- For other places with the same name, see Mongolia (disambiguation).
Mongolia, known as Mongol uls (Cyrillic: Монгол улс, Script: ᠮᠣᠩᠭ᠋ᠣᠯ ᠤᠯᠤᠰ) in Mongolian, is a landlocked country located between China and Russia. It's a vast emptiness that links land and sky, and is one of the last few places on the planet where nomadic life is still a living tradition.
The country can be categorized into five distinct regions based on culture and geography. These regions are further divided into 21 provinces and one special municipality.
|Central Mongolia |
includes Ulaanbaatar and the popular tourist region of Arkhangai
|Eastern Mongolia |
birth place of Genghis Khan and heart of the Mongolian steppe
as the name implies, home to the immense Gobi Desert
|Northern Mongolia |
has much of Mongolia's forests and the massive Hövsgöl Lake
|Western Mongolia |
home of Lake Uvs Nuur and Tavan Bogd Mountains, is also the most diverse region with a dozen different tribes including the Kazakhs
- 1 Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator, Mongolian Cyrillic: Улаанбаатар) – the capital and starting point for most travel in this country.
- 2 Choibalsan (Mongolian Cyrillic: Чойбалсан) – large industrial city in the East.
- 3 Erdenet (Mongolian Cyrillic: Эрдэнэт) – Mongolia's second largest city and home to one of the world's biggest copper mines and a famous carpet factory
- 4 Hovd (Mongolian Cyrillic: Ховд) – A historic city at the crossroads of traditional Mongol and Kazakh culture.
- 5 Karakorum (Mongolian Cyrillic: Хархорум) – the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire, established by Genghis' son Ogedei.
- 6 Mörön (Mongolian Cyrillic: Мөрөн) – Capital of Hövsgöl province.
- 7 Ölgii (Mongolian Cyrillic: Өлгий) – a town in Mongolia's far western corner - capital of the Kazakh Region, Bayan-Ölgii province.
- 8 Chinggis (Mongolian Cyrillic: Чингис) – near the birthplace (and possible burial site) of Genghis Khan.
- 9 Tsetserleg (Mongolian Cyrillic: Цэцэрлэг) – the capital of Arkhangai province.
- Khognokhan mountain specially protected territory – A beautiful, and calm area that includes cultural sightseeing places as Kharkhorin, The capital of the Mongolian Empire after Genghis Khan
- 1 Altai Tavan Bogd National Park (Mongolian Cyrillic: Алтай Таван богд байгалийн цогцолбор газар) – The tallest mountain and largest glacier in Mongolia, with Eagle Hunters living in its shadow and a World Heritage Site: Petroglyphs.
- 2 Uvs Nuur Lake (Mongolian Cyrillic: Увс нуур), Uvs province – The largest lake in Mongolia and a World Heritage Site: Uvs Lake.
- 3 Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve – An ecotourism destination
- 4 Gorkhi-Terelj National Park (Mongolian Cyrillic: Горхи-Тэрэлж) – A national park 70 km east of Ulaanbaatar
- 5 Khövsgöl Lake (Mongolian Cyrillic: Хөвсгөл нуур) – A very large freshwater alpine lake.
- 6 Darhad Valley (Mongolian Cyrillic: Дархадын хотгор) – Home to the Reindeer people.
- 7 Khustain Nuruu National Park (Mongolian: Хустайн нуруу) – Khustain Nuruu or Hustai National park is home to the Takhi wild horses (also known as Przewalski's Horse). These are true wild horses which have never been domesticated.
- 8 Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park (Mongolian Cyrillic: Говь гурван сайхан байгалийн цогцолбор газар) – Khongor Sand dunes, Yol Canyon, Bayanzag-Red Flamming Cliffs, Khermen Tsav.
|Population||3 million (2017)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (Europlug, Type E)|
|Time zone||UTC+08:00, Asia/Hovd, Asia/Ulaanbaatar, Asia/Choibalsan|
|Emergencies||101 (fire department), 102 (police), 103 (emergency medical services), 105|
|edit on Wikidata|
With only 1.7 people per square kilometre, Mongolia has the lowest population density of any independent country, and it is this vast and majestic emptiness that is the country's enduring appeal, bringing the traveller, as it does, into a close communion with nature and its nomadic inhabitants. Mongolia is entirely landlocked, between China and Russia. The country is nicknamed the "Land of Blue Skies," and with good reason. There are said to be about 250 sunny days throughout each year. The weather is bitterly cold during the winter, dropping down to -40°C in some parts. With many types of terrain — from desert to verdant mountains — the weather during the summer varies from region to region, but is generally hot. Outside of the Gobi desert, this time of year is marked with many rains in some areas, and it can become quite cool at night.
For several letters, the ISO 9 standard transliteration of Cyrillic is not widely used and there is no consensus either in Mongolia nor in Wikivoyage. Particularly, the same Cyrillic letter "х" is transliterated "h" or "kh", the letter "ө" is transliterated "ô", "ö", "o" or "u", but Latin "o" is also the transliteration of the Cyrillic "о", and Latin "u" is also the transliteration of Cyrillic "у" and "ү" (the latter should be transliterated "ù" according to ISO 9, but this is rarely done). So, if you can't find a name as you wrote it, try other spellings.
Mongolia may have geopolitical, cultural and geographical meanings. Modern day Mongolia consists of what was historically Outer Mongolia (so called when it was part of China). Inner Mongolia is politically separate and remains a province of China, sharing a border and a common cultural heritage with modern-day Mongolia.
The recorded history of ancient Mongolia dates back to the third century BC when the Xiongnu came to power among many other nomadic tribes. Due to illiteracy and nomadic lifestyle, little was recorded by the Xiognu of themselves; they first appear in recorded Chinese history as "Barbarians" against whom the walls were built. Those walls later became known as the Great Wall of China.
Xiognu history is controversial. Different historians attribute them to several quite different ethnic groups. Some claim Xong Nu is cognate to Hun Nu or even that these are basically the same group known as Huns centuries later in Europe, but both claims are contested.
There have been several Empires in Mongolia after the Xiognu. There was the Uighur Empire, with its capital Har Bulgas (Khar Bulgas or Xar Bulgas) near Har Horin. The Khitans who controlled North China around 1000 AD as the Liao Dynasty had an administrative centre (Har Bukh) 120 km to the northeast. The Government of Turkey has been promoting some Turkish Empire monuments and there is a museum full of artifacts at the Bilge Khaan site.
The struggle for mere existence and power over other tribes kept going until the time of Genghis Khan. Chinggis Khan, as he is known in Mongolia, came to power and united the warring tribes under the Great Mongol Empire in 1206. He was proclaimed Genghis Khan (Chingis Haan), meaning ruler of all Mongol tribes. The Mongolian Empire was extended all the way to eastern Europe under Genghis Khan. His grandson, Kublai Khan, subsequently conquered much of China, to establish the Yuan Dynasty. Marco Polo travelled through much of the Mongol Empire in Kublai Khan's time. The Mongols were, however, driven back to the steppes by the Chinese Ming Dynasty under Emperor Hongwu. They were later progressively conquered by the Manchu-Chinese Qing Dynasty through the 17th and 18th centuries.
An independent Mongol nation would only emerge again in 1924 but was not recognised by China until 1945, as the Chinese were forced to grant independence to Outer Mongolia by the Soviet Union, in exchange for Soviet assistance in fighting the Japanese invasion. Thus, the historic region of Mongolia was split into two, with Outer Mongolia becoming the independent nation of Mongolia, while Inner Mongolia remained a province of China. Since that time, Mongolia has had a close relationship with the Soviet Union (and Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union). Mongolia even replaced its traditional script with the Cyrillic alphabet. (The traditional script, however, continues to be used by ethnic Mongols in China). As Inner Mongolia was the more populated area before the partition, to this day the number of ethnic Mongols living in China outnumbers the population of Mongolia.
