What’s it really like to travel in Mongolia? Some travel tips for first-time backpackers.
I’ve just returned from a three week trip to Mongolia. It didn’t exactly go as planned but I had a fantastic time nonetheless. In fact, my seven day tour of the Gobi desert is going into my top ten travel experiences!
Despite my friend Paula not managing to join me after her flight via South Korea was refused entry by Mongolia (following the sudden Covid-19 outbreak there in February) and despite having not one seven day lockdown but two, when the Mongolia government imposed countrywide travel bans, I still managed to see some of the country and get a flavour of what life is like there.
So, are you planning a trip to Mongolia when the Covid 19 crisis is under control? Or do you just want to get an idea of what backpacking in Mongolia is like? Read on for my Mongolia travel tips!
Arrive in Mongolia in style – take the train from Russia
I highly recommend travelling into Mongolia by train on the Trans Mongolia or Trans Siberian. Travelling across Russia by train had been high on my list of travel must-do’s for years and I’m so happy to have finally achieved it. Have a read here of how I planned my epic 6,000 km train journey from St Petersburg to Mongolia.
There are daily trains crossing the Russia-Mongolia border, originating in Irkutsk which is the perfect base for exploring Lake Baikal in Siberia. This region of Russia is visa-free for many nationalities, as part of Russia’s plan to boost international tourism. So even if you don’t travel the full breadth of Russia like I did, consider flying into Irkutsk or Ulan Ude before taking the train on to Mongolia.
Money in Mongolia
The official currency in Mongolia is the Tugrik, written as MNT. Payment with credit card is widely accepted across Mongolia. Even in the smallest of village shops, they didn’t mind payment of a few dollars by card. If you’ve got a card that doesn’t charge for overseas transactions like mine, then I’d highly recommend using it.
If you need cash, then the green Khan bank (ХААН Банк) has ATMs everywhere and gives MNT 800,000 at a time. This was £233 or USD $288 at the time of writing.
The largest denomination Mongolian bank note is MNT 20,000 so believe me when I say, you’ll end up with a lot of cash! It gets worse as you start spending, when you end up with wad of tens, worth about 0.002 pence each.
Payment in dollars did not seem to be the norm, apart from to tour agencies. You will need some tugrik for taxis (no Uber here yet!) and markets.
Getting around Ulaanbaatar on public transport
Over half of all three million Mongolians live in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of this landlocked country. The main shopping street is Peace Avenue, which dissects the city from east to west. It’s completely possible to walk everywhere as a tourist.
Most sights are around Sukhbaatar Square, with Gandan Temple a twenty minute walk and the Zaisan communist monument an hour walk. I got to know Ulaanbaatar very well as a pedestrian after experiencing nearly a week there on coronavirus lockdown. Read about my experience and my Top Ulaanbaatar Sights here.
The Ulaanbaatar bus system is excellent and it’ll be needed if you’re going to the airport (number 9) or to Dragon bus station (1 or 59, among others), for departures to the west of the country.
All bus stops have the route maps of each bus line displayed, although the names of the stops are in Cyrillic. I used Google maps to check my destination and compare to the Cyrillic words.
All bus trips cost the same – 500 tugrik and are paid using a U Money prepaid card, which you tap on the scanner as you enter the bus. Next to the bus stops are wooden kiosks, selling sweets, drinks and U Money cards. The cards cost MNT 3,600, then just add as much credit as you need.
Getting around Mongolia – long distance buses and minivans
With the coronavirus lockdown prohibiting travel, I only managed one independent trip outside Ulaanbaatar. The day after I arrived in Tsetserleg, eight hours by bus from the Dragon bus station, a second lockdown was announced meaning I was stuck there for seven days! At least this time I had beautiful hiking opportunities right on my doorstep. Check out a blog post I wrote about the gorgeous scenery on a day hike in Tsetserleg here, while staying at the Fairfield Guesthouse.
The national bus system is fairly comprehensive in Mongolia and was simple enough to use. The bus stations have ticket booths inside and it’s recommended, especially in summer, to buy a ticket the day before. I needed my passport and noticed that locals were showing their identity cards in order to purchase a ticket. The bus driver takes your ticket before you enter the bus, so remember your seat number or take a photo of the ticket.
