Mongolia is one of the few places to visit in the world that is very much how it was 50 years ago, and the traditional nomadic lifestyle is still prevalent across the country. Most of the roads are dirt tracks, there are no road signs, the locals don’t speak English and only 4 train lines connect the capital to other cities. This makes it near impossible to navigate this vast country by yourself, you need expertise from a local, or at least an experienced tour guide. Mongolia can be a dangerous place to travel to if you are under prepared; winters can be as cold as minus 40 and there are areas in the Gobi desert where no one lives, not even animals! So read on to discover how we planned, and survived, our 22 day tour around Mongolia.
Deciding On A Tour
As you can imagine, there are hundred of tours and tour operators to choose from depending on your budget, interests and where you want to visit. Some tours specialise more in activities such as horse riding and trekking, others in culture so staying with nomadic families, seeing historical sites and visiting monasteries, whilst many offer a good all round sight seeing tour. First things first, it's good to do some research on some key points of interest and then see where they are on a map. You can do this by taking a look on some tour operators websites and look at the itineraries they are offering.
Luxury vs Budget Tours
Luxury tours involve staying mostly in tourist camps which have access to power, wifi, hot showers and western toilets. Budget tours, as you can imagine, are basic and without all the mod cons. Toilets are usually a hole dug in the ground with some sort of wooden shack around it, showers happen every 3/4 days at a public bathroom and you sleep in guest house gers (Mongolian yurts) belonging to nomad families rather than in a dressed up tourist camp. Staying in a tourist camp is a lot more convenient, but lacks a lot of the culture you get from staying in a family guest house. Tourist camps are also a heck of a lot more expensive and can be up to $150USD per night! In comparison, a guest house ger of a nomadic family is around $10-$15USD per night and nearly always you get welcomed into their home for fresh hot milk, cookies and cream from their livestock. If you are happy to survive a couple of days without a shower and western toilet then a budget tour would save you a lot of buck.
Length of Tour
Mongolia is a huge country and takes a long time to drive around, so a trip to the North and South in a week just isn't realistic. We spoke to many people heading West for the Eagle Festival and they had allocated 3 weeks of time to only go there. Most people with only a week to travel will head to the Gobi desert for a speedy but impressive sightseeing tour. We were lucky enough to have 22 days and so opted for a round tour starting up in the North, and then to moving onto Central Mongolia and finally Gobi. Even with a generous 22 days to spare, we were still in the van most days driving for hundreds of kilometres across the vast Mongolian landscape.
Which Tour Operator
After doing a LOT of research prior to travel on budget tours, the two best options on price and reviews came down to Sunpath Mongolia and Camel Track. We decided to book with Camel Track mainly because they were incredibly helpful and prompt on email (which is definitely not the case with many of them!). They were a fantastic operator and run over 100 tours every year, so the drivers and guides have a wealth of knowledge and a lot of skill on the dirt tracks. We would definitely recommend Camel Track! We also heard from other tour operators that the owners of Sunpath don’t have a very nice company ethos. They do not allow Sunpath employees to talk to any other tour operators, if they do so there is a chance they will be fired. They also don’t allow tourists from their tours to speak to other tourists on the road, in case they discuss price etc. This sort of behaviour is very un-Mongolian considering it’s custom to be friendly to others and to help others in need. After finding this out, we were very happy to have chosen Camel Track.
Where to Visit
On our tour we covered North, Central and Gobi areas. These were our highlights from the trip:
1. Eight Lakes area (Naiman Nuur) in Central Mongolia- horse trekking
2. Khongor Sand Dunes in the Gobi Desert
3. Tsagaan Suvarga/ White Stupe in the Gobi Desert
4. Khovsgul Lake in Northern Mongolia
5. Amarbayasgalant Monastery In Northern Mongolia
6. Flaming Cliffs/ Bayanzag in the Gobi Desert
We have also heard that Western Mongolia is an absolute stunner so if you have a lot of time then consider going there. There is an Eagle Festival on during April and October months which draws a lot of travellers. From speaking to people on the road we also heard that visiting the Reindeer herders in the North was a highlight for them.
