For travelers who want to experience life off the grid, Mongolia offers a nomadic lifestyle amongst epic landscapes that remain largely undisturbed. The country sits in East Asia with border nations being Russia to the north and China to the south.
Most famous for the world’s greatest conqueror, Genghis Khan, Mongolia is one of the last undiscovered tourist destinations. The country is ideal for adventure travelers who are ready to go to remote and rugged locations, where nature dominates, and the sounds of the city are a distant memory.
тавтай морилно уу – Welcome to Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar is the capital of Mongolia, as well as its largest city. International travelers will fly into Ulaanbaatar, as it holds the only international airport within the country. Just under half of the population of Mongolia lives in the capital, which also means that this is one of the last destinations before you head out into the sparsely inhabited countryside. But for Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar is its powerhouse where important economic, political, and cultural centers are focused.
Culture and Language
Mongolia’s most famous time in history started when Genghis Khan conquered the Mongols tribes in 1206. This began the reign of the Mongol Empire, which lasted until 1368. Led by Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire reached places as far as Central Europe and Southeast Asia. They became known as the greatest conquerors, even today, but left a bloody path to their claim. Many of their claims to new land and areas claimed the lives of millions of people. But while the Mongol Empire fragmented by 1271 to start the Yuan Dynasty, their place in history will never be forgotten. It is estimated up to 16 million men are living today are still directly related to Genghis Khan.
While medieval Mongolia conquered, modern day Mongolia has not been so fortunate. China had claimed the country as theirs and after the country fell under Soviet Control. This was because the Soviet Union helped defend Mongolia as they fought to keep their independence from China, but even after staying independent, the Soviet influence remained. But as Mongolia is bordered by Russia and China, the two powerful countries have fought for control over the country.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the relationship between Russia and Mongolia drastically decreased, which helped China regain its footing and influence in the country. But seeing their loss of control, Russia has more recently worked to rebuild their relationship and even wrote off 98% of Mongolia’s debt as a good gesture.
Yet, through their past, the Mongolian people have continued to remain traditional. The nomadic lifestyle is very popular with the majority of the population, who live outside of major cities and in more isolated locations. Religion is very important to the people with most people practicing Lamaism, which is the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Prior to Lamaism, shamanism was the most popular religion and some people still practice it today.
In modern Mongolia, shamanism is still very important because it has influenced the people’s connection with nature. In a vastly remote country, many people still tell myths and legends that are related to the land and believe in mythic creatures. These other worldly entities can change elements like the weather or affect one’s health and success. Many people will still turn to a Shaman to gain insight into their future, find a cure, and seek help with their spirituality.
But while religion is dominated by Shamanism or Tibetan Buddhism, you may be surprised to find out that the people are rather united in their spoken language. Around 95% of the population of Mongolia speaks Mongolian, which is also the official language. From all the various tribes, there are still local dialects spoken. But for the most part, Mongolian people will speak Mongolian and perhaps a local dialect. Oirat and Buryat are the two most popular dialects that are spoken in Mongolia.
Foreign languages that are popular are Russian and English. Russia’s influence over the area means that many people will also speak Russian, but as the time of Communist power fades, English is becoming even more common. Many people are beginning to learn English as they hope that it can help Mongolia enter the global market and increase their tourism. While the transition is still in the process, you may hear English spoken in urban areas like the capital.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Mongolia, you do not need a tourist visa if you are staying for less than 90 days. If you are staying more than 30 days, you still don’t need a tourist visa, but you will need to register with the Mongolian Immigration within the first 7 days of your arrival in Mongolia. If you do not register within 7 days of your arrival, you may be fined $100-$300 US dollars. This fine will occur even if you stayed due to unforeseen circumstances like an illness or medical emergency.
Other requirements include having a US passport that is valid for 6 months past your date of entry into Mongolia. You will need two blank pages for an entry and exit stamp. There are no restrictions for entry Mongolia with vaccinations or the amount of money you travel with on your person.
However, it is important to know that how you to travel to Mongolia can affect what documents you need. If you are traveling by land from Russia or China, you may need to be issued a visa by the Russian or Chinese Embassies. The process for these visas can be lengthy, so it is important that you contact the appropriate Embassy if you are planning to enter Mongolia by a land border.
You should also know that you will be restricted to leave Mongolia by its land borders, as many are closed to foreigners. If you do wish to leave by land, you can go to one border in the North and South. The northern Sukhbaatar/Altanbulag border and southern Zamiin Uud border are always open to foreigners. But you will need the appropriate visa to enter Russia or China, which both countries have a rather complicated tourist visa system that will need to be applied for in advance to your travel to the country.
