“Dawn in Mongolia was an amazing thing. In one instant, the horizon became a faint line suspended in the darkness, and then the line was drawn upward, higher and higher. It was as if a giant hand had stretched down from the sky and slowly lifted the curtain of night from the face of the earth. It was a magnificent sight, far greater in scale…than anything that I, with my limited human faculties, could fully comprehend.”
–Haruki Murakami – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
For a country that’s sandwiched between Russia, the world’s largest country, to the north, and China, the world’s most populated country to the south – two countries that have been quite prominent in terms of global relations over the last century – Mongolia, with its tiny population and vast, empty landscapes, appears as a bastion of calm.
Still very in touch with its traditional roots, Mongolia is a perfect destination for people who are travelling Asia, and want to experience a land and culture that’s vastly different from the rest of the continent.
Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on earth, with 3.2 million people living in 1,564 km². So you could say there’s space to roam.
If you stand on the Mongolian steppe and look around you, you won’t see lush forests, sweeping canyons, or towering mountains, you’ll see pretty much nothing, which is where the beauty of Mongolia lies.
Oh, and horses. Goats too.
For those of you that are willing to go a little more out of the way while on your travels, here’s a Mongolia travel guide to show you why this place is worth the effort.
Why visit Mongolia?
Mongolia is a vast country with a long long history, but it still remains relatively untrodden. If you’re a tourist who hates crowds, and wants to see scenery like sprawling steppes and desert, mountain wildlife, and a quickly modernising capital city, then this may be the place for you.
Is Mongolia safe for tourists?
Mongolia is a reasonably safe place for tourists. However, crime is on the rise in more urban areas, and crimes like pickpocketing, bag snatching, muggings can happen, but mostly occur at night, outside bars and nightclubs.
Female tourists are also discouraged from travelling alone.
Like any country, the further you travel from urban areas, the more the crime rates drop. However, in a country with 3 million people, tourists with big, thick, western heads tend to stand out like sore thumbs, so always be aware and don’t wave your money around like it means nothing.
For more information about safety and crime in Mongolia, check out this website.
What’s the Mongolian climate?
Mongolia’s climate is largely continental, with long frigid winters and short warm summers. To be frank, the winters are fucking cold, with temperatures dropping as low as –40°C in the winter. So no, a lifetime of braving the winters of Galway and Mayo is not sufficient prep.
Gentlemen, you’ll lose more than your fingers.
Because of this the majority of tourists without a death wish will visit Mongolia during the summer months of July – August where temperatures can reach a high of 25°C, and during heat waves can reach around 38°C.
Anyone out there with even a passing interest in history, knows a bit about Mongolian history, particularly the exploits of Genghis Khan and his grandson Kubali.
Since the Mongol’s were primarily a nomadic people who didn’t erect castles and fortresses to the same extent European and Middle-Eastern civilisations did, there’s not a whole lot left to see nowadays.
The history is still very present however, with massive monuments to Genghis Khan, and museums to enjoy. Also there’s something oddly powerful in standing at the place where the largest ever continuous land empire began.
People, language, and culture of Mongolia
Even though Mongolia’s history is quite intertwined with that of their southern neighbour China, their language and culture is vastly different.
There are more than 20 enthnic groups within the Mongolic ethno-linguistic family, with the most common being Khalkh, taking up the vast majority of the population. The second highest ethnic group are Kazakh Turkic people.
There are also a small number of expats from countries like China, Russia, Korea, and America.
As is the case with many sparsely populated countries, Mongolians are some of the most warm-hearted, friendly people on Earth.
Mongolian is spoken by 90% of the population, with the remaining 10% being taken up by other languages like Russian and Mandarin.
Mongolian is not like languages of other Asian countries, but most similar to Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Armenian.
Unsurprisingly, horses and archery are both hugely important in Mongolian culture. If you’re visiting in July, you may get a chance to see the horse archery competitions held around the country. The skill is mindblowing – and honestly pretty terrifying when you think about the fact that these were the techniques used in Mongol warfare.
Mongolians have strong family values, and are usually quite tight-knit and independent. The families are usually quite large, and mothers who have 5 or more children are rewarded with the ‘honoured mother’ award.
Around one quarter of Mongolians still live a nomadic lifestyle, although more and more are abandoning this lifestyle and moving to the cities. Nomads tend to live very independently, feeding and clothing themselves with their own herds, and living in gers, which is the Mongolian word for yurts. Although some people still use the word yurt, at least to tourists.
