This comprehensive Mongolia travel blog post includes Mongolia tours, horse trekking, and solo travel. Whether you’re 7 days in Mongolia or any other amount of time, this will guide you.
I highly recommend Mongolia travel, as it’s safe as a solo or group traveler. Visit Mongolia for the amazing landscapes and the welcoming people. Here’s all my best Mongolia travel advice! Enjoy and let me know in the comments below if you have any questions.
Also, there may be some affiliate links on they page, which means that if you click on them and then purchase something, I may receive a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks in advance for your support!!
I have not included many Mongolia pictures in this page, for your convenience, in case you are currently traveling in a place with poor internet connection (like the Mongolian countryside). If you do have good internet, please see the Mongolia photos here! I think you’ll enjoy them.
Mongolia photos are also throughout my many Mongolia blog posts. Some are linked within the information below.
Mongolia Map + Books
This is short and sweet! The 3 items you should definitely take are:
- Mongolia Guidebook. I used the book linked to below, since I wanted the inside scoop from Peace Corps volunteers who live in Mongolia. However, it might be worthwhile to get the most recently published book, for up to date information.
- Mongolian Phrasebook. I used Lonely Planets, since they produce comprehensive, easy-to-use, pocket-sized books.
- Mongolia Map. Regardless of how you travel (tour, solo, etc.), you’ll likely be traveling in Mongolia over vast distances. It’s nice knowing where you are, what’s around you, and where you’re going next. A full map is better than a small one in a guidebook for planning a multi-day journey. It’s unlikely your driver will know enough English to tell you how far away the next destination is.
All of the above are helpful. Unless you speak Mongolian or will be traveling with a translator guide, these items are invaluable for communicating with your driver or with local people you meet. Especially outside of Ulaan Baatar, otherwise known as UB, very few people speak English. Every time I opened my map or phrasebook around other tourists, they would ask to borrow them, so it’s not overkill to take these along. Even locals enjoyed perusing the ‘sexual health’ section of my phrasebook.!
Buy your books and map now, so you can start planning your itinerary!
Best Time of Year to Visit Mongolia
Assuming you would like traveling easily and not experiencing blizzards and freezing cold weather, I think the best time of year for visiting Mongolia is May to August. The grass is green, the weather is mostly pleasant, and the countryside is full of baby animals. You’ll also eat and drink all kinds of dairy products, including cheese, butter, and alcohol products from yak, cow, goat, sheep, camel, and horse milk.
How to Get in and Around Mongolia
Getting into Mongolia – Mongolia Visa + Transport
Mongolia Visa – USA Tourist – 30 / 90 days
Depending on your citizenship, you may need a Mongolia visa. At the time of this writing, USA tourists can enter visa-free for up to 90 days, but may need to register with the authorities if staying more than 30 days. Check the relevant websites for the current status of Mongolia visa information and the Mongolia Travel Advisory.
Mongolian airlines + international airlines fly into the Ulaan Baatar airport, which is the only international airport in the country. There are local airports throughout the country, so you can avoid the long drive from UB.
The Ulaan Baatar airport is small and easily managed. The international departure terminal has only a few gates. There is a bookstore, news stand, duty-free shop, as well as other shops for cashmere and other Mongolian products. I spent the last of my Mongolian tögrög on some cool leather keychains for myself and friends.
Mongolian Flight Route
Flights to Mongolia from the USA have a layover either in Seoul or Beijing, generally. They can be quite expensive in summer months, so research flight prices. It is not possible to fly to Mongolia direct from the USA, as far as I know. I flew California to Seoul-Incheon to UB. Korea Air was very nice, and United Airlines had old style tv’s and no USB or electric plugs. So, try to fly Korea Air or another airline.
Seoul-Incheon Airport, South Korea
Seoul-Incheon airport in South Korea is easy and very nice! They even have free activities and tours for tourists, so plan a layover allowing a half- or full-day. Check out my blog post on Seoul-Incheon airport for details. Note: For tours you must pay a USD $3 insurance fee per person, so bring a few dollar bills.
Also, note the other amenities offered in Seoul-Incheon, such as FREE Wi-Fi and FREE showers in a private bathroom! It was so nice to have a cool shower (towel and shampoo included!) after the humidity and heat of being outdoors on my free tour. I heard there’s even a sauna, but I didn’t find it.
Trans Mongolian Railway
The Trans Mongolian Railway has trains running 1-2 times per week, depending on the season. This Mongolia train ride is a great way to enjoy the landscape as you travel from Russia to China. Naomi at Probe the Globe spent a week on the train from Russia to Nepal, stopping in Mongolia for a week.
I suggest you stay at least 10 days in UB. This way, you’ll have sufficient time to visit one of these places:
- Mongolian desert, where you can climb a gigantic sand dune and ride a Bactrian camel,
- Mongolian steppe for some horse riding, or
- The far north to meet reindeer herders.
