Minivans, jeeps and SUVs are used for long- and short-distance travel in the countryside, and are mandatory when visiting more remote attractions. 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 Off the paved roads, jeeps and minivans can typically only travel between 30km/h and 50km/h. Travel speeds in the Gobi tend to be a bit faster due to the flat, open landscape.
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 more than 15 hours is fiendishly uncomfortable. Most people who take a long-distance minivan to western Mongolia end up flying back. Trips to Mörön and Dalanzadgad are more bearable now that paved roads reach these towns.
Cost Minivan and jeep fares are usually about 10% more than a bus fare, largely because they tend to be 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. Guesthouses in Ulaanbaatar are the best places to ask.
Mongolia's network of paved roads now extends from Ulaanbaatar to most aimag capitals, with the exception of cities in the far west. Taxis are only useful along these paved roads, eg from Ulaanbaatar north to Darkhan, Erdenet and Mörön (and Lake Khövsgöl), west to Kharkhorin, Tsetserleg and Bayankhongor, south to Dalanzadgad, Sainshand and Zamyn-Üüd and east to Choibalsan. However, most sights worth seeing lie a considerable distance from the main roads, so even short trips require some off-roading. And if you are on a circular route a good part of your journey will be on jeep tracks. It should raise a big 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 T500 a ride (you'll need to buy a U-money swipe card at a kiosk near the bus stand). 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.