Travelling in Mongolia
Being more than slightly off the beaten path, and having a vastly different culture, food, and general way of life than many of us are used to, travelling to and around Mongolia isn’t as easy as doing so in Europe. So here are some things to keep in mind:
When should I visit Mongolia?
The weather isn’t the only reason you should come to Mongolia from July – August. These months are also when the Nadaam celebration is hosted, and the entire country erupts into sports competitions like archery and wrestling.
Also, Mongolia being a somewhat outdoorsy country, it’s best to experience it in the summer.
How do I get to Mongolia?
Again, due to the fact that Mongolia is so remote, the best way to enter the country is to fly into the capital Ulaanbaatar. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to find a direct flight however, so you’ll most likely have to stop in Hong Kong, China, or Kazakhstan.
Check out what flights you can get from your area on the skyscanner app, or whatever you prefer to use.
If you’re keen for some real adventure, it is possible to drive over the Mongolian border. However if you’re using your own vehicle, it had best be a four wheel drive that can handle rough terrain.
Visas for Mongolia
For most countries, you do not require a visa to enter Mongolia if you’re staying for less than 90 days. Check out the visa requirements for your country here.
You usually will have to pay for a visa on arrival at the airport in Ulaanbaatar which is not expensive, around €32 or 108,000 Mongolian Tughrik.
The process at the airport can be a little slow, so it’s easier to have your documents ready beforehand.
How much time do I need in Mongolia?
Since Mongolia is a large, sparsely populated country, a lot of the attractions tend to spread out, so you may need to allocate some days where you’ll just be travelling by bus or car from place to place. If you only have a limited amount of time, you should choose a specific region and just focus on that.
If time is not an issue, I suggest spending at least two weeks in order to experience everything this country has to offer.
Transport in Mongolia
The infrastructure in Mongolia is still underdeveloped, so it may take longer to get from A-B than you expect. Buses are the most common form of transport, and there are a wide range of sizes available, from minivans to 45-seaters.
Since the journeys are quite long, the buses will stop at some small towns along the way for a food and bathroom break.
Ladies,make sure you use the toilet while stopped, because even though there will be other stops for bathroom breaks, it will be on the steppe. There are no ditches, hedges or structures of any description to squat behind. You’ll be in full view of everyone on the bus, so unless there’s some major showmanship in you, you may need to hold it.
You can also hire a car to get around Mongolia if you prefer to go by your own schedule. It’s actually cheaper to hire a car with a driver than to just hire a car. But if you prefer the freedom, it’s probably worth it.
Is it expensive to travel in Mongolia?
The currency used in Mongolia is called the Mongolian Tugrik, and 1 Euro is worth around 3450 Tugrik. So expect a lot of notes.
If you were to allocate around 25 – 30 Euro per day you could be reasonably comfortable during your trip. The average tourist spends around €8 per day on food and €3 on transportation. The average hotel costs around €20 per night, but staying in smaller hostels and homestays is much cheaper.
For a two week stay in Mongolia, you can expect to spend around €300.
Mongolia doesn’t have the extreme conditions that make it necessary to pack heavy survival equipment, but there are a lot of things you could pack to make your trip more comfortable and enjoyable:
- Toiletries (obviously)
- Sunscreen – It’s not known for scorching heat, but you’d be surprised
- Flexible backpack rather than a suitcase
- Day bag/backpack
- Water bottle
- Warms clothes
- Comfortable clothes for long bus journeys
- Walking shoes
- Ziploc bags
Food and drink in Mongolia
When people think of food in any east Asian country, their mind tends to drift towards the food from places like China, Japan, and Korea. The cuisine of Mongolia however, could not be more different.
Mongolians are meat lovers. Probably due to a large portion of the land being taken up as grazing land for horse and goat herds. The variety of meats does go beyond that however, with camel, marmot, beef, pork and mutton.
People mostly eat sheep and goat meat, and don’t tend to eat horse very often, but they do drink their milk. To help keep them warm in the cold winters, they drink fermented horse milk called airag.
It is, with all the certainty on Earth, the worst thing you will ever taste. But you don’t want to be rude now do you?
Aside from that, the food in Mongolia really is divine. A warning though: with the amount of meat and cheese eaten there, it can be a vegan’s nightmare. It is possible to make your way if you don’t eat meat or cheese, but if you’re staying with any nomadic people, you may struggle.
