Traveling through Mongolia’s epic landscape is a mesmerizing adventure. There is a hypnotic allure to the vastness and emptiness of the steppes that will stick with you long after you return to civilization.
That’s not to say traveling is a breeze – in a country three times the size of France, most “roads” are grassy paths and it takes a while to get anywhere. But it’s all part of the experience in one of the world’s last remaining nomadic societies.
Here’s our guide to visiting this remote and rugged destination.
Renting a 4WD is the best way to go off-road
Once you escape the tracks of Mongolia’s gateway city of Ulaanbaatar, you’ll need a vehicle to properly explore the great outdoors. Unless you’re only going to visit places that are connected to the capital by paved roads, such as Khuvsgol Noor National Park, a 4WD is a must.
To tackle the rugged steppe, Mongolia’s selection of four-wheel-drive vehicles included Toyota Land Cruisers (with an emphasis on comfort) and the retro-cool Russian-made UAZ-452. This tough-as-nails off-road van gets rave reviews for how easy it is to fix on the roadside, but on the other hand, it does break down a lot…
The vast majority of Mongolian tours, whether budget or high-end, include a vehicle, driver and tour guide, as drivers usually don’t speak English. Small group tours typically use 4WD vans, which can be notoriously ‘bones ringing’, while private tours for solo travelers, couples and families tend to use the more comfortable 4WD ‘jeeps’. Whichever route you take, it’s important to book in advance – Mongolia’s tourist season is fleeting (snow often falls in Ulaanbaatar in September and rarely melts until April), and fleets can get booked up quickly.
Self-driving is the choice of seasoned adventurers
You can also go it alone and hire your own vehicle from companies like Sixt or Drive Mongolia. You will need a domestic driver’s license (valid for at least one year) as well as an international driver’s license. Most self-drivers are content to stick to the ever-expanding network of paved roads with proper driving facilities fanning out from Ulaanbaatar. If you’re planning to venture further afield or off-road, you should be prepared for challenges such as crossing water and try not to get lost.
Cell phone coverage can be spotty in remote areas, so you should bring a compass and physical map as backup. Also consider hiring a guide to join you on your trip – they can ask locals how to avoid muddy, swollen rivers or sandy routes. You’ll need oil cans for extra fuel and at least two spare tires. For trips to ultra-remote, sparsely populated areas like parts of the Gobi, you should have at least two vehicles.
When choosing a tour or planning your own (off-road) road trip, don’t be overly ambitious – Mongolia is vast and your top speed on the steppe will rarely exceed 40-50 km/h (25-31 mph). If you try to fit too much, you can end up spending hours in the car and using up a lot of fuel, which is one of the main costs in Mongolia. It’s best to focus on one area, or plan at least two nights at each stop, so you have the chance to stay put and savor the serene scenery.
Traveling on horseback, camel or yak is a wonderful way to explore
The Mongol Empire was built on tough horseback, and the Mongols’ love for horseback riding is pleasing to the eye. Many tour operators can arrange multi-day horse trekking trips to the provinces of Arhangay, Khvvsgul and Kenty. Khövsgöl Nuur in particular has a good network of guides and available horses.
The more adventurous can even organize their own expeditions, such as the popular point-to-point ride from Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur to Khövsgöl Nuur. It takes about two weeks to travel nearly 300 kilometers (180 miles) along the winding river valley.
You can also trek on camels across the dunes in parts of the Gobi Desert, such as Khongoryn Els and Ongiin Khiid. Herders sometimes still use camels and yaks to transport yurts and equipment across the steppes – specialist operators such as 360 Degrees Mongolia offer the opportunity to take part in unique nomadic slow travel via camel caravans or traditional yak and camel carts.
Buses provide a different kind of “slow travel” in Mongolia
Most provincial capitals in Mongolia are connected to Ulaanbaatar by large buses that can accommodate 40 people or more. There are daily flights between the major hubs, while smaller minivans travel to destinations in the Far West. Even if you’re traveling by bus to another province, remember that you’ll still need a car and a driver to get out into the wilderness and enjoy the scenery.
For inter-provincial trips in more remote areas, a private minivan waits at most Mongolian local markets and (Townships) depart after full capacity. Traveling in a local van is an unforgettable experience, but not always in a good way – expect to be packed like sardines with other passengers and piles of cargo.
If traveling west, consider flying
Known for its Kazakh falconers and snow-capped peaks, western Mongolia is one of the top destinations in Central Asia. It’s a 36-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar, so most international travelers fly there. Two airlines, Mongolian Airlines and Hunnu Air, operate domestic flights connecting the capital with western destinations including Ulgii, Khovd City, Ulaangom and Uriasta. National airline MIAT Mongolian Airlines plans to launch domestic flights in 2024.
There are also seasonal flights south to Dharamzadegad (to the Gobi) and east to Choibalsan. Mongolia’s local airlines are very professional, have well-dressed cabin crew, and can be booked online, but it’s wise to book through a local agent, such as Airtrans, as flight schedules change frequently. Note that flights during the peak summer tourist season can be booked well in advance, and prices are often double the usual rate during the Eagle Festival in October.
Mongolia’s trains have limited use for travelers
Mongolia’s sparse rail network stretches across the country from north to south, mainly including a section of the Trans-Mongolian Railway between Moscow and Beijing (at the time of writing, international services on this route are closed to tourists).
Domestic trains follow the same track, but it’s not particularly useful for tourists. Cycle south from Ulaanbaatar to Sainshand, head to the Gobi, and admire the red rocks of the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, home to wild ibex and argali (Big Horn) home. There is also a daily night train between Ulaanbaatar and Erdnet, Mongolia’s third largest city.
Barrier-Free Travel in Mongolia
For travelers who use wheelchairs or have sensory impairments, the key to a successful Mongolia travel experience is to contact the tour company in advance. Explain your needs and choose the company that is most willing to understand and accommodate your specific situation. For more information on accessible travel, check out Lonely Planet’s free online accessible travel resources.