- For other places with the same name, see Mongolia (disambiguation).
Mongolia (Mongolian: Монгол улс, Traditional Mongolian: ) is one of the world's largest landlocked countries, second only to Kazakhstan and is surrounded by two of the world's largest countries: China and Russia. It is one of the last places on earth where nomadic life lives on, and it was the center of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in world history.
Although we classify Mongolia as part of East Asia on Wikivoyage, Mongolian culture shares much in common with those of Central Asia, and many Mongols have a sense of Central Asian identity.
The country can be categorised into five distinct regions based on culture and geography. These regions are further divided into 21 provinces (aimags) and one provincial municipality.
|Central Mongolia |
includes Ulaanbaatar and the popular tourist region of Arkhangai
|Eastern Mongolia |
birthplace of Genghis Khan and heart of the Mongolian steppe
as the name implies, home to the immense Gobi Desert
|Northern Mongolia |
has many 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: Улаанбаатар) – the capital city and starting point for most travel in this country. Half the population lives here.
- 2 Choibalsan (Mongolian: Чойбалсан) – large industrial city in the east
- 3 Erdenet (Mongolian: 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: Ховд) – a historic city at the crossroads of traditional Mongol and Kazakh culture
- 5 Karakorum (Mongolian: Хархорум) – the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire, established by Genghis' son Ogedei
- 6 Mörön (Mongolian: Мөрөн) – capital of Hövsgöl province
- 7 Ölgii (Mongolian: Өлгий) – a town in Mongolia's far western corner - capital of the Kazakh Region, Bayan-Ölgii province
- 8 Chinggis (Mongolian: Чингис) – near the birthplace (and possible burial site) of Genghis Khan
- 9 Tsetserleg (Mongolian: Цэцэрлэг) – the capital of Arkhangai province
- 1 Khogno Khan National Park — a beautiful, and calm area boasting cultural sites such as Kharkhorin, the capital of the Mongolian Empire after Genghis Khan
- 2 Altai Tavan Bogd National Park (Mongolian Cyrillic: Алтай Таван богд байгалийн цогцолбор газар) — the tallest mountain and largest glacier in Mongolia, with Kazakh Eagle Hunters living in its shadow and a World Heritage Site: Petroglyphs
- 3 Uvs Nuur Lake (Mongolian Cyrillic: Увс нуур), Uvs province — the largest lake in Mongolia and a World Heritage Site: Uvs Lake
- 4 Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve — an ecotourism destination
- 5 Gorkhi-Terelj National Park (Mongolian Cyrillic: Горхи-Тэрэлж) — a national park 70 km east of Ulaanbaatar
- 6 Khövsgöl Lake (Mongolian Cyrillic: Хөвсгөл нуур) — a large freshwater alpine lake
- 7 Darhad Valley (Mongolian Cyrillic: Дархадын хотгор) — home to the Reindeer people
- 8 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.
- 9 Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park (Mongolian Cyrillic: Говь гурван сайхан байгалийн цогцолбор газар) — Khongor Sand dunes, Yol Canyon, Bayanzag-Red Flaming Cliffs, and Khermen Tsav
|Population||3.4 million (2021)|
|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 much rain 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 to the third century BC when the Xiongnu came to power among many other nomadic tribes. Due to illiteracy and their nomadic lifestyle, little was recorded by the Xiongnu 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. The Xiongnu were eventually defeated by China's Han Dynasty in AD 89.
Xiongnu history is controversial. Different historians attribute them to several quite different ethnic groups. Some claim that Xiongnu 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 Xiongnu. The first strong state to emerge was the First Turkic Khaganate in AD 552 with its capital at Ötüken (modern-day Ordu-Baliq). However, due to political infighting, this empire fragmented into the Eastern Turkic Khaganate with its capital at Ötüken, and the Western Turkic Khaganate with its capital at Suyab (near Bishkek in modern-day Kyrgyzstan), in AD 603. Both of these states were eventually defeated by China's Tang Dynasty; the Eastern Turkic Khaganate fell in AD 630, while the Western Turkic Khaganate fell in AD 657. The next strong empire to emerge was the Uyghur Khaganate, with its capital Har Bulgas (Khar Bulgas or Xar Bulgas) near Har Horin. The Khitans who controlled northern China around AD 1000 as the Liao Dynasty had an administrative centre (Har Bukh) 120 km to the northeast. The Turkish government 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 continued until the time of Genghis Khan. Chinggis Khan, as he is known in Mongolia, born with the name Temüjin, 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, and to this day, Mongolians consider him to be the father of their nation. The Mongol Empire was extended all the way to what is now Poland and Hungary in Europe under Genghis Khan, and they also conquered the Jurchen Jin Dynasty that then ruled northern China. His grandson, Kublai Khan, subsequently defeated the Chinese Song Dynasty and completed the conquest of China, establishing 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 Qing Dynasty in the 17th century, and played an important role in the Manchu conquest of China.