You can stay in a Mongolian camp, or ger camp, which is a group of yurt-like structures. You’ll sleep in one of them, as they’re outfitted for tourists. And, there are hot springs in a few areas.
Getting Around Mongolia
Plan on getting a driver. If you bike or trek, take GPS, maps, etc. Take care of yourself! Be aware, that some maps (including the one I bought) actually have some villages in the wrong place. You cannot depend only on a map.
Airplane travel within Mongolia is inexpensive as compared to the USA and can eliminate multi-day drives, so check airfares.
Buses are inexpensive, but don’t tend to stop at tourist sites, which is why a private van may work best for you. I rode one once for 10 hours at the end of my trip, and it was perfectly safe and comfortable as a solo female. There were plenty of women and some kids on the bus.
Mongolia Self Drive Tour – Can I do it?
Unless you are an expert with GPS + an excellent mechanic, a Mongolia Self Drive tour is out of the question. Roads are not always visible and a professional driver knows how to tighten any parts that come loose after many hours on incredibly bumpy roads– drivers check vehicle fittings daily and carry spare nuts + bolts.
Joining a group tour your cost for the driver may be minimal depending on the group size. Most budge group tours are driven around in a Russian van.
Outside of UB, the roads are often dirt pasture. Sometimes I could not see the road, but my driver could. Other times I could see 5 dirt roads intersect, run parallel for a kilometer, and then split in various directions. Also, the rivers, steep gullies, and mud require a very experienced 4WD driver.
My friends brother used a GPS, a map, and binoculars for looking into the distance to see where the roads went, and asked directions in every small village to know the best route based on any mud due to recent rain. I could not have done this, since in the villages no English is spoken, and there are no signs. Wait! We did see a sign once in one larger town, but it was in Mongolian script, so I could not read it.
How about driving in UB? Oh, my gosh. No!!!
I strongly suggested to my Mongolian friend when I was planning my trip that I would like to rent my own vehicle and drive myself, since I prefer moving at my pace. Now that I’ve been to Mongolia, I understand why she was completely adamant in numerous messages that I should absolutely not rent a vehicle and drive it myself.
First of all, within UB the driving culture is really different from the USA, Europe, Kenya, and everywhere else I’ve been, except Saigon, Vietnam. Traffic rules are seemingly unknown.
Intersections seem organized, but I don’t know how– some of them have tall stands in the center, upon which a police officer stands and directs traffic during rush hour. Almost no space is between your car and the car in front of you (really! just a few inches).
Traffic is heavy, like highways at rush hour in Los Angeles, Calif., except that the main road is only 2 lanes wide in each direction, instead of 5 or 7 lanes. Invariably, there is a car broken down in one of the lanes.
Pedestrians do not have any rights at road crossings, even if they have a green light and a crosswalk.
Mongolia Tours Have a LOT of Driving Time
Unless you book a tour with flights, you will be driving a LOT! Travel in Mongolia takes longer than I expected. Every tourist I met who was on a guided tour complained about the long hours spent driving. The reason I wasn’t complaining was because I had a private driver (my friends’ brother) and could request stops when I wanted, plus I had a front seat. The distances between tourist sites are long, and Mongolian roads are very bumpy and slow, apart from the few paved roads, which are in good condition.
Plan on staying somewhere for 2 or 3 nights during your trip– maybe a place with beautiful hiking, or at a ger camp with a family you feel a connection with and would enjoy getting to know better. This ‘free’ day will help you have more fun. It’s hard sitting in a bumpy van for 7-10 hours each day for a week or more, since your body gets tired…it’s similar to sitting on a long plane ride with constant turbulence.
After 9 days I was so relieved to get out of the car and onto a horse trek. I really needed some time outdoors and without an engine moving me from one place to the next.
Nomadic people are anywhere you visit in Mongolia. Half the population in Mongolia is nomadic. Apart from Ulaan Baatar and the capital cities of various regions, Mongolian nomads are the general population.
It’s one of the last places on earth where a nomadic people still practice their culture of moving various times a year. In this case, Mongolians move three or four times each year, providing their animal herds with fresh pasture. There is almost no fencing in the entire country, because grazing animals go everywhere.
In the far north people herd reindeer for its meat. In the far south (Gobi) camels are raised for meat and hair. And, in the central area, herds of yak, horses, sheep and goats roam the steppe, their owners receiving income from meat, cashmere hair, and wool.
Gobi Desert Tours
Tours generally start in Ulaan Baatar, and last several days at a minimum, returning you to UB or continuing on north. These tours can be arranged in advance or upon arrival in UB. The roads are long and not scenic in the traditional sense, since it is very dry. The landscape is mainly brown and orange.
