A huge country spanning the plains and deserts of northeast Asia, Mongolia has preserved many of its centuries-old nomadic customs. Though low on typical tourist sights, those seeking a unique culture, rough landscape and wildlife will find this a rewarding destination. It seems like the more remote banishment you can imagine but things have changed and it’s been a while since the scourge of Ghengis Khan.
Why You Should Go
What’s Cool: Western comforts in Ulaanbaatar, camping in traditional ger tents, Genghis Khan’s fabled city of Karakorum, vast Gobi Desert, two-humped camels, dark blue Khuvsgul Lake, basalt-covered Khorgo Volcano, rare wildlife in Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, Edelweiss and green meadows in Gorkhi-Terelj Valley.
What’s Not: Pestering drunks, pushy beggars, power cuts, the ‘Mongolian scramble’ involving getting kicked or pushed in crowds and when queuing, nothing in English, no toilet paper, suspicious men hanging around in the street and taxi drivers overcharging.
When to Go
Mongolia has four distinctive seasons and the sun shines for well over 200 days a year on average.
Spring (March to May) is when the snow melts and the animals come out of hibernation (some people too).
Summer (May to August) is the best time to visit with many feasts, holidays and happy people plus abundant dairy products!
Autumn (September to November) has less rain than other seasons and sees flies die and livestock getting fat!
Winter (November to February) is long and freezing, and is when herdsmen stay at their winter camps.
Getting There & Away
Flights are often delayed and cancelled partly due to frequent poor weather conditions and foreigners pay several times more than Mongolians do for tickets. Overland transport is mainly by shared vans and jeeps as public buses are virtually non-existent, making journeys long, slow and hard on your behind, not too mention there isn’t too much to see. Oh, and expect to break down on the way. Mongolia’s railway is made up of a north-south line, which is part of the Trans-Mongolian Railway. Taxis are only practical in Ulaanbaatar or for short trips out of the city.
Health & Safety
While generally a safe place, Mongolia has a serious problem with alcoholism which often leads to violence. Local driving standards leave a lot to be desired and accidents are frequent, while domestic airlines have a poor safety record. Healthcare facilities in the countryside are extremely rudimentary. Nomads’ dogs may have rabies, while eating marmots at certain time of the year can be risky, as they may carry bubonic plague!
Food & Hospitality
Mutton is a staple here and you may quickly find yourself never wanting to see a sheep again, or if you stay long enough, getting used to meat as tough as leather with large lumps of fat. And for those of you who don’t know yet, the local brew is made from fermented mare’s milk. Although this is likely to give you diarrhea the first time round, your stomach should be ready for it the second time round … if there’s a second time round! Accommodation can be bleak, especially in former Soviet-style hotels in the countryside, while the capital has some decent hotels and guesthouses. Camping can be done freely wherever you lay your hat.
Two weeks is the minimum to see the main sights unless you fly as distances are far.
Two or three days to see the capital’s highlights and take in lots of culture.
A week for Karakorum, Genghis Khan’s fabled city, and Khustain Nuruu Nature Reserve.
Four or five days to trace the shores of Lake Khuvsgu by horse, on foot or by ship.
Three days to see Shiliin Bogd, the highest peak in Mongolia’s east, sacred to many Mongolians and set in a spectacular and remote area.
Four or five days to visit Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, a stunning combination of mountains, steppes, pretty lakes, rivers and wetlands, and home to the world endangered wild mountain sheep, argali.
Another week to see the Gobi Desert, ride a camel, stay in a ger tent and take in a camel festival or game of camel polo.
Gandan Khiid: is Ulaanbaatar’s main monastery and Sükhbaatar Square is a large communist-style open area.
Four Holy Peaks: surrounding Ulaanbaatar roughly correspond to the four points on the compass.
Tavanbogd National Park: includes three lakes and is divided from China by the high walls of snow-capped peaks.
Hovd: is a historic city at the crossroads of traditional Mongol and Kazakh culture.
Sleeping: in a traditional ger tent is a great experience, particularly after some fermented mare’s milk.
Cultural sightseeing: at Tibetan-style lamaseries while walking around and turning every prayer wheel that you see.
Spas and health treatments: in the Khangai mountain region with more than 20 hot springs renowned for their healing properties.
Skiing: can be done around Ulaanbaatar, with both downhill and cross-country available.
Exploring abandoned cities: from communism’s industrial and collectivist past can be a real eye-opener.
Festivals & Events
Mongolians love festivals, many of which celebrate animals and are lubricated by liberal servings of fermented mare’s milk. Here are some of the best to get to.
February: Thousand Camel Festival features camel races and performances by traditional Mongolian musicians and dancers in the Gobi Desert.
July: Nadaam celebrates the ‘three manly sports’: wrestling, horseracing and archery.
September: Nomads’ Day showcases nomadic customs and ceremonies including competitions between kids, horsemen, women and families.
October: Golden Eagle Festival features Kazakhs on horseback, dressed in their traditional dark coats and scarlet hats with golden eagles perched on their arms.