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!