Both minivans and jeeps are used for long- and short-distance travel in the countryside. They can be shared among strangers, which is good for a group of people headed from one aimag centre to another (or usually to/from Ulaanbaatar). Alternatively, they can be hired privately.
Furgon minivans In most cases, the grey 11-seat Furgon minivans are used for longer cross-country trips that see a lot of traffic. Jeeps, khaki-coloured or green, are found in more remote areas such as sum (district) centres. They are nicknamed jaran yös (shortened to jaris), which means ‘69’ – the number of the original model.
Toyota Land Cruisers The large and comfortable Toyota Land Cruiser–style jeeps are owned by wealthy Mongolians and never used for share purposes (though some travel agencies might have them for hire, but expect to pay at least 30% more than for a good Russian jeep).
Travelling speed Jeeps and minivans are an important form of local transport, and are mandatory when visiting more remote attractions. They can typically only travel between 30km/h and 50km/h. The Gobi region generally has the best roads and here you can average 60km/h.
A real problem with share vehicles is that they are privately operated and won’t leave until they are packed tighter than a sardine tin. The waiting game sometimes has the effect of turning your hair grey.
In the countryside, most vans just park at the local market and wait for passengers to turn up, which means that if the van isn’t already mostly full you’ll be waiting around all day for the seats to fill up, if they ever do.
Typically, even after the 11-seat van has 20 or so passengers, the driver will vanish for an hour or two for lunch, or to find more cargo, spare parts and petrol.
One solution is to ask the driver to pick you up at your hotel or the local internet cafe when they are ready to go, which they usually agree to. If you have a mobile phone, give the driver your number and they will call you when they are ready to go.
The waiting time from Ulaanbaatar isn’t as bad, but you can still count on two hours or more.
Share jeeps and minivans are the most common form of public transport in Mongolia.
Destinations Private vehicles go from Ulaanbaatar to all aimag capitals, major cities and tourist destinations. Less frequent and reliable services operate between most aimag capitals, but very few jeeps go to the sums.
Bring For a long-distance trip bring snacks and water; stops at a roadside guanz (canteen or cheap restaurant) can be few and far between.
Breakdowns You can expect at least one breakdown and it would be a good idea to bring a sleeping bag and warm clothes just in case you have to spend the night somewhere.
Discomfort Long-distance travel of over 10 hours is fiendishly uncomfortable. Most people who take a long-distance minivan to Mörön or Dalanzadgad end up flying back.
Cost Minivan or jeep fares are usually about 10% more than a bus fare, largely because they can drive faster than a bus.
Postal vans In the countryside, the post office operates postal vans, which accept passengers. They have fixed departure times, normally running once a week between an aimag capital and a sum capital. The local post office should have a list of departure times and fares.
The best way to see the countryside of Mongolia independently is to hire your own minivan or jeep, which will come with a driver and, for a little extra, a guide. If you share the costs with others it doesn’t work out to be too expensive.
Mongolia claims to have about 49,250km of highway – of which only around 5000km is actually paved. Taxis are only useful along these paved roads, eg from Ulaanbaatar north to Darkhan, Erdenet and Bulgan, west to Kharkhorin, Tsetserleg and Bayankhongor, south to Mandalgov, Sainshand and Zamyn-Üüd and east to Chinggis Khot (Öndörkhaan). However, most sights worth seeing lie a considerable distance from the main roads, so even short trips require some off-roading. It should raise a red flag in your mind if a freelance guide tells you it's OK to tour the countryside in his brother's Toyota Prius taxi.
In Ulaanbaatar, crowded trolleybuses and buses ply the main roads for T200–400 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.
Public transport is slow and destinations are limited. Most visitors hire a guide and driver for countryside tours. Jumping on a tour at the last minute is very difficult so streamline your trip by booking a tour several weeks prior to arrival.
Train Useful for getting in and out of the country but unnecessary for domestic travel. The lone exception is for a side trip to Sainshand (for Khamaryn Monastery). Best for trips to Zamyn-Üüd for travellers heading to the Chinese border.
Car The main way to get around the countryside. Hiring a car and driver is actually cheaper than hiring a car without a driver. Drive on the right. A 4WD is essential for most destinations outside the capital.
Bus The provincial capitals are accessible by bus and services run daily to most cities. Connections to the western aimags are less regular.