Mongolia Tour Companies
There are many tour companies, and tours can be arranged from your home country or in UB through any guesthouse or directly with a tour company. The tour itineraries themselves seem relatively standard, regardless of the tour company. The difference is in quality of transportation, accommodation, and guiding.
There are a limited number of decent roads and tourist sites within range of the capital. the most important thing on any tour is the people you are traveling with.
Tours, drivers, guides, and anything else can easily be arranged online or at many hostels.
Do I Need a Tour Guide in Mongolia?
I did not have a bilingual guide, but often wished I did. A tour guide provides historical and cultural context throughout your trip. This person is bilingual in Mongolian and your language, so also serves as a translator. The guide also cooks your meals. Finally, your guide will communicate directly with your driver. These are some challenges you can look forward to if you do not have a guide:
– No advice on good places to visit off of the regular tour. Bring a road map! Wi-Fi is extremely limited in Mongolia outside of UB.
Tour Driver’s Responsibilities
The drivers know good ger camps, and the tourist highlights for you to visit, which is listed when you reserve your tour.
Drivers generally speak very very limited English, and in the countryside, bilingual people are not always available. Bring a phrasebook, good hand gestures, and a smile! I found my little Lonely Planet Phrasebook to be invaluable. Even basic questions may be difficult to ask otherwise. However, drivers know the typical needs and desires of tourists. Most of all, your driver will become a great friend and resource.
Russian Vans in Mongolia
If your tour vehicle is a Russian van, know this: the bench seats in back are not comfortable. The back seats in a Russian face each other — 1 seat faces forward (toward the driver), and the other seat faces backwards (back to the driver), so your knees touch the person’s across from you. To make things even worse, the windows in the back are very small. If you get car sick easily, take medicine!!!
Mongolian dirt roads are bumpy in any vehicle. Russian vans have good shocks, so you bounce a lot! I cannot over-emphasize the bumpiness. Sometimes your head hits the ceiling. There are no seatbelts.
I would NOT recommend these for anyone who can afford a more comfortable ride. However, if you’re on a budget tour, you will most likely have a Russian van as your main mode of transportation. The public transportation buses are perfectly comfortable, but don’t go on dirt roads, which is where most tourist sites are located.
Thank god that when I was in the van for those 3 days, the driver’s nephew insisted I sit in the front passenger seat beside the driver the entire time. Unfortunately, the sweetheart nephew got carsick sitting in the back seat. Poor guy!
Russian vans are repaired easily, so are very common in Mongolia. Toyota Land Cruisers are more comfortable, but are more difficult to repair if they break, since the engine has a computer.
Drivers maintain their Russian vans extremely well– the drivers look over their vehicles each evening, because a days drive can loosen the bolts. And, their skills are amazing! They see roads in the countryside where I only see grassland. And, they can 4WD like I’ve never seen before! You would not believe the gullies and hills and rivers they drive through cautiously and expertly. I met various tour groups, and only one had a bad driver who got lost, and a van that broke down many times. Usually the driver and van are very good.
Trekking or Hiking in Mongolia (on Foot)
Trekking or hiking in Mongolia is easily done. You should bring all of your own hiking or trekking gear, as it is available in limited amounts in UB (Department store and Black Market Bazaar) and only in low quality outside of the capital.
The land goes on and on without fences anywhere. Imagine the old American West before fences. The sky is huge here! Mongolian people generally use trucks, motorcycles, horses and camels for transport. I never saw a Mongolian hiking, as even 5-year-old children can gallop full-speed bareback on their horses.
Cycling Mongolia or a Mongolia Motorcycle Tour
Similar to a self-drive tour of the country, you must be very self-sufficient to bicycle or motorcycle long distances. You can also find like-minded people or a tour and go as a group.
Again, excellent GPS skills are a must. I’m not joking when I write that the roads are invisible at times. Even experienced tour drivers pause occasionally to find the road again, or determine which of 10 forks in the road is the one they should choose.
It is feasible to rent a motorcycle for a day or two or three and go on a paved road for part of the way. Tsetserleg may be the best place for this. Reach out to the Fairfield Hotel, and see if they can be of assistance. They cater to foreign tourists.
Watch episodes 5 + 6 of “The Long Way Round” on Netflix, with Ewan McGregor for a look at the roads. In real life, he and his friend ride their motorcycles from London to NYC, passing through Mongolia.
Weather in Mongolia
Wind can be strong in Mongolia. In the month of May I experienced strong wind whipping across the city, hail pounding down on my horse and I, and an intense lighting storm that caused my horse trekking guide and I to speed across the steppe and seek shelter in a strangers ger. Topping it off, one night it snowed and I awoke to a white wonderland.
Have you heard of Mongolian winds? Have you heard that the weather can go through all seasons in a day, from sun, to snow, to rain.
May – August the landscapes are green and everything is eating the green grass– cashmere goats to yaks.
Winter – Mongolia winters are harsh and cold, lasting from September or October through April. Keep in mind, this is the same area as Siberia, and we know that Stalin sent political prisoners to Siberia….
Mongolia Self-Tour on a Budget – about $50 a day
As any traveler knows, a travel day is less expensive when staying in one place, since gas/petrol is expensive. Also, it’s cheaper if you’re traveling with another person, since you can share costs like gas/petrol, a driver, and a guide. As a solo traveler with private drivers and horse guides, expect costs to range from $50-$100 per day. When horse trekking my costs were at the low end, and when driving a long distance my costs were at the high end.
Backpacking Mongolia is simple to arrange upon arrival, apart from language barriers (see phrasebook information in ‘Books and Maps’ section). It’s also the best way for keeping your Mongolia travel cost low.
However, there are plenty of Mongolia tours ranging from luxurious to budget. You’ll likely want to join up with other tourists to decrease costs and/or have company that speaks your language. When I was in Mongolia I met plenty of Israeli and German backpackers, as well as horse trekking tours.
A driver and guide can be arranged through a hostel upon arrival. Cost is dependent upon the number of people, since shared costs (driver, guide/translator, gas/petrol) will decrease with more people.
Food can be bought in market towns every 2 or 3 days, so you can prepare your own meals, such as sandwiches and canned items. However, if you are not on a very cheap budget, I highly recommend you buy meals, whenever possible.
Buying meals, you’ll get to enjoy soups, dumplings, cheeses, and pasta dishes. The food is delicious, if completely lacking vegetables and fruit of any kind, apart from the odd sliver of carrot or onion.
When staying at a ger camp you can order fresh, hot meals. Just let them know as soon as you arrive (but they’ll usually ask), so they cook enough. They’ll just make more of whatever they were already making. If you’re allergic to anything, you will want to have this written, so that anyone can easily understand.
I was invited to eat in the kitchen ger, since it was just me and my guide. This allowed me to see the inside of a ger that is lived in. So, if you’re traveling solo or in a small group, it’s advantageous.
The sleeping gers for tourists are not lived in, so don’t have the same furniture with family photos, or the Buddhist altar, horse or camel gear, and other items I found fascinating.
For breakfast I had fried bread with fresh yak butter, topped with as much sugar as you can stand. I love yak butter! It’s naturally sweet, even without sugar added. I travel to try new foods and learn more about the culture and people.
Lunch and Dinner
Lunch and Dinner costs $3 or $4. The food was delicious– I had goat stew, pasta with yak meat, soups, and dumplings.
Mongolian snacks varied based on where I was and who I was with. During my horse trek, my guide figured out that I enjoyed yogurt. So, every home we visited, I was given a bowl of creamy white fresh yogurt.
In the van with tourists, we all shared cookies. And, other times I had sausage and bread.
Mongolia Hotel + Other Accommodation
Hotels in Mongolia’s capital, UB, are like those in any other major city throughout the world. There are international chain hotels. Hostels are widely available in the city for budget travelers. They have amenities such as Wi-Fi, western-style toilets, and much more.
Ger Camps and Costs
Budget ger camps have a few (or sometimes many) gers available for rent. If you are traveling as a group, your group will be in a ger together (men and women). Beds are single size, and perfectly comfortable for a tired body. Ger camps I reached by vehicle rented gers for $20-$40 per night, regardless of the number of people sleeping in it.
Typically, ger camps I stayed at during my horse trek charged $15 for dinner, breakfast, and a bed for the night. $3 extra for lunch.
Camping and Gear
Cheap camping gear can be bought at the Black Market Bazaar. This is probably cheaper than renting gear from your guesthouse or tour company. I camped a few nights, but found that the gers are so nice and cozy with a woodstove inside.
Transportation + Travel Buddies
To arrange a tour with additional people, plan to spend a couple of extra days in UB to find those travelers. The biggest expenses are gasoline/petrol and drivers’ salary. Therefore, with more people in your tour bus (typically a Russian army van) to share those costs, your tour will be less expensive. Guesthouses and drivers are not in the business of finding additional people to join you, but may let you post a note on a bulletin board. I traveled on my own, which is more expensive when gas/petrol is involved. Gas/petrol is approximately the same prices as in California (approximately $4 per gallon or $1 per liter).
You are not required to have an English/German/other language tour guide. These people are great, and there were several times I wished I’d had a guide. A few times, guides for other tourists who I met, were kind enough to do some translation for me, or answer a few of my questions. I had so many questions!
Please see the Transportation section on this page for additional details.
Solo Horse Trek Costs in Mongolia
I went horse trekking twice as a solo traveler in 2014. Both times it was only me and my guide, but I met many other people as we stayed in gers each night.