An independent Mongol nation only reemerged in 1924. It 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), with Russian becoming the most widely-spoken foreign language in Mongolia. Mongolia even replaced its traditional script with the Cyrillic alphabet. (The traditional script, however, continues to be used by ethnic Mongols in China.) Inner Mongolia was the more populated area before the partition, and the number of ethnic Mongols living in China still 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 culminated with the first peaceful transfer of power in 1996, when the incumbent Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party lost the elections, and handed power 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 km² (603,000 square miles), four times the size of Japan and larger than Spain, France and Germany combined. This makes Mongolia the sixth-largest country in Asia and 19th in the world, but the population is only 3.4 million (as of 2020), which makes Mongolia one of the least densely populated areas in Asia. Considering that half 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 the 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. It is home to various ethnic groups: 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 remainder will say that they are atheists. Mongolian Buddhism is part of the Vajrayana school, which is also dominant in Tibet and Bhutan. Almost all the Kazakhs and Muslims live in Bayan-Ölgii province.
Mongolia is wealthy in natural resources, possessing large and abundant deposits of copper, coal, tin, tungsten, molybdenum, and gold. The cashmere industry is also an important industry; Mongolia and its neighbour, China, are responsible for 85% of the world's cashmere supply.
Although that sounds impressive, Mongolia is a relatively poor and undeveloped country. With an economy that depends heavily on the mining sector and on the goodwill of its two large neighbours, the country's economy is highly vulnerable to external shocks.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the Mongolian economy lost a third of its GDP overnight, plunging the country into a state of disarray and discontent.
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 are also held 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 Rabbit began on 4 Feb 2023 at 10:33, and the Lunar New Year was on 22 Jan 2023
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. Mongolian 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 are 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 whose body touches the ground loses the match.
Mongolian 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 world's largest gathering 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 by a horse from a perch on a nearby mountain. The event also features traditional Kazakh games including 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" 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 countryside. 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 Khan's 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 peaks 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 to get away from your busy lifestyle because of the 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 remains 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. Cultural activities including singing, dancing, wrestling, and winter horse racing are available to tourists.
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.
The official language of Mongolia is Mongolian. Mongolian in Mongolia is written using the Cyrillic alphabet, which was introduced around the 1940s. Mongolian Cyrillic uses all the letters used in the Russian alphabet and has two extra letters: Ө and Ү. Very few people know how to read and write Mongolian using the traditional Mongolian script (written from top to bottom), although since the 1990s, it is gradually gaining popularity. Mongolian belongs to the Mongolic family of languages, which also includes some minority languages of Russia such as Buryat and Kalmyk, and is not known to be related to any other language family. Loanwords from languages such as Sanskrit, Russian, English, and Persian are common and are used in everyday conversations.
Mongolian is widely regarded as a very difficult language for an English-speaker to learn. It is an agglutinative language that makes extensive use of suffixing, makes use of nine grammatical cases, and has a number of pronunication rules and differences. Don't let this intimidate you, though; Mongolians will appreciate your efforts to speak their language, even if your knowledge of it is rudimentary. If you speak Japanese, Korean, Manchu or a Turkic language, some aspects of Mongolian grammar will be familiar to you.
Kazakh is spoken in the westernmost province of the country.
Due to Mongolia's longstanding alliance with the Soviet Union (and Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union), Russian is spoken by many older Mongolians, although proficiency drops drastically outside Ulaanbaatar.
English is gradually becoming the most popular foreign language in Mongolia and it is widely taught in Mongolian schools. Outside the capital, little of it is spoken.
Historically, Mongolia had a reputation for being a very difficult country to visit. Until the mid-1990s, you had to solicit an invitation letter from someone living in Mongolia to visit Mongolia.
Lately, the visa rules have been relaxed and most people can enter the country without a visa.
Citizens 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: Citizens of European Union member states, Canada, Cuba, Israel, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, India, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey
- For up to 21 days: Philippines
- For up to 14 days: Hong Kong SAR
Everyone else, however, must apply for a visa. Obtaining a visa — by default, the Mongolian authorities issue thirty-day visas to all tourists — is relatively straightforward and effortless.