Booking In Advance vs Booking On Arrival
Researching tour operators in advance can only be a good thing and you should be aware of rough pricing and online reviews. There are a number of tour operators who have really bad reviews which you should obviously try to avoid. The benefits of booking in advance is that you will have something secured for when you arrive, and you have the time to negotiate prices and all the fine details in writing beforehand. The price offered for a tour is dependent on the number of people, and so the more people you can get onboard the cheaper it is. So the biggest downside of booking in advance is that you don't know how many people are going to be on a tour, and it may end up as only you! If you were just to turn up to Mongolia and tried to join onto someone's tour that has already been arranged then at least you would be with others making it cheaper. This would require you to be very flexible with itinerary and the length of the trip seeing as you would be working to someone else's plans. Obviously if you are visiting as a group then booking in advance would be ideal. If you are lucky enough to have free time to spare then it is possible to round up people from hostels and restaurants and organise a tour of your own. We spoke to one guy who had organised 3 separate tours with groups of random people hiring only a driver to make it cheap.
Time Of Year
The majority of people travel to Mongolia during the summer months when the sun is warm and the grass is green. This is when the ger camps get fully booked and sights are bustling with tourists. Spring and Autumn time is slightly out of season because the weather is colder, and so tourist camps and sights are all less busy as a result. We actually think this is a brilliant time of year to visit because you get to see some sights without anyone else there, and the changes in weather make it really exciting. Our tour was during September and October and so all the leaves on the trees had turned beautiful shades of yellow and amber. We were also lucky enough to awake one morning to see 2 inches of snow covering the valley! That said, night times can get very cold out of season and you will need to bring good quality equipment to be comfortable. We experienced -12 one morning when we awoke from our ger. It is of course possible to visit Mongolia during the winter months to truly experience the lifestyle of a nomad. Although be aware that nearly everything touristy will be closed for winter and the ground will be frozen solid. The Gobi desert is the coldest recorded place on earth during the winter months at a teeth chattering -40!
Driver And Guide
On a tour, you will usually be travelling with a driver that speaks only Mongolian, and a guide that speaks both Mongolian and your language. You will end up spending a lot of time with these people over the duration of your trip so it may be advisable to meet up beforehand to check you all get along. It is possible to hire just a driver to make the tour cheaper, but it's worth noting that communication could be difficult if they don't speak your language and you will miss out on all the helpful knowledge from a guide. The guide will talk you through the history of everywhere you visit, will answer any questions that you may have, will translate to nomadic families and will cook for you three times a day. We would thoroughly recommend having one!
As we have mentioned before, prices vary significantly depending on what sort of tour you opt for, but here is an idea of the cost of our budget 22 day sight seeing tour to Gobi, Central Mongolia and Khovsgul lake and it included a 3 day horse trek:
2 people on tour = $81USD per person per day
3 people on tour = $71USD per person per day
4 people on tour = $61USD per person per day
5 people on tour = $50USD per person per day
6 people on tour = $45USD per person per day
We negotiated these prices down some months in advance and this really was the best Camel Track could offer us. Sunpath Mongolia came out at a similar price, but it was slightly more expensive with 6 people than 5 because they would prefer to take 2 vehicles.
Prices will include the driver (vehicle and petrol), the tour guide (who also cooks), 1.5L of water per person per day, 3 meals a day, entrance fees for the national parks and museums, Camel and horse riding is you are doing any, a number of hot showers and accommodation.
As with visiting any foreign country, will need to check your embassy's travel advice prior to travel to see if a visa is required. Some travel guides can be out of date, so make sure you double check on the official website beforehand. We applied for a visa from the UK and the form was relatively easy and cost around £40 each. You will need to supply them with a travel itinerary and some contact details of where you will be staying, along with a copy of your travel insurance. The only big downside is that you have to visit the embassy to apply and pick up your visa as they don't have an online service.
