A land defined by boundless steppes, blue skies and roving nomads, Mongolia is perfectly set up for adventure and cultural immersion. Memorable experiences are a given, but travel in the world’s least-densely-populated country comes with its own challenges, so it pays to level-up on your Mongolia knowledge before you come.
On my own Mongolia adventures, I’ve wild-camped in a lightning storm; got queasy on fermented horse milk; broken down multiple times on epic drives; had my pocket picked; crashed a Kazakh wedding; been thrown from two horses; and – perhaps my biggest faux pas – tried to cross part of the Gobi desert in a Toyota Prius. (Spoiler: I got stuck!)
Experience is the mother of wisdom, so here are some tips to help you make fewer mistakes on your own trip. However you choose to explore this fascinating country, remember that Mongolians are famously hospitable and predisposed to help strangers in need – even if things do go wrong, someone will eventually put you back on the right track.
1. Organize your tour well before you travel
Mongolia’s travel season is fleeting, stretching from late May to late August, so the best drivers, guides and vehicles are soon snaffled up. In the past, it was possible to rock up to Ulaanbaatar in summer and ask around at guesthouses to find space on a tour, but with the suspension of the Trans-Mongolian Railway, fewer travelers are passing through. Booking tours ahead is the way to go.
2. Don’t be too ambitious with your Mongolia itinerary
A common mistake is to try to see too much of Mongolia in one go, which can turn your trip into a wearisome, bone-rattling driving safari. It’s better to focus on just one area of the country, or schedule a stop of at least two nights in each destination so you can slow down and enjoy the majesty and serenity of the Mongolian landscape.
3. Book domestic travel tickets through local Mongolian agencies
Schedules for domestic flights and rail travel often change at the last minute. If you book through a local travel agent in Mongolia, they’ll be able to sort you out if your flight is canceled or delayed. If you miss a connection or are running late, a good tour operator might even be able to hold the plane for you for an hour or so.
4. If you plan to drive yourself, avoid July and August
The summer travel season from July to August coincides with the time when the grassy tracks of the steppe become waterlogged and the risk of getting stuck rises exponentially. If you intend to drive yourself, it’s better to come in the shoulder season in June or September for firmer ground. If you come at the height of summer, stick to the paved roads that fan outwards from the capital, or hire a car and a local driver who knows the local driving conditions.
5. Download podcasts and audiobooks for those long road trips
Mongolia is three times the size of France, and most roads are bumpy tracks, which translates to low average speeds even in a modern 4WD. Expect to spend hours bouncing along through vast, unchanging landscapes – beautiful but somewhat repetitive. This terrain is crying out for a good soundtrack; preload your audio player with good tunes or a selection of audiobooks or podcasts to help the miles pass.
6. Bring sanitary supplies and medication
While you can pick up most health essentials in the capital, once you’re out on the steppe you’ll find that personal sanitary supplies and medication are much harder to find. Make space in your pack and come prepared with everything you need.
7. Spice up your mutton with condiments
Ulaanbaatar has a buzzing dining scene, but out in the wilds, you’ll subsist mostly on mutton dumplings (buuz), fried mutton pancakes (khuushuur), mutton with pasta chunks (tsuivan), or just plain boiled mutton (makh). On a long expedition this can get boring, so remember to pack a bottle of sriracha, horseradish, gochujang, piri-piri sauce, or any other condiment that you like to use to zhush up your food.
8. Boil or purify water from streams and lakes
Rural Mongolia may look pristine, but even crystal clear water can contain microbes, contaminants or impurities. Boiling water for at least one minute can kill most harmful microorganisms, or you can use water purification tablets or a portable filtration system to cut down on energy use.
9. Pack camping gear to save money (and if heading out west)
In Mongolia’s most popular destinations, you can stay overnight in fixed ger (yurt) camps set up for tourists, but in remote western areas such as Bayan-Ölgii province, it’s a good idea to carry your own tent and camping gear, as ger camps are few and far between. Ulaanbaatar is full of shops selling outdoor equipment, in case you didn’t bring your own gear from home.
10. Bring gifts when visiting nomad families
It’s customary to bring something for your hosts when staying with local people in Mongolia. Popular gifts include food, candies, cigarettes and bottles of alcohol. Taking along souvenirs or photographs from your own country is another great way to foster cultural exchange.
11. Climb a hill to get a mobile phone signal
In recent years, cell phone coverage in Mongolia has become much more widespread, with fewer dead zones, though there are still some off-grid spots. If you’re in the countryside and don’t have a signal, usually all you need to do is climb the nearest hill and you’ll be back online.
12. Think twice about riding that horse
Falling off a horse is one of the most common accidents to befall foreigners in Mongolia. If you are keen to get in the saddle, make sure your travel insurance covers it, and consider getting some practice before you leave home. Be extra careful in remote areas such as the Gobi, as horses tend to be more skittish, often a result of mixing different herds to make up the numbers for the tourist season.
13. Observe ger (yurt) etiquette
There are special rules for staying in Mongolia’s most famous form of accommodation. Inside a ger, it’s polite to wait until you’re seated and have been served tea before engaging in conversation with your hosts. It’s also disrespectful to throw trash into the central stove; instead, place it in front and your host will dispose of it.
14. Be vigilant when walking around central Ulaanbaatar
While Mongolia is generally a safe place to travel, tourists have been known to get robbed in Ulaanbaatar. Back in 2012, I had my wallet picked from my back pocket outside the Ulaanbaatar Department Store – a rookie mistake! Also take extra care when crossing the street – Ulaanbaatar is choked with cars and pedestrians get no special treatment from motorists.
15. Use official taxis after dark
In Ulaanbaatar there are two types of taxis – official taxis and the unofficial kind, essentially regular cars prowling the streets for fares. While unlicensed cabs are generally safe by day, you should stick to official taxis at night. Two useful taxi apps are UBCab and ABA taxi Mongolia, each with their own registered drivers.
16. Use what3words to find places and points of interest
Mongolia has adopted the popular what3words navigation system, where locations are mapped using unique combinations of three words. This makes it easier to locate sites and attractions in a country with few named roads and landmarks. The current edition of the Lonely Planet Mongolia guidebook lists what3words locations next to every point of interest.
17. Get a GPS tracker device
The vehicle version of the hikers’ GPS device, a GPS tracker will provide an extra level of safety when adventuring into the great Mongolian emptiness. If you drive with a tracker, any tour company or support office in Ulaanbaatar can locate your whereabouts if you get lost or your vehicle runs into difficulties.