Mongolia is an enchantment for travelers interested in history, culture, nature, and adventure travel. And yet, it is ranked as one of the least visited countries for tourism in the world (134 out of 188). This is partly because up until Mongolia’s Democratic Revolution in the 1990s, tourism was limited by their formerly communist government. Consequentially, today, Mongolia’s tourism industry and infrastructure are still relatively nascent and many travelers face ambiguity when planning their trip. How should you best prepare? What are things you should know before traveling to Mongolia?
After spending nearly a month in the country this past summer, I have pieced together some important things I wish I’d known ahead of time about traveling to Mongolia.
Travel to Mongolia: Here Are Top Things You Should Know
1) Try Everything but Do Your Research Ahead of Time
Mongolia is special: culturally, historically, and geographically. But local communication and Mongolian travel resources can feel almost as sparse as the country itself. Travelers to Mongolia should research and plan a bucket list ahead of time to seize some of the many opportunities they can only experience in a country like Mongolia.
Because English is not widely spoken and tourism is relatively new, try to gather some historical/cultural context yourself ahead of time. This way, when you’re trying a little bit of everything, you can understand the significance of it all better.
Here’s a list of Mongolian experiences to add to your bucket list + research ahead of time:
- Drink fermented horse milk (airag)
- Ride a “half-wild” horse or two-hump camel through the Gobi desert
- Catch a glimpse of some of the only fully feral horses in the world at Hustai National Park
- Follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo’s adventures through the silk road/modern-day Mongolia
- Take part in eagle, horse and archery festivals
- Meet the “last reindeer people”
- Sleep in a nomadic ger tent
- Be hosted by some of the world’s last nomads
- Visit and relish in the unique history of ancient Hindu-influenced Buddhist temples
- Learn from the world’s master horse riders (Whom the Dothraki are loosely based on)
- Stumble across dinosaur fossils (literally)
- Travel on the Trans-Siberian, the world’s longest train route
- Discover throat singing (see #2 below)
- Immerse yourself in the history of Genghis Khan, and
- Strengthen, push, and realize your limits in the land of dry temperature extremes
Where else in the world can you do all of the above?
2) Outside of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Travel is NOT “Easy”
Most of the travelers I met who had just returned from rural Mongolia looked as if they’d spent the last few months walking through the desert by foot. Their skin was dry and sun-roasted. Their lips cracked. And their wanting energy was evident in the hollow look in their eyes and the tone of their voice.
“It’s not easy” my friend warned me about the tours through rural Mongolia. She recounted hilarious stories of the limits she had to push. The other two guys at our table from two different trips slowly nodded in agreement. From the rudimentary food, the long and bumpy rides, to the camping accommodation, unless you find a luxury tour (which I’m not sure exists)… Rural Mongolia is mostly rugged travel. Destinations are far spread apart, you lose the comfort of phone signal/connection, often no electricity, the food options are limited, and the climate will test you in ways you probably have never imagined. But fear not, for that’s a part of the memorable travel adventure of experiencing a different life while traveling to Mongolia.
3) Mongolia Can Be Bone Dry; Beware Dehydration
Dehydration while traveling through Mongolia is not uncommon, so travelers must remember to drink sufficient water daily. The climate can be so hot and dry that you may not even notice your sweat because the heat will absorb it immediately. But you are losing water, and it’s important to stay hydrated.
Fun fact: Mongolia was the first time I camped and didn’t wake up feeling sticky/muggy from condensation. On the contrary, I woke up parched with my mouth feeling like the Gobi desert.
Fun fact #2: Mongolia is called the “Land of Blue Skies” because it gets about 250 days of sunshine every year.
Fun fact #3: Curly-haired folks, you will have some of the best hair days of your life in Mongolia!