Arranging travel insurance prior to your trip is essential and you will be required to supply this information to the visa application centre. Although travelling around Mongolia is relatively safe, you need to be aware that a lot of the time you will be hundreds of kilometres away from any sort of medical help. The main hospitals are in Ulaanbaatar and other cities you will pass on the way. You will most likely be driving on bumpy dirt tracks, riding a horse or two, doing some mountain trekking and so there is the possibility of injury during the trip. Once you know what sort of tour you are doing, look for insurance that specifically covers the activities you are doing. Lots of insurance companies don't cover mountain trekking at a higher altitude than 1,000m so make sure you opt for one which is at least 3000m or more. Some of the mountain peaks in Western Mongolia are higher than 4,000m so if you plan to head that way you will need to make sure you at covered. Because you will be staying in gers most of the time, you should consider getting insurance in case of theft of property. Some of the doors have padlocks on and some do not, so it's best to carry any valuables with you or ask your driver to lock them in the car. After doing some research on insurance companies for our round the world trip, we chose to get cover with World Nomads because they are well suited to backpacking and outdoor activities. They cover horse riding, trekking up to 3000m, Camel riding, camping and much more. In the event of a serious injury, World Nomads will provide a rescue service to get you to hospital and then home. This is the sort of reassurance you want on your trip when you are riding horses through remote Mongolian mountain ranges!
What To Pack From Home
When you are travelling to one of the most under populated places on earth, preparation is key as shops are few and far between. Here is a list of things we think you need to bring from home:
Sleeping bag - 3/4 season and a roll mat
Warm clothes/ thermals
Sun hat & sun glasses
High SPF sun cream & SPF lip balm
Snood/ bandana for wearing in the desert and horse riding
Music device and headphones
A head torch - for those late night trips out to the toilet!
If you do need to buy any more kit then make sure you do so in Ulaanbaatar beforehand as you won't be able to find specialist stuff anywhere else.
What To Get When You Arrive
When you get to Ulaanbaatar, stock up on these items in a supermarket. You will have access to the local markets every few days on the tour so perishable goods can be picked up on the way:
Food - some snacks and long lasting fruit like mandarins
Extra water - a 4L bottle is ideal as a back up
Gifts for families - useful items like candles, pens, soaps and some sweets for the kids
A bottle of vodka - handy for drinking, cleaning wounds, offering to elders and killing any bad bacteria in your stomach from dodgy food!
Soap - for washing your clothes with
On The Road
Long distance travel across Mongolia can be very exhausting and uncomfortable. It is likely that you will be travelling several hundred kilometres a day on very bumpy dirt tracks without doing much else, so be mentally prepared! Having said that the views from the car are some of the most spectacular we have ever seen so it's not all bad. It is fine to ask your tour guide to stop to take pictures or for a toilet break every so often. It's best to keep a day bag with you in the van which contains warm clothes, water, snacks, camera, music, sun cream & glasses and perhaps a neck pillow. You big bag will be packed away in the boot of the van so it's best to have all items on you that you will need. The best type of vehicle to travel in across the dirt tracks is a Russian van, because they are spacious, have good suspension and are fast. They are also easy to fix if something goes wrong. The one we travelled in also had seat belts which is a bonus!
Staying In Gers
The ger (we call yurt in the UK) is a huge part of Mongolian culture and once you are out of the cities you will find that most locals live in these iconic white tents even when its -40 outside! Gers are well suited to the nomadic lifestyle of moving because they are quick and easy to assemble, and a nomad will move around the countryside depending on the quality of grass for their animals to feed on. If the grass isn’t good enough then their animals will become too weak to survive the harsh winter. Nomadic families rely so heavily on their livestock for survival that they must put them first at all costs. A season with no animals means no food, no milk to drink (they don’t have a running water supply so this is their source of liquid) and nothing to trade for money or other necessities. The ger is a central place for the nomads to be together, it is not uncommon for the whole family to sleep together on the floor. A simple family ger has a small kitchen area to the back right, a wood/coal/dung burning stove in the middle, some beds around the sides, a dresser at the top with a buddhist shine and/or tv, and some rugs on the floor to sit on. The toilet is outside and is usually a deep pit dug into the ground with a few wooden boards across it. Sometimes a cubicle has been constructed over the top for privacy but in the traditional Mongolian way a wooden fence is put around the hole on 3 sides at half height. Don’t always expect to get a door on the front of your toilet cubicle!
