17 Things to Know Before Traveling to Mongolia

With its endless steppes, blue skies and nomadic nomads, Mongolia is the perfect place for adventure and cultural immersion. Memorable experiences are a given, but traveling in the world’s least densely populated country has its own challenges, so it pays to brush up on your Mongolian knowledge before coming.

On my own Mongolian expedition, I have camped in a thunderstorm. Got sick after drinking fermented mare’s milk; had multiple breakdowns on epic drives; had my pockets stolen; ruined a Kazakh wedding; got thrown off two horses; and — maybe my biggest faux pas – trying to drive a Toyota Prius across the Gobi Desert. (Spoiler: I’m stuck!)

Experience is the mother of wisdom, so here are some tips to help you make fewer mistakes on your own travels. However you choose to explore this fascinating country, remember that Mongolians are known for their hospitality and willingness to help strangers in need – and even when things do go wrong, someone will eventually get you back on track.

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Book in advance with the best drivers and guides in Mongolia © Stefan Cruysberghs / 500px

1. Arrange your itinerary before you travel

The peak tourist season in Mongolia lasts from late May to late August, so the best drivers, guides and vehicles sell out quickly. In the past, you could go to Ulaanbaatar in the summer, inquire at the hotel, and find vacant seats to travel, but with the suspension of the Trans-Mongolian Railway, fewer and fewer tourists pass here. Booking tours in advance is the best option.

2. Don’t be too ambitious on your Mongolia itinerary

A common mistake is trying to see most of Mongolia in one go, which can turn your trip into a tiring, exhausting drive. It’s best to focus on just one region of the country, or schedule at least two nights in each destination, so you can slow down and enjoy the majesty and serenity of the Mongolian landscape.

3. Book domestic travel tickets through Mongolian local agencies

Schedules for domestic flights and rail travel often change at the last minute. If you book through a local Mongolia travel agency, they can help you if your flight is canceled or delayed. Good travel agents will even hold the plane for you for an hour or so if you miss your connecting flight or are late.

A woman stands behind a loaded 4x4 and prepares food on the grass
Road conditions are best for road trips in June and September © Milo Zanecchia / Ascent Xmedia / Getty Images

4. If you plan to drive, please avoid July and August

The summer tourist season from July to August coincides with the accumulation of water in the grasslands, and the risk of being trapped increases exponentially. If you’re planning to drive, it’s best to come during the mid-season, June or September, for firmer ground. If you’re coming in midsummer, stick to the paved roads that fan out from the capital, or rent a car with a local driver who knows local driving conditions.

5. Download podcasts and audiobooks for longer trips

Mongolia is three times the size of France, and most of its roads are rough tracks, with low average speeds even for modern 4x4s. Expect to spend a few hours bouncing around the vast, unchanging landscapes—beautiful but somewhat repetitive. This terrain desperately needs a good soundtrack; preload your audio player with good music or a selection of audiobooks or podcasts to help you get through the miles.

6. Carry hygiene supplies and medicines

While you can buy most health essentials in the capital, once you get to the grasslands, you’ll find personal hygiene items and medicines a little harder to find. Make room in your backpack and have everything you need ready.

7. Season the lamb with condiments

Ulaanbaatar’s dining scene is buzzing, but out in the wild, you’ll mostly subsist on lamb dumplings (buzzing)fried mutton cake (Kushur)Lamb with Pasta Cubes (Quickly)or just boiled lamb (mark). This can get boring on a longer adventure, so remember to bring a bottle of Sriracha, horseradish, chilli sauce, piri-piri or any other condiments you like to spice up your food.

8. Boiling or purifying water in streams and lakes

Rural Mongolia may look pristine, but even clear water can contain microbes, pollutants or impurities. Boiling water for at least a minute will kill most harmful microbes, or you can use water purification tablets or a portable filtration system to reduce energy consumption.

9. Bring camping gear to save money (if heading west)

The most popular destinations in Mongolia where you can stay overnight at a fixed location yurt There are (yurt) camps set up for tourists, but in remote western areas such as Bayan Ulgii it is best to bring your own tent and camping gear as yurt Campsites are few and far between. Ulaanbaatar is full of shops selling outdoor gear, in case you didn’t bring your own from home.

10. Bring gifts when visiting nomadic families

When living with locals in Mongolia, it is customary to bring something to the host. Popular gifts include food, candy, cigarettes and wine bottles. Bringing souvenirs or photos of your own country is another great way to promote cultural exchange.

11. Climb the mountain to obtain mobile phone signal

Mobile phone coverage in Mongolia has become more extensive in recent years and blind spots have decreased, although some off-grid points still exist. If you’re in the countryside and don’t have a signal, usually all you need to do is climb the nearest hill and you’ll be back online.

12. Think twice about riding that horse

Falling from a horse is one of the most common accidents among foreigners in Mongolia. If you’re itching to get on a horse, make sure your travel insurance covers it, and consider getting some practice before heading out. Take extra care in remote areas such as the Gobi, as horses tend to be more easily frightened, often as a result of mixing different herds to make up numbers during tourist season.

People walk through the doorway of a large circular tent with an opening in the center and many colorful carpets adorning the walls and floor
Learn the basic rules of yurt etiquette © Henn Photography / Getty Images

13. Observe yurt (yurt) tags

There are special rules for staying at the most famous accommodation in Mongolia.inside one yurt, it is polite to wait until you are seated and tea is served before talking to the host. It is also disrespectful to throw trash into the central stove; instead, put it out front and your host will dispose of it.

14. Be vigilant when walking in the center of Ulaanbaatar

While Mongolia is generally a safe place to travel, tourists have been robbed in Ulaanbaatar. Back in 2012 I had my wallet stolen from my back pocket outside a department store in Ulaanbaatar – what a rookie mistake! Be extra careful when crossing the road too – Ulaanbaatar is packed with cars and pedestrians don’t get special treatment from motorists.

15. Use official taxis after dark

There are two types of taxis in Ulaanbaatar – official taxis and unofficial taxis, which are basically regular cars that wander the streets to collect fares. While unlicensed taxis are generally safe during the day, at night you should choose a regular taxi. UBCab and ABA Taxi Mongolia are two useful taxi apps, each with its own registered drivers.

16. Find places and points of interest with what3words

Mongolia uses the popular what3words navigation system, which uses a unique combination of three words to map a location. This makes it easier to find sights and attractions in a country with few named roads and landmarks. The current version of the Lonely Planet Mongolia travel guide lists what3words locations next to each point of interest.

17. Get a GPS Tracking Device

A GPS tracker is the vehicle-mounted version of a hiker’s GPS device, providing an extra layer of security when exploring the open spaces of Mongolia. If you wear a tracker while driving, any tour company or support office in Ulaanbaatar can track you down if you get lost or your vehicle encounters difficulties.

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