The Mongolian horse is not the same as other horses. Here’s my write-up, so you can see photos of them. If you are not an expert horse person, plan on always being with a guide, since Mongolian children are first put on horses before they can walk.
What I mean by this for example, is my guide held my horse’s bridle each time I mounted. This is because Mongolian horses are trained to begin walking (or cantering) the moment someone is on them. If you aren’t ready to move right away, you might fall right off. For example, when I mounted I needed to adjust my stirrups and deel (ankle-length robe worn by men and women).
This veterinarian horse trekked solo, so it is possible. Her biggest scares were wolves, and when her horses decided to attempt an escape.
Food and Lodging
We stayed in gers and ate homemade food for 15,000 tugrik (bed, breakfast, lunch, dinner) per day.
Horse and Guide Costs
Horse guide & their horse (shared if 2+ riders) 40,000 tugrik/day; your riding horse and packhorse (if needed) 20,000 tugrik/day per horse. If you have a tour guide, you’ll pay for them also. Horse guides do *not* speak English, but tour guides do. You will need to bring your tour guide with you from the capital. If not stated up front in writing, be sure to write down the costs and share it with your horse guide for approval to avoid any misunderstandings.
I started my horse treks the day after I arrived on-site with no pre-made reservation. Pre-planning is not required, in case you want to keep a flexible schedule, or your driver can likely call ahead for you. Drivers know how to contact the ger camps. The trick is for you to be able to communicate with your guide. I’m going to keep mentioning the phrasebook– gestures are great, but at some point you’ll want to communicate some details as clearly as possible.
Trek 1: Orkhon Waterfall, Ulaan Tsutgalan, Red Waterfall, 8 Lakes area of Uvurkhangai. This is 1 place, which falls under various names. In summer there is a ger camp with horse tours. If you don’t arrive with a pre-arranged guide and tour you can arrange it here. Your guide will not speak English, but the scenery is just the same– forest, lakes, gers to sleep in at night. Heating a ger is expensive, so if it’s only you and your guide, you may sleep in the families’ ger.
Trek 2: Fairfield Hotel in the (small) city of Tsetserleg (Arkhangai Aimag) can make arrangements with local horse guides, families for homestays, and more. The prices are fair and stated up front. This area has a lot of wide open space, so while I went for 3 days, I was told of a couple arriving the next day for a 20-day trek.
Which Direction Will You Go From Ulaan Baatar?
Time to get out the map! It’s a big country!
UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Other Locations
United Nations marks certain places around the world as important for their landscape, culture and more. UNESCO sites are meant to be preserved for future generations. There are several UNESCO sites in Mongolia.
Karakorum, Erdene Zuu Monastery
The monastery is a wonderful place to wander for a few hours. The entire space is large, and a tour in a language of your choosing is thorough, interesting, and not very expensive. Buddhist history in Mongolia goes far back, and the art and architecture is wonderful.
Orkhon River Valley
This is a beautiful region and as a foreigner you must buy a ticket at an entry gate area.
North of Ulaan Baatar – Lake Khuvsgul and Reindeer Herders
If you have limited time, and want to visit Lake Khuvsgul (north of country), consider taking the 1-hour flight instead of the 10-hour bus ride. Plane tickets can be bought a day or 2 in advance for $75 USD each way ($150 round-trip).
From the city in which you land, you take a bus 3 hours to Lake Khuvsgul, a huge freshwater lake. At the lake, you can arrange for horse trekking to see reindeer herders, canoeing on the lake, and more.
Traveling north by van costs about the same as a flight, including gasoline and drivers salary. Also, if you have a driver, you’ll have to pay the daily salary even when not using the driver while you are horse trekking.
From Lake Khuvsgul it takes about 2 days by horse to reach the reindeer herders, and I understood that you cannot reach them by motor vehicle. Also, I asked a guide which part of Mongolia is his favorite to visit. He most enjoys the north, because the gers are beautifully decorated.
South of Ulaan Baatar – Mongolian Desert, Gobi
You’ll know when you’re arriving in the Mongolian desert region, because camels will replace horses. Alongside the road, camel herds will stroll past in their endless search for vegetation and water.
Gobi Desert is massive and involves a lot of driving, unless you take flights. It takes several hours to drive there from UB, even before arriving at any tourist destination. Also, tourist areas are very spread out, with a minimum of 4 hours driving between each.
I recommend selecting at least one place to spend 2 nights. You may get one or two camel rides, if that interests you, for an additional $5. I had never been on a camel before, so this was a highlight of my trip. You sit between the 2 humps of the Bactrian camel.
This region is dry and windy. Also, it gets cold at night. Take sunscreen and a hat, and drink a lot of water. Pack clothes for layering. Ask someone to pour cool water over your head and wash your hair on a hot afternoon. Even my thick hair dried in a couple of minutes!
East of Ulaan Baatar – Genghis Khan
East of UB is the region which Genghis Khan comes from! Go!!!! I was meant to visit, since it is beautiful in the spring, but I ran out of time.
West of Ulaan Baatar – Altai Mountains and Eagle Hunters
Western Mongolia stretches from UB across the steppe all the way to the Altai Mountains. The Kazakh people live in these mountains. Kazakhstan lies a mere 24 miles (38 km) away, as the crow flies, separated only by China and Russia.
If you you’ve heard of Mongolian eagle hunting, it is the Kazakh people who hunt using Golden Eagles. These huge birds swoop down catching rabbit, fox, and more. Watch The Eagle Huntress movie for an idea of the desolate landscape and the hunting skills of both the eagles and their humans.
There are hiking and horse-trek tours in the Altai Mountains To get here by public transportation is long– around 24 hours– so consider a flight in at least one direction. Western Mongolia mountains are dramatic, capped with snow nearly year round, according to photos I’ve seen.
Health + Safety
Wash your hands regularly to avoid a head cold or other illness.
Travel within the country is generally safe. The most prevalent crime is pick-pocketing in UB. Before visiting, every person who had ever lived in Mongolia warned me of this– expats and locals alike. Check the Department of State website for current information.
If you’ll be doing much horseback riding in Mongolia, it is possible that your butt will be in the most pain ever. Mine certainly was! Mongolian saddles are wooden, but Russian saddles have some built-in padding. It’s possible you could have an English saddle if you’re on a higher-end tour, or bring your own saddle.
Come prepared with a sweatshirt you can tie around your waist. Why? Because, when you tie it around your waist and leave the body of the sweatshirt between your butt and the saddle you get two benefits. (1) A tiny bit of extra padding; and (2) Just like a double-layered sock, it prevents blisters. I did not know you could get blisters on your butt, but apparently you can. (I did not, just heard about it!)
Since you’ll need your head for the rest of your life, bring a helmet with you, if you plan on horseback riding. Casual enterprises may not offer riding helmets. Tours specifically for riding will likely provide helmets, and you should check when receiving your tour.
I had one water bottle with me. Traveling by vehicle, we could buy drinking water in 2-liter bottles in villages. While horse trekking, I would point at my bottle in the evening before going to bed, and my guides always understood that tourists want boiled water. They would let the family know, and in the process of making breakfast, when the wood stove was already hot, a kettle of plain water would be boiled for me. No problem at all! I did not carry any water purification tablets or pumps.
If you require a flush toilet and hot shower every day, then I cannot recommend you visit Mongolia on a small budget. Actually, for about 2 weeks, I never saw a flush toilet, except at Erdene Zuu Monastery Museum gift shop. They also have a sink with running water to wash your hands!
My write-up on all Mongolian toilet types describes the range. I used everything from western style flush toilets, to pit toilets with 3 low walls, to friendly bushes.
Of course, there are plenty of places that have nice beds and flush toilets, such as Three Camel Lodge. However, your budget needs to be bigger than $50 per day. None of the nomadic families who lived in gers in the countryside have running water. There is a pit toilet sometimes. But, if there are hills with trees nearby, you just poop back there. Yeah– a little awkward at first.
Ger camps have outhouses. These are not a preferred place for me to go, as they’re typically smelly and fly-filled. Bushes are best, if available.
Getting Sick in Mongolia
Don’t do it. You don’t want to be sick while on holiday.
Actually, this is one of the few trips I’ve been on and did not get a cold / gripe. But, take your medicines with you. For example, if you are horse trekking and get sick, they will make you some bland food, like boiled rice. But, there are no stores or pharmacies anywhere outside of towns, which you may not see for days.
I will mention that I saw on Facebook a few people messaging that a lot of tourists become ill in Mongolia from food poisoning, possibly from mutton (sheep meat).
Solo Travel Safety
I have read of safety issues for solo female travelers, who are traveling alone by foot or by bicycle without a driver, guide, or companions. There is a section regarding Mongolia in this article about Sarah Marquis, who among other walks, went from Siberia to Australia.
I found Mongolia generally safe for me, a solo woman traveler. However, I was never without a guide or friend for more than a day. Everyone warned me about pickpockets in the capital, UB. In fact, one of my hosts was pick-pocketed in front of me. Luckily she noticed, and her cell phone was not stolen.
Once I was staying in a ger camp in the countryside, and was shown how to ‘lock’ my door at night by tying it shut. In the middle of the night, some hoodlums galloping on horses tested my door, so I was glad I had tied the door as shown! It was a bit scary, as you can imagine.
