I. Love. Mongolia.
No, really. And I’m not just saying that because that’s the sort of sh*t travel bloggers always say. It really is the most stunning, incredible, bizarre, beautiful, frustrating, fascinating, unique, unreal country I’ve ever visited.
From driving through the vast, seemingly limitless expanses of the Gobi Desert, to embracing the full uniqueness of the nomadic culture to being the only tourist around for MILES and MILES, Mongolia is a place that sticks with you, holds tight, and makes you want to go back again and again.
Seriously. I. Love. Mongolia.
Okay, that’s enough of that (I’m usually no good at that sort of “gushing” talk, anyway….). Now that I’ve finished there, there’s some things I need to get off my chest.
Sometimes, Mongolia is confusing. Frustrating. Impossible. (Though you could probably say this about any place you visit, really.) And as with any good trip, figuring these things out yourself might be all part of the adventure…but there’s still some things I definitely learned during my trip that would be great for future travelers to know beforehand.
So, I’ve prepared this schmancy list to help you out.
1. Let’s just get this out of the way – Genghis Khan is Mongolia’s pride and joy….and you’re probably saying & spelling it wrong.
Genghis Khan is, arguably, the most famous Mongolian of all. But while the rest of the world might see him as, um, not such a friendly fellow, the people of Mongolia LOVE him.
He’s the focal point of Ulaanbaatar’s (the capital of Mongolia) main plaza as seen here:
And they even created this HUGE statue of him (I kid you not, this thing is BIG) here:
Oh, and most importantly of all….it’s Chinggis Khaan NOT Genghis Khan. (No worries, I was saying it wrong until I was briskly corrected in Mongolia.
If you want to make sure you get it right, just watch the first 10 seconds of this video.
2. Mongolia is BIG and independent travel can be tough (unless you have lots of time).
First and foremost, just GETTING to Mongolia in the first place can be a challenge. Sure, you can fly in from wherever you are, but flights tend to be on the expensive side so most people end up crossing from either China or Russia.
We entered Mongolia by bus and train from Beijing (we wrote about how to do it here) and left through western Mongolia to get to China’s Xinjiang province (which we’ll be writing about sometime soon – you can leave us a comment if you want to know when we add it!).
Anyway, beyond the challenges of just getting there, there are also some challenges of traveling in-country.
The distances between places are impressively large and public transportation isn’t all that reliable (meaning if you’re short on time, you might not want to spend hours and hours on a bus).
Plus, there are plenty of places (like areas of the Gobi Desert or the national parks surrounding Ulaanbaatar) that you just can’t get to by yourself. You’ll have to arrange a small tour or hire a driver out for the day. On which leads me to # 3…
3. Mongolia isn’t as cheap as you think it is….sort of.
Well, it is and it isn’t. If you just take public transportation, eat local food, and stay in budget accommodation, it can be.
However, if you want to try to get to some of the country’s most beautiful areas such as the Gobi Desert (which I really recommend you do!), you have to opt for a tour. And, though you can find pretty reasonably-priced tours, this could eat into your budget if you don’t arrive expecting to pay for one.
Mongolia Budget Travel Tip #1: For our tour to the Gobi Desert, we arranged it through our hostel in Ulaanbaatar. The hostel is called Golden Gobi and they definitely offered some of the cheapest tours around. If you go with them, see if you can request Alma. She was our guide and she was wonderful! If you do, be sure to tell her Rodrigo and Nikki say hello (it’s been about a year, but I like to think she still remembers us).
If you can get a group together to share the cost with, the people at the hostel can also help you arrange a private driver for a day to go to attractions near Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolia Budget Travel Tip #2: But if you want to visit Karakorum, Mongolia’s ancient capital (which is relatively close to UB), you can do actually get there yourself via public transportation. We wrote a whole article about the cheapest way to get from UB to Karakorum here.
4. Mongolia has the lowest population density in the world.
Let’s put this into perspective.
By area, Mongolia is about twice the size of Turkey or about the size of Mexico.
But by population, it’s about the size of Chicago or Madrid…and that’s for the entire country.
