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 Democrative Revolution in the 1990’s, 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 ten things I wish I’d known ahead of time about traveling through Mongolia.
1) Try to Try Everything! But Make the Bucket List Ahead of Time
Mongolia is special: culturally, historically, and geographically. But local communication and Mongolia travel resources can feel almost as sparse as the country itself. Travelers to Mongolia should research and plan ahead of time to seize some of the many opportunities they can only experience in a country like Mongolia. Here’s a list you can start with:
- Drink fermented horse milk
- 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) Don’t Miss a 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!
3) Outside of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 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.
4) 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!
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 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 Discover 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 had the feeling of like a state college town or a small city in Upstate New York, 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 and 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 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.
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 are blooming. If you have seasonal allergies, it’s important to bring all your allergy medicine with you to 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 trip 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 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!