Experiencing the Naadam Festival Without Joining a Tour

Naadam, also known as “the three games of men”, is the biggest traditional festival held in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital. Each July, men compete in Mongolian jaw-dropping wrestling, spine-tingling horse racing and unbelievably accurate archery in the city’s multipurpose National Sports Stadium. Today, women also participate in the archery games and girls in the horse racing. Through this event, the Mongols prove that they’re man (or woman) enough to be the descendants of their notorious and illustrious hero Genghis Khan. 

Naadam is like Christmas to the Mongolian people. Days before the festival, Ulaanbaatar was buzzing with Naadam fever and reached a bewildering climax. It was a sight to witness everyone dressed in their finest deel (traditional clothing of Mongol tribes), prepares lots of food and arak (fermented mare’s milk) and spends the days out in the sun with friends and family. I am lucky to be able to experience the main event in Ulaanbaatar and a more local one in Kharkhorin.

When is Naadam Festival?

The Festival which held in Ulaanbaator is on the 11th and 12th of July each year. Most businesses in the city close from the 11th to 13th of July, and there will be 5-days of national holiday (11th-15th July) for the locals. The outskirts of Mongolia will be holding their own Naadam Festival events throughout July, although the exact dates usually aren’t confirmed until mid-June or early July.

The regional festivals are usually free of charge, and enable you to get much closer to the action. Different towns and regions will hold their festivals on different dates, so it is advisable to do your homework before travelling out of the Capital. I cam across this website which provides a detailed and updated information on Naadam (and other popular festivals) every year. 

This is peak tourist season in Mongolia so be sure to book your accommodation (especially in Ulaanbaator) well in advance. Some of the most popular guesthouses are fully booked for the whole month of July.

How to get Naadam Tickets

There are a few ways to get the tickets in Ulaanbaatar. Due to the popularity among the tourists and locals, be prepared to pay for a hefty price.

The official price for Naadam. Tourists price is USD25 if you are able to get it yourself

Buying your own tickets

There are 3 places where you can queue up for the tickets: Central Stadium, National Wrestling Palace and Central Cultural Palace box offices. Tickets sale usually start about one-week before the festival (6th and 7th July). If you think you can start queuing from early morning, you are so so so wrong! I started to queue at 9.30pm the previous night before, and yet I still can’t get the tickets (even though it is said that 1 person can only buy 4 tickets)!

I wonder what time did these people come??!!

Totally not dressed for the cold night~~

The queue got longer and longer

Cold, hungry and sleepy~~

The queue got longer from the front ’cause other family members all coming in to “join” the queue

I’m just getting further and further away from the box office )=

The moment when the box office opens, and by then it’s noon!

When we thought it’s reaching us soon……..

With less than 5 people in front and us getting so excited, the policeman suddenly announced that the Naadam tickets were all sold out! After queuing for 17-hours under 15 degrees, this is not what I’ve expected. It has been a long time since I felt such disappointment. Nevertheless, we hurried walked off as other Mongols were raging towards the policemen. 

Buying tickets from a Guesthouse

Most of the guesthouses sell Naadam tickets with a tour package (costs around USD120 – USD180 with transportation and meals). Some of the guesthouses which do sell the tickets only that I known of are: Golden Gobi Guesthouse, Taiga Guesthouse and Sunpath Guesthouse. However, they usually charge a premium price, but it shouldn’t cost more than USD60 per person for a 2-day ticket. You may email a few guesthouses before arriving in Mongolia as there are other travelers who pre-booked the tickets at least a month ahead.   

Buying tickets from Tourist Information Offices

There are a lot of Tourist Information offices in Ulaanbaatar. Similar to guesthouses, they do charge a higher price instead of selling the official ticket price. One of the traveler I met bought her Naadam ticket at post office for USD48 but they only issued her a ticket for opening ceremony. 

Buying tickets from a Scalper

I did not try this but I did hear from locals who mentioned that there are ticket scalpers outside Wrestling Palace before the day of the festival start. The price may vary from USD30 to USD100. However, there is always a risk with buying tickets from scalpers that they may turn out to be fakes, so please beware!

After spending days of asking around for Naadam tickets, my Couchsurfing host managed to get me those tickets from some forum for USD50 just the night before the festival! 

Ta-daaaa!

How to attend for free

You can still enjoy the Naadam Festival without buying a ticket! Only the opening and closing ceremonies, and the wrestling need tickets to enter the stadium. You can watch the archery and horse racing for free! The wrestling finals are aired on a big screen in Chinggis Square, which is fun to watch with the locals. There are also free concerts and fireworks every night at the Square.

Horse parade

There are always something going on for 3 full-day!

Traditional songs & dances

Where to watch

The opening and closing ceremonies, and the wrestling matches are held at the Naadam Stadium. The archery is held just next door to the stadium. The horse racing is located at “khui Doloon Khudag (Хүй долоон худаг) racing field, approximately 40km from Ulaanbaatar. There are free shuttle buses that transport people from the city to the racetrack from Misheel EXPO (Мишээл EXPO) and Dunjingarav (Дүнжингарав) parking lots – check with your hostel or the ‘student police’ for directions. 

What to Expect

Expect to be pushed around and find yourself surrounded with true-mongol-attitudes! The stadium will be absolutely packed and it is basically impossible to move once the ceremony begins. I was sandwiched at the gate for 15-minutes with the policemen stopping entry, and the people from behind keep on pushing. It was quite an experience!

We got different seats so we can’t watch the ceremony together )=

Many of the seats do not have shade, so bring plenty of water and sunscreen if it’s hot. The opening ceremony is spectacular, and features impressive war reenactments, singing and dancing. Unfortunately, the central stage was blocked by a monkey float from where I’m sitting.

It isn’t a good seat after all

I’m amazed by how little time they took to build a ger

Mark from Thailand

The opening ceremony took about one and a half hours, with all the different tribes and community parading around the Stadium. This was my favorite part of the ceremony ’cause the entry and exit points were just next to me! 

After the ceremony is over, the wrestling match began. By then, the stadium will be quite empty (probably it was too hot and people were getting hungry) and security became slack. I managed to walk to photographers’ area and get a good view of the match.

One of the photographers offered to help me took a picture!

Outside the Stadium was a super huge fair with tonnes of food, games, and basically you can find anything to buy. You can even try out traditional costumes and take pictures with nice backdrop for 10,000MNT (USD4)

Less than USD1

A storm is coming but I don’t care!

3,000MNT (USD1) for 5 tries

The archery can be easily found next to the Stadium. There isn’t much seats to watch the archery. Even if you get a seat, you can’t really see the target unless you brought a binoculars.

Found a spot to stand and watched for awhile

Things to Take Note

  • Beware of pickpockets! Make sure to always carry your belongings in front of you as it will be very crowded and people are always pushing around.
  • Look out for drunkards, especially if you are a female and travelling alone.
  • The event is held during the hottest month of the year, so remember to drink up, apply sunscreen and bring a cap/hat/sunglasses
  • Whether you attend the festival in Ulaanbaatar or other provinces, commentary will only be in Mongolian.
  • Wear comfy walking shoes. Traffic in Ulaanbaatar will be chaotic during the festival, so it is best to travel by foot. The Stadium is about 20-minutes walk from Chinggis Square.
  • It is okay to ask locals to move away if you want to take a photo (without them inside your picture), or if they trying to cut in before you.
  • The locals are always happy to pose for your photos in their traditional costumes.
  • Once you are out of the city, there are no road signs directing you to the exact location of the Naadam celebration fields, your driver will have to ask around.

Dates of Naadam festival at different province (2017)

Hope this guide will help to get you prepared and save some money for the upcoming Naadam Festival! 

Kharkhorin: Ancient Capital City of Mongolia

Kharkhorin (Хархорин), historically known as Karakorum City (Хархорум), is a small ancient town located 373-kilometers Southwest of Ulaanbaatar. Despite being small size and remote, it was one of the most important cities in the history of the Silk Road because of its strategically location on the most important east-west route across Mongolia. Not much remains of the ancient city’s ruins but a beautiful Buddhist monastery called Erdene Zuu was built on the site in the late 16th century.

Getting There

Take a bus from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves daily at 1100hrs and 1400hrs. The journey takes about 6-hours and cost 17,000MNT (USD7). When boarding the bus, you will be approached by a little girl who asked if you have booked any accommodation in Kharkhorin. I later found out she is the older daughter of Gaya’s Guesthouse owner. 

Where to Stay

Hostelworld has 2 hostels in Kharkhorin: Gaya’s Guesthouse and Family Guesthouse Ger Camp. (There aren’t many places to stay honestly). I stayed at Gaya’s Guesthouse and it was one of the best experience I had.

Bus Station in Kharkhorin

Easy-going and bubbly Gaya!

Gaya waited at the bus station and fetch travelers who were planning to stay at her place. She makes you feel comfortable like home and her staff can speak English! Her youngest daughter helped out in the hostel (’cause it’s summer holiday) and she remembered all the guests’ names! Gaya will let you work out your own itinerary and she will help to make arrangement. I like that she will not ask you to take any tour in the first place, and even encourage you to explore the town yourself as everywhere is walking distance from her guesthouse. 

Shared ger: USD8 per night

Did I forget to mention they provide FREE awesome brekkie?!

If you get a little lazy to walk out to eat, you may order their meals-for-the-day at USD3 (lunch and dinner). 

What to do

Experience Naadam Festival at the Countryside 

The big attraction in Kharkhorin is Erdene Zuu Khiid (Эрдэнэ Зуу хийд), which is the oldest and largest existing Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The site has some of the few Buddhist temples that survived the Red Russia purges of the 1930′s. Only a small portion of the complex has survived until today but it is still good for a look around.

I was lucky to be in time to catch the mini Naadam festival held at the monastery. Through this event, I got to watch traditional performances, managed to talk to some locals to understand more about Naadam. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see how the traditional game, Shagai (known as knucklebones), been played.  

Day-pass to enter the monastery and “peace tent” for all the performances (10,000MNT / USD4). This is what was known as “visa” in Chinggis Khan era

Time schedules of different performances

I thought I was late for the opening ceremony, but luckily Mongolians aren’t very good for being on-time.

Pop-up stalls selling food and traditional gifts

“The Queen”

Managed to get good view for opening ceremony

Before the rest of the performances happening in the “peace tent”, I explored the monastery in the mean time. 

Didn’t expect the place to be so empty!

A total of 108 stupas surround the monastery

The “Golden” Stupa

One of the few existing temples

You may pay for a guide to explain more about the history

An old man turning the prayer wheels

Time for some Mongolian’s traditional dances!

I’m pretty surprised by their aerobics performances!
Explore a World Heritage Site

Classified in 2004 as World Heritage Site by UNESCO as the cradle of nomadic Mongolia, Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape (Орхоны хөндийн соёлын дурсгал), covers an extensive area of pastureland that stretches approximately 80km from long and 15 km wide on both banks of the Orkhon river. Getting there from Kharkhorin is a 3.5-hours rough ride (and another 3.5-hours back!) which requires experienced driver and a good 4WD.

Russian Vans are commonly used in Mongolia

Great place doesn’t need grand entrance

When I thought we had reached, but it’s just the beginning of the worst part of the ride

Hardly had the chance to experience this kind of ride! 

Along the way is just sheep and more sheep!

Yay!! Finally arrived somewhere and come to a stop

Had to do some hiking as vehicles are not allowed to enter any further

Cows lazing around under the sun

Hello Mr.Yak!

Horses!!

Nomad kids

The Orkhon Falls are actually the Ulaan Tsutgalan River Falls. The river falls into a spectacular canyon formed after an earthquake and a volcanic eruption more than 20,000 years ago, forming a cascade of 20 meters high and 10 meters wide. About 25-meters downstream from the waterfall you can climb down to the bottom of the gorge; it’s 22-meters deep and dotted with pine trees. 

And here’s the waterfall! Not exactly what I’ve imagined though…

Really not a big waterfall

Getting down to the bottom of the fall

Too cold for a dip

Only one way up and down

Ovoo: sacred stone heaps used as altars or shrines

Anybody lost a bone??

Shared van (round trip): 35,000MNT (USD15)

National park fee: 3,000MNT (USD1)

Stay with a Nomad Family

If you didn’t stay with at least one nomad family, you can’t really say you have been to Mongolia! This nomad family I stayed with is Gaya’s friend. With meals, an overnight stay in their ger and a day of horseback riding into the wild cost about USD40.

The youngest son of the family

Freshly-made dumplings!

Fresh warm milk~~

The only cat I saw in Mongolia!

Warmer cum stove

Airag: fermented mare milk mixed with ferment from the year before in a big cow bag (khökhüür)

Steam dumplings

Awesome nomad hosts!

Learn Horseback Riding

I had a 6-hours horseback riding lesson by my nomad host’s 15-years old son. I guess it was so much fun than learning in a typical stable. Though at the end of the day my butt really hurt, but it was totally worth the pain!

Me and my 15-years old coach

My horse is the youngest so he always the follower

Thirsty from the long trek

Snack time!

Back to “work”

“Shaun” everywhere~~

Nature + Peace

Such a small old town, yet so much more to do and see!

Northern Mongolia: Lake Khövsgöl

Lake Khövsgöl (Хөвсгөл нуур) is located northwest of Mongolia near the Russian Border. Famously known as “Blue Pearl of Asia “, it is the second-most voluminous freshwater lake in Asia, and holds almost 70% of Mongolia’s fresh water and 0.4% of all the fresh water in the world. Untouched by industry and modern urban life, Lake Khövsgöl’s water is unbelievably clean. This area is paradise for outdoor travelers and there are plenty of room for activities like hiking, birding, fishing, horseback travel and kayaking.

Getting There

The comfort way: There are flights twice a week from Ulaanbaatar to Mörön for about USD100 per way. The journey takes about 90-minutes.

The budget way:  There are buses leaving daily at 0800hrs, 1500hrs and 1800hrs to Mörön (Мөрөн) from Dragon Bus Terminal. The journey will take about 18-hours on paved road and costs 32,000MNT (USD13).

Do note that there is no sleeper bus in Mongolia, so it would be really nice to have someone you comfortable with sitting next to you for such long journey. And there will not be proper toilets along the way! The driver will just stop along the roadside when someone requested to. Also, be prepared for overloaded bus as the driver will pick up random locals along the way and you may find people sitting next to you on the aisle. 

Ice cream!

To get to Lake Khövsgöl, you can share a taxi/van at Mörön to go to Khatgal town where the lake is. The cost is about 15,000~20,000MNT (USD6-USD8) for 2-hours+ drive. I would recommend taking the 1800hrs as it will be the last bus to arrive at Mörön and the drivers waiting they may be more willing to lower their price.

Arriving at Mörön

Quite a dead town

We arrived at about 6am and haggled for about 30-minutes for a good price up to Toilogt Camp. Initially, we were asked to wait till 8am when the next bus will be arriving if not we will have to pay another 10,000MNT (USD4) more. We were okay to pay extra as we were exhausted from the long bus ride. Less than 10-minutes out of Mörön, the driver decided to charge us more because he said going to Toilogt Camp is dirt road hence more petrol will be used. And so, we ended up in the middle of the road for another 45-minutes before someone willing to drive us for 25,000MNT (USD10).

Not sure if it’s a good decision but I definitely not going to overpay my transport

no car passed by at all~

Time for some road shots

After about 3-hours+, we are finally here!

Toilogt Tourist Camp

Accommodation

Upon reaching at Khatgal, you can either stay at the guesthouses in the village or you can ask the driver to bring you all the way to the national park where you are able to see the whole lake. We chose a luxury option of staying at Toilogt Tourist Camp to pamper ourselves. 

It costs us 60,000MNT (USD25) each for one ger by ourselves for one night. If you google online searching for ger camps in Lake Khövsgöl, you will only find a few established ones and this is one of them. In fact, there are actually a few more smaller camps along the lake and they cost much cheaper. So, the next day we moved to another camp which cost us USD10 per night. 

Eat

Most of the tourist camps has their own restaurant whereby you can choose to include meals with the accommodation. I would suggest to stock up your own food to last you long enough because this area is a perfect picnic spot! We made a mistake for not doing that and we ended hiking 6-kilometers to Khatgal town and 6-kilometers back to camp.


Nevertheless, the hike is totally worth it!!

View of Khatgal Town from the top

Activities

You may do fishing (need to get a permit from tourist office in Khatgal) or kayaking (rent from the bigger camps) on the lake. We chose to do horseback riding instead. An hour of horseback riding cost 10,000MNT (USD4) with guide. 

And everywhere here is soooo nice to take pictures with!!

On our way back, guess what we saw??

I am definitely coming back to the North and spend some time with the Tsaatan Tribe!! 

 

A day trip to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park (Горхи-Тэрэлж) is the third largest protected area in Mongolia, and the nearest national park from Ulannbaatar. Located about 80-kilometers northeast of Capital, Terelj National Park is a popular attraction for both locals and tourists.

Bus number XO:4 leaves daily at 1600-hours from the bus stop opposite Narantuul Hotel, and take two and a half hours to get to Terelj Village, next to Turtle Rock. Coming back, the bus leave Terelj Village at 0800-hours and 1900-hours. The bus costs 2,500MNT (USD1) per way.

Turtle Rock

If you prefer to do a day trip, it is possible to do it as well. Day trip tour will be charged at about USD150-USD180 for single traveller. It will be much cheaper (USD50-USD80 per pax) if you can ask another 2 or 3 travellers to join you! 

I happened to meet another solo traveller, Tammy, along the street and we both agreed to go on this day trip together. Instead of joining a tour, we hired a driver (recommended by a staff from the hotel Tammy was staying) whom charged us USD10 per hour. It was considered quite a good deal as we are more flexible with the itinerary and we can take our own time to explore. 

We did our day trip to Terelj National Park on the second day of Naadam. Mongolians are given a week public holiday for this festival. From the driver we then found out that most locals from the capital were likely to drive up to Terelj National Park to spend their holiday! We were glad that we didn’t plan to stay overnight as it will be so crowded.

As this is the first trip out of Ulaanbaatar, I was awed by the countryside’s scenery. 

We stopped by along the road for a mandatory eagle photo-taking!

And we continued our journey to the famous Genghis Khan Statue Complex.

According to legend, this is the place where he found a golden whip. The statue is symbolically pointed east towards his birthplace.

The Genghis Khan Statue Complex comprises of a visitor center which showcases the largest boot in Guinness World Record.

It also has 2 small museums which exhibit the archaeological cultures during Bronze age and another during the Great Khan period. 

And now is the highlight of this complex! 

yes, in reality its very crowded up there

Our last itinerary for the day is to the legendary turtle rock!

Expenditures break-down:

Driver: USD70 for 7-hours (USD35 per person)

Fees for eagle photo-taking: 4,000MNT (USD1.50)

Entry fee to Genghis Khan Statue Complex: 8,500 MNT (USD3.50)

Food & drinks: Prepare snacks from supermarket before embark on the trip

Guide to backpacking Mongolia

Known as “the land of blue sky”, Mongolia is an undiscovered backpacker’s paradise. It is not a very touristic country, thanks to its vast and boundless territory and the many unspoiled corners that are beginning to whet the fantasies of travelers who wish to go beyond the now conventional travel and the usual beaten tracks. This is the country ideal for those in search of adventure and who love nature. 

Getting In and Out

Flight schedule in and out of Ulaabaatar

By Plane: There are only few flights into Ulaanbaatar from Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong, Berlin, Moscow, Istanbul and Erlian. 

I flew from Singapore to Beijing, from Beijing to Erlian and then from Erlian into Ulaanbaatar. The whole journey took me about 25-hours, cost about USD330 for one way.

Always pack light for small plane like this!

By Train: Ulaanbaatar is a major stop on one of the World’s Great train journeys, the Trans-Siberian Railway. There are also other local trains to get you over the borders to and from Russia and China. While the scenery on this journey is breathtaking, buses will only cost about 1/3 of the price.

Train schedule in and out of Ulaabaatar

By Bus: The bus from Beijing to Erlian (Mongolian border town in China) costs RMB180 (USD27)  and takes about 12 hours. Once in Erlian you can take the Trans-Mongolian train or a local train into Mongolia. There are also buses from Erlian to the border, where you will then need to change buses to Ulaabaatar. If you’re leaving Mongolia for Russia by bus, it’s easiest to go from Ulaabaatar to Ulan-Ude in Russia where you can hop on another train or bus to Irkutsk.

Visa

Check out mongoliavisa.com to find out if you can enter Mongolia visa-free!

Getting Around

Getting around in Mongolia is not always easy but it is not impossible. With a little more patience and effort to ask around, you can certainly travel like a local. In the capital, it’s easy to walk around from one place to another. Alternative, you can take a bus or trolleybus to almost everywhere! Just check with the staff which bus number you need to take from hostel as there are no English written on the bus stop. It will be more convenient to buy a bus card “U money” if you are going to travel by bus/trolleybus frequently, otherwise you will have to pay exact amount (T300-T500) as no change will be given. (Tip: If you ask for how much in English, you may be lucky enough to get free ride!) Flagging down a taxi will be a standard rate of T800 per kilometre.

Trolleybus runs on overhead wires

Normal bus

Getting out of the capital is a bit more challenging. No matter which part of the country you plan to go, you will have to go through Ulaabaatar. Be sure to have a local from hostel or your couchsurfer to help you write the destinations in Cyrillic to avoid buying wrong ticket.

Central:

  • Gorkhi-Terelj National Park (Горхи-Тэрэлж) —> Take Bus XO: 4 from Peace Avenue, opposite Narantuul Hotel. Bus leaves daily at 1600hrs and take 2.5-hours to Terelj Village. The bus will stop last at the Turtle Rock. The bus costs 2,500MNT (USD1). 
  • Kharahorin (Хархорин) —> Take Bus from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves at 1100hrs and 1400hrs. The journey takes about 6-hours and cost 17,000MNT (USD7).
  • Tsetserleg (Цэцэрлэг) —> Take Bus from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves daily at 0800hrs, 1400hrs and 1900hrs. The journey takes about 8-hours and costs 23,000MNT (USD10).

North

  • Mörön (Мөрөн) —> To get to Lake Khövsgöl (Хөвсгөл нуур), take a bus to Mörön from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves daily at 0800hrs, 1500hrs and 1800hrs. The journey will take about 18-hours and costs 32,000MNT (USD13). After reaching Mörön, you can share a taxi/van to go to Khatgal village (15,000~20,000MNT for 2-hours) where the lake is.

South

  • Dalanzadgad (Даланзадгад) —> To get to South Gobi, you need to take a 10-hours bus ride to Dalanzadgad. The bus will cost 22,500MNT (USD9) and leave at 0800hrs daily from Bayanzurkh Bus Terminal. From Dalanzadgad, you will have to hire a jeep to bring you to popular destinations. I have two contacts here recommended to me by others travelers whom I met along the way:
  1. Yu. Altanchimeg —> Mobile: 976-99055366 (chimeg_yu@yahoo.com) 
  2. Munkhdualga (Duke) —> Mobile: 976-88812052 (Ikhbogd.travel@gmail.com)        

West

  • Olgii (Өлгий) —> If you want to save on expensive flight and do not mind a 48-hours (or can be 4-5 days) bumpy bus ride. The west side of Mongolia is where Atlai Mountains are and where the Muslims community (Kazakhs) can be seen. Bus leaves daily at 1500hrs from Dragon Terminal and cost 80,000MNT (USD32). Flight will cost about USD250-USD300 for 2.5-hours.

Accommodation

You can’t say you had experienced nomad life if you don’t stay in gers (Mongolian Yurts)! Mongolians are quite active in couchsurfing if you are looking into free accommodations in Ulaanbaatar. If you are planning to stay longer to experience how the locals live in the countryside, try workaway! There are a lot of hostels in the capital which ranges about USD7-USD10 per night. Sometimes, you may even be offered to stay with a family for free, but a small offering or donation is recommended for such generosity.

Ger by Lake Khövsgöl

Food

Most hostels provide free breakfast which comes with bread, biscuits and tea/coffee. Food are generally range about USD3-5 for a meal in Ulaanbaatar, and much cheaper if out of the city. Most backpackers like myself will buy fruits vegetables from local grocery stores or pop-up stalls along the street which will cost less than USD2 (Did I forgot to mention most hostels are equipped with small kitchen for usage too!). If you are not a fan of meat (especially mutton) like me, it is pretty easy to find vegetarian food (цагаан хоолтон) in Ulaabaantar or request it from the nomad families! 

Vegan food with drink: USD4

Ramen: less than USD2

Western food: 11,000MNT (USD4.50)

Shopping

When you visit the middle east, you shop for carpets. When you visit Mongolia, you shop for cashmere! Cashmere stores can be seen around the central of Ulaanbaatar.

Before cashmere is made…

The most famous market among the backpackers is the Narantuul Market (aka Black Market). Here, you can shop for almost everything from food to counterfeit designer goods to traditional ger furniture. You can even buy a horse! However, do take note of pickpockets and rough drunkards while doing your shopping.

If you are looking for authentic international brands and souvenirs, head to State Department Store. Conveniently located in the heart of Ulaanbaatar, State Department Store is the largest and most luxurious store in Mongolia. You can basically find all products and services under one roof! (Tip: You may get your SIM card here as all telecommunication companies are next to each other for easy comparisons plus the staff can speak English)  

Looking for handcrafted gift? Try shopping at Mary &  Martha, the only WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation) registered store in Mongolia. Their products are real nice but prices are kind of steep.

Cost of Attractions and Activities

Unlike most countries, Mongolia has not implemented higher fee for tourists into national parks, museums and monasteries. However, they do charge for photography (which is usually higher than the entrance fee) but you can always take pictures in discreet. The best thing is students from all over the world can flash their student card for more than half the price less! Typical entrance fee for adult is around USD1-3, so imagine how little I’ve spent with my student pass!

Horse trekking is one of the most expensive activity I paid for. A day of horse trekking will cost about 25,000MNT (USD10) and another USD10 for your guide. Therefore, it is always nice to make friends from hostel to share guide’s cost and maybe to get a better bargain.

Toilet

While you can easily find proper toilets in restaurants, big malls and parks in Ulaanbaatar, but once you are out, you will have to settle your nature call out in the wild. If you are travelling to other cities by local buses, either you learn to control your bladder or learn from the local and do your “business” in nomadic style. The only “proper” toilet you will come across is when the driver stop for food. And by “proper” means a deep hole covered with a few wooden planks. It is advisable to prepare toilet paper, wet wipes / sanitizers when on the road.

Money

The Mongolian unit of currency is tögrög or tugrik (T). It comes in T5, T10, T50, T100, T500, T1000, T5000, T10,000 and T20,000. The highest-value note is worth less than about USD10.

Only in major stores, restaurants and hotels in Ulaanbaatar accept common credit cards. Once you are out of the capital, only cash will be accepted. USD and Euro are widely accepted even at the countryside, however do take note that dollar bills older than 10-years will be rejected.

ATMs works well for most credit cards, but do carry enough cash to last if you are travelling out of Ulaanbaatar. Even though smaller city like Kharahorin and Mörön do have ATMs, they often run out of cash.  

Banks are available everywhere in Ulaanbaatar for money exchange. But I do recommend the money changer in State Department Store as they give better rates than the banks. However, they only accept certain currencies such as USD, Euro, Chinese Renminbi , Russian Ruble and Korean Won. 

Bear in mind change or spend all your tögrög before leaving the country as it’s worthless elsewhere.

Weather

The best time to visit Mongolia is during the warmer, drier months between May and October with spring and fall being the absolute best. Ulaanbaatar is the World’s coldest capital, and across the country winter temperatures regularly drop to -40°C and below. Only the southern Gobi Desert is truly hot in the summer months, though this is also when some rainfall is most likely. July and August are the warmest months but you may need to have a sweater or wind breaker at night.

People and Culture

Approximately 30% of Mongolians are nomads to this day! In Mongolia, the people are always interested in you and try to help you out any way they can. You will find that they are welcoming, kind and extremely generous. They are always curious of travellers and love to try to connect with you, even if they can’t communicate. They are intriguing and inspiring people and you can learn a lot from their hospitality and earthly wisdom.

So how much did I actually spent? For a month in Mongolia, I spent no more than USD450. This budget inclusive of food, transportation around the country, accommodations, all the attractions and activities I had done (inclusive of Naadam) plus some souvenirs!