Plus, 50% of the ENTIRE population live in the capital city. In other words, this gives you lots and lots of completely untouched landscape to explore…and you don’t have to go very far to feel like you’re the only person in the world.
5. The relationship between Mongolia and China is complicated.
For better or worse, Mongolia and China are not exactly friends.
Obviously, the two countries have a long, deep history of competing for lands and conquering each other back and forth again and again (and, you know, there was that big, relatively famous wall built).
Part of the problem is that Mongolia was a province of China until the beginning of the 20th century…and apparently China kept drawing their maps as if Mongolia were within their borders much longer than that.
To this day, there is an autonomous province in China alongside the border that is called “Inner Mongolia” (they call the actual country of Mongolia just “Outer Mongolia”). Interpret that as you will. Obviously, I’m neither Chinese nor Mongolian so it’s not really in my place to get way into this. The tension is noticeable, though.
Or in the words of a 16-year-old Mongolian teen we met at a barbecue “you can’t trust the Chinese….because they make us buy their bad products.”*
Or in another instance, Rodrigo just mentioned the word “China” on a Mongolian train and some old Mongolian guy tried to start a fight with him. (Although the man didn’t speak English, apparently the word “China” upset him.)
Luckily, some other train-goers were there to calm down the situation.
*Please note: I am NOT making fun of anyone here. I assure you these are the actual situations we encountered!*
6. On the other hand, they love everything Korean!
When walking through the streets of Ulaanbaatar, we were quite surprised at the abundance of Korean restaurants and karaoke clubs (which, if you read my article about 22 interesting things I’ve learned living in South Korea, you’ll know are SUPER popular in Korea)! Looks like the Korean wave has landed close to home.
Apparently, Korean dramas and K-pop music are also popular here.
7. 30-40% of the ENTIRE population is nomadic.
Mongolia has a 3,000-year-old nomadic tradition, and amazingly that lifestyle remains deeply entrenched even in modern-day Mongolia.
The livelihood of these nomadic families depend on their livestock – whether their sheep, horses, cows or even camels (if living in the Gobi)– to make a living and provide sustenance.
When they run out of good places for their animals to graze, they pack up their homes (which we’ll talk all about in #8) and move their animals to the next place.
8. This is what a traditional Mongolian dwelling looks like.
Gers, the name for traditional Mongolian dwellings, are part of what make the nomadic life possible. Though plenty sturdy after they’ve been built, they can be easily taken down and transported in parts as necessary.
Now, it’s not only nomads who live in gers, but in most of the cities (including Ulaanbaatar), there are informal ‘ger districts’ that have popped up along the outskirts. In other words, you’ll find gers basically no matter where you go in Mongolia!
9. Ger life can be tough.
Of course, these traditional gers haven’t been left completely untouched by modern society – many nomadic families have solar panels (the Mongolian government subsidizes these), basic cell phones, and TV antennae.
What people living in gers do lack, however, are running water or central heating. And when the winter temperatures get down to -40 F/C, this is obviously a BIG problem.
Since those living in gers burn anything and everything to try to stay warm (raw coal, rubber, plastics, etc.), during the winter, Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst air quality in the world.
10. If you want to sound like a pro, call the capital city UB.
As cool of a name as Ulaanbaatar is, if you want to fit in with the cool kids, just call it “UB” (as in, literally pronounce the name of each of those letters….not “ub”).
11. The best parts of Mongolia lie beyond the city.
Look, I’ll be honest here – Ulaanbaatar is not the prettiest city you’ll ever see.
I did enjoy wandering around UB, but if you don’t get out of the city you’ll be left disappointed and seriously missing out (I’m not really into those “must-see” lists….but seriously, if you are in Mongolia, you “must see” the country outside of Ulaanbaatar.)
12. Cars literally just drive wherever they want outside the cities….but luckily, Mongolians have a killer sense of direction.
To get to many places in Mongolia, there often any paved roads. To get to other places in Mongolia, there aren’t roads at all. (You’ll be lucky if you get some tire tracks to follow…. otherwise, zip. Nada.)
Occasionally, the driver of whatever form of wheels we were riding in would just suddenly veer off the road to take his or her own way. And a good chunk of our Gobi Desert trip was our driver just driving in the middle of the desert following landmarks as he knew them.