4) Don’t Miss a Special Throat Singing Performance
For centuries, throat singing has been a special part of Mongolian music and culture. Throat singers often sing while playing a bow-stringed instrument called a horsehead fiddle (morin khuur). The vocal pitch is performed by manipulating the lips, throat, mouth roof, tongue, and molars/jaw. The unique music is only found in this region of Asia (Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Tuva, and Siberia). So many travelers are unaware of its existence and will come to Mongolia and leave without sitting in on a performance. Do not miss out on this special opportunity and unique cultural experience!
5) Address Dietary Needs/Restrictions in Mongolia Beforehand
Because it’s a country with harsh terrain and climate, Mongolia imports a lot of its food and relies heavily on the consumption of canned food, grains, and meat products such as mutton (tight matured sheep meat). If you are a picky eater or have dietary needs: 1) prepare adequately by packing essentials 2) communicate your needs clearly with the tour operator/cook and 3) stop by the State Department Store Super Market to stock up.
6) Say Goodbye to the Luxury of a Sewage System on the Mongolia Road Trip
If you’re like Marshall, from How I Met Your Mother and you need the utmost relaxation, discretion, and peace of mind to properly use the bathroom…. You will have some mental adjustments to make in Mongolia. Outside of Ulaanbaatar, it is not common to come across Western bathrooms’/sewage systems. Most bathrooms are either the vastness of the landscape in front of you for you to choose a spot from, or they are latrines where the flies buzz so loudly around your bum that you can barely hear your own thoughts. Mentally prepare yourself for the adjustment. Bring toilet paper, baby wipes, and whatever dietary supplements you may need for assistance. And again, stay hydrated to avoid dehydration-related digestion maladies.
7) Finding a Tour to Travel Mongolia Outside of Ulaanbaatar Can Be Tricky and Expensive
The city of Ulaanbaatar is a hit or miss for a lot of travelers. On the surface, it seems like there is not a whole lot to do, but after spending a few days in Ulaanbaatar, I began to find little gems here and there that left me yearning to see more. It felt like a state college town but with 1.4 million people and a lot of scary traffic. Most popular tourist attractions, however, are located outside of the city. Therefore, the most important detail to figure out during your Mongolia travels is how to explore outside of the capital.
Many roads through much of rural Mongolia are not paved. Some “highways” are on the steppe or the desert, therefore if you are not acquainted with the terrain you can easily get lost with nothing but skies and desert all around you. Subsequently, car rentals are not advised; so most travelers hire drivers to take them around Mongolia on a tour.
There are dozens of organized tours, but they are priced depending on the number of travelers you are with. They range from $100 a day to $40 a day. They are not cheap and there is almost always a middleman unless you know people personally. It’s important to do your research to see where you want to go, which tours have the best reviews, and to communicate clearly what you want out of this trip.
Remember you are in a different culture, so constant and clear communication is key to getting the most out of your experience. I had to repeat myself constantly and clearly to get the tour guides to abide by our wishes. This became a habit I had to incorporate into my day-to-day in Mongolia.
8) Carefully Select Who You Go on Your Mongolian Tour With
As a budget solo traveler through Mongolia, I was tasked with choosing a type of tour around the immense country and finding other travelers who could do a tour with me during my allotted timeframe. When two German women I barely knew offered to share costs with me on an 11-day tour through rural Mongolia, I reluctantly accepted since I couldn’t find another group. I wanted to save costs, was running out of time, and had just met another German who would join our trip, further lowering our costs.
However, although I saved money joining their tour, the women proved to be emotionally costly. They were bone dry in character, fastidious about many things, and easily/unpredictably irritated about random things from the seating arrangements to demanding personalized detours.
Their presence made me realize the importance of carefully choosing who you want to share these tours with. Once you’re on the tour, you’re deep in the rural desert and far away from the capital. There is no turning back and no refunds. And when you don’t have any other distractions but each other’s company, your travel mates can either damper the mood or really uplift it.
If you are sensitive to the social energy around you, choose wisely. And communicate needs/expectations ahead of time.
