Best known for its nomadic lifestyle, Mongolia is perfect for travelers who want to experience life off the grid. Boasting 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. For Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar is its powerhouse where important economic, political, and cultural centers are focused.
- Culture and Language
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
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, however, they 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’s estimated up to 16 million men living today are still directly related to Genghis Khan.
Medieval Mongolia conquered, but modern-day Mongolia has not been so fortunate. China claimed the country as theirs 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, though even after staying independent, the Soviet influence remained. 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. 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 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 otherworldly 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.
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 country’s 3.27 million population (as of 2020) speaks Mongolian, which is also the official language.
Various tribes still speak local dialects, 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 faded, English is becoming even more common.
Many people are beginning to learn English in hopes that it can help Mongolia enter the global market and increase its tourism. While the transition is still beginning, you may hear English spoken in urban areas like the capital.
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 how much you will spend 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’s very expensive. Tickets typically cost at least one thousand dollars and only increase in price. You may be able to find a few deals, however, 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.
It’s also important to know that tickets will likely always be expensive because people really only 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 urban areas and should be rather affordable.
If you are traveling to more remote locations, a guest house will likely be the best accommodation option. Moderately priced, guesthouses are cheaper than hotels, which are available for a higher nightly cost. There are luxury options but expect the pricetag to match.
Life can be difficult in Mongolia 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.
Meals are still rather affordable depending on where you eat. Simple restaurants will serve more affordable meals, while fancy restaurants will be the most costly. 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 is sold for a few dollars a bottle. In markets, beer will be even more affordable. If you stick to the touristy areas, you should expect the cost to go up.
Guided tours are the most popular way to visit and see Mongolia because they are convenient, fun, and safe. The guided tours are expensive, but 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.
While tours in specific areas will be cheaper, if you’re looking to see more of the country the price will increase. A private guide is a great way to see Mongolia, but be prepared to pay much more 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 offering 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, 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.
Car Rentals and Buses
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 due to road conditions often being poor.
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. However, trains can be expensive. Most long-distance train rides will cost a decent amount. While trains are reliable ways to travel in Mongolia, 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, 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 there 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 Cities to Visit
Ulaanbaatar is certainly the main hub for all of Mongolia, but there are a few other cities that are worth exploring as well. Each home to unique sites and gorgeous outdoor expanses, these locations are worth adding to your itinerary. Here is a brief overview of the top city and town destinations in Mongolia.
Most people think of Mongolia as a remote frontier, still hidden from tourists, Ulaanbaatar 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 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. In 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
Boasting stunning landscapes that are home to multiple national parks, there are plenty of points of interest in Mongolia worth exploring. For those looking to take a step away from the hustle and bustle of life, these options will provide you with a much-needed escape. Here are some of the top destinations in Mongolia.
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 Ulaanbaatar and will give you an overview of the Mongolian countryside. One of the popular points of interest within the park is the camel farms, which are situated in nomad camps.
An old site, Lake Hovsgol’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 Tyvan 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 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.
It’s one of the most remote places in Mongolia and not many people inhabit this area. If you’re 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’s a dramatic showcase of the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle and is often called “The Games of Three Men”.
“Land of the Eternal Blue Sky”
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.
Beyond being a unique travel destination, Mongolia can open your eyes to a unique way of life where tradition is a powerful force.