Fortunately, most Mongolians seem to have a killer sense of direction.
For example, on our last day in the Gobi Desert, there was a snowstorm (yes, we were in the desert and yes, it was May. That’s Mongolia for you.).
The mountains were covered as were all tire tracks or other potential landmarks. Literally, it was just white. Everywhere. By some miracle, our drive managed to find his way out DESPITE being able to see nothing but whiteness and got us back to UB safe and sound (and he didn’t even cheat with a smartphone).
13. You can just walk into a ger and help yourself, whether or not the hosts are home (or whether you not you actually know them, for that matter).
Now, this isn’t something that I would necessarily recommend you do as a foreigner, but it is widely accepted as the right kind of hospitality in the Mongolian culture. If you’re out on the steppe and you need a place to rest, sleep, or eat, just head to the nearest ger.
When we were in the Gobi Desert, about half the nights we went on what our guide fondly called “ger hunting.”
In other words, we didn’t have a set place to stay that night. So, we just drove on and on in the Gobi (remember, no roads) until we found the nearest ger. We knocked on the door, and that was that.
14. The Gobi Desert is one of the most incredible places you will ever see.
I think the Gobi Desert is one of the single most beautiful, most incredible, most surreal and unexpected places you’ll ever see in your life.
From the vast (yeah yeah, I know I already used the word ‘vast’ in the intro, but that really is the best word to describe Mongolia) landscape to the bright blue sky to the occasional nomadic family that is literally living in the middle of nowhere.
An ice canyon (complete with desert ticks). Bizarre cliff formations. Semi-wild horses running alongside your van. Herds of camels. Sand dunes that you can climb. The most clear, humbling night sky you’ll ever see. Being more crazily far away from civilization than you ever thought possible.
15. If staying with a nomadic family, make sure you accept (at least a little bit of) all that they offer.
If you stay with a nomadic family at any point (which you probably will do), you’ll be offered all sorts of things – arak (fermented mare’s milk), salty milk tea, vodka, weird little biscuit things, a snuff bottle, etc.
Even if you’re hesitant, at the very least give it a try. It’s the least you can do to show you appreciate their hospitality.
As far as liquor goes, if you are offered it and don’t want to drink, you can dip your right ring finger into it and flick the booze 3 times up. (Unfortunately, I can’t remember what each of the 3 flicks is supposed to represent….but I think one of them might be a thanks to the earth?)
And don’t fear the strange looking snuff bottles! They are often offered as a greeting and all they are is a mixture of herbs. If you don’t feel comfortable actually inhaling it through your nose (I really do promise you it’s not drugs inside…though it certainly will clear out your sinuses), just give the bottle a light sniff of appreciation.
16. You’ll probably get used to peeing along the side of the road
Outside of UB, finding a true western toilet is difficult. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an outhouse with a door. But often, when you’re driving in the middle of nowhere without any civilization in sight, you’ll have to do your business anywhere you can.
Ladies, here’s a quick warning: The worst is when the surrounding landscape is COMPLETELY FLAT and PLANT FREE. So, make sure to request a bathroom stop anytime you find some hills or shrubbery you can potentially hide yourself behind.
17. Wrestling is the national sport….and there’s an entire festival to celebrate it.
The festival is called Naadam and, although we weren’t able to attend, apparently it’s a really cool experience!
I mean, just look at these guys.
If you’re interested in a tour to Naadam, be sure to check out the tour options from TourRadar’s festival tours around the world or our article with The 5 Best Tour Group Companies for International Travel.
Alternatively, just click below to see what’s up.
18. They have eagle hunters.
Alongside Mongolia’s border with Kazakhstan in the Altai Mountains, there is a region that is populated by Kazak people. They are the last 400 people in the world that hunt in the ancient tradition of using golden eagles.
There’s also a super bada$* female eagle huntress who is only 13.
She’s the first female to take up in tradition in her family’s 12 generations of eagle hunters….and she may be the only female practicing this exact technique in the world. (PS: Alma – the tour guide we recommended above for the Gobi Desert tour – is also this girl’s aunt.)