9) Sufferers of Dust & Pollen Allergies Beware
The Gobi desert is dry and vast but the winds can pick up anything from anywhere including dust, grass and tree pollen. In the summertime, the steppe is often green and the trees bloom. If you have seasonal allergies, it’s important to bring all your allergy medicine with you to travel Mongolia. I experienced some asthmatic flairs and hay fever towards the last few days of my trip in rural Mongolia. It felt like I was in peak spring season on the northeast coast. However, my pollen allergies have been diagnosed on the extreme side, so if yours are moderate or mild, an allergy pill should be enough.
Allergy sufferers: Depending on your allergen sensitivities prepare adequately in the form of allergy medicine, a face mask, or immuno-therapy shots before coming to rural Mongolia.
10) Bring Books to Read or Write
You will have a lot of time to reflect, to be still, and to be present during your Mongolia travels without many modern distractions. But sometimes during those long 5-8 hour drives you may want to have a little more than that. My advice is to bring one of our favorite travel adventure books, pen/paper, and audio/podcasts for those extra-long rides/downtimes. The Alchemist was a coincidentally incredible book to read while in the desert!
11) Traveling to Mongolia Will Change You
It’s highly inevitable to travel to Mongolia without a core part of you changing for the better. This country is magical in a spiritual kind of way that forces you to reconnect with yourself and your natural elements. I grew stronger, I picked up a greater love for horseback riding, and I feel a greater affinity for the outdoors than ever before. This coupled with ancient Buddhism which soothes you and the steppe’s great vastness which sharpens your sense of mindfulness rejuvenates the soul. And changes a part of you forever! What started off as a hard Mongolia traveling road trip ended up evolving into a sense of finding home. May we meet again, Mongolia.
14 thoughts on “Mongolia Travel Tips: 11 Things To Know Before You Travel to Mongolia”
Thanks for telling it like it really it is this post! I’ve seen so many gorgeous pictures of Mongolia but reading your post think it might not be my speed!
I’d love to go to Mongolia and experience all that, even though I had no idea how dry it would be! I’m vegan, so I’d probably run into a few problems with that, but apart from that it sounds like my kind of adventure!!
Kathy, we have vegetables in Mongolia, no worries. and by the way there are a lot of vegetarians in Mongolia and they still alive )))
And about dryness in Mongolia – yes the weather is dry, but its not that hot, so just drink water a bit more and its totally OK !
This was really interesting! You don’t read much about travel to Mongolia! My biggest question is, how was the language barrier? I imagine it’s much harder when you leave the capital city!
My daughter and I went to Mongolia in the fall of 2016. We loved our adventure. We had a wonderful tour guide. Zoljargal made sure that I could eat gluten free. We stayed in gers in the country and flew to Olggi for the Eagle Festival . We went to a Khazak wedding and met many wonderful people. We would love to go back. I planned our trip after reading several blogs. It turned out fantastic. We would love to return and visit our new friends. There are plenty of people there who speak English. Language was not a problem. The hostel we stayed at in Ulaanbattar was fantastic and the owners were very helpful and helped to arrange destinations for us at a very reasonable price. I was 61 and had no problems with the adventure, rough terrain, etc.
My daughter and I went to Mongolia in the fall of 2016. We loved our adventure. We had a wonderful tour guide. Zoljargal made sure that I could eat gluten-free. We stayed in gers in the country and flew to Olggi for the Eagle Festival. We went to a Khazak wedding and met many wonderful people. We would love to go back. I planned our trip after reading several blogs. It turned out fantastic. We would love to return and visit our new friends. There are plenty of people there who speak English. Language was not a problem. The hostel we stayed at in Ulaanbattar (Zaya Hostel) was fantastic and the owners were very helpful and helped to arrange destinations for us at a very reasonable price. I was 61 and had no problems with the adventure, rough terrain, etc.