While it’s easy to travel to Mongolia and there’s no tourist visa required, you will need to be prepared to see an entirely different way to life. While traveling around Mongolia can be done on a budget, you should be aware that if you’re in for remote adventures, the cost may go up as you have to find different methods of transportation. This is why it is important to plan on your spending budget before you leave for your trip. The most important parts of your budget will be airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
Airfare will be the largest portion of your budget because it is very expensive. Tickets start at $1200 US dollars and only go up from there. You may be able to find a few deals, but since travel to Mongolia isn’t as widespread, you’ll still need to pay a hefty price for your seat on the plane. You should also be aware that a nonstop flight from the United States to Mongolia will take 32 hours. For many travelers, that is too long on a plane and they will look into flights that have connections or layovers to break up the time spent on the plane.
But it is also important to know that tickets will likely always be expensive because people really on visit Mongolia during the summer. The rest of the months the weather is too harsh and makes it impossible to travel to remote locations. The summer season lasts from May to September but could extend to October if the year has good weather.
Once you’ve decided how to travel to Mongolia and booked your ticket, the next most important part of your budget will be your accommodation. Hostels are available in the urban areas and should be rather affordable with a nightly price ranging from $6-$15 US dollars. If you are traveling to more remote locations, a guest house will likely be the best accommodation option. Guest houses usually cost anywhere from $20-$50 US dollars per night. If you are looking for a hotel, you should expect to pay up to $70 US dollars per night and up to $100 US dollars per night for a luxury option.
Life can be difficult in Mongolia, when there aren’t as many dining options like in other countries. Still, food is important and Mongolian cuisine is quite tasty. The majority of Mongolian cuisine will consist of dairy, meat, and animal fat. This reflects the nomadic way of life where people live off the land and raise their animals as a food source. Cooked mutton is the most popular dish outside the cities, while meat dumplings called buuz are more popular in urban areas. Also reflective of the harsh landscape, you will find that dishes have very limited use of vegetables or spices.
But meals are still rather affordable with prices ranging from $6 to $30 US dollars, depending on where you eat. Simple restaurants will serve more affordable meals, while most people would spend about $14 US dollars for a nicer meal. Fancy restaurants can be as expensive as $30 US dollars per meal.
While drinking will be more popular in urban areas, you may find drinks outside of the city too. Beer is often the alcohol of choice and it comes at an affordable price that is usually less than $3 US dollars per bottle. In markets, beer will be even more affordable and cost less than $1.50 US dollars. If you sticking to the touristy areas, you should expect the cost to go up, but not by more than a few US dollars.
Overall, Mongolia is not going to break your bank if you plan properly. Most people will spend about $50 US dollars per day, while a more moderate budget would have you spending up to $140 US dollars per day. Anything over $140 US dollars per day would be a luxury vacation. However, it is also important to discuss the cost of guided tours.
Guided tours are the most popular way to visit and see Mongolia because they are convenient, fun, and safe. While guided tours are expensive, it is important to note that with a complete tour the price will likely include all parts of your budget. This means that by paying a tour company or guide, you will get a bundle package that includes accommodation, transportation, and food. There are affordable guided tours of specific areas that have prices that start at $40 US dollars per person and go up. Tours of other areas in Mongolia may be pricier and cost $60 US dollars per person with other tours costing over $100 US dollars. A private guide will be the most expensive and may charge up to $200 US dollars per day.
However, keep in mind the convenience of a tour because traveling around Mongolia can be difficult, especially if you want to view the countryside. A tour would be able to show you the remote locations, providing you with regional knowledge, and offer the convenience of safe travel.
How to Get Around
For travelers who really are adventure driven, you may not be inclined to take a tour and you’ll have to accept the challenge of how to get around Mongolia. While local transportation is affordable with many journeys costing less than $2 US dollars, it may not always get you where you want to go and in the timeframe you need. The cities will be easy to navigate and there will be taxis for an affordable price.
But once you start heading out to the countryside, things can get complicated. You’ll likely need an all-wheel drive vehicle like a Land Cruiser and if not, your only other option is to use horses. Traveling outside the city will also be slow, very slow. This is because the road conditions are not great, and you will not be able to drive at fast speeds. Some places use minivans to travel between destinations, but you may be waiting for a while. This way of local transportation isn’t the most reliable because drivers will only leave if the van is full, which means that you could be sitting all day for the van to find passengers.
Trains are also another way to travel around Mongolia between destinations. But trains can be expensive. Most long-distance train rides will cost about $100 US dollars. Trains are reliable ways to travel in Mongolia, but again, they may not get you to the exact destination that you seek. So, you’ll have to be prepared to hire a driver too.
