2. Health and Hygiene:

  • Medical Facilities: Medical facilities may be limited, especially in rural areas. Ensure you have travel insurance and take necessary health precautions, including vaccinations.

3. Transportation:

  • Road Conditions: In rural areas, roads may be challenging, and weather conditions can impact travel. Choose reliable transportation options and be prepared for varying road conditions.

4. Altitude Considerations:

  • High Altitudes: Certain areas, such as the Altai Mountains, have high altitudes. Take time to acclimatize and stay hydrated.

5. Weather Extremes:

  • Varied Climates: Mongolia experiences extreme temperatures. Be prepared for cold winters and hot summers, and pack accordingly.

6. Wildlife Awareness:

  • Wildlife Encounters: Mongolia is home to diverse wildlife. While encounters are rare, be aware of your surroundings, especially in more remote areas.

7. Nomadic Etiquette:

  • Respect Local Customs: Respect nomadic customs and seek permission before entering ger camps. It’s customary to offer a friendly greeting by saying “Sain bainuu?” (Are you well?).

8. Personal Safety:

  • Personal Belongings: Exercise standard precautions for personal safety. Keep valuables secure and be aware of your surroundings.

9. Traveling in Groups:

  • Group Travel: Traveling with a guide or in a group can enhance safety, especially in remote regions.

10. Emergency Preparedness:Emergency Contacts: Familiarize yourself with emergency contact information and know the location of the nearest embassy or consulate.

By respecting local customs, staying informed, and being prepared for the unique aspects of Mongolia’s nomadic culture and environment, travelers can have a safe and enriching experience in this vast and captivating country.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mongolia offers a captivating blend of nomadic heritage, breathtaking landscapes, and unique cultural experiences for travelers. From the vast steppes to the Gobi Desert, visitors can immerse themselves in the nomadic lifestyle, witness traditional sports at the Naadam Festival, and explore ancient monasteries and historic sites. The warmth of nomadic hospitality, coupled with the thrill of horseback riding, camel treks, and encounters with diverse wildlife, creates a memorable adventure. Travelers are encouraged to embrace the rich culture, respect local customs, and navigate the country’s safety considerations to make the most of their journey through this unique and hospitable land.