Minivans also run several routes, and stop more often. I didn’t take a minivan anywhere but saw plenty of them trundling around.
On my eight hour bus journey from Ulaanbaatar to Tsetserleg, the bus stopped once for a toilet break. This was in the middle of the steppes and you simply walk a few metres from the bus and do your business. Ladies, I recommend doing what the locals did and tie your coat around your waist – not just for privacy but to protect your bare bottom from the icy winds!! We stopped again at a small row of restaurants for a twenty minute lunch break.
Food in Mongolia
Food options in Ulaanbaatar are plentiful. Unfortunately when I was there restaurants were nearly all closed, due to coronavirus restrictions. I saw lots from the outside though! There were a couple of vegan places I was disappointed not to try.
I got to know the supermarkets very well though. There’s a large Nomin supermarket on the first floor (ground floor for us Brits) of the State Department Store, which is the best stocked supermarket I found. The State Department Store is the main landmark in Ulaanbaatar, dating to 1921. Inside it has fancy cashmere boutiques, modern concessions like Next and North Face, as well as a massive selection of souvenirs on level six.
Outside of Ulaanbaatar, restaurant options become limited and it becomes more difficult for vegetarians. On my Gobi desert tour, when we stopped at local restaurants for lunch our guide always had to ask specially for a vegetarian dish for me. My favourite was Tsuivan, hand made noodles, fried with a few veggies.
The usual Mongolian fare is meat, meat and more meat. Buuz, or steamed dumplings, are the most popular. But be aware, it will literally be a plate of dumplings, not a vegetable in sight!
In Tseterleg, finding fresh vegetables was near impossible in the shops, so I relied on jars of pickled vegetables instead. These as well as tinned vegetables can be found everywhere.
Alcohol and drinking laws in Mongolia
Strangely, no alcohol is allowed to be sold on the first day of the month in Mongolia. It’s a tradition that is supposed to encourage people to pay bills with their monthly salary rather than buy a bottle of vodka.
The most bizarre alcoholic drink you’ll find in Mongolia is airag or fermented mare’s milk, which I was lucky enough to try during my Gobi desert tour. It’s usually made by nomadic ger inhabitants in the summer, with an certain amount frozen to be enjoyed during Lunar New Year celebrations in the spring.
Traditionally the milk is filtered through a cloth, poured into a leather sack and suspended next to the entrance of the yurt. Every visitor is then expected to give it a churn, which along with some dried yeast ferments the milk.
Arranging tours in the Mongolian Gobi desert or other regions
This is easily done once in Mongolia and some travellers reckon you get better prices than arranging tours from outside the country. Nearly every guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar is affiliated with a tour company. Indeed most guesthouses have likely been set up in order for tour companies to find willing participants for their trips.
After Paula failed to find any way to arrive, I joined a few Mongolia travel Facebook groups and posted a plea for tour mates. In the end a tour agency contacted me saying they had a Gobi tour leaving once travel restrictions were lifted and would I like to join. The price quoted was ridiculously high and I managed to almost halve it, so it’s worth trying some polite bargaining.
The tour turned out to be amazing. I can highly recommend the Gobi desert in the snowy climes of early March. We were the only visitors at every place we stopped. From the ice canyon in Yol Am to the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag, having these places to ourselves was such a privilege.
Ger life in Mongolia
You can’t come to Mongolia and not visit a ger! These mobile homes, which we call yurts in the west, are used by nomads on the steppes as well as on the fringes of cities. The nomads use them so they can move with the seasons, finding prime grazing lands in the summer and sheltered spots in the winter.
For the past three years I’ve been living in a bell tent during the summers as I work for a festival events company and spend around three weeks at each event. I thought I had my bell tent kitted out pretty nicely but the Mongolian gers were a cut above! They are all laid out similarly inside, with a wood or dung fired stove in the centre for cooking on as well as for heat, a TV (often powered by a solar charged car battery) at the back along with family treasures and beds on either side.
If you do a Gobi desert tour in Mongolia you’ll definitely experience an overnight stay in a ger, whether in a homestay or a tourist camp. Don’t forget some basic ger rules. Always go left when you enter a ger to the side reserved for visitors; don’t step on the doorframe; don’t pass anything between the two centre poles and if offered anything always accept it with two hands and if it’s tea, take a sip before setting it on the table.