During our 18 days spent in Mongolia we have somehow learnt a lot about this huge, “bitter-sweet” country.
Although we could not fully explore the entire territory, we nonetheless made our profound effort to grasp the essential traits of the “Mongolian lifestyle”, focusing above all on the resources for the overland, low-budget travellers
We entered the country from the North-Western side and made our way to Ölgii, Ulaangom, Tosontsengel, Ulaanbaatar, all the South (Gobi region) and finally the North up to the border with Russia (Ulan Ude).
The result of this experience is hence summarized in the points below, totally subjective and questionable:
1. SLEEPING IN A GER:
Similar to a Central Asia yurt, this is a big, spacious tent used for all purposes, such as cooking, eating, gathering with friends and family and sleeping.
Easy to mount and dismount, it is the classic symbol of nomad peoples looking for cheap and traditional all-in-one solutions.
For tourists, it is the best way to closely stay in contact with local families during their daily routine.
Unlikely what happens in all the Central Asia countries, in Mongolia it is quite common to find gers even in the capital (Ulaanbaatar) or other big cities (i.e. Ölgii), as only way to get an affordable accommodation for low-class people. In other cases, “urban” gers are specifically and exotically designed for tourists (like in a hostel we visited in Ölgii).
However, the typical location is in the bare steppe near the livestock pasture. This is how we tried it in the Gobi desert, next to the camels whereabouts.
2. COLOURFUL TOWN ROOFS:
We got amazed by the vividly variegated tonalities of the Mongolian towns, above all Ölgii and Tosontsengel. From an upper viewpoint, you can catch all the brilliant juxtaposition of these peculiar nuances.
3. COSMOPOLITAN ULAANBAATAR:
The Mongolian capital is to all intents and purposes a modern, Western city with lots of cultural spots, shopping centres, lively entertainment and multi-ethnic population. It is a world completely opposite to the rural, traditional atmosphere dominating in the rest of the country.
4. GOBI DESERT:
If you have never been in any other desert before, Gobi will surely impress you. Even if you have been, the Gobi still stands out as a vast, multi-shaped area in which the geological, hydrological and vegetative conditions unexpectedly change along the way.
It is not then a “flat”, sandy desert, but an empty land with sand dunes, rocky mountains, deep gorges, abundant rivers, water springs and green zones
Even the colour of the earth is in constant variation. The main highlights there are the canyon-like Flaming Cliffs in Bayanzag; the stunning dunes in Konghoryn Els and the long gorges near Yolyn Am.
5. AMARBAYASGALANT KHIID:
This Buddhist temple somehow survived the Stalinist purges in 1937 and now represents an unmissable must-see in the country. Although quite difficult to reach without a tour (this is how we got there), it nevertheless deserves some effort for the valuable architecture of the 19th century.
There are still about 20 monks practising there and opening the structure to tourists, quite at unpredictable hours (supposedly at 9 am for pray, but indeed at 10 am when we went). At the time of our visit only the main temple could be accessed (for a small fee).
Worth seeing also the neighbouring hills on which lie an imposing Buddha statue and a new sacred temple. From those points you will also better appreciate the monastery complex.
6. KAZAKH HOSPITALITY IN KHOTGOR:
Suddenly stuck during our arduous hitchhike from Ölgii to Ulaangom, we found ourselves in the remote hamlet of Khotgor, where we ate hand-made Buuz (steamed dumplings) at a traditional Guanz and asked for pitiful hospitality to a random family.
Luckily our desperate appeal got met. Without any money in return (we offered some sweets for the kids though), the family took us in for dinner and subsequent breakfast. We also were given a very honourable shelter inside their humble house. Despite the language barriers, we cheerfully made friends with them, exchanging pleasurable moments with a school teacher, his wife and two children.
They told us that like most of the dwellers in the North-West of Mongolia, they were Kazakh and did not feel Mongolians at all
Neutral to this dispute, we relished the genuine and authentic life in this secluded village.
7. ÜÜREG NUUR:
Great sight before arriving to Ulaangom (from Ölgii). In the solitary emptiness of the surrounding landscape, the lake beamingly appears like a blue sky dug into the opaque earth.
From the Khotgor – Ulaangom road you will enjoy the best views of it
8. FREE WILDLIFE:
Besides the ever-present eagles (even in the cities), Mongolia offers a pure, untouched sample of wild animals (camels, birds, pika-boo, snow leopard, etc.) in all its sparse territory, carefully protected within the several national parks and reserves.
Honestly, however, these animals are quite uneasy to spot, as very circumspect towards the human presence. But maybe if you are lucky…
9. BUDDHIST CULTURE AND TEMPLES:
Severely threatened during the Soviet times, Buddhism has regained its honourable place in Mongolia after 1990.
Nowadays its traditions and places of cult have spread again across the country, partially in old, preserved temples, partially in brand new ones
Miraculously escaped from the Stalin’s purges, Choijin Lama Temple Museum, Gandan Khiid and other famous temples were to us a fresh novelty in our up-to-then Muslim pilgrimage.
Full with holy statues, thangkas, horrifying tsam masks and other religious symbols, those shrines are a distinguished pattern in the Mongolian spirituality. Worth to mention the typical pray in the morning (9 am) at Gandan Khiid, Ulaanbaatar.
Here you can listen to an example of the harmonic pray:
10. STEPPE TRADITIONS:
Along with the Buddhist rituals, the Mongolian practices abridge above all the nomadic aspects of the daily routine
From the Khöömii (throat sing) played with a horse hair fiddle to the music video clips with traditionally dressed men in the desert (no half-naked women here : ); from the popular long gowns fastened with a wide stripe to the peculiar wool hats; from the frequent çay meetings (tea, hard cheese, bread and sweets) to the widespread products in the Mongolian nomadic culture: pine nuts, mutton meat, tsuivan (fried noodles) and buuz (dumplings). You will experience all this during your stay there.
Here you have a short video as an example of throat sing (Khöömii):
1. DIFFICULT HITCHHIKING:
Unlikely other neighbouring countries, Mongolia is very tough for hitchhikers, especially outside the main roads leading / coming to / from Ulaanbaatar.
The reason lies in the long distances between towns; the poor road conditions; and the limited number of circulating vehicles (often already full)
Most of the roads are unpaved and bumpy. You may wind up waiting for hours before a vehicle stops and takes you in. After a successful attempt in Ölgii (a truck quickly picked us up for free), we could not proceed further in Khotgor (we finally had to hire a jeep).
After a second failure near Tosontsengel (we wanted to go to Mörön), we gave up and started to catch the painful local transport.
Although drivers are generally good-natured towards hitchhikers, the peculiar circumstances force you to at least alternate the method of displacement, unless you are willing to wait for long time to get a new lift.
2. LOW ASSORTMENT OF FOOD:
Coming from all the –Stan countries, unfortunately we could not relish further the similar dishes offered here.
Plov, tsuivan, mutton dumplings (here called Buuz), khuushuur (pancakes filled with mutton) and fatty soups will strain your stomach after a while : