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Traveling to Mongolia means facing a land of extremes. Both in its landscape, from its vast desert lands and rolling dunes to its lush mountainous national parks, and in its lack of infrastructure, where one is both frustrated and amazed by the country’s areas of extreme isolation.
To visit Mongolia is to find a canvas of untouched beauty crowned by a sky so blue that pollution is not even a word that exists here. Passing only wild horses, herds of cattle, an isolated ger in the distance and the occasional truck also on its way to the city, life here is most pure and beautiful.
Outside of its neglected capital, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia exists with few facilities, but that is what makes it attractive. On the road, you can spend hours driving before crossing paths with a small ger community, a Mongolian on horseback or another vehicle, and in between enjoying the most breathtaking views of a country so unspoilt that you know you’ve reached the true heart of it.
Touring Mongolia by land, rather than flying or taking the train, is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. This guide will show you how to travel Mongolia from China overland, in an extensive loop that includes some of the country’s most treasured sights and natural hideaways.
Why travel to Mongolia
Visit the least populated country in the world
Traveling to Mongolia changes you and makes you appreciate the beautiful spots on the earth’s surface untouched by extreme modernization, pollution and overpopulation.
My time in Mongolia meant experiencing everything from bush camping to ger camps, being one with nature (and not caring who sees you squatting in the process) and realizing that animals love to roam and Mongolians love to chat, right outside your Ger from 5am.
I saw a night sky so clear I didn’t think you could see so many stars. I traversed a land so serene in its isolation and a culture so welcoming that I hope it will never, ever be ruined by tourist traps or the narrow clutches of mass capitalism (currently contained in Ulaanbaatar).
Adventure off the beaten track
If you want to get off the beaten path, not be on any set grid and take each day as it comes, you’ll love Mongolia. But this also comes with its frustrations, as you have to have a lot of patience and a good amount of travel time.
First of all, there are hardly any roads. The roads are dirt tracks or prefabricated ruts in the ground that mark the way, and paved roads are very rare.
Second, Mongolia is prone to unpredictable weather conditions. That means random bouts of rain and the likelihood that you’ll get bogged down at some point. There were countless occasions when we had to dig out and push the truck or find locals to come to the rescue; tractors are a saving grace here.
It’s a vast country in which you can get lost for weeks, and when you accept the setbacks, you begin to see them as part of the great adventure: the journey in its rawest state. Getting back to basics, getting dirty and struggling with the lack of modern conveniences we too often take for granted is all part of what it means to travel through Mongolia.
When is the best time to go to Mongolia?
The summer season, between May and September, is said to be the best time to go to Mongolia. July and August are the hottest months, with temperatures reaching 40°C in the Gobi Desert. Rainfall peaks between June and September, which balances the heat and keeps the forests and valleys lush and fertile. I travelled to Mongolia in July and experienced a lot of rainfall along with the high temperatures.
The winter season in Mongolia runs from November to February. Although some people like to experience the scenery in this snowy season, temperatures can drop to below 20 °C, a harsh and difficult environment to travel in. You will find that there are not many companies organising trips at this time.
Is it safe to travel to Mongolia?
Although petty crime and pickpockets are common in the capital, Ulan Bataar, Mongolia is a relatively safe place to travel, and I never encountered any major problems. It pays to be extra vigilant on the streets and in the city, as in any other. Being the landing and departure point for tourists, opportunism poses a greater risk.
Despite the lack of infrastructure and relative isolation when traveling around the country, the only minor problem we encountered was related to the high levels of alcoholism in the country. We saw drunk drivers on our long journeys and one or two occasions when drunken locals approached our makeshift camp out of curiosity. Still, we never felt threatened, and were always within the safety of our group.
In general, we rarely saw other people, and when we did, we were greeted with kindness, invited into homes, and welcomed into common spaces such as markets and social spaces in small towns.
It pays to know a local
I also travelled alongside a Mongolian guide, someone who could speak the language when we got stuck, who could go to a nearby house and explain the need for help and who understood the general navigation of the country. So, in Mongolia, it pays to get a local guide, join a small tour group, form a small group of your own in Ulan Bataar or equip yourself with general wilderness survival skills if you go entirely on your own.
Travel to Mongolia
When I was planning my trip to Mongolia, Dragoman was the only company offering trips to Mongolia longer than ten days or two weeks. The 21-day overland trip was the first such travel itinerary they ran here, which included Inner Mongolia. Today, the 21-day trip, called Nomads & Wilds of Mongolia, loops from Ulaanbaatar and includes Lake Khovsgol in the north.
My favorite people for adventure travel, and their partners, G Adventures, offer trips to Mongolia that start and end in Ulaanbaatar.
Classic Nomadic Mongolia
This 14-day Mongolia trip includes all the highlights at an affordable price (from €1,999). This trip to Mongolia includes a stay in the Gobi Desert and Mongolian grasslands, as well as including the major historical sights and cultural experiences that make Mongolia an unforgettable adventure.
Experience Local Mongolia
This 10-day local immersion includes staying with three different families in Gers to experience life as a nomad. Mix historical monuments with cultural moments, exploring pastures, forests, lakes and national parks on foot and horseback while helping your host families prepare traditional dinners and learning the skills of their nomadic trades.
Discover Mongolia – National Geographic Travel
G Adventures, in partnership with National Geographic Journeys, offers a. Two-week comfort adventure through Mongolia. You will be able to visit Khustai National Park, Karakorum (the ancient capital of Mongolia), Tsenkher hot springs, Orkhon valley and much more. You will also be able to see a nomadic family of camel herders and delve into Mongolian culture, as well as support the local community that tourists pass through.
Experience the Naadam Festival in Mongolia.
Want to stargaze from a ger camp, climb a (extinct) volcanic crater, go deep into the wilderness of Lake Khövsgöl and finish with the experience of the horse racing, archery and wrestling tournaments of the Naadam Festival? This 15-day trip takes you to places off the standard route and immerses you in the hustle and bustle of traditional Mongolian festivals.
Is it expensive to travel to Mongolia?
Travel in Mongolia is expensive due to the fact that it is not an overly touristy country. Due to the lack of infrastructure, travel with a local guide and adequate transport may often be necessary to cover more ground.
For those on a limited budget, day trips can be taken from Ulaanbaatar, or you can try to plan some shorter 3-5 day trips from the city. However, this is usually dependent on there being a minimum number of people signed up for the trip to work and is not always guaranteed.
Do you need a visa for Mongolia?
If you are not a national of one of the visa exempt countries listed below, you will need a visa for Mongolia.
A single entry visa (valid for three months from the date of issue) for up to 30 days – £40/$50.
A double entry visa (valid for three months from date of issue) for up to 30 days – £55/$65
It’s cheaper to apply directly at a Mongolian embassy (either in your country before you leave or in the country you’re travelling to beforehand). You will need a valid passport, passport photos and travel documents along with the completed application.
Allow one working week for processing. Some embassies offer a one-day service for an additional fee.
Mongolian visa on arrival
The 30-day tourist visa on arrival is available to tourists from European countries and other countries where there are no Mongolian embassies, and is obtained at Ulanbataar airport or at Mongolian land borders. I obtained my visa in London months before my trip.
Visa-free access to Mongolia
The following countries are exempt from visa requirements to enter Mongolia.
Visa-free entry for 90 days: Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Chile, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and the United States. Those from Ukraine require an invitation form.
Visa-free entry for 21 days: Philippines.
Visa-free entry for 14 days: Hong Kong.
More information can be found on the Mongolian Embassy website.
Where to go in Mongolia – Itinerary
I spent 20 days travelling overland through the central and western plains of Mongolia. We travelled in a great clockwise circle from Ulaanbaatar, through the scorching Gobi desert, to beautiful lakes, forests, canyons and waterfalls, passing at the same time vast herds of wild horses, camels, goats, yaks and cows.
Three weeks’ journey through Mongolia:
Kilometers traveled: 2492
Number of significant times the truck got stuck: 2
Minor number of times the truck got stuck: 12.
Number of unbelievable driving days: 15
Day 1: Visit to Ulaanbaatar
We spend a full day in Ulaanbaatar exploring outside the austere Soviet communist style architecture and moving on from the general sense of malaise of the city. There are many things to see and do here, such as a stroll through the modern Sukhbaatar (Parliament) Square, Gandan Monastery, the National Museum of History and the shopping paradise of the Black Market. In the evening, check out the talents of singers, dancers and contortionists at the Cultural Show before hitting a few bars and pubs. There are so many you won’t know where to start.
Day 2: Getting from Ulaanbaatar to the Gobi Desert
We left in the truck from Ulaanbaatar to head to the Baga Gazryn Chuluu rock formations in the Gobi Desert. Due to heavy traffic leaving the city and general road conditions, we were delayed and decided to camp for the night. You have to be prepared for delays in Mongolia, but you have to revel in the fact that you are the only people in the area. All the space is yours.
Day 3: Visit the Baga Gazryn Chuluu rock formations.
We arrive at Baga Gazryn Chuluu – rock formations revered by locals who make pilgrimages here, partly because legend has it that Ghengis Khan camped here – before travelling to the Gobi Desert.
On the way, we got to experience the famous Nadaam Festival when we passed through the local town of Mandal Govi. It was full of wrestling, horse racing, archery and fairground-style fun. Nadaam means “games”, and the hustle and bustle surrounded us as the only westerners there. It was great to be part of a traditional celebration of the Mongolian community, even if the evening was marred by a bogging down, which meant the truck didn’t get out of the squishy mud until midnight.
Day 4: Sleeping in a Ger camp in the Gobi desert.
The plan was to get to our first ger camp, but after about 30 kilometers, we came across a large water ditch in the road. We had to drain the water by hand and build a road and dam for most of the afternoon to help us get across. While this sounds horrible, it created a great feeling of camaraderie and ultimately an immense sense of accomplishment. Instead, we got to camp at a high point in the Gobi desert near the village of Tsogoovi.
Day 5: Dalanzagad to Gobi Discovery Ger Camp
We begin our journey smoothly towards the ger Camp called Gobi Discovery, stopping in the town of Dalanzagad on the way. Mongolian towns are typically tiny, compact settlements that are reasonably large but without the ruin of a city like Ulaanbaatar.
Day 6: Hiking in Yolin Am – Mongolian Ice Valley
We hiked in Yolin Am, a beautiful canyon in the Gobi, a valley of ice, which is home to a colossal glacier all year round. The hike was spectacular, but unfortunately for us, there was little of the glacier left, although we had a lot of fun playing with what little ice there was despite everything.
Day 7: Drive to Gobi desert Khongoryn Els sand dunes.
Many sandy riverbed crossings finally brought us to our second ger camp, the Khongoryn Els Ger Camp. Here, you only have to open the door of your ger to be greeted with a breathtaking view of the Gobi and the Khongoryn Els sand dunes, which I later climbed up, drank beer and ran down. That was after a camel ride, of course.
Day 8: Visit the burning cliffs of Bayanzag.
The bumpy mountain roads took us to the spectacular Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs, which are a Mongolian version of the Grand Canyon, but smaller. This is an important site where many fossils and dinosaur eggs have been discovered, and is also a stunning backdrop for camping in the bush.
Day 9: See Ongii Monastery and drive to Arvaikhee.
When the communists invaded Mongolia in the 1930s (known as the Purges), almost all the monasteries were destroyed. Ongii Monastery was one of them, and we visited its ruins before driving to Arvaikheer, where heavy rain forced us to spend the night in a hotel. Sometimes random bad weather makes bush camping impossible in Mongolia, so it is essential to be prepared for a budget count at any time.
Day 10: Trapped in Mongolia
We started our journey to the third ger camp, but got very stuck around noon after the truck had to swerve a little, of course, to dodge a drunk driver who crossed our path (unfortunately, a lot of people drink and drive here). It took over five hours to get out, with the help of a small local tractor, and during that time, some of us who stayed to help with the truck (the local jeeps rescued a few) lost our heads. It was a hilarious few hours that would have made an excellent documentary, probably how a Lord of the Flies scenario starts.
The roads were not stiff and stable enough for the truck to continue, especially with all the hills. After setting up tents and cooking dinner, two small vans came to the rescue to take us on our two-hour drive to Ger’s camp. It was a terrifying trip in the dark, with us stopping in the driver’s backyard and a small child crawling into the hold of the van for the rest of the trip.
Day 11: Hiking in the Orkhon Valley.
I highly recommend staying at a ger camp in the beautiful Orkhon Valley. There is nothing like a nice hike through the beautiful forest to get to Tuvkhon monastery and see the surroundings. Pure bliss.
Day 12: See the waterfalls of the Orkhon valley.
The Orkhon Valley waterfall was the next stop on our five-hour drive to the next ger camp. This camp is home to the region’s famous hot springs, where we skinny dipped and enjoyed a few refreshing beers.
Day 13: Visiting a Mongolian family in a ger.
Fully clothed, of course, we took a short hike through the lush green forest to visit the source of the hot springs. When you first encounter trees after two weeks of barren land, you begin to appreciate such incredible surroundings.
As we had two Mongolian guides with us (an invaluable support in a country where very little English is spoken or understood), we were able to visit a Mongolian ger and a local family to learn about nomadic life. This was not a tourist facility, but a traditional local family living on an isolated plot of land in the valley. We sampled their dairy products (their source of income), such as fermented mare’s milk, curd and butter, before learning about the rules and traditions of the ger and asking many questions.
READ MORE: Visiting a Mongolian ger – Understanding Mongolia’s nomadic culture.
Day 14: Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin
We had to make a quick stop in the nearby town of Tsetserleg to stock up on groceries. It was a market day with an electric atmosphere. Moments when you don’t know where you are or what to do, and when you have to struggle to communicate and negotiate, give me a rush.
Later we visited the country’s most important monastery, Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin, the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, which once had 100 temples and 1,000 monks before the purges of 1937. Only three temples remain, along with several statues and other objects.
Day 15: Camping at Lake Ugii
A visit to the museum next to the one we camped next to – the Kultigen Monument, which houses artifacts from the Turkish Empire – set us on our way to nearby Lake Ugii, where we would relax all day and camp for a night.
Lake Ugii emits a soothing atmosphere and invites you to explore it slowly. Although it takes almost a day to walk around it, it is a great place to unwind and reflect. I count it as one of my favorite places in all of Mongolia.
Day 16: Visit to Hustain National Park and view of Przewalski’s horses.
We arrive at Hustain National Park in the afternoon to settle into a ger camp. This National Park is known for its rare Przewalski’s horses, unique in Mongolia. When you finally locate a small group of them, it is still difficult to see their beauty up close, as you can’t get that close to them.
Still, in the evening we were able to meet the “Best folk band in Mongolia”, called Domog, after a fantastic show where they performed rock style songs using the famous throat singing. I guess it’s the equivalent of meeting Westlife in Ireland. Seriously.
Day 17: Drive to Ulaanbaatar and visit Terelj National Park.
We had to drive back through crazy Ulaanbaatar, overloaded with roadworks and full of traffic, to get to Terelj National Park and the last ger camp of the trip (we were supposed to camp in the bush, but weather prevented it). It’s amazing how, just a few hours from the capital, you can reach some of the most spectacular landscapes in the country.
Day 18: Hiking in Terelj National Park and visit to Turtle Rock.
If you enjoy walking and hiking, you will love Terelj National Park. Here you can walk for hours, hike to a monastery and go horseback riding through the forests and rocky hilltops. Also be sure to see the “Turtle Rock”. From a certain angle it will look like something else.
Day 19: Drive to the statue of Ghengis Khan on the Tuul River.
Nothing better to end the desert journey than a visit to the gigantic 40-metre high silver statue of Ghengis Khan on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, on the banks of the Tuul River. Legend has it that it was here that Ghengis Khan found his golden whip. In any case, it’s a place of pilgrimage for the locals, and it’s fascinating (if not a bit strange and imposing, in the same way that a colossal silver statue of Hitler in Germany would probably evoke the same feeling).
Day 20: Return to Ulaanbaatar
Back in Ulaanbaatar, I turned my hostel room into an office and distracted myself with a slice of pizza, a cake and a coffee at Wendy’s bakery, which is worth a visit next to the state-run warehouses, which are right next to the hostel area. It is an excellent opportunity to rest after the adventure through Mongolia’s vast and untouched landscapes.
How to travel overland in Mongolia
The Dragoman overland truck is what we call home, except we didn’t sleep in it overnight. Instead, we went wild camping and every night, checking into a hotel once when the rains were too heavy to set up a tent comfortably.
The exterior of the truck has many compartments: for storing luggage and tents, as well as for drinking water supply, equipment for meals and groceries. It’s a walking transformer, and everyone has to lend a hand to set up and take down for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you have no sense of camaraderie or hate getting dirty, then this is not the kind of adventure trip for you. I embraced it and loved every minute of “tearing it up”.
Twenty-three seats, a fridge, a safe, a bookshelf, prominent speakers and a place to recharge gear, this is where we spend hours, or what may end up being an entire day, traversing the landscape. We fill it with our belongings like a messy bedroom and make it cozy.
On the road
The two drivers are the mechanics, the navigators and the troubleshooters. Everything about the truck, from where it goes to how it arrives, depends on their decisions, along with our Mongolian guide, who knew the terrain better than anyone else and could speak the language when we needed to ask the locals for help.
Although drivers would get out to check the road, walking far and wide to determine the best track to take or check waterlogged areas (often getting into the water) to limit the chances of the truck getting bogged down. We often stopped to help locals whose cars were stuck, knowing that someday karma would have to be repaid.
The reality of rural travel in Mongolia
“Okay, guys, you need to get off. It doesn’t look good.” This phrase, accompanied by the low hum of the engine and the effort when it finally gives out, became a regular occurrence during the three weeks I spent in Mongolia. Getting dirty in Mongolia is a fact of life, but I never thought in my travels that I would push a truck in thick, thick mud, build a road with a dam, or ford a river up to my knees to get to the other side.
In Mongolia, aside from the small handful of roads available, you’ll take the road less traveled, one that hasn’t been used for days or worn down by other vehicles to make passage easier. You can call it bad luck or reality, but travel comes with its challenges and getting stuck in Mongolia is by far the most common. While I didn’t expect incidents of major traffic jams on this trip, I began to accept them when they happened. After all, locals have to deal with these situations on a regular basis. It became part of what Mongolia is and what it means to traverse their land.
The truck drivers were the ones in charge of assessing each situation as it arose. They were the first ones to get dirty, go through the water and determine the outcome. Sometimes it got on your nerves, wondering how long you would be stuck somewhere with no one passing by for hours. Other times it simply meant we had to walk a short distance to lighten the truck.
In any case, the result was a huge whoop and roar from our truck, Archie, when he got through. It felt good, and then we knew the next leg of the journey could begin. These are the moments I will always remember.
Building a road in Mongolia
It had been raining intermittently for several days, mostly in short spurts at night, and we were making smooth progress on the wet dirt tracks. When the truck stopped, and we saw that two puddles of water had filled two lanes of the road, we knew a bogging incident was imminent. The drivers walked, pondered, and drove through the water. Could we drive through it without getting stuck?
The usual scenario was based on two possibilities: drive through it or find hard enough ground to go around it. Except this time it was different. We were told, “We have to drain this road of water and then let the ground dry out so we can cross it.”
The mad dash to empty our camping gear and find our plastic wash bowls and any other plastic containers to begin the disposal process. The ladies rolled up the sleeves of their shorts to get right into the water while the men started digging to create a path. Everyone built a dam by hand on either side of the tire track ruts so that the emptied water would not re-enter.
It was hard work, but we became a team, a great team. The sun was shining that day, which meant we only had to wait a couple of hours while the heat dried our creation. We ate, we played, we sang, and we marveled at how resourceful we were. It was a scary moment when Archie made his move to cross our path (our precious highway that could be crushed in seconds and would need to be rebuilt), but he did it in one fell swoop and our handmade route was left in the hands of the earth and under the control of nature.
Getting stuck in the mud
Running into areas of grass and mud is a sporadic occurrence. You can never know exactly how hard the ground underneath is. After the rainy spells, the ground becomes softer, and although there were times when the truck had to work a little harder, it managed it.
We had just had a fantastic afternoon visiting a local Nadaam festival and were in high spirits, which we needed knowing we were going to be driving for the rest of the day. But it wasn’t to be: we were soon stuck in thick, sticky mud, and no amount of pushing and revving was going to change that.
Our Mongolian guide went to the nearest ger for help, and the locals later returned by motorbike to check the situation. Out came the whole family, as we regularly become a source of fascination or amusement en route through the country. However, they kindly decided to use their large industrial tractor to help pull the truck out of the mud, which also got stuck.
With two vehicles out of commission and night beginning to fall, we decided to camp on drier ground nearby, and the drivers worked tirelessly with the locals all afternoon. We got bogged down at 5pm, and had to wait until midnight to get the truck out of the mud. It was a wasted day, but another example of how unpredictable it can be to travel through untouched wilderness.
The unexpected river crossing
When the truck stops in a deep area of water, you know the situation isn’t going to resolve itself quickly. Can a truck this size get across a river without sinking or getting stuck? Although we enjoyed paddling in the fresh water, we didn’t know if we would have to completely re-route to get around it and lose more time.
The conclusion was that there was a distinct lack of knowledge about alternative routes around the river, and somehow we would have to find a way through. With a small truck already stuck right in the middle, it was a frightening prospect.
The drivers identified the shallowest, hardest area of land in the water to get through, though we couldn’t be in the truck, unfortunately. You can imagine the chaos: a group of locals trying to rescue their vehicle and 20 people who weren’t from the area trying to navigate through the water, knee deep and shrieking, afraid of falling in.
My heart skipped a beat as I watched our truck splash through the water and wondered if it would stop dead in its tracks and swim slowly in a sea of mud, taking all our belongings with it. But Archie made it, and this time he got the biggest cheer. And a big sigh of relief.
What to pack in your suitcase to go to Mongolia.
With unpredictable weather conditions, a difficult landscape to traverse, and a trip consisting mainly of wild camping, packing for Mongolia requires some planning. In short, the following should be kept in mind:
Items of clothing that you don’t mind getting dirty and completely ruined.
Layers of clothing for constantly changing hot and cold climates: from thermal clothing to moisture wicking and waterproof garments.
Sunscreen and repellent for mosquitoes and sand flies.
All the medicines you need, as you’ll often be far from any stores or important help.
Snacks from home, as the variation of food can be very repetitive.
For a broader view, read: preparing and packing for Mongolia.
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