Gers are without running water, and so you will need to make sure you bring enough bottled water for drinking and save the washing of clothes and yourself for your visits to the public bathrooms. We had 5 free showers written into our itinerary for a 22 day tour which works out to be a shower every 4 days. If you want to have more than this then you will need to negotiate this with your guide and they may be able to arrange a few more into the trip at an extra cost. In the mean time, freshen up with a wee wet wipe!
As you can imagine, gers can get very cold during the night time especially if you are visiting out of season, and so be prepared with a 3-4 season sleeping bag that can go down to below freezing and bring thermals. Some gers have extra blankets that you can use which is always a bonus on those cold nights, but it’s worth noting that the bedding has probably never seen a washing machine so you will be grateful to be sleeping in your own clean sleeping bag! Most gers (especially in the North) have a log burner which gets lit in the evening and morning times, it’s not unusual to have grandma pop into your ger unannounced at 6.30am to start making you a fire with a blow torch and some dung!
It is Mongolian tradition to bring a gift to your hosts if you stay in a guest house or with a nomadic family. We were advised to bring useful items such as candles, soap, pens for the children and a few candies as a treat.
Types Of Ger
There are 3 main types of ger that you may sleep in on your tour: the nomadic family ger which is the family home, the guest house which is an extra ger belonging to the family, and a tourist camp. If you stay in the nomadic family ger then you will likely be sleeping in with the family. They don’t normally ask for money as it is Mongolian custom to open your door to any traveller, but it is always good practice to give them some money or a gift for their kind hospitality. Guest house gers are the most affordable if you are looking to have your own space and cost around $10-15USD per night. Guest house gers are very basic and are without electricity or western toilets so its more of an authentic experience. Tourist camp gers are geared up for travellers who want a bit more luxury, and so have electricity, western toilets and sometimes even wifi. Tourist camps are incredibly expensive though compared to guest houses, and some can be up to $150USD per night! Our recommendation would be to stay in guest houses, and with a nomadic family at least once on your trip. To charge all your kit you will need to stop off in restaurants in the towns/cites every few days, and it’s the same for taking a shower.
Food & Drink
Nomadic Mongolian tradition when it comes to food is simply meat and dairy, little carbs and no veg. “The animals eat the veg and I eat the animals, so I get the nutrition of the vegetables” is what one Mongolian said to us! This is apparent in any nomadic household you visit here; water is replaced with milk, snacks are fresh clotted cream and cookies (sweet dough balls), dried curd (from milk) which is sometimes sweet and sometimes sour, literally mutton everything, dried meats over the winter months, and perhaps a few flour/ rice/ potato based items like Mongolian pasta or dumplings are added to the mix.
The fresh dairy goods are delicious but very rich, you may be lucky to be offered horse milk which is actually fermented so its a whopping 12% vol alcohol, which increases to 18% during the winter months. Cows and yaks milk is the most common in the North, and camel in the South. The camel is the only animal that can be milked all year round because it’s so hardy compared to the other animals. All the milk here is pasteurised so is fine to drink, and milk tea is another Mongolian speciality that you should try. The traditional nomadic way to make milk tea is fresh milk, tea leaves and a pinch of salt boiled with animal bones for added calcium. It sounds a bit hard to stomach but actually it’s delicious! It’s more of a salty hot milk which is incredibly warming when it’s bloody freezing outside.