Following independence, the Soviet Union installed a communist government in Mongolia. Following the fall of communism in Europe, Mongolia enacted democratic reforms, which resulted in the first democratic multiparty elections in 1990. The democratic reforms eventually culminated with the first peaceful transfer of power in 1996, when the incumbent Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party lost the elections, and handed over to the victorious Democratic Union.
Mongolia's vast collection of natural resources such as gold, copper, and coal can very easily make it one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, but due to its landlocked geography, dependence on the goodwill of China and Russia, governmental and bureaucratic inefficiencies, Mongolia remains one of the least developed countries in Asia.
The Secret History of the Mongols is one of the great recordings of Mongolian history. Every Mongolian reads the book in the modern Mongolian language. This is one of the oldest books in the Mongolian language. There are vivid similarities with the Bible in literary style, wording and story telling. It is speculated that the author could have been a Christian or at least was very knowledgeable about the Bible. According to Hugh Kemp, Qadag is the most likely candidate for authorship of Secret History of the Mongols. He writes about the history of ancient Mongolia and connects the modern reality with the ancient world. Even though the book is about the history of Christianity in Mongolia, it paints a view of ancient Mongolia from the height of 21st century. The History of Mongolia by B. Baabar is a good source for the modern history of Mongolia.
On the trail of Marco Polo covers some travel through the Mongol Empire in the time of Genghis' grandson, Kublai Khan.
Mongolia is more than twice as big as Texas and nearly the same size as Alaska. Its area is 1.6 million square kilometres (603,000 square miles), four times the size of Japan and almost double that of Eastern Europe.
This makes Mongolia the sixth-largest country in Asia and 19th in the world, but the population is only 2,727,966 (as of Nov 2009), which makes Mongolia one of the least densely populated areas in Asia.
If you consider that 40% of the population lives in the capital city of Ulan Bator or Ulaanbaatar ("UB") that leaves lots of room for you to travel in the outback. Of course, Gobi is even less dense.
Almost another 40% of population are scattered all over Mongolia with their 56 million head of sheep, goats, cattle, horses and camels. There are 21 provinces, called aimag. Each aimag has a central city or town and about 15-22 sub-provinces called soum, so you will know which aimag and which soum you are in.
70% of Mongolia is under the age of 35. The gender ratio is close to 1:1. Ethnicity: 84% Khalkha Mongols, 6% Kazakhs and 10% other groups.
More than 50% will say they are Buddhists which is very much mixed with Shamanism, close to 10% will claim to be Christians of all forms and 4% follow Islam, the remainders will say that they are atheists. Almost all the Kazakhs and Muslims live in Bayan-Ölgii province.
Holidays and festivals
The annual Naadam festival (11–13 July) is the biggest day in many Mongols' calendars. It is when Mongolia celebrates its "three manly sports": wrestling, horse racing, and archery by either watching the festivities in Ulaanbaatar or by following them on television or radio.
Many other smaller Naadam festivals also take place in different aimags (provinces) throughout July, and these more intimate festivals may let you get much closer to the action.
The Naadam celebrations are said to have started with the rise of the Great Mongolian Empire. Chinggis (a.k.a. Genghis) Khan used them to keep his warriors strictly fit. After the fall of the empire, the contests were held during religious festivals, and since the communist revolution it was celebrated on its anniversary.
Legend has it that a woman once dressed like man and won the wrestling competition. That is why the long-sleeved wrestling costumes, called "zodog", have open chests - to show that every participant is male. Wrestlers wear short trunks, "shuudag", and Mongolian boots, "gutal". The yellow stripes on tales of wrestlers' hats will indicate the number of times the wrestler became a champion in Naadam.
Lunar New Year dates
The year of the Ox began on 3 Feb 2021 at 22:58, and the Lunar New Year was on 12 Feb 2021
Contrary to popular belief, the change of the zodiac does not occur on the first day of the Lunar New Year, but instead occurs on Li Chun (立春 lì chūn), the traditional Chinese start of spring.
Only Naadam gives official titles to the wrestlers. Mongolia wrestling tournaments have 9 or 10 rounds depending on the number of 512 or 1024 wrestlers registered for the competition that year. If the wrestler wins 5 rounds, he will be awarded title "Nachin" (bird), 6 rounds - Hartsaga (hawk), 7 rounds - Zaan (elephant), 8 rounds - Garuda (Eagle), 9 rounds - Arslan (lion) and 10 - Avarga (Titan).
In 2006, Zaan (Elephant) Sumyabazar won 9 rounds that made him Garuda but that year 1024 wrestlers had 10 rounds which he won all. This entitled him to Avarga. Or Arslan (Lion) must win 2 in a row to become Avarga (Titan). The titles are for life. If Avarga (Titan) keeps winning at Naadam more and more attributes will be added to his title.
There is no weight categories in Mongolian Wrestling tournaments but there is a time limit of 30 minutes, if the wrestlers can not overthrow each other, referees use lots for better position which often settles the match. One who falls or his body touches the ground loses the match.
Mongolia Wrestling matches are attended by seconds whose role is to assist their wrestlers in all matters and to encourage them to win by spanking on their butts. They also sing praise songs and titles to the leading wrestlers of both wings, west and east, after 5 and 7 rounds. The referees monitor the rules but the people and the fans are the final judges. They will speak and spread the word of mouth about who is who till the next year.
- Tsagaan Sar (White moon) - starts on the Lunar New Year and is a 3-day public holiday. Its not big with tourists for the obvious reason of being during the coldest month of the year. A time when families reunite and have a large meal of sheep's tail, mutton, rice with curds, dairy products, and buuz. It is also typical to drink airag and exchange gifts.
- Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii on October 5th and 6th is the largest gathering in the world of eagle hunters. The event typically has 60 to 70 Kazakh eagle hunters displaying their skills. The events include having their golden eagles fly to them on command and catching a fox fur being pulled being a horse from a perch on a nearby mountain. The event also features traditional Kazakh games like Kokpar (tug-of-war over a goat carcass while on horseback), Tiyn Teru (a timed race to pick up a coin on the ground while on horseback), and Kyz Kuar ("girl chase," is a race between a man and woman where the woman whips the man while he tries to hold on). The festival also has a traditional Kazakh concert, camel race, and displays of Kazakh art. A smaller eagle festival is held on Sept 22nd in the nearby village of Sagsai.
- Nauryz also in Ölgii is the traditional new year's celebration of Kazakhs held on 22 March. There is a parade, concert, and horse races during the several days of celebrating. Though most of the celebration involves visiting friends and relatives to eat Nauryz Koje (soup) and boiled mutton and horse meat.
- Ice Festival is held on the frozen surface of Lake Hövsgöl outside of Mörön each February. The 2 day festival includes wrestling, reindeer sleighs and riding, ice skating, shaman rituals, folk concert, and cultural events of the Tsagaan reindeer people. You should be warned; It is very cold in Northern Mongolia in February.
- Yak Festival on July 23rd in between Karakorum and Arvayheer. The festival celebrates this large mammal that thrives in the cold Mongolian winters with a full day of yak races, a rodeo, and other competitions. There is a market, tourist gers, and a whole temporary village set up in the middle of the steppe.