A few notes from someone who has traveled to Mongolia 13 times since 2005 (and I’m in Ulaanbaatar right now):
Use caution when drinking airag, the famous fermented mare’s milk. It can have a, shall we say, loosening effect, even for the Mongols, particularly when it’s fresh. I always advise, and follow myself, a habit of taking a tiny sip and wait, another tiny sip and wait, repeat a couple more times. If you have no tummy rumbles it’s probably ok to tuck in. Every family’s airag will be a little different so follow the tiny sip protocol every time. Personally, I love all the dairy products and the traditional meat foods like buuz, khuushuur, bansh etc. and feel healthy eating it.
Use extreme caution when riding the Mongol horses. I was told years ago by the travel company person I’ve work with for my trips that, by far, more visitors are injured riding horses than anything else. But, in any case, emergency medical air evacuation insurance through someone like SOS International is highly recommended.
No part of the Silk Road goes through the country of Mongolia or ever has. Not clear that Marco ever made it that far north. However, a second trade route, the “Tea Road” did go from China to Russia through Mongolia, roughly following the same course that the rail line does today. There were still camel caravans plying the route at the turn of the 20th century.
The term “nomad” is problematical since it conjures up images of colorful people and their livestock wandering across the magnificant landscape. The reality is that the *herders* of Mongolia have set summer and winter grazing areas. If they don’t have sufficient graze for their animals, then they have to ask permission before they can move their animals into someone else’s area. The soums (counties) all have herder’s associations, dating back to socialist times. It’s quite structured and organized.
The takhi/Przewalski’s horses at Hustai are not “feral”, they are the world’s only surviving species of genetically wild horse (Equus ferus). A feral horse is a domestic horse (Equus caballus) that has not been socialized to humans, same as feral cats. I’ve had the good fortune to visit all three places where takhi have been reintroduced. Only Hustai is accessible to tourist visitors.
Please don’t plan on using herder families for “drop-in” cheap lodging on your own. You lack the knowledge to evaluate how well off they are. Hospitality customs require that they take you in but you could cost them food and resources that they can ill afford. Winter is serious business here. Do your family ger stays through a responsible tour company that has made prior arrangements with local families. Your tour fee will cover that. Consider bringing a small gift like a pad of paper, pens or pencils. No candy for the kids, please, but small stuffed toys are always appreciated.
Beyond the above, lots of good advice here, much better than I usually see. A lot of things in Mongolia get a little easier every year I come, but travel in the countryside on my beloved earth roads can be seriously challenging. Ditto the very low humidity, which I always have to adjust to since I live in coastal northern California.
If you come with an open heart and mind, are flexible and take a cue from the Mongols who NEVER complain, perhaps this crazy, wonderful country will become your second home too.
Thanks a lot for the veracious information about your trip and the situation. Mongolia does not get so many tourists every year. It used to be closed Soviet country for 70 years and now it is kind of a new frontier. It is a wide open country with green steppe, Gobi desert, and Siberian Taiga forest Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. But only 3 million people live and out of that 1,5 million lives in the capital city. So you can imagine how big is the empty place in the countryside. So, it is difficult to go around yourself, you better hire a local tour company to arrange the tour in order to explore and experience more in your limited time. You need to plan at least a week or 2. About the budget, you can do it cheap way also you can choose the nomadic life experience with comfort. All depends on your planned budget and wallet. The comfort style includes the traditional ger/yurt stay comes with ensuite restroom etc. Besides Mongolian food, you can order western, vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free food. New Milestone Tours does all of these soft-adventure and cultural tours.
Thanks for sharing this amazing experience and I would like to enjoy the horse milk because I never drank it and excited to go there… but mostly people said to me that Mongolia is dangerous for travel alone…. is it true?
This is one of the countries that is very high on my list. And despite your ‘warning’ that it isn’t easy, your blog post has only wetted my appetite even more!
It’s totally worth it!! I’m changed for the better for ever 😉
This is the first post I’ve Seen so far with so much information. So thanks 🙂
If I’m correct, you didn’t book your whole trip through a Travel agency?
Did you have to Book your accommodation in advance ?thanks so Much
I booked my entire trip independently. The tour I did was through the hostel/hotel where I was staying (which was a great way to meet other people). I booked my accommodation maybe day in advance 🙂