Here are some incredible Mongolian dishes to try:
Huushuur is deep fried meat pie filled with mutton or beef and onions. It’s the official dish of the Naadam festival, so if you are in Mongolia in July you’ll get a chance to try it.
Like their southern neighbours, Mongolian people are partial to a dumpling. Their two favoured kinds are Buuz, which are filled with meat garlic and onions and steamed, and Bansh, which are like a smaller version of Buuz but are boiled or fried and served with a rich sauce.
This is a friend noodle dish made with (surprise surprise) mutton or beef. Apparently, it’s particularly delicious with horse meat if you’re willing.
The one type of Mongolian food that you have a decent chance of finding outside of Mongolia, khorkhog, otherwise known as Mongolian barbeque. It’s made with sheep or goat meat with potatoes, garlic, carrots, and turnips (although ingredients may vary) cooked using hot rocks in a pot over an open fire.
Mongolian people also believe that holding these rocks can help reduce tiredness and increase blood circulation. I assume the rocks are cooled a little first, but then again, third degree burns would probably wake me up too.
This is stir fried rice with meat (guess which type) and onions.
As most of the food is gained from farm animals, there is also plenty of milk and cheese to go around. Some example of dairy products are:
- Aaruul – dried curd
- Byaslag – Mongolian cheese
- Eezgii – thick residue from the bottom of a pot of boiled milk and yogurt, then left out to try and harden (better than it sounds)
- Tarag – yogurt
- Tsotgii – cream
Mongolia Travel Guide: Top sights and things to do in Mongolia
Being a country triple the size of Germany, with 80 million less people, Mongolia cities and towns are very spread out – and so are their main tourist attractions. Be prepared to travel long distances between sights.
As long as you can find a way to entertain yourself on long bus journeys, and have the time needed to see a lot of the country, here are some places you need to see and things you need to do.
This is the ancient capital of Mongolia, and the former centre of the Mongolian Empire. Today, it is little more than a small town, but it’s still full of cultural sights.
It’s full of ruined grain silos, stone turtles, and even the ruins of the throne room sat in by Genghis’ son Ogedai.
Karakorum is remote enough that you can wander from your accommodation and be walking through the steppe within a few minutes.
Stay with a nomadic family
When staying in many airbnbs and hostels around the country, you will likely be sleeping in gers near the main building. And it’s really nice. If you want, you can travel onto the steppe and spend a night with a nomadic family.
You’ll be fed incredible local food, and even get to sleep in a ger, surrounded by pretty much nothing. Even if you’re exhausted, I suggest stepping outside late at night to really take it all in.
The toilet facilities are basic at best, you may have to do your business with the cold wind on your arse with, if you’re lucky, some corrugated iron for privacy. Truly at one with nature.
Shockingly, this ger in the absolute middle of nowhere does not have wifi. But sure, ask anyway.
The modern capital. This is where you’ll most likely enter and spend your first night in Mongolia. The architecture is done in the classically charming, bare concrete Soviet-style – due to their 20th century occupation.
Even though it’s not the prettiest of capital cities, it’s going to be your jumping off point on your trip, and a great place to stock up on any supplies you’ll need. If you have a licence and some knowledge, you can even rent a motorcycle for your trip.
The top sights here are the impressive National museum of Mongolia, and Genghis Khan’s great monument.
Nestled along the Russian border, Mongolia’s second largest body of water has a geographical history that goes back more than two million years.
It’s surrounded by grassy banks where yaks graze, and the local people relax in summer.
In the wilds of western Mongolia, Ölgii’s horizons are completely dominated by the Altai mountains.
Ancient history enthusiasts can marvel at the ancient petroglyphs and Turkic standing stones that scatter the mountain range.
If you remain there a little after the peak tourism season, you can enjoy the September Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival and witness the feats of eagle hunters.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, Mongolia is mostly open spaces, and there is so much room for national parks – and there are plenty. Depending on what you want to see, there are sweeping grasslands, steppes full of wild horses, snow covered mountains, jagged mountain ranges, lakes, and of course, deserts. Here are just some of the parks you can see.
- Terelj National Park
- Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
- Khustain Nuruu National Park
- Khorgo Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park
- Khangai Nuruu National Park
- Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park
Mongolia is beyond stunning, and unlike any place on Earth. Being there feels like being transported back in time – while holding onto modern luxuries of course. It’s full of people who are both modernising and staying in touch with the land that produced one of the most fascinating histories in the world.
Their tourism industry is still in the need of a little modernisation. But the lack of it gives you an experience you wouldn’t really get anywhere else.