- Camel Festival in South Gobi province: A local non-governmental organization that aims to protect and preserve the Bactrian camel population organizes “The Thousand Camel Festival” in Bulgan County, South Gobi Province. The festival includes two types of camel races, camel-polo, and some other competitions related to camel breeders’ cultural heritage such as training of untamed camels, making ropes from camel wool and loading. There is also a folk concert by school children from the countyside. The festival is held annually March 6–7 for 2 days.
While most business still takes place on most holidays, Tsagaan Sar and Naadam tend to last much longer than the official 3 days. Work may stop for weeks in the countryside for Tsagaan Sar. Also, election days are always public holidays and dry days. Alcohol is not sold on election days or the 1st of each month nationwide.
- New Years- January 1
- Tsagaan Sar- January/February (3 days, depends on Lunar New Year)
- International Women's Day- March 8
- Soldiers' Day- March 18 (Not a day off, just lots of parades)
- Mothers' and Children's' Day- June 1
- Naadam Festival- July 11–13
- Genghis Khan's Birthday- November 14
- Independence Day- November 26 (No longer a day off, replaced by Genghis' Birthday)
Working hours are almost always posted in 24 hours. Shops are usually open 10:00 to 21:00 or 22:00, and sometimes closed or shortened hours on Sunday or Monday. Banks usually open 08:00 or 09:00 to 17:00, though often closed for an hour for lunch. However, posted times are not always reliable, especially in the countryside. Expect shops to open at maybe 10:15 or 10:30 more often than not. Restaurants typically close around 22:00, while bars stay open until midnight or later. There are a few fast food restaurants in the capital that stay open until 03:00, but no shops open past midnight.
The ideal Mongolia travel season starts in May and hits its highest peak in July, during the Naadam holiday, and in August when the weather is most favourable for travelling. This is the best time if you like the culture and can bear the crowds of other tourists. It is not a good time if you want to get away from your busy lifestyle because you will experience traffic, busy schedules, waiting in lines, etc.
September is also a very good time to visit, and October is not too late to travel to Mongolia. It is still warm during the days but a bit chilly during the nights. In the autumn, Mongolia is not very crowded, and this is time for late-comers and last-minute, unplanned trips. You will get to sightsee, enjoy the culture, and taste mare's milk, a bitter and at first somewhat unpleasant drink, throughout the country.
For visitors not afraid of cold or fermented mare's milk, travelling to Mongolia from November till the Lunar New Year is still an option. Winter tourism is a developing area of the Mongolian tourism industry.
The most rewarding experience will be visiting the nomads, as this is the time when you will experience their culture first-hand during "Tsagaan Sar" or the traditional (Lunar) New Year celebration.
Travellers will have the opportunity to watch lots of cultural activities: singing, dancing, wrestling, and winter horse racing.
Mongolia is known to have 250-260 sunny days throughout the year, so you will need good UV protection. During winter, protect your eyes, and during summer, protect your skin.
- See also: Mongolian phrasebook
The official language of Mongolia is Mongolian, and with the exception of the westernmost province where Kazakh is spoken, almost everybody in the country speaks Mongolian as their first language. Unlike Inner Mongolia in China where Mongolian is written using the traditional Mongolian script (written and read vertically), the language is written using the Cyrillic alphabet in Mongolia.
Mongolian is widely regarded as a difficult language to learn and speak, and people typically spend several months of study to be fully conversant. Mongolians will very much appreciate your efforts to speak their language, even if your knowledge is rudimentary.
Due to Mongolia's long and friendly history with Russia, Russian is compulsory in all Mongolian schools, and is the most widely spoken foreign language in Mongolia. Travellers who speak Russian should not have a problem getting by in urban areas.
Although English is gradually becoming the most popular foreign language in Mongolia, very little of it is spoken, even in the capital city. For this reason, it is essential for the independent traveller to have a good knowledge of Mongolian and/or Russian, especially if they intend to travel to areas outside of Ulaanbataar.
As Mongolia is a landlocked country that shares a border with 2 other countries, Russia and China, there are only a limited number of ways to get in. You can either fly, or you can get a visa for China or Russia and take the train, a bus, or drive.
Foreign nationals of the following countries/territories can enter Mongolia visa-free:
- For up to 90 days: Belarus, Brazil, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macau SAR, Serbia, Ukraine and United States
- For up to 30 days: Canada, Cuba, Germany, Israel, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, Thailand and Turkey
- For up to 21 days: Philippines
- For up to 14 days: Hong Kong SAR
Be aware that the temporary visa-exemption scheme for citizens of most European and some additional American countries in 2014-15 has ended, and that if you're not a citizen of the above countries you once again have to get a visa.
For other foreign nationals, the process for obtaining a thirty day visa is relatively painless, requiring a simple form and a small fee at your local Mongolian embassy. Longer visas are available, but require an invitation letter from a Mongolian company. These can sometimes be arranged through tour companies. Also, it is possible to acquire an expedited visa in a matter of hours at the Mongolian consulate in Erlian, though there is a steep US$50 fee for this service. A similar service is available in the Mongolian consulate in the Russian city of Irkutsk. Indian nationals are required to apply for a visa, although the visa fee is waived.
For more than 30-day tourist visa you will need an invitation letter.
The Embassy of Mongolia in China website hosts the form you will need if you are applying for your Mongolian visa in China, although the consulate does have them. If you're going to stay more than 30 days, you have to get registered at the Mongolia Immigration.
Thanks to a booming mining sector, Chinggis Khaan International Airport (ULN IATA) in Ulaanbaatar is now connected to most major airport hubs in Asia and a few in Europe. National air carrier MIAT Mongolian Airlines operates daily flights (during some peak season - twice a day) from Beijing and Seoul, twice a week flights from Hong Kong, Berlin, Moscow and Tokyo (during some peak season - from Narita). During peak summer season it increases flight frequencies and operates flights from Berlin, via Moscow, and Osaka. There are branch offices in Berlin, Moscow, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. Mongolia-based Hunnu Air flies 3 times a week to Bangkok, 5 flights a week to Hong Kong, and 2 a week to Shanghai.
There are almost daily flights from Seoul on Korean Air as well as other flights through Beijing, and 3 flights a week to Istanbul. It is also possible to fly to Ulaanbaatar through Tokyo's Narita Airport.
The Trans-Mongolian Line of the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway links Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar with Moscow and Vladivostok, Russia and Beijing, China. With the exception of a short railway in the east linking Choibalsan with Russia, this is the only railroad in Mongolia.
There is a small water boiler at the end of each train car which dispenses free hot water, so it's a good idea to stock up on instant noodles and tea for the trip. Also, don't expect to encounter any English-speaking staff on the train or in the stations.
The Trans-Siberian train crosses the Russia/Mongolia border at the town of Naushki, Russia. Trains start from Moscow or Irkutsk going to either Ulaanbaatar or Beijing, with several stops on both sides of the border. Between Irkutsk and the border is Ulan-Ude, Naushki, Dozornoe, and Khoit. Between the Russian border and Ulaanbaatar is Sühbaatar, Darkhan, and Zuunkharaa, with possible stops in Erdenet and Salkhit.
Second class (hard sleeper) costs about US$200 (2011) from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. The ride takes almost 30 hours, but you are given a berth in a sleeper-car. The train leaves twice per week from Beijing. Tickets cannot be purchased from the Beijing station (2011). Instead you will be directed to the China International Tour Service (CITS) office on the 2nd floor of the Beijing International Hotel (10 min walk north of the station; large, white building).
Beijing to the border
If the Beijing - Ulaanbaatar train is sold out, as seems to be common, or you need a more frequent option, you can make your way from Beijing to the border at Erlian by local train as described below, and then on to Ulaanbaatar by bus and train. As of March 2011, there are morning flights from Beijing to Erlian out of Capital Airport Terminal 1 that only cost ¥160, which is cheaper than the bus.
Trains run daily from Beijing to Jining (Inner Mongolia) or Hohhot. You can change there for a train to the border town of Erlian near the Mongolian-Chinese border. The K89 leaves Beijing in the morning and arrives at Jining in the evening. Jining has many hotels near the train station and has karaoke bars to keep you entertained while you wait. From Jining to Erlian there is a slow train that leaves in the morning, passes the great wall multiple times, and arrives in the early evening. This will take a night longer than getting the sleeper bus as described in "By Bus".
Crossing the border
Be wary of scams at the border where people in uniform will attempt to sell you "required travel insurance." There is no such thing and you can safely ignore them. You should then cross the border from Erlian in China to Zamiin-Uud in Mongolia as described in Erlian to and from Mongolia. Once you have crossed the border, you will need to get from Zamiin-Uud to Ulaanbaatar as described in Zamiin-Uud get in.
Many adventurous people every year decide to drive to Mongolia, usually starting somewhere in Europe. The Mongol Rally and Mongol Charity Rally sponsor many of these people. Driving to Mongolia can be extremely challenging in many respects. Not only are there virtually no roads in the western half of Mongolia, but vehicle registration, import fees and paperwork, visas and everything has to be ready for every country along the way. For those that still wish to make the journey by car, there are 4 land border crossings with Russia and 3 with China. Though it is much more expensive and difficult to drive through, into, or out of China in your own car.
- See Driving in China for issues for driving to Mongolia from China.
The main border is in Altanbulag-Kyakhta (Sühbaatar), nearest to the capital, is open 24 hours a day. In the far west is the Tsagaannuur-Tashanta crossing in Bayan-Olgii, is open 09:00-18:00 except Sun and is the most popular with adventure drivers. Also in the west is Borshoo-Khandgait crossing between Uvs and Tuva Republic, is open 09:00-18:00, except Sat-Sun. In the east is Ereentsav-Solovyovsk crossing near Choibalsan is open everyday 09:00-18:00.
There is a paved road connecting Ulaanbaatar to the Chinese border, and one between UB and Russia.
- Those interested in saving money can book one way elektrichka (regional train) tickets from Irkutsk or Ulan Ude to Naushki. In Naushki, one can spend the night in the train resting rooms (komnati otdiha) for US$0.50 per hour. From there, it is possible to take a marshrutka to the land border crossing town of Kyakhta, Russia. Walking across the border is prohibited, but travellers have no problems arranging for Mongolia bound cars to take them across the border, either for a small fee or for free. Upon crossing into Mongolia it is relatively easy to hitchhike, taxi, or bus to Sühbaatar or UB, as all southbound traffic is headed towards those cities.
- From the West, from Russia, it is possible to cross at the land border in Tsagaannuur, Bayan-Olgii. There are daily petrol and wheat-carrying Russian Kamaz trucks headed to Olgii and it is possible to hitchhike to Tsagaannuur or even Olgii. Regular buses and marshrutkas also operate from the border, though service is unpredictable due to the lack of a schedule. There is also a bus every 10 days between either Astana or Almaty, Kazakhstan and Olgii.
- Liuliqiao long-distance bus station (六里桥客运主枢纽 or lìu lǐ qiáo kè yùn zhǔ shū nǐu), phone +86 10 8383–1716, address: A1, Liuliqiao Nan Li, Fengtai District. Departure at 16:30. These are supposed to run every day, but may not. You can phone at 10:00 on the morning of departure to see if the bus is running and to reserve a place.
- Muxiyuan long-distance bus station (木樨园才华长途汽车站), phone +86 10 6726–7149, location: go to Liujiayao Metro Station and get a cab. Departs 17:00.
- Lizeqiao long-distance bus station (丽泽桥长途汽车站), phone (丽泽桥长途汽车站) Address 中国, 北京市丰台区北京市丰台区西三环丽泽桥东 +86 10 6340–3408, address 中国, 北京市丰台区北京市丰台区西三环丽泽桥东. Location is difficult to get to. Departs 17:00.
From Hohhot by bus cost 88 Chinese yuan and takes 6-7 hr. There are several buses each day.
Once you've got to Erlian you should then follow the Crossing the border and From the border to Ulaanbaatar steps above.
Should you be travelling at a busy time (e.g., around Naadam on the 11th/12th July) and want to be sure of getting tickets for the last leg of the trip in Mongolia, you could take one of the packages from the guesthouses in Beijing. These cost around 570 yuan (July 2009). They will include a taxi to the coach station in Beijing, Beijing to Erlian by sleeper coach, a bed in the hotel in the bus station for a few hours, a bus from Erlian to Zamyn-Uud across the border, then soft sleeper overnight from Zamyn-Uud to Ulaanbaatar. Purchased separately the tickets cost about 360 yuan. The Saga guesthouse in Beijing sells these, and although they insist till they're blue in the face that the train is a hard sleeper, it's actually a soft sleeper!
At Zamyn-Uud you have to put you bicycle in a car. You are not allowed to cycle through the 3km wide border area. Prepare to bargain. They will start at US$100 and more. You should be able to get them down to US$20 or less. If you are lucky and get up early, you might catch a truck. They will take you for free. Usually you have better chances with Mongol drivers, if you want to cross into Mongolia.
At Altanbulag you also have to put the bicycle in a car, but prices are reasonable and usually fixed. Enjoy watching your driver smuggle goods in or out of Mongolia.
By thumb or foot
The road stops at the border town of Zamyn-Uud and gives way to an open desert, with tracks going in various directions but generally heading north toward the capital city. Hitchhiking in Mongolia is not easy and a little bit of money for the driver is expected. There is an average of one car every hour heading into the desert. Rules at the border require that you ride a bus or car across the border, no walking across. However, they do not care how you get there or where you go afterwards.
If you plan to travel around the countryside without a guide, take a GPS and get some maps. The "Mongolia Road Atlas" is available in many book shops, it is over 60 pages and covers the whole country: there is a Latin character version and Cyrillic character version, in the countryside most people won't understand the Latin version. More detailed maps are available at the Mongolian Government Map Store. These maps are 1:500,000. Also some other special purpose maps and a very good map of downtown Ulaanbaatar. The map store is on Ih Toiruu St. Go west from the State Department store on the main street, called Peace, Peace and Friendship, or Ekhtavan Ave, two blocks to the large intersection with traffic lights, Turn right (North) and the map store is about half way along the block. There is an Elba electronic appliance store set back from the street, a yellow and blue building, the next building is a large Russian style office building 4 floors in height, the map store entrance is on the west side, toward the south end of the building, it lines up with the North wall of the Elba building.
Whichever the method of long-distance travel, keep in mind that everything in Mongolia has a tendency to break down. Don't be shocked if part of the suspension breaks and the driver jerry-rigs a carved wooden block in the place of a mount. For more serious breakdowns, it can easily take an entire day or longer for somebody to come along and help, so leave plenty of slack in itineraries. Finally, Mongolians are rather notorious for being late. A bus that is scheduled to leave at 08:00 will probably not be out of the city until almost eleven.
The easiest way to travel long distance is using one of the domestic airlines; AeroMongolia or Hunnu Air. Almost all flights are between Ulaanbaatar and the Aimag centers. Except for mines in the south Govi and Choibalsan, which use B-737s, most flights use turboprop regional planes like the Fokker-50. AeroMongolia uses a two-tier price structure, with the costs for foreigners being significantly higher than for locals, while Hunnu has only one price. Other than price, there isn't much difference between the airlines. Air travel agents, guest houses and hotels can help you to obtain domestic air ticket in Mongolia.