Applying for a Mongolian visa
Although requirements vary from diplomatic post to diplomatic post, you are normally asked to submit the following to obtain a Mongolian visa:
- A visa application form
- A passport-sized photo
- A passport with a validity of more than six months
- A copy of your travel itinerary
- A copy of your hotel reservation
- A copy of your bank statement
- A letter of invitation (if you intend to stay longer than 30 days in Mongolia)
- A letter of approval from the government (only required if you plan to study, work, or live in Mongolia)
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.
The Embassy of Mongolia in China website[dead link] hosts the form you will need to apply for your Mongolian visa in China, although the consulate does have them. To stay more than 30 days, you have to register at the Mongolia Immigration.
Thanks to a booming mining sector, Chinggis Khaan International Airport (UBN IATA) in Ulaanbaatar is now connected to some major airport hubs in eastern Asia and Istanbul and Frankfurt. Flag 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, Moscow and Tokyo (during some peak season - from Narita). During peak summer season it increases flight frequencies and operates flights from Busan and Osaka. There are branch offices in Berlin, Moscow, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. Mongolia-based Hunnu Air flies 3 times a week from Bangkok and 5 flights a week from Hong Kong.
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.
- Main article: Trans-Siberian Railway
The Trans-Mongolian Line of the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway links Ulaanbaatar with Moscow, Russia and Beijing, China. The Mongolian line branches from the main Trans-Siberian at Ulan-Ude, so you'll need to break your journey there if coming from points east like Vladivostok.
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 are Ulan-Ude, Naushki, Dozornoe, and Khoit. Between the Russian border and Ulaanbaatar are Sühbaatar, Darkhan, and Zuunkharaa, with possible stops in Erdenet and Salkhit.
Second class (hard sleeper) costs about US$200 (2011) from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, crossing the border at Erlian/Zamiin-Üüd. There are two trains a week and the ride takes almost 30 hours, including a mandatory stop of 3-4 hours at Erlian while the train bogies are switched between Russian broad gauge and Chinese standard gauge. You will have to take all your belongings and leave the train for this operation, and will be confined to the waiting area at Erlian station, even if you're inbound to China and have already passed through immigration. You can, however, ask staff for a free ticket that will let you step outside to raid the nearby shops and restaurants for supplies.
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 costing only ¥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 drive to Mongolia, usually starting somewhere in Europe. The Mongol Rally and Mongol Charity Rally[dead link] sponsor many of them. 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 have to be ready for every country along the way. For those who 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 Monday to Saturday 09:00-18:00 and is the most popular with adventure drivers. Also in the west is Borshoo-Khandgait crossing between Uvs and Tuva Republic, is open Monday to Friday 09:00-18:00. In the east, Ereentsav-Solovyovsk crossing near Choibalsan is open daily 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 otdikha) 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, for either a small fee or 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 daily, 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 at 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 at 17:00.
From Hohhot by bus costs 88 Chinese yuan and takes 6-7 hr. There are several daily buses.
Once in Erlian, 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 and 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) and 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 Zamiin-Üüd across the border, then soft sleeper overnight from Zamiin-Üüd 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 Zamiin-Uud you have to put your bicycle in a car. You are not allowed to cycle through the 3-km-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 passes through the border town of Zamiin-Üüd and continues to Ulaanbaatar. 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, not walk 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 some maps. The "Mongolia Road Atlas" is available in many book shops, it has 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 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 halfway 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 4-story, Russian-style office building, 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 11:00.
The easiest way to travel long distance is via 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 Boeing 737s, most flights use turboprop regional planes. AeroMongolia uses a two-tier price structure, charging foreigners significantly more than locals, while Hunnu has only one price. Other than price, there is little difference between the airlines. Air travel agents, guest houses and hotels can help you to obtain domestic air tickets in Mongolia.
- AeroMongolia (1st floor, Monnis tower, Ulaanbaatar), ☏ (Ulaanbaatar), [email protected]. M-F 09:00-18:00; Sa 10:00-18:00. It is generally cheaper, but uses older planes and charges foreigners double the local rate.
- Hunnu Air (Chinggis avenue 10-1, Sukhbaatar district, Ulaanbaatar), ☏ (Ulaanbaatar), [email protected]. 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 rulebreaker than as a client. The railway network is poor, consisting mainly of 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 minutes 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, go to the official website[dead link] (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, 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 minutes 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", and "public" (translated into English by "economic" by the company). "Coupé" is the only one with doors. In "public" it's possible to have to spend the 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.
