Mongolia: An Essential Guide For Independent Backpackers

Known as “the land of blue sky”, Mongolia is an undiscovered backpacker’s paradise. A landlocked country between China and Russia, it is one of the least populous places on Earth. Thanks to its vast and boundless territory and the many unspoiled corners, Mongolia is an ideal country for travellers who wish to go beyond the conventional travels and the usual beaten tracks. If you are one of those in search of adventure, off-the-grid and love nature, this is definitely the place for you! 

Getting In and Out

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 to Erlian and finally into Ulaanbaatar. The whole journey took about 25-hours, costing me US$330 for one way.

By Train: Ulaanbaatar is a major stop on one of the World’s Great train journeys: 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.

By Bus: The bus from Beijing to Erlian (Mongolian border town in China) costs RMB 180 (US$27) and takes about 12 hours. 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.

By Car: Overlanding into Mongolia via either China or Russia is totally possible. There are a number of border crossings to both China and Russia that are open to foreigners. Border procedures are fairly straightforward, as long as you’ve got a valid visa (or don’t need one).

Visa

There are only 24 countries grated visa-free for Mongolia, including Singapore and Malaysia.

90 days visa-free: Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Chile, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macao, Serbia, Ukraine (with invitation), USA
30 days visa-free: Canada, Cuba, Germany, Israel, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay
21 days visa-free: Philippines
14 days visa-free: Hong Kong

Sim Card

Mobicom and Unitel are the main GSM-based providers which operate 4G/LTE network. You can purchase a Sim Card in the State Department Store with your passport for registration. If you want to recharge it, just go to a shop and ask the cashier to put more balance on your card.

In the countryside, internet access is almost non-existent. As most of Mongolia is extremely wild, expect to be off-grid most of the time while you’re travelling in Mongolia.

Currency

The Mongolian unit of currency is tögrög or tugrik (MNT). The current rate as of April 2020 is US$1 = 2800 MNT.

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: US Dollar, Euro, Chinese Renminbi, Russian Ruble and Korean Won. 

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.  

Only at high-end restaurants and hotels in Ulaanbaatar accept international Visa or MasterCard. Once you are in the countryside, only cash will be accepted. US Dollars and Euros are widely accepted even at the countryside, however dollar bills older than 10-years will be rejected.

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

Weather

Mongolia can be visited year-round, depending on your purpose of visiting the country.

For most travellers, the best time to visit Mongolia is in summer with green steppes and blue sky most of the time. Nevertheless, you may need to have a sweater or wind breaker during summer night at 11°C. Also, the Naadam festival takes place in Summer all over the country. It’s an incredible experience that shouldn’t be missed!

In the spring (April to May), weather can still be unpredictable and trekking paths can be quite muddy as the snow is still melting. After summer, fall is probably the best time to visit Mongolia. If you’re in Mongolia in early October, try to make it out for the Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii.

Ulaanbaatar is the World’s coldest capital, and across the country winter temperatures regularly drop to -40°C and below. If you do visit Mongolia in the winter, dress warm and you’ll experience a Mongolia that only few backpackers do.

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 Ulaanbaatar which ranges about US$7-US$10 per night. 

In the countryside, lesser option will be displayed online. You can either engage a tour, or try your luck to find it when you’re in the area. For one whole month, I had no problem finding accommodation on my own.

Budget

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 US$1-3, but i still flash my expired student pass anyways.

Horse trekking and Naadam tickets the most expensive activity I paid for this trip. A day of horse trekking will cost about 25,000 MNT (US$9) and another US$10 for a guide which I shared with another traveller. I spent US$45 for 3-days Naadam tickets.

For a month in Mongolia, I spent about US$450 (average US$15/day). This budget inclusive of food, transportation, accommodations, all the attractions and activities plus some souvenirs.

Transportation in Ulaanbaatar

Within the city, it is easy to walk around from one place to another. Alternative, you can take a bus or trolleybus to almost everywhere! Most hostels have prepared booklets of information on transportation, food and attraction for their guests to refer. You can usually find them at the reception or common room.

If you foresee yourself taking public transport quite frequently, it will be more convenient to get a bus card “U money” as no change will be given if you pay in cash. The standard one-way fare for Bus is 500 MNT and Trolleybus is 300 MNT. Tip: If you ask for how much in English, you may be lucky enough to get free ride (tested & proven).

  • Airport – Bus 7/9
  • Train Station – Bus 27 or Trolleybus 4
  • Narantuul Black Market – Bus 43/49/57
  • Zaisan and Bogdkhaan Winter’s Palace – Bus 55/7/19
  • Dragon Bus Terminal – Bus 1/59 or Trolleybus 2
  • Bayanzurkh Bus Terminal – Trolleybus 4

Transportation out of Ulaanbaatar

Getting around in Mongolia is not always easy but it is not impossible. With a little more patience, time and effort to ask around, you can certainly travel like a local.

No matter which part of the country you plan to go, you will have to go through Ulaanbaatar. 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 4 pm and takes 2.5-hours to Terelj Village. The bus will stop last at the Turtle Rock. The bus costs 2,500 MNT (<US$1). 
  • Kharahorin (Хархорин) – Take a bus from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves at 11 am and 2 pm. The journey takes about 6-hours and cost 17,000 MNT (US$6).
  • Tsetserleg (Цэцэрлэг) – Take a bus from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves daily at 8 am, 2 pm and 7 pm. The journey takes about 8-hours and costs 23,000 MNT (US$8.50).

North

  • Mörön (Мөрөн) To get to Lake Khövsgöl (Хөвсгөл нуур), take a bus to Mörön from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves daily at 8 am, 3 pm and 6 pm. The journey will take about 18-hours and costs 32,000 MNT (US$11.50). After reaching Mörön, you can share a taxi/van to go to Khatgal village (15,000~20,000 MNT 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 22,500 MNT (US$8) and leave at 8 am 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 travellers whom I met:
  1. Yu. Altanchimeg – Mobile: 976-99055366 (chimeg_yu@yahoo.com) 
  2. Munkhdualga (Duke) – Mobile: 976-88812052 (Ikhbogd.travel@gmail.com)        

West

  • Olgii (Өлгий) The west side of Mongolia is where you can trek Atlai Mountains and visit the Muslims community (Kazakhs). Bus leaves daily at 3 pm from Dragon Terminal and cost 80,000 MNT (US$29). This journey is a long 48-hours (or can be 4-5 days) bumpy ride. Flight will cost about US$250-US$300 for only 2.5-hours.

Food

Most hostels provide free breakfast which comes with bread, biscuits and tea/coffee. Food generally range about US$1-3 for a typical Mongolian meal in Ulaanbaatar, and around US$3-5 for Western or Korean meal. Most backpackers like myself will buy fruits and vegetables from grocery stores or pop-up stalls to cook in hostels. 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. 

Shopping

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!

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.

Lavatory

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 with flies buzzing loudly around your bum. Mentally prepare yourself for the adjustment and prepare toilet papers, wet wipes / sanitizers while on the road.

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.

Is Mongolia Safe for female traveller?

Mongolia has a long history of some pretty bad-ass women so i guess violence and harassment towards women are very rare. I had never felt unsafe or uncomfortable during my travel here, so did other few independent female travellers I met agreed on this too. Though Mongolia has one of the lowest crime rates in Asia, it still make sense to be careful when you’re at crowded area like Black Market and Naadam Ceremony.

Lastly, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @wanderrsaurus on Instagram!

Pin this post for your next nomadic adventure to Mongolia!

Aloha! I'm Bunzy, a curious dreamer who is passionate about roaming around the world getting lost, experiencing new cultures and meeting the locals. My superpower is to be able to sleep anywhere, anyhow!

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