- AeroMongolia (1st floor, Monnis tower, Ulaanbaatar), ☏ (Ulaanbaatar), ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. M-F 09:00-18:00; Sa 10:00-18:00. It is generally cheaper, but uses older planes. Charges foreigners double the local rate.
- Hunnu Air (Chinggis avenue 10-1, Sukhbaatar district, Ulaanbaatar), ☏ (Ulaanbaatar), ✉ email@example.com. Formerly Mongolian Airlines.
There is only one railway company in Mongolia, owned by the Russian and Mongolian governments, "Mongolian Railway". It is probably the best way to experience something of the communist time, even if it has evolved a bit since then. Ulaanbaatar railway agents more often consider the passenger as a potential rule breaker than as a client. The railway network is poor, consisting mainly in the Irkutsk-Ulaanbaatar-Beijing Trans-Mongolian way with a few extensions. Trains are extremely slow. They usually leave on time, and arrive on time or less than 20 min late. Intercity bus routes on the roughly parallel paved roads will get you there much faster.
The local trains stop at many small stations in the countryside. For example, there is the small town of Batsumber, located about 34 km north of Ulaanbaatar (as the crow flies) longer on the train. Take your camping gear and hike to the mountains about 10 km east of the town. There are two streams flowing west out of the mountains, hike and camp along the streams. There is a small restaurant, and food shops in the town.
It's possible to pay for train tickets by credit card. For online booking of train tickets you can go to the official website (an English version is available, but not all the information is translated). The website is not the most user-friendly, but fortunately Wander Simply has a good write-up on how to navigate the site and buy tickets. Alternatively, you can contact the company Train To Mongolia to buy tickets at a commission. You pay an extra fee if you book in advance, and also an extra fee if you buy it in the train, which is the only possibility left if there are less than 10 min left before the train departure. Your passport is required to buy a ticket, but you can buy several people's tickets with one passport.
There are 3 classes: "coupé", "sleeping", "public" (translated into English by "economic" by the company). "Coupé" is the only one with doors. In "public" it's possible you have to spend your night sitting and even with little space on crowded days. The tickets are numbered, but, when the seats are exhausted, the company overbooks public seats with tickets numbered "0", at the same price.
The "public" seats tickets are much cheaper (and much slower) than the coach, minivan and taxi competitors. The schedules are on the company website. In a coupé at night, you'll be charged for compulsory additional bed sheets inside the train.
Inside a train
You will be proposed drinks and Mongolian food inside the train, both by official sellers of the company and, at the big stations with long stops, from private people getting in the train for that purpose. There are many conductors. Don't expect them to speak anything other than Mongolian and, possibly, Russian. Be careful of your belongings: thefts are not rare. But there are policemen in each train. On a long trip, your ticket will be checked again and again, and you'll be woken up in the middle of the night for that.
Nobody will wake you if you have to get off during the trip, but if you get off at the terminus, you'll be woken up, even more than one hour before arrival, depending on the agent. The train toilets close 30 min before the terminus, and sometimes even before that.
Travelling by local bus is also an option, though these buses tend only to connect the provincial capital with UB, and it is quite difficult to find any public transportation linking one provincial capital with another. Lately the Bus situation is much better. Most cities and towns are referred to in two ways, their name or the name of the Aimag (province) or Soum (county), e.g. Dornod or Dornod Aimag or Choybalsan (the actual city name). Most buses have their destination on a card in the front window. If you have either name written down in Mongolian Cyrillic, you can just show to the drivers or helpers and they will get you on the right bus.
There are two types of buses, micro vans and large buses (some large buses are old Russian types and some are modern western type), depending on the road. The large buses run on schedule, but the micro-buses are much more lax. In Ulaanbaatar, there are two bus stations, one on the west near the Dragon Shopping Center and one on the East near the Botanical Gardens. Both stations are on Peace Avenue on either side of the city. Multiple buses run between them. Get local to write directions. For the large buses buy your tickets the day before.
In the Aimag centres, there will be service to Ulaanbaatar and to local soums (small county seats) and usually the next Aimag Center. However, all locations may not be available at one location. Ask for help from the locals. For example, In Ondorkhaan, the capital of Khentii Province, there is bus service between Ondorkhaan and UB from a central bus station, however the through buses going to/from UB to Dornad and Sukhbaatar Aimags (Choybalsan and Baruun-Urt) will stop at a gas station on the North side of the city.
You purchase your ticket at the station, not in the coach. Don't expect any cashier, driver or conductor to speak anything but Mongolian and, possibly, Russian. It's not possible to pay by credit card. Your passport is required to buy a ticket. If you have a luggage exceeding the standard (written in your ticket) in weight or size, you'll be asked for an extra fee by the conductor. You can negotiate this one.
Inside a bus
On some destinations, the driver and the conductor illegally add extra passengers and get the money for themselves. They might even try to make 3 people sit on 2 seats, for instance: you can protest in such a case. Your ticket gives you the right to a full seat and this is what you get in most coaches. The coach will usually stop for a rather quick lunch or dinner at a local snack or canteen.
Public countryside taxis and minivans, often called purgon or mekr, offer more destinations than coaches and many more than train, especially between provinces. They are more dangerous than coaches and trains, and always overloaded. Most drivers don't respect the traffic rules. Countryside taxis and minivans leave when full. They always say they will go "now" ("odo") but it's rarely true and you can wait hours before they really go. See how many people are already sitting inside the vehicle to have an idea of how long you'll wait. Drivers also usually promise to pick up additional passengers and cargo before leaving town.
By chartered jeep
It is also possible to charter a Jeep and driver for private use. Prices are typically negotiated by the kilometre. While far more expensive than sharing a ride with the locals, this means of transport is considerably more convenient and allows you to visit more remote sites. It can also be quite convenient to hire a guide to use during the length of your stay.Doing so can allow you to travel without worrying about taxi drivers wanting to overcharge up to 10x for being a foreigner.
Road accidents are frequent. The bigger the vehicle is, the safer it is. Outside of the capital, there are few paved roads.
In the cities, taxis should charge about 800 ₮ per km. The drivers will set their trip meter and charge accordingly.
For local travel, horse-back is a good option. Mongolians ride on wooden saddles, so if you value your buttocks it's probably a good idea to pick up a leather, Russian saddle in UB.
Another great alternative is to simply walk. Since camping is possible anywhere, resting is never a problem. Wherever there is water there are nomads, and if you stick to the major dirt-roads you will encounter plenty of guanz, who can provide huge cheap meals to keep you going. Adopting the Mongolian style of sleeping outdoors is also an option: wrap yourself in wool blankets and then cover yourself with a Russian raincoat (essentially a tarpaulin in the form of a trench coat), and simply plop yourself down on the ground. One night sleeping this way gives a whole new appreciation for the wonders of sleeping bags and bivvy sacks/tents.
Mongolia is a big country that has been beyond the reach of travellers and the normal trappings of civilization until the 21st century. Even today it can be difficult to travel between the few places that 'exist'. There is not a whole lot of noteworthy architecture in the country. Except for the short-lived capital of the Mongol Empire at Karakorum, the descendents of Genghis Khan did not leave much evidence of their power inside their native homeland. Genghis Khan, who leveled cities from the Yellow Sea to the Caspian, was said to have only built one permanent building during his life, a warehouse to store his stupendous amount of loot.
Though this structure no longer exists, the capital built by his son, Ogedei, does, as do countless artifacts that occupy the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar, and thousands stone monuments and drawings spread throughout the country, some dating back thousands of years. After the gradual disintegration of the Mongol Empire, a large number of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries were built, providing the most visible signs of Mongolia's history. Today only a few still stand after Stalinist religious purges. Of particular note is the Amarbaysgalant Monastery in Selenge, the Erdene Zuu Monastery in Karakorum, and Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, all active religious sites with large number of resident lamas. During the communist era, the Russians helped establish large modern cities and modern industries, which aren't very pretty, but are of some interest, particularly the biggest open-pit copper mine in Asia at Erdenet.
Before the religious purges, Mongolia had around 750 monasteries and was a theocracy. Many were destroyed, while some were turned into museums by the communist to display Mongolian art or the opulence of the former religious leaders. Today the Choijin Lama Monastery and the Bogd Khan Winter Palace are preserved as museums for the art of the Lamas and the toys of the former king. Other ancient monasteries are slowing reopening and recovering like the Amarbaysalant in Selenge Province or the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar. Most monasteries today are small newly built temples in towns that didn't even exist before the purges.
Besides the monastery museums, Ulaanbaatar hosts several interesting and noteworthy museums to see before going off to the countryside. The best one by far is the National Museum of Mongolia with large collections of artifacts from the Mongol Empire through the Democratic Revolution of 1990. Several other good art museums and lesser history and nature museums also exist in the city if you will be there for an extended time. Outside of the capital, every provincial center also has a small museum usually built by the communist and mostly not updated since they left. These museums are cheap and do have useful displays on local cultures and history.
One thing that does look much the same as it always has is the unspoiled nature of Mongolia. Due to its very low population density, the lowest in the world, it is possible to travel days with only seeing the occasional nomadic herder interrupting endless rolling steppes, the vast Gobi desert, or the snow capped Altai Mountains. Up north, Siberian forests surround the 2nd largest freshwater lake in Asia by volume, Hôvsgôl (or "Hövsgöl") lake, in Hövsgöl province, which is very beautiful. The Flaming Cliffs near Dalanzadgad are stunning just to see, but also contain some of the earliest and most important dinosaur discoveries.
The most memorable part of any trip to Mongolia, regardless of what drew you here, will certainly be the people. Mongolians are incredibly hospitable to guests. No trip here is complete without having dinner or staying the night with nomadic herders. Around a third of the population still earns a living as semi-nomadic herders living in gers (yurts) on the open steppe. While their diets are not very diverse, consisting of meat, flour, and dairy, they will seek to serve guests a feast of boiled or fried meat and hot milky tea, with traditional entertainments of music, singing, and maybe dance. There is some variation depending on which tribe or region, with Kazakhs near Ölgii being the most different with different language, diet, and dress, including the practice of eagle hunting. While the Tuvans have a beautiful, eerie singing style of Throat singing, and the Tsaatan people live isolated lives herding reindeer near Lake Hövsgöl. Then there are the Lama Monks that are increasingly common in monasteries and elsewhere, and the Shaman priests, who practice the ancient animist religions of worshiping nature and the earth, and are widely respected in Mongolia.
Experience the culture, have a meal or spend the night with a nomadic family. They are an authentic Mongolian experience. Whether you go just outside of the capital or fly to the far corners of the country, this is the most memorable part of any trip. There are some variations on the experience, depending on the tribal group.
Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world and has very little development of any kind outside of the capital and a few small towns. There often isn't even roads connecting these towns. This pristine setting means that Mongolia has wide open spaces for experiencing the outdoors for those who want adventure. Traveling across this vast country is often an adventure in itself with tourists and adventures alike going by car, motorcycle, bike, horse, camel, or foot. Most often this means camping on the shore of a river or with a nomadic family or in small roadside hotels in provincial towns. Along the way or on one of the many wild rivers and nature preserves, there is great fishing, particularly fly fishing during the summer. Climbing the mountains in the west are popular as well as photographing the wildlife, flora, or the multitude of birds living or migrating through Mongolia.
- Canoe down some of Mongolia's major rivers
- Visit Reindeer Herders, such as the Tsaatan Community, which is west of Khovsgol lake. Several tour companies sell tours to visit the reindeer herders living in high alpine mountains. To get there, you ride horses from Tsagaannuur or Rinchinlhumbe. You need to get a border permit in UB or Murun before you start your tour. Most licensed tour companies are able to get the border permit if you give your travel details in advance. Horse trekking can be hard and long. But it's worth traveling there.
- Local Bonda Lake Camp in Khatgal village near Lake Khovsgol offers various nature and cultural featuring: fishing, hiking, winter tours, nomad visits, horse back riding, visiting reindeer herders and Darhad valley. Horse riding, you have chance discover Lake Khovsgol and its beautiful waters, meet Tsataan (nomadic reindeer herders) living in yurts in the north of Khovsgol area. This region is incredibly scenic, perched at 1645 m altitude in green mountains, covered with thick pine forests and lush meadows with grazing yaks and horses, and rich with wildlife: the lake has 9 species of fish and its surroundings are full of sheep, goats, elk and more than 430 species of birds. There are 5 Mongolian tribes nearby: Khalh, Darhad, Buriad, Hotgoid, & Urianhai. The Camp has a hot shower, sauna, internet and a restaurant with Mongolian and European meals.
- Mountain Climbing, All over Mongolia. Best to climb the highest peaks in July and August. While much of the country is rolling steppe, there are several mountain ranges. The Altai Mountains in the west have several peaks of over 13,000 ft (4,000 m) up to 14,201 ft (4,328 m) inside Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. The highest mountains have snow-capped peaks, glaciers, and require special equipment and experienced guides. Smaller mountains throughout the country can be hiked in an afternoon, including many surround the capital of Ulaanbaatar.
- Join Kazakh eagle hunters on a hunt, In Western Mongolia. During the cold winter months, the Kazakhs in western Mongolia use eagles to hunt for foxes and hares, which are easier to see against the snow. Freezing temperatures and long days on Mongolian horses discourage most people from attempting this adventure. For those that do, seeing an eagle released from a man's forearm swoop down and kill a fox a mile away is a truly unforgettable experience.
- Skiing: There is one ski resort outside of Ulaanbaatar with a ski lift, equipment rentals, instructors, and all the other features of a ski resort. The lift may be slow, and the runs a bit hard, but it does provide good entertainment for those visiting UB during the long, cold winter months. For those more adventurous types, Western Mongolia's several large mountain ranges provide great back-country skiing. Spring months of April and May get the most snow and make the best skiing. Plan on joining a tour or lugging all your own equipment. There aren't any ski shops in the nearby villages.
Exchange rates for Mongolian tögrög
As of January 2020:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from https://www.khanbank.com/en/personal/currency-rate
The Mongolian currency is the tögrög/tugrik/tôgrôg/tugrug/togrog denoted by the sign "₮" (Mongol: төгрөг) (ISO international currency code: MNT). You may also see the notation "tg" or "T".
Banknote denominations in circulation are 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 ₮.
In Mongolia tipping is rarely ever expected except in tourism-related services like tour guides. Waiters, taxis, and hotel attendants do not expect tips. Sometimes taxis will attempt to overcharge you by refusing to give change back, but this has nothing to do with gratuity. Some nicer restaurants and hotels in the capital do often add fees to the bill for service, especially for larger groups.
- Mongolian cashmere is known as the best in the world, so consider buying garments and blankets from one of the many stores that sell cashmere products.
- Mongolia is famous for its copper mines Erdenet and Oyu Tolgoi. A copper bookmark might make an ideal souvenir and you can easily find this US$1 metal souvenir in Ulaanbaatar souvenir shops.
