Understand this before you tell any of your friends that you are planning to travel in Mongolia. It could save you a lot of grief!
As someone who has been in love with Mongolia for years, I can only encourage you to visit.
But, there are several things you should understand first, before you travel in Mongolia. The last one may really surprise you!
How vast is it to travel in Mongolia?
Mongolia is indeed vast. The country has an area of 1,565,000 sq. km.
You often need hours, if not days, to get from one destination to another. The length of your stay and travel in Mongolia has a tremendous impact on your trip.
If you have only a few days at your disposal, you likely won't be able to see much beyond the vicinity of the capital.
Visiting Ulaanbaatar and its neighborhood can be a fulfilling adventure. But, it will limit your experience to the most urbanized area of the country.
Unless you are a researcher, it's highly doubtful you will enjoy more than a day or two in the capital.
Plan accordingly to make sure you have at least five-six days to travel to the countryside and immerse yourself in the local, nomadic culture.
Is Mongolia really that remote?
With the enormous territory inhabited only by slightly more than 3m people, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country of the World. What's more, in 2018, the United Nations reported that the urban residents of Mongolia made for 68.45 percent of the country's total population. The further you get from the cities, the fewer people you will meet, and you must account for that.
Whether you are traveling alone or with a tour company, check (among others):
- How remote are the locations you are going to visit?
- Will you have phone reception?
- Do you need to carry a satellite phone with you?
- Where the nearest human settlement is and how fast you can get there?
- Are they trained in first aid?
- They bring the first aid box with you?
- What is the emergency plan in case of an accident or a vehicle malfunction?
- The contact info of the nearest medical center and police station.
How big is the Mongolia language barrier?
Communication is one of the most significant challenges tourists face in Mongolia.
In Ulaanbaatar, you will often find people speaking at least a little bit of English or Russian. But, the overwhelming majority of nomads don't speak any english. Even in tourist camps, many staff members know only very basic English.
So, if you are planning to travel on your own, make sure you come prepared for the language barrier. Bring a small dictionary, learn basic expressions, or install a translator app on your phone.
Also, make a list of emergency numbers, including someone who can translate for you in case of an emergency.
Is travel in mongolia all dirt roads?
Mongolia has a minimal number of paved roads. Asphalt connects most of the provincial towns with Ulaanbaatar.
But, the rest of the country, with a few exceptions, is accessible only by dirt roads, many of which are in rough conditions.
Investing in the right vehicle and planning reasonable daily distances are the key to finishing your Mongolian journey without feeling completely exhausted.
Where do they stick the loo in mongolia?
Another thing to consider is the lack of proper toilets in the countryside. Road restaurants, hotels, and public rest stops have restrooms available. But, many of them are outdoor long drops, often dirty and stinking.
Further from human settlements, there is no other choice but to hide behind a bush or a hill. Stopping at a camp of local nomads won't help, as their toilets are usually just open pits.
To access a Western-style toilet, you must reach a tourist camp. Those "steppe hotels" are a concept almost unique for Mongolia – you stay in a private yurt (ger) while sharing a restaurant/dining room and a restroom with other travelers.
Few camps offer ensuite accommodation in yurts and wooden bungalows, but most of the time, you must walk to a separate building to eat, take a shower, or use the toilet.
Tourist camps are usually the only facilities outside of Ulaanbaatar that cater to the dietary needs of foreigners, although the food choice they offer is limited.
If you have any dietary restrictions or allergies, be very clear about them when communicating with local service providers. Very few of them understand gluten-free, low-carbohydrate, or vegan diets.
It pays off to send them a list of products you can or cannot eat. You must also know that you may not be able to access many food products you normally eat at home. If there is something you cannot go without, bring it from home.
Why SOLO travel in Mongolia is so expensive
I have met many travelers hugely disappointed with how expensive Mongolia is in comparison to China or South East Asia. That is because they don't understand Mongolia costs.
Travel in Mongolia can be costly.
Mongolia is a vast, remote country with few airlines offering flights to Ulaanbaatar. We are talking big bucks here
Overland, you can get to Mongolia only by train or bus from China or Russia.
While such a journey can be cheaper than the flight, this solution works only if you have plenty of time at your disposal.
The cost of traveling within Mongolia can be very high too.
Bus and train connections are limited and don't reach many touristic highlights. To see something further away from urban centers, you must almost always hire a driver with a car and also pay for fuel and extrras.
If you want to chat with the locals properly, you also need a translator. Staying overnight even in the cheapest tourist camps may easily cost $25 and more.
These costs add up quickly, and you are likely to end up at some point with at least several hundreds of dollars to spend. For people traveling alone or in a couple, such expenditure is too high.
Money-wise it is much better to arrive in Mongolia as a part of a bigger group and share the expenses. If that's not possible, you may try to find travel buddies online.
A good starting point before any travel in Mongolia are Facebook groups such as Mongolia Backpacker / Traveler or Travel Cheap in Mongolia. If you are staying in a hostel, it is also worth to approach the manager and check if there is no tour you can join. I recommend trying Lotus Guesthouse. The facility may not be the fanciest in town, but the hostel is affiliated with the Lotus Children Center, which takes care of vulnerable Mongolian kids. Your money would go to a worthy cause.
However, if you stay in a hostel that offers tours, but you decide to arrange a trip with another tour company, don't mention it to the hostel staff.
There were cases in the past when foreign guests were forced to leave their accommodation because the hostel owners got mad at them for giving business to the competition. Really!
The Mongolian People are Worth The Extra Effort
I haven't written any of the above to discourage you from visiting Mongolia. The country and its people are worth the extra effort.
But, I would like everyone planning their visit to Mongolia to be aware of the challenges they may face. It will save you unnecessary stress and disappointment