I have heard that men are urged to drink more alcohol, whereas if I drank only a few sips of fermented mares milk, no one seemed to mind.
All the men I met who arrived in Mongolia solo joined groups, so did not travel the country side solo. I also have not heard of any men traveling solo in Mongolia, nor of any problem encountered.
Connecting with Locals
Mongolian people are fairly friendly. One time I was in the middle of nowhere and met a girl whose parent encouraged her to practice her English with me. Soon enough she was chatting with me about the ocean (she’d never seen it, in this land-locked country).
Homestay in a Mongolian Ger (like a yurt)
Everywhere I stayed had the price arranged for me, and was about $15 per day, which included a bed for the night, dinner and breakfast. Lunch was a few dollars more, and was eaten wherever we were passing through– either at a ger in the middle of the countryside, or at a small restaurant if passing through a town.
During my homestays, I learned how to put up a ger, how to brush goats for their cashmere hair, how to prepare foods, such as dumplings, goat testicles, and blood sausage. I also saw (and sometimes attempted to assist in) milking yaks, horses and goats, train horses, and a lot more! I love learning about culture and hanging out with cute children and baby farm animals.
On several nights I shared a ger with only my guide (I’m female and he is male). There was never any problem. My guides are from the countryside, and share a ger with both male and female family members, so gave me privacy to change my clothes.
Fascinated by my evening ritual of removing items from my backpack and changing into my pajamas, everyone (adults and children) would watch. I could practically hear the oohs of surprise at as I pulled my sleeping bag out of its tiny stuff sack. Sometimes I felt awkward with everyone watching me in my pajamas, but I also found myself interested in watching their evening ritual of readying for bed — washing their face, opening cupboards and removing bedding, and turning the sofas into beds. So, I realized, we were both enthralled in watching how other people live.
Set up a login and look at pictures and try to get in touch with the UB Instagram Meetup Group. @InstameetUlaanBaatar When I visited, the official group was brand new. In fact, they held their first official meetup for me, and they’re a great group of men and women. I saw parts of UB I never would have seen on my own. Many instragrammers know at least some English, and have traveled abroad for their university education.
@ig_mongolia is a hub that posts photos of Mongolia posted by locals and travelers.
Hashtags commonly used are #mongolia #ubeveryday #mgl_vsco #vscoMongolia #igersMongolia #ProudToBeMongolian
There are some hosts in Mongolia. Keep in mind that any Peace Corps hosts will likely be away from home during June, as that is the month new volunteers arrive and service ends for those who have served 2 years.
Candy for small gifts or token of appreciation
Before arriving in Mongolia I thought it was odd advice from my guidebook to arrive with candy in hand whenever I was a guest. In the USA I would never bring candy for an adult. However, lollipops, choco-pies, and other candy are enjoyed by Mongolians of all ages. I gifted candy to families I stayed with, when they took some extra time for me by teaching me to cook a food or otherwise share their culture or family life with me.
I brought some fancy candy from the USA, but people most enjoyed the candy they are used to having. So, buy candy in Mongolia. Even the smallest villages sell candy.
Pro Tip: Gift Giving
Do not randomly hand out candy (or any other ‘gifts’) to kids or people in general. Don’t be the person that trains kids to think that foreigners just bring candy, or you’ll promote an unnecessary culture of begging. (Kids are funny beings, and any kid in the world will start begging for candy from anyone they think might supply it.)
Do feel free to give gifts to show to people you’ve connected with, even if only for a short while. They will love it!
Mongolians are very nice and went out of their way assisting me with anything I needed, especially with charging my smartphone, when I didn’t have access to a car’s cigarette lighter.
In 99% of the homes I entered I was offered tea milk, and often yoghurt, cheeses, or other foods also. As a solo woman traveler I had no problems at all. There were a few strange incidents, but whatever Mongolian person I was with at the time, immediately steered me away from those situations, since I was completely unable to speak for myself due to my very limited knowledge (and extremely poor pronunciation) of Mongolian vocabulary. I felt well-cared for the entire time.
Mongolian Culture – Naadam and More
Mongolian culture fascinated me. I especially loved learning how nomadic people eat– what, when, and how.
Festivals – Naadam
The largest festival, Naadam, occurs annually in July and August to test competitors in three events. Each town holds its own events, which are wrestling (think: men in a Speedo and shoulder vest), horse racing (distance), and archery.
Some other dates and descriptions of Mongolia holidays are on this website by Panoramic Journeys.
Mongolian Ger (House)
A ger is very similar to a yurt, but the roof is slightly different. It’s a cylindrical building with a cone roof. The entire building is broken down and packed flat for transport, like a tent. This is perfect for nomadic people, who move every few months.
Made of several materials, the main shell of a ger is wool and the framing is wood. Therefore, inside it stays cool inside, even on a hot day in the Gobi Desert. And, on cold days, it stays warm inside, supplemented by the wood burning stove in the center of the structure.
Gers are the traditional Mongolian home throughout the country. The decoration may vary by region, but the structure remains the same.
Mongolian Food and Eating Utensils
There are summer foods and winter foods. Eating utensils include plates, bowls, forks, and spoons. Although Mongolia border China, I never saw chop sticks.
Nomadic people have televisions and phones powered by solar panels. And, meals are prepared fresh, since there are no refrigerators and microwaves. Dairy products are available when animals give milk naturally, which is while they’re nursing babies. Here’s a story about a Mongolian dinner while camping.
Fresh Yak Butter and Yoghurt
My favorite food in the whole world became yak butter the first instant I put a gloppy lump of sweet fat in my mouth. It was on top of fresh, hot fried bread and topped with granulated sugar. However, I soon found that like wine, butter has terroir. Similar to wine, the butter holds the flavor of the grass eaten by the animal. If the grass was sweet, then the butter was naturally sweet. Each time I ate yak butter in a different home, even a few miles apart, I could taste the difference.
During my time on my horse trek, staying in people homes, I learned that animals are milked twice daily, morning and evening. The evening milk is placed in a large metal or plastic bucket or bowl. In the morning, the mom or dad of the family would go to the bucket, and with their fingers, pull together the floating, soft butter, and then lift the jelly-like mass onto a plate. Soft and fresh, each person could spoon onto their bread as much as they wanted.
Similar to butter, with yogurt the flavors varied from one household to the next. Depending on how long and at what temperature the yogurt had fermented the flavor varied. Sometimes it was more tangy, and other times more sour.
Granulated Sugar and Pasta
Mongolians love sugar! They have the whitest teeth– a guide told me it’s because of all the milk nomads eat during the year. But, some Mongolian eat an immense amount of sugar on their morning fried bread. They also nearly universally love lollipops and other candy.
Nomads work hard all day, so in addition to the sugar, they also eat an immense amount of handmade pasta at lunch or dinner. Every meal with pasta, I was handed a bowl full of pasta with a small amount of chopped onion and 3 or 4 slivers of grated carrot that weighed at least 2 pounds (1 kg). I never finished it, and the families were always so concerned I did not like it, and would try to find me other food. Whenever there was a translator available, I would ask them to explain that I have and office job, and simply don’t eat so much.
Mongolian Vegetables and Fruits
Nomads don’t eat vegetables, apart from slivers of carrot and maybe one small onion in a dish made for ten, as mentioned in the pasta dish above. In towns, you can purchase canned or jarred vegetables imported from Russia, Germany, and France mainly. When I returned home after a month in Mongolia I ate salad for dinner every day for a week– I could simply not eat enough lettuce, tomatoes, and other vegetables.
Fruits grow in gardens. Mongolian nomad people do not have gardens, since they raise animals that would eat any attempt at a garden, plus they move every few months. My friends’ dad, who lives in UB but has property with a garden in the east, made me breakfast with homemade jam of some fruit from his garden. it was not blueberry, but was the same color as blueberry jam.
Bansh (pron. bunch) are dumpling filled with fresh meat and boiled. They are formed using handmade dough and them boiled in a broth of tea, milk and other dry ingredients.
There are a variety of other dumplings, fried and steamed.
Other foods – Airig, Testicles and Goat
Airig for Relaxing
Airig is fermented mares (horse) milk. I saw it fermented in 30-gallon blue plastic barrels, but I’ve also seen photos of it hung in animal skin bags. It has the flavor of beer, which I don’t like. So, I did not especially enjoy airig. It does not taste like milk, which I love.
Testicles for Lunch
Baby male animals are castrated, and this is done by removing their testes. So, what else would you do with fresh meat, other than cook it up and eat it? And, that’s exactly what’s done.
When I ate it, it was a sort of stew– rice boiled in milk and boiled testes about the size of the first knuckle on my thumb. If you enjoy barbecued oysters, you will love these— warm and somewhat salty with a meaty texture. The stew wasn’t bad, but I also don’t like barbecued oysters.
Goat Soup and Cashmere Goats
Rarely found in the United States, goat soup is delicious. Goat soup is so good, since the meat is greasy, offering a broth that is hearty on a cold night. I’ve also eaten goat soup in Kenya.
A major industry in Mongolia is the raising of cashmere goats, for their hair, which is exported for cashmere sweater production. The goats also come in other breeds and are eaten.
Are you planning a visit to Mongolia? Where are you going? Or, if you’ve already been, where is your favorite place?
Are you interested in reading more about Mongolia? There are plenty of resources here.
Do you love taking photos with your phone or camera? Here’s a post on 10 Minutes to Better Photos, with a lesson on using the Rule of Thirds