- Kazakh Embroideries made in Ölgii using traditional Kazakh designs are sold in many gift shops in Ulaanbaatar.
- Paintings by local artists are excellent buys in Mongolia.
- You can find felt poker-work in Erdenet.
- It is illegal to take antiques out of the country without a special permit.
- The huge open-air market, Narantuul ("The Black Market") in Ulaanbaatar offers the lowest prices on just about anything you could want. Be very careful of the many pickpockets and even attackers there. This can be a great place to get a good pair of riding boots. You can opt for a variety of Mongolian styles, from fancy to the more practical, or even get a good set of Russian style boots.
- Mongolia is justly famous for its carpets. Erdenet is home to Mongolia's largest carpet factory, also making and selling slippers made of carpet, though its carpets are machine-made and not made using traditional methods. For traditional carpets, visit a local market, including the famous Black Market in Ulaanbaatar.
Prices as of April 2018:
- Bread (1 loaf) - 1,600 ₮
- Bottled water (0.5 liter) - 600 ₮
- Beef (1kg) - 9,500 ₮
- Yogurt (0.45kg) - 1,600 ₮
- Beer (0.5 liter) - 2,000 to ₮ 5,000 ₮
- Milk (1 liter) - 2,350 ₮
- Potato (1kg) - 1,050 ₮
- Onion (1kg) - 1,550 ₮
- Coffee (0.8kg) - 12,000 ₮
- Banana (1kg) - 4,500 ₮
- Grape (1kg) - 11,000 ₮
- Apple juice (2 liters) - 5,000 ₮
- Eggs (10 pieces) - 4,450 ₮
Boiled mutton? Aren't Mongolians famous for barbeque? Sadly, no: "Mongolian BBQ" was invented in Taiwan in the 1970s. Due to tourist demand, there is one Mongolian BBQ place in Ulaanbaatar now, but it's run by an American!
Anywhere you find people in Mongolia, you will also smell the scent of boiled mutton, the principal dish of Mongolia. A typical herder in the countryside will eat little else, flavored only with a little salt. Vegetables and spices are very limited, and even flour may be in short supply, since the climate is poorly suited to agriculture.
Restaurants, canteens and tea shops in Mongolia also have a mutton-centric menu, revolving around three dishes:
- buuz (бууз) — Steamed dumplings stuffed with meat, often called the national dish of Mongolia. Closely related to Russian pelmeny and Chinese jiaozi, a set of 6 usually costs 1,200-2,000 ₮.
- khuushuur (хуушууp) — Deep-fried stuffed flatbread with meat and onion, originally a festive dish but now ubiquitous. 3 or 4 will fill you up.
- tsuivan (цуйван) — Fried noodles with meat and a few token vegetables, often served with ketchup on the side. Around 2,000-4,000 ₮ a serve.
Horse, yak and beef are also eaten, and dairy products like byaslag (бяслаг), a mild, paneer-like fresh cheese, and öröm (өрөм), clotted cream, are also common. Aaruul (ааруул) dried curds are also a common snack: these are typically rock hard and have to be eaten by slowly dissolving them in your mouth, which eventually turn them into lumps of cheesy putty.
For special occasions, boodog (боодог) or goat/marmot barbecue, is particularly worth experiencing. For about 15,000-20,000 ₮, a nomad will head out with his gun, shoot a marmot or a goat, and then cook it for you without a pot: the meat, vegetables, water and stones are cooked inside the skin of the animal. They skin it very carefully, and then tie off the holes at the legs and back side, put the food and hot stones inside, tie off the throat, and let it cook for about 30 minutes.
Along the same lines is khorkhog (xopxoг), made of mutton, which is prepared like so: build a fire; toss stones into fire until red hot; place water, hot stones, onions, potatoes, carrots, and, finally, mutton chops, into a large vacuum-sealed kettle; let the kettle simmer over a fire for 30-60 minutes; open kettle carefully, as the top will inevitably explode, sending hot juices flying everywhere; once the kettle is opened, and all injuries have been tended to, eat contents of kettle, including the salty broth. This cooking method makes mutton taste tender and juicy, like slow-roasted turkey. Ask your guide if he or she can arrange one (but only during summer).
Where to eat
Ulaanbaatar has a cosmopolitan scene with plenty of international options, ranging from fine dining at the Kempinski to fast-food dumplings at Khaan Buuz, the country's answer to McDonalds. The many Korean restaurants in particular are worth exploring. It is also the only place in the country where vegetarians can fairly easily find food, although tour agents can usually arrange vegetarian meals elsewhere with sufficient notice.
In the countryside, the only dining option is often the guanz (гуанз), a roadside ger tent serving up a simple menu, often only tsuivan noodles and milk tea.
The most common drink in Mongolia is milk tea (сүүтэй цай süütei tsai), which is essentially a cup of boiled milk and water, sometimes with a couple pieces of tea leaf and/or a pinch of salt thrown in for good measure. A cup of this and a bowl of dried snacks is the first thing served when you visit a ger, and it accompanies food at restaurants as well. The tea can be bulked up into a meal by adding in some toasted millet or rice. You might want to build up your tolerance by drinking lots of milk in preparation for your stay because they don't drink much else, except perhaps boiled water if you specially request it during a longer stay. Also, most traditional nomadic foods such as dried yogurt and the like require acclimatization to milk as well. Cold drinks don't actually exist in the countryside (unless you intend to drink straight out of a river, generally not recommended).
The national drink, though, is airag (айраг). Essentially the same as the Central Asian kumiss, this is a summer seasonal drink made from fermented mare's milk, and is certainly an acquired taste. The alcohol content is less than that of beer, but can have noticeable effects. Be careful, if you aren't accustomed to drinking sour milk products the first time might give you diarrhea as your stomach gets accustomed to it. This should only happen the first time though. Once you've completed the ritual, your digestive system shouldn't complain again. There are numerous ways to describe the taste, from bile-like to a mixture of lemonade and sour cream. The texture can also be offsetting to some people since it can be slightly gritty. It is worth keeping in mind that Airag is milk and a source of nutrients. After a day of riding it can actually be quite refreshing, once acquiring a taste for it. Airag is "microbrewed" locally, not commercially produced, but in season it's sold at stands including Gandantegchinlen Monastery and at the West Market in Ulaanbaatar.
Much stronger than airag is arkhi (архи), a strong liquor distilled from milk and often called "milk vodka". Like vodka, the taste is quite neutral, and after you have your first shot of the vodka you won't feel anything, but few minutes later it will get to your head. Most people in Mongolia usually drink this for medical reasons. First you heat up the vodka then put in a little bit of special oil which is also made from milk. Careful don't overheat it, you might get blind. Mongolians call their national vodka nermel arkhi ("distilled vodka") or changa yum ("tight stuff"). There are lots of Russian type Vodkas sold all over the country. The best ones are Chinggis Khaan vodka, Soyombo and Golden Chinggis.
In Ulaanbaatar you can find most of Western beers, from Miller to Heineken. They sell Budweiser -- not American Bud but the Czech Budweiser. Local beer, such as Chingis, Gem Grand, Borgio or Sengur is fine.
Some western-style accommodation is available in Ulaanbaatar, but it goes for western prices. There are a few nice guest houses in UB for less than US$10 per night (even as cheap as 3,000 ₮ if you're willing to share a room), but they are crowded during the tourist season and hard to get into.
Out in the countryside, most of the hotels are rundown leftovers from the Soviet era. A better option is tourist ger, set up by various entrepreneurial locals. Staying at one of these costs about ₮5000 per person per night. They often include breakfast and dinner as well. When staying in one of these guest ger, the usual gift-giving customs can be skipped.