If you opt for a tour with a guide then you will have 3 meals cooked/ prepared for you every day which is obviously very convenient. The guide on our tour was an amazing cook, and she prepared for us tasty meals from scratch including some traditional Mongolian dishes such as Turban, Mongolian handmade pasta with meat. If you have a guide then you will only need to bring snacks, but to be honest we have never been so full in our lives so you really don’t need to bring that much! You should be provided with 1.5L of water a day on a tour, and so it’s best to pick up another large bottle before you leave UB especially if you are travelling to the Gobi during summer months. You will be able to pick up more water every few days in the cities and towns. Mongolia would be an incredibly difficult place to travel to if you were vegan because the food is based around dairy and meat, and so we would recommend bringing your own food with you. Vegetarianism is just about understood in restaurants and your guide should be able to cater for you, but again this would prove difficult if you were staying with a nomadic family. It is best to accept food and drink offered to you, even if you don’t intend on consuming it!
A Mongolian tour isn’t complete without a horse or camel ride (or maybe even both!) across the vast landscape. Rides will be arranged through your tour company with local nomads in the area you are visiting, which brings a little income to those involved. Some tours specialise in horse trekking for many days or even weeks passing through mountain ranges, valleys and rivers. We picked one that offered us a 3 day horse trek through the 8 lakes area in Central Mongolia. The terrain was perfect for our horses, it was mountainous so we had a bit of challenge going up and down hill, and then we passed several volcanic rock valleys that surrounded the lakes which were generally flat with only small sections of rubble. Horse trekking is a must-do when visiting Mongolia!
Arrive in the Gobi desert and you will see many camel tours taking place across the dunes. It’s likely your tour will include and organise local to bring camels to your guesthouse. Firstly, the camel has to crouch down on his elbows and knees to let you on and off, and then proceeds to make a very wobbly stand up where you are balancing in between his two humps without being strapped on! Once it’s stood up and moving which seems unusually high above the ground, you have to just grip onto the hump and hold the reigns of the camel next to you so you are all in a line. Camels like to go pretty fast when they are going downhill so be prepared to pull on the reigns of your neighbours camel to slow him down. Be preparers for the odd bit of spitting and screaming when they aren’t so happy!
What To Wear Whilst Riding
For camel riding you need to wear trousers and a jacket that doesn’t rustle. The Gobi is normally baking hot so you don’t need too many layers, just a sun hat and cream. To prep for a horse ride make sure you have a lot of warm clothing if it’s been cold because your hands and feet are bound to get chilly. On our 3 day horse trek we were lent Mongolian full-length outdoor jackets which were warm and prevented any rubbing on the saddle. They gave us a riding helmet and leather chaps for our lower legs. It’s fine to carry a day bag as long as it’s strapped tightly to your body. And importantly you can’t take pictures or change your clothes whilst riding a camel or horse because you might spook the animal.
Visiting a Monastery
There are many monasteries and temples in Mongolia because it is predominantly a buddhist country, and most tours will involve visiting one or more of them at some point. Temples are peaceful places where many monks still live and practice Buddhism so it is advisable to visit quietly and respectfully, not to disrupt their practice. It is generally ok to take photos outside of the temples but usually there will be a charge if you wish to take photos inside. If there isn’t an option to pay to take photos then just assume that it is not ok, as some monks can be a bit funny about having their photos taken. It is a good idea to cover your shoulders and legs if they are exposed, a common custom when visiting a place of worship. The traditional way to exit a Buddhist monastery is walk out of the room backwards so that you are always facing the Buddha, and not to step on the door frame. You will see many Buddhist monuments around Mongolia called ‘stupes’, these predominantly white structures are places of worship and it is custom to walk around it 3 times whilst making a wish. If the stupe has a Buddha on the top, or Buddhas eyes, then the worshiper is to look into the eyes of the Buddha while walking around. Tibetan prayer wheels can also be found at temples, they are usually embossed metal wheels outside, and it is custom to spin the wheel clockwise whilst focusing on a wish. Buddhist temples are very relaxed compared to a Christian church for example, but it’s best to be mindful of others and treat it as places of worship rather than a tourist destination.
We have written a much more in-depth piece about our day to day experiences on our Mongolian tour; where we visited, who we met, what life is like in a ger. If it’s something you would like to read then click the following link ‘Mongolian Guide: A 22 Day Tour Into The Wilderness’.
So you can find it again later!