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, by private people entering the train for that purpose.
There are many conductors. Don't expect them to speak anything other than Mongolian and, possibly, Russian.
Theft is rare on Mongolian trains, but keeping an eye on your belongings is generally a good idea. There are police on every train.
On a long trip, your ticket will be checked repeatedly, and you'll be awakened throughout the night for that. However, nobody will wake you if you have to get off during the trip, but if you get off at the terminus, you'll be awakened, even more than one hour before arrival, depending on the agent.
The train toilets close 30 minutes before the terminus, and sometimes even before that.
Travelling by local bus is also an option, though these buses tend to only 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 has improved. 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, show it to the drivers or helpers and they will get you on the right bus.
There are two types of buses, microvans and large buses (some large buses are old Russian types and some are modern western types), 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 opposite sides 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 Dornod and Sukhbaatar Aimags (Choybalsan and Baruun-Urt) will stop at a gas station on the north side of the city.
Tickets are sold in 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 routes, the driver and the conductor illegally add extra passengers and pocket the cash. 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 snackshop 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") despite often departing hours later. 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 overcharging by up to 10x for being a foreigner.
One of the most convenient ways to get around is by car. This isn't to say that it's completely safe, however. Road accidents are very common in Mongolia, largely because of reckless driving habits. Drivers do not obey traffic rules and speeding is common. Many cars are in poor condition and not all of them are fitted with seat belts. The road network is narrow and generally in poor condition. Avoid driving at night, as most roads are unlit and may have obstacles and potholes.
In the cities, taxis should charge about 1500 ₮ 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.
Walking is another great alternative. 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, which 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 little noteworthy architecture in the country. Except for the short-lived capital of the Mongol Empire at Karakorum, the descendants of Genghis Khan left little 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 in the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar, and thousands of stone monuments and drawings spread throughout the country, some dating back thousands of years. After the gradual disintegration of the Mongol Empire, many 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 numbers 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 communists 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 slowly 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 communists 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 who 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.
Experiencing the culture and having a meal or spending the night with a nomadic family are authentic Mongolian experiences. 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 aren'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 adventurers 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 is 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.
- Listen to traditional Mongolian throat singing.
- 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, ride horses from Tsagaannuur or Rinchinlhumbe. You need to get a border permit in UB or Murun before starting the tour. Most licensed tour companies can get the border permit if you provide 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 fishing, hiking, winter tours, nomad visits, horseback riding, visiting reindeer herders and the Darhad valley. Horse riding, you can discover Lake Khovsgol and its beautiful waters, meet Tsataan (nomadic reindeer herders) living in gers 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, and 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) in 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 surrounding 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 or Kazakh horses discourage most people from attempting this adventure. For those who do, seeing an eagle released from a man's forearm swoop down and kill a fox a mile away is an 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 more adventurous types, western Mongolia's large mountain ranges provide great back-country skiing. The spring months of April and May get the most snow and make the best skiing. Either join a tour or lug all of your own equipment. There aren't any ski shops in the nearby villages.
Exchange rates for Mongolian tögrög
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The Mongolian currency is the tögrög (also spelled "tugrik", "tugrug" etc.; Mongol: төгрөг), denoted by the sign "₮" (ISO international currency code: MNT). You may also see the notations "tg" and "T".
Banknote denominations in circulation are 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 ₮.
It is virtually impossible to exchange tögrög outside the country, so don't exchange too much. US dollars are widely accepted in the tourist industry, especially for larger payments (hotels, guides, etc.), but are not usable in the countryside.
In Mongolia tipping is rarely 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 selling 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. Beware 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 made by machine, not 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) - 4,450 ₮
Boiled mutton? Aren't Mongolians famous for barbecue? 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. Derived from the Chinese baozi. 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 turns 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 offering 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 a 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"). Many Russian-style vodkas are sold throughout the country. The best are Chinggis Khaan vodka, Soyombo and Golden Chinggis.
In Ulaanbaatar you can find most 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 Soviet-era leftovers. A better option is tourist ger, set up by 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. To stay at a ger camp, use the online booking portals iHotel and Mongolian Ger Camps Network.
Except for the cities and larger towns, all 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.
Nowadays, there are more than 300 hotels in Mongolia and these are graded between 1 and 5 stars. Hotels holding 3 stars or more are for tourist service and must obtain permission in order to operate. The Accommodation Grading Committee, consisting of the Ministry, travel industry associations and tourism researchers, rate an accommodation according to Mongolian standards.
There are some language schools in the capital. The two most known to foreigners are Bridge School and Friends School. Both offer group study classes and 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 Korean, Japanese, and Turkic languages, like Turkish and Kazakh, tend to learn more quickly due to the similarities in grammatical structure. A Mongolian language school with a website is Nomiin Ger.
It can be difficult to find employment as a foreigner in Mongolia. Obtaining a work permit requires being sponsored by a Mongolian company and every company has a strict quota on the number of foreign nationals they may employ. Foreign nationals are not allowed to comprise more than 20% of a Mongolian company's workforce. This is as good as saying that the Mongolian government is reluctant to let foreigner workers compete with Mongolians.
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 lower than in other countries. Though it'll usually be just enough for room and board plus a little extra.
Local English-language media hire native speakers as editors, proof-readers and photojournalists.
Volunteer work is available teaching English, assisting with charity work and joining archaeological digs. These jobs are easy to find and very rewarding.
Mongolia is generally a safe country to visit. Visitors are unlikely to encounter any major problems.
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. 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 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.
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 22:00, 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 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 nightclubs.
Lone or female travelers need to exercise a higher degree of awareness of their surroundings, as getting groped in the chest or behind 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.
Aggressive dogs may run in packs. 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 so 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 many missing or poorly placed covers. Avoid stepping on any manhole and pay attention to where you walk.
Perhaps the biggest danger in Mongolia is the extreme weather. Owing to its large size, high elevation, proximity to Siberia in Russia, and its landlocked geography, Mongolian winters are incredibly harsh and temperatures can fall as low as -40° Celsius. That's why Ulaanbaatar is often dubbed the coldest capital city in the world.
When visiting Mongolia in the winter, layer every article of clothing you own and do not walk around too much in the open. Frostbite is a real risk, and freezing to death is entirely possible if you get lost in the countryside or pass out drunk in winter. If you are unprepared to deal with such weather conditions, then visit Mongolia during the summer.
Driving in Mongolia can be dangerous, especially for those who are not used to driving in developing countries. Roads outside the capital tend to be in poor condition, and incredibly harsh weather makes things all the more difficult.
In the capital, motorists can be aggressive and drunk driving is common. Take care when crossing roads or busy intersections.
If you have little to no knowledge of Mongolian roads and driving around in isolated areas, it is strongly recommended that you do not drive outside Ulaanbaatar. Outside the capital, help is incredibly limited and you can get lost if you don't know what you're doing.
If you must drive outside Ulaanbaatar, consider informing a trusted local about your plans.
- 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 unsafe to drink.
Ulaanbaatar has polluted air, largely due to pervasive coal-burning for domestic heating.
If you suffer from a respiratory disease and plan to visit Mongolia in winter, consult a medical professional for advice.
Compared to other countries in Asia, Mongolians are generally straightforward. Expect a Mongolian individual to tell you exactly what they think and feel.
Mongols traditionally live on the steppes, breeding horses, just like their ancestor Genghis Khan. Not surprisingly, following Western pleasantries will mostly not have the intended effect in Mongolia. Instead, try to follow local good manners. 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. 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 avoid offending anyone.
The Chinese province of Inner Mongolia is referred to as "southern Mongolia" by most Mongolians.
What to do
- Say hello (sain bainuu) upon arriving (but repeating it when you see the same person is considered strange)
- 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).
- Exchange pleasantries and engage in some small talk before asking someone for something.
- Discuss one's family and the weather. In nomadic areas, asking about a nomad's animals is customary.
- Discuss where you're from and what you're doing in Mongolia/the place you're visiting.
- Show respect to elders and figures of authority.
What not to do
- 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
- Reject an invitation to visit a ger; hospitality is a cornerstone in the nomadic parts of Mongolia and outright rejecting an invitation will offend the nomads.
- Refuse food and drink offered by your hosts; as is the case in many Asian cultures, it is very rude to do this in Mongolia and shows no respect to your hosts.
- Not finishing the food that has been offered to you; as is the case in many Asian cultures, wasting food is frowned upon.
- Urinate in lakes or bodies of water; water is considered sacred and holy in Mongolia.
- Speak negatively about Genghis Khan. Most Mongolians revere him, and he is regarded as a national hero and the father of their nation.
Internet cafés are less common than they were, but nicer restaurants provide 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 villages or Soum centers are covered. Internet cafés are plentiful in Aimag centers (provincial 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 are sold in the ticket office in the VIP lounge on the second floor of the international ticket office across the street from the train station.
The second option is to board 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.