Finally, there are also ger-camps. Set up by tour-companies, they do occasionally rent out space to independent travellers. Unfortunately, they tend to be both expensive (US$35 per person per night with 3 meals) and out of the way. If you would like to stay at ger camp use the online booking portal iHotel and Mongolian Ger Camps Network
Except for the cities and larger towns, all of the land is publicly owned. This means you can pitch a tent pretty much anywhere. Courtesy dictates that you keep your distance from existing nomad encampments. Common-sense dictates that you don't pitch a tent in the middle of or too close to a road.
In Mongolia, nowadays there are more 300 hotels and these are graded between 1 and 5 stars in the international standards Hotels holding 3 stars or more are for tourist service. 3 – 5 star holders must obtain special permission in order to operate. “Accommodation grading committee” consisting of the Ministry, travel industry associations and tourism researchers categorize an accommodation according to Mongolian standards.
There are some language schools in the capital. The two most well known ones to foreigners are Bridge School and Friends School. Both schools offer group study classes or individual tutors. Also, the National University of Mongolia offers courses.
It usually takes Westerners about 9 to 18 months before they acquire good conversational abilities in Mongolian. Speakers of Altai-Turkic languages, such as Turks or Kazakhs, tend to pick it up quicker due to the similarities in grammatical structure.
There is a huge demand for "native" English speakers as English teachers. Anyone who is interested in teaching English will have no trouble getting employment and a work visa through a school or organization. However, the pay is generally low compared to other countries. Though it'll usually be just enough for room and board plus a little extra.
Local English-language media are another source of employment for native English speakers, offering work as editors, proof-readers or photojournalists.
Volunteer work is available teaching English, assisting with charity work and joining archaeological digs. These jobs are easy to find and are very rewarding.
Apart from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is generally a safe place to travel. However, incidents of pickpocketing and bag slashing have occurred, so always keep your personal belongings in a safe place (money belts are highly recommended), especially in crowded areas or in places where your attention is diverted. Notorious places for theft are the Black Market (bazaar), the railway station and crowded bus stops.
Unfortunately, xenophobia and violence towards foreigners is common. Alcoholism is a huge social problem and Mongolia has the highest rate of liver cancer in the world according to www.wcrf.org and most other reputable sources. Do not acknowledge or approach any Mongolian man under the influence of alcohol. Many foreigners who go to bars and clubs at night report assault and general aggression.
Refrain from wearing anything associated with China, and refrain from talking about China. Mongolians are quite open people and they tend to be curious and ask many questions just to be friendly. Try to answer diplomatically, and vaguely, especially relating to any perceived negative aspect of Mongolia, or anything having to do (even remotely related) with China.
Violent crime is also common outside the capital city, (Darkhan especially) so caution is required at night. In particular, dark or deserted alleys and streets should be avoided. Generally, if walking past 10:00 PM, avoid people if at all possible. Mongolians can be very friendly, but their emotions and motives can change quite quickly. Someone who may genuinely just want to have a couple drinks with you, may suddenly become aggressive in general, regardless of your respect and polite actions.
Corruption is a huge problem in Mongolia, and locals are convinced that the police are not to be trusted.
There are small bands of Mongolian ultra-nationalist thugs that style themselves as neo-Nazis and have assaulted foreigners including whites, blacks, and particularly, Chinese. They are especially provoked by foreigner interaction with Mongolian women. They are mostly found in the capital, especially in the cheaper bars and night clubs.
Lone or female travelers obviously need to exercise a higher degree of awareness of their surroundings as getting groped in the chest or behind regions is not uncommon. Some actions like dancing close to a man will be seen as an open invitation as Mongolians generally don't dance this way.
Dogs in Mongolia can be aggressive and may run in packs. It is a good idea to be wary of them since they are not likely to be as tame as domestic dogs elsewhere. Most fenced yards and gers have a guard dog that is usually all bark and no bite, though it is advised to make it aware of you as to not surprise it, and carry a rock in case it does charge you.
Manhole covers — or more precisely, the lack of such covers — is a surprisingly common cause of injuries among foreigners and (especially drunk) tourists. In smaller cities and outlying areas of the capital, there are a large number of missing or poorly placed covers. It is a good idea to avoid stepping on any manhole and always pay attention to where you walk.
- Ulaanbaatar has a serious air pollution problem, with an annual average of 279 micrograms of "PM10" particles per cubic metre. If you are an asthma patient, or suffer from any other respiratory diseases, it is best for you not to come during October through April. Appropriate medical attention may not be easy to get.
- Nomads' dogs may have rabies. As a precaution, consider having a rabies shot before coming.
- Marmots should not be eaten at certain times of the year because they can carry bubonic plague. That said, the disease is carried by the marmot's fleas so the afflicted tend to be fur traders, and marmot is not a mainstream dish even in Mongolia.
- Hepatitis and tuberculosis are common throughout Mongolia.
- Tap water is not safe to drink.
Mongols traditionally live on the steppes, breeding horses, just like their ancestor Chinggis Khan. Not surprisingly, following Western pleasantries will not have the intended effect in Mongolia. That being said, there are still a few rules to follow. Always receive items with the right hand, palm facing up. Drink from the right hand with the palm up as well. It is very rude to refuse a gift. If offered a plate of hospitality munchies, take at least a small nibble from something. You should never point at anyone with your index finger since it implies disrespect.
Whenever you approach a nomadic family, or enter a ger, you will, without knowing, break one or several of the many traditional, religious and superstitious customs. If you do become confused, don't panic, minor indiscretions will be tolerated and forgiven. The following do's and don'ts will help minimize cultural differences.
- Say hello (sain bainuu) when you arrive (but repeating it again when you see the same person is considered strange to Mongolians)
- Take at least a sip, or a nibble, of the delicacies offered
- Pick up everything with an open hand, with your palm facing upwards
- Hold a cup by the bottom, and not by the top rim
- If by accident you tap someone's foot with yours, immediately shake hands with them (failing to do so will be seen as an insult).
- Lean against a support column
- Whistle inside a ger
- Stand on, or lean over, the threshold
- Stamp out a fire, or put water or any rubbish on it (fire is sacred to Mongolians)
- Walk in front of an older person; or turn your back to the altar, or religious objects (except when leaving)
- Take food from a communal plate with your left hand
- Touch other people's hats
- Have a long conversation in your own language in front of your hosts
There are plenty of Internet cafés and nicer restaurants with Wi-Fi in the capital. The postal service is slow and most people have a PO Box if they want to get anything. It is possible to buy phone cards that can be used to call abroad very cheaply from domestic phones, but not all phones can do this. (You can ask for MiCom or MobiCom cards). In the countryside, cell phone carriers cover random villages. Between Mobicom, Unitel, and GMobile, all village or Soum Centers are covered. Internet cafés are plentiful in Aimag Centers (Province Capitals) now, with all Aimag Post Offices having one, plus many smaller cafés. There is internet in some Soums (villages), but this is rare, slow, and prone to frequent outages.
To make local calls in Ulaanbaatar use a phone of one of the many entrepreneurs with cellular telephones on the street corners. Expect to pay 150-200 ₮ per minute (June 2009 prices).
From Ulaanbaatar there are several options.
Firstly, the International train. Tickets at the international ticket office located across the street from the train station. The ticket office is on the second floor in the VIP lounge.
The second option is to get on the Hohhot international train and transfer at Erlian or Jining (Inner Mongolia), see the travel agency located on the 1st (ground) floor of the International ticket office for details.