They even made a great documentary about her and the hunting tradition as a whole. Here’s the trailer:
19. There’s also reindeer herders in the northern Mongolia.
Not only are there eagle hunters in the west, but there are reindeer herders in the north!
The reindeer herders are made up of Mongolian’s Tsaatan minority ethnic group. The name Tsaatan itself actually means “reindeer people” in the Mongolian language.
They live up along Lake Khosgvol, Mongolia’s biggest lake. Unfortunately, there are less than 300 Tsaatan people remaining today.
20. AND THERE’S CAMELS (which you will probably eat).
One of the most unique things about Mongolia is that they keep their animals semi-wild. In other words, it’s highly likely you’ll run into herds of horses, goats, and of course camels wandering about freely.
And in the Gobi, you’ll see camels everywhere! If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to pet some baby ones. If you’re less lucky, you’ll end up eating some of them.
21. Get ready to embrace the dirt.
Most parts of Mongolia are still fairly underdeveloped and, as I mentioned above, nomads don’t have running water. Which means you may not get to shower quite as often as you’re used to. (I think we showered once over the course of our 8-day Gobi desert tour.) But it’s all part of the Mongolian experience!
22. You may encounter an animal slaughter or two.
Since animals are very much seen as sustenance in Mongolia, it’s no great surprise that an animal is slaughtered whenever the need arises.
Over the course of our month, we witnessed two animal slaughters directly in front of our eyes (well, I’m actually pretty queasy so I admit I kept my distance).
The first was in the Gobi Desert. A nomadic family we were visiting was slaughtering one of the camels for meat (actually, we ended up carrying some of the meat along with us to eat ourselves….).
The second was during a picnic for a high school English class we were invited to in Western Mongolia.
In the form of traditional Mongolian barbecue, we watched them remove the sheep (still alive) from the back of a car, kill the sheep, wash the organs in the nearby river (which people were swimming in, by the way), and cook it over in a metal jug over a fire. The meat was delicious….and we were impressed with how the students didn’t shy away from helping.
23. Mongolia was never part of the Soviet Union….though it was communist for a while.
Many people mistakenly believe that Mongolia was part of the Soviet Union, though it in fact remained independent the entire time.
But it did have a pretty nasty communist regime made worse by the fact it was surrounded by two other communist superpowers – China and the USSR. The regime was around until the early 90s.
To this day, Mongolia is still left in kind of a tricky position, lodged between China and Russia, still two powerful countries.
24. If you are staying more than 30 days, you MUST register with immigration within 7 days!!!!!!!
Please, if there’s anything you get from this post, it’s this: don’t be as stupid as Rodrigo and I were. Since we were both able to enter Mongolia visa-free for 90 days, we kind of just thought that was it – we were in, nothing else to worry about.
We found out the hard way (as in, after we had already been there for more than 7 days), that you must register with immigration if you’ll be there more than 30 days.
Registering is actually kind of a pain to do – you have to go to the immigration office on the outskirts of UB, pay some sort of fee, fill out a form with your passport photos (don’t forget to bring these!), and then they’ll update your stamp.
Unfortunately, we didn’t find this out until we were on the border trying to cross from Western Mongolia to Western China after a mere 33 days in the country.
We got stopped at the border and had to sit in a little room for about 2 hours while they sorted things out (all for overstaying just for 3 days)….and we still had to pay a fine.
25. Mongolia has a lot of Toyota Prius.
You might not expect it in a country whose capital has some the worst air quality in the world (see #9 above), but the number of Toyota Prius in Mongolia was UNREAL. Apparently, they import them secondhand from Japan and it happens to be one of the cheaper, more reliable cars that a Mongolian can purchase….so there’s that. You do you, Mongolia!
*BONUS: Do yourself a favor and get a solar charger. Then, no need to worry about your camera battery dying!*
As you can see, Mongolia is a country full of shocks, surprises, and just ridiculous beauty at every turn.
What do you think? Would you like to visit Mongolia yourself? Or have you already visited and have something else to add?
Let us know in the comments below….and we shall most definitely get back to you!
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