Travelling around the countryside independently is the best way to see Mongolia and meet the people, but there are several matters you need to be aware of. Annual outbreaks of forest fires, the plague, foot-and-mouth and even cholera may affect your travel plans if there are quarantine restrictions.
Generally, shortages of petrol and spare parts are now uncommon, except in remote regions. Accidents are not uncommon. Try to avoid travelling at night, when unseen potholes, drunk drivers and wildlife can wreak havoc. Driving in the dark is also a great way to get completely lost.
Although there are 397km of navigable waterways in Mongolia, rivers aren’t used for transporting people or cargo. The biggest boat in the country is the Sükhbaatar, which very occasionally travels around Khövsgöl Nuur. There’s also a customs boat that patrols the Selenge Gol on the border of Russia and Mongolia. Some ger camps at Khövsgöl Nuur also own small boats that can be chartered.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world and we don’t normally recommend it. People who choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
Mongolia is different, however. Because the country is so vast, public transport so limited and the people so poor, hitching (usually on trucks) is a recognised – and, often, the only – form of transport in the countryside. Hitching is seldom free and often no different from just waiting for public transport to turn up. It is always slow – after stopping at gers to drink, fixing flat tyres, breaking down, running out of petrol and getting stuck in mud and rivers, a truck can take 48 hours to cover 200km.
Hitching is not generally dangerous personally, but it is still hazardous and often extremely uncomfortable. Don’t expect much traffic in remote rural areas; you might see one or two vehicles a day on many roads, and sometimes nobody at all for several days. In the towns, ask at the market, where trucks invariably hang around, or at the bus/truck/jeep station. The best place to wait is the petrol station on the outskirts of town, where most vehicles stop before any journey.
If you rely on hitching entirely, though, you will just travel from one dreary aimag town to another. You still need to hire a jeep to see, for example, the Gobi Desert, the mountains in Khentii or some of the lakes in the far west.
Truck drivers will normally expect some negotiable payment, which won’t be much cheaper than a long-distance bus or shared jeep; figure on around T1500 per hour travelled.
Bring a water- and dust-proof bag to put your backpack in. The most important things to bring, though, are an extremely large amount of patience and time, and a high threshold for discomfort. Carry camping gear for the inevitable breakdowns, or suffer along with your travel mates.
Private bus companies serve a handful of Mongolian cities, all connected to Ulaanbaatar. These include Baruun-Urt, Öndörkhaan, Dalanzadgad, Tsetserleg, Arvaikheer, Erdenet, Darkhan and Mörön. Most buses are old rust buckets, except the services to Darkhan and Erdenet, which use modern buses. The benefit of using buses is that they leave on time and drive straight to their destination, as opposed to private vans, which run on Mongolian time.
In Ulaanbaatar, regular and very crowded trolley-buses, buses and minibuses ply the main roads for around T200 a ride. Cities such as Darkhan and Erdenet have minibuses that shuttle from one end of town to the other, but you are unlikely to need them because most facilities are located centrally.
Travelling around Mongolia with your own car or motorcycle – without a driver – is not recommended. What look like main roads on the map are often little more than tyre tracks in the dirt, sand or mud, and there is hardly a signpost in the whole country. In Mongolia, roads connect nomads, most of whom by their nature keep moving, so even the roads are seminomadic, shifting like restless rivers. Remote tracks quickly turn into eight-lane dirt highways devoid of any traffic, making navigation tricky – some drivers follow the telephone lines when there are any, or else ask for directions at gers along the way. Towns with food and water are few and far between, and very few people in the countryside will speak anything but Mongolian or, if you are lucky, Russian.
To help you find your way around, use the GPS Coordinates Table, which contains many towns and villages, and some sights. The coordinates for a number of other sights are included in the regional chapters.
There are a couple of car-rental agencies in Ulaanbaatar, but they require that you be driven by one of their drivers. Drive Mongolia (011-312 277, 9911 8257; www.drivemongolia.com) is a tour operator that allows you to drive a hire vehicle, but you need to go with their support vehicle or be accompanied by a Mongolian driver. Their jeeps cost around US$50 per day.
If you want to buy a vehicle, you will have to ask around, or check out the tsaiz zakh (car market) in the northeastern part of Ulaanbaatar. A new Ij Planeta – the Russian-made motorcycle you see all over the countryside – sells for around US$900. A new Russian jeep costs around US$5000. In markets the sign ‘zarna’ on a jeep means ‘for sale’.
Travellers can use an international driving licence to drive any vehicle in Mongolia; expat residents need to apply for a local licence. If you buy a vehicle, inquire about registration at the local police station.
Two types of Russian fuel are available: ‘93’ is the best and the type used by Japanese jeeps, but it’s only generally available in Ulaanbaatar; all Russian-made vehicles use ‘76’, which is all that is available in the countryside.
The 1810km of railway line is primarily made up of the Trans-Mongolian Railway, connecting China with Russia. (Both the domestic and international trains use this same line.) In addition, there are two spur lines: to the copper-mining centre of Erdenet (from Darkhan) and the coal-mining city of Baganuur (from Ulaanbaatar). Another train runs weekly from Choibalsan, the capital of Dornod aimag, to the Russian border.
From Ulaanbaatar, daily express trains travel north to Darkhan, and on to Sükhbaatar or Erdenet. To the south, there are daily direct trains from Ulaanbaatar to Zamyn-Üüd, via Choir and Sainshand. There are also trains terminating at Choir twice a week. You can’t use the Trans-Mongolian Railway for domestic transport.
When travelling in hard-seat class, you will almost certainly have to fight to get a seat. If you’re not travelling alone, one of you can scramble on board and find seats and the other can bring the luggage on board. Young boys and girls usually travel around the train selling bread and fizzy drinks. Otherwise, there is nothing to eat or drink on local trains.
Mongolia claims to have about 49, 250km of highway – of which only around 1900km is actually paved. Taxis are only useful along these paved roads, eg from Ulaanbaatar to Zuunmod, Terelj, Darkhan, Erdenet and possibly Kharkhorin. But just as a Humvee is impractical on Hong Kong’s backstreets, so is a Hyundai-style taxi on the unpaved steppes. The general appalling quality of roads around the countryside means that most travel is by jeep or Furgon minivan.
Mongolia, a vast, sparsely populated country with very little infrastructure, relies heavily on air transport. It has 44 functioning airports, although only 12 of those have paved airstrips.
Almost all of the destinations are served directly from Ulaanbaatar, so flying from, say, Dalanzadgad to Bayan-Ölgii is impossible without first returning to UB. A T2000 domestic departure tax is payable at the airport.
MIAT (011-322 118; miat.com) is the state-owned airline that once flew to every corner of the country. A lack of functioning aeroplanes and increased competition has limited its service to only a handful of cities, namely Mörön, Arvaikheer, Altai, Khovd and Dalanzadgad.
MIAT is not known for its safety record, although it hasn’t had a fatal crash since 1998. Its domestic planes may be old but the pilots are the most experienced in the business. MIAT’s international service, on the other hand, has seen dramatic improvements in recent years. Its fleet includes an Airbus 310 and a Boeing 737.
Aero Mongolia (011-283 029; www.aeromongolia.mn) began service in 2003 and now operates two Fokker aircraft. Routes change but in 2007 it flew domestic services to Ölgii, Donoi (Uliastai), Dalanzadgad, Mörön, Ulaangom, Choibalsan and Khovd. It is really stingy on baggage allowance, allowing only 15kg (including hand luggage); any kilogram over the limit costs T2500. It only accepts cash payments and the rate will be better if you pay in US dollars. Aero Mongolia also serves Hohhot and Tianjin in China, and Irkutsk in Russia.
EZ Nis (011-313 689; www.eznis.com) operates two Swedish-built Saab 340B propeller aeroplanes and has domestic flights to/from UB and Choibalsan, Baruun-Urt, Mörön, Ulaangom, Khovd, Bayankhongor and Dalanzadgad. More destinations are planned, so check the schedule. It’s a slick and reliable operation, but more expensive than Aero Mongolia and MIAT.
Blue Sky Aviation (011-312 085; fax 011-322 857; www.bsamongolia.com) has a nine-seat Cessna that can be chartered for any part of the country.
Get to the airport at least one hour before your flight. Even if you have a ticket, flight number and an allocated seat number, don’t assume the plane won’t be overbooked. There are usually no assigned seats so you’ll have to do some scrambling once on board. Try to make certain your luggage has gone on the plane. If possible, carry your pack on as hand luggage to save time and the worry of losing your bag. However, make sure you don’t have any sharp or blunt objects in your carry-on (including bike tools). Gas canisters are not allowed on any flight.
The foreigner price is often several times more than what Mongolians pay for tickets. Anyone can buy a ticket on your behalf, but you will always have to pay in US dollars (or by credit card in Ulaanbaatar). Tickets range from US$66 (to Arvaikheer) to US$183 for a four-hour, 1380km flight to the far west – pretty reasonable, considering the distances. Children aged between five and 16 years pay half; under fives fly free. If you’ve come on a student visa you can get 25% to 50% off the cost of the ticket.
Ask about baggage allowances when you buy your aeroplane ticket. EZ Nis allows you to carry 20kg without extra charges.
A domestic ticket reservation isn’t worth diddly-squat until you have a ticket in your hand. In the countryside, buy your ticket as soon as you arrive.
You can buy a return ticket in Ulaanbaatar, but there is no computerised reservation system connecting the various airports around the country so you will have to reconfirm your reservation at the airport as soon as you arrive at your destination.
If you wish to fly in one direction and return by road in the other (for example to Mörön), it’s best to fly from Ulaanbaatar, where you are more likely to get a ticket and a seat, and then return overland – otherwise you may wait days or more for a flight and ticket in Mörön.
Seats can be difficult to get in summer, especially in the July tourist peak and in late August as students return to college.
For keen bikers with a sense of adventure, Mongolia offers an unparalleled cycling experience. The vast, open steppes make for rough travel but if properly equipped there is nothing stopping you from travelling pretty much anywhere (although a trip to the Gobi could only be done with vehicle support).