Ultimately, as we mentioned, a great way to save on travel is to book a guided tour. Tours will provide you with a safe way to travel around and show you everything these is to see without the hassle of switching from vehicle to vehicle. Some of the most popular tours can easily transport you around central Mongolia or take you to see the Southern Gobi Desert, as well as show you a more authentic view of Mongolian culture and its lifestyle.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
Ulaanbaatar is certainly the main hub for all of Mongolia, but there are a few other cities that are worth exploring too. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city and town destinations in Mongolia.
While most people think of Mongolia as a remote frontier, still hidden from tourists, the capital is the exact opposite of that image. Instead of isolation, this busy city is home to over 1 million people. It is the central hub for all of Mongolia and is extremely modern. While most tourists will travel here first, before heading to the countryside, this city is important for the history buffs. The National Museum of Mongolia is here and there is also the famous monument to Genghis Khan.
Located in the Orkhon Valley, Karakorum is an ancient city that was once the center of many Mongolian myths and legends. It sits in the heart of Mongolia and is now a place where you can see the medieval past come to life. Cobbled streets, stone figures, and Buddhist monasteries are the highlights of the area and a reminder of the Mongol Empire’s power.
Another ancient town, Olgii is famous for the Turkic Standing Stones, which have been estimated to be 12,000 years old. Other ancient relics in the area include petroglyphs and the famous Mongolian eagle hunters. The Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival happens every year in September and allows you to witness an old and traditional way of life.
Outside of the capital, Erdenet is the next largest urban area in Mongolia. Ancient stories tell of the Erdenet archers and the tradition has been continued. Today, the archery field is a famous tourist spot in Erdenet where you can witness the skill of the city’s famous archers.
Tsetserleg is located amongst rocky bluffs and it is known for its beautiful town. A quieter urban area, people will enjoy the green hillsides and mosaic facades. Local life is abundant, and you can experience authentic Mongolian cuisine in cookhouses or shop for local wool. The town is also the stop-over point to head to the Khangai Nuruu National Park.
Points of Interest
Mongolia may be most famous for its landscapes, which are often within the most popular points of interest in the country.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
For travelers who want to get out of the city, but also want to avoid extensive travel, the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is the place to go. This park is easily accessible from the Ulaabaatar and will give you an overview into the Mongolian countryside. One of the popular points of interest within the park are the camel farms, which are situated in nomad camps.
An old site, the Lake Khovsgol’s geology dates back to 2 million years ago. The area has now been turned into a protected park to preserve the lake’s beautiful water. Clean and clear, some people choose to drink the water untreated. Along the shore of the lake, you can relax on green grassy banks and take a walk through the pine trees.
Genghis Khan once ruled this area and it used to be his seat of power as he expanded his empire across Asia and Europe. Now, the Orkhon Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that showcases authentic nomadic living. Karakorum is also located in this area and you can stay in traditional huts or visit the cold waterfalls.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
The Altai Tavan Bogd National Park rests near the borders of China, Russia, and Kazakhstan with five impressive peaks that sit a towering 13,123 feet above sea level. Here, you can see ibexes and the Tuvan nomadic people. Other sites within the park that are frequently visited are the ancient petroglyphs and Turkic sculptures.
Khustain Nuruu National Park
The last wild horses call the Khustain Nurru National Park home and they frolic amongst the rolling grass hills. They are the most famous animals in the park, and you should count yourself lucky if you get to see them. For the best chance to view the horses, there are walking and ATV trails, as well as yurts for overnight accommodation.
Khangai Nuruu National Park
The Khangai Nuruu National Park is not the same as the Khustain Nuruu National Park as they sit in opposite directions from each other. This park sits in the east and is famous for being in the heart of the Orkhon Valley. Here, you can experience an authentic Mongolia and take a guided horseback tour with local nomads.
Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park
The famous Gobi Desert sits in the southern part of Mongolia and the northern part of China. In Mongolia, the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park is the place to go to see this famous desert with your own eyes. One of the most remote places in Mongolia, not many people inhabit this area. But if you are up for an adventure, you will be rewarded with views of the Khongoryn Els dunes and the Yolyn Am gorges.
Hosted in July, the Nadaam Festival is what makes Mongolia famous. This festival is like an Olympic game of sorts, but the sports include Mongolian wrestling, archery, and horseracing. It is a dramatic showcase of the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle and is often called “The Games of Three Men”.
Get Out and Go
While Mongolia may not be on many people’s travel bucket list, the remoteness of the country and the nomadic lifestyle draws in tourists. With an urban center and even more isolated places, you’ll get the adventure of a lifetime in Mongolia and can boast your unique travel experiences to your friends. But beyond being a unique travel destination, Mongolia can open your eyes to a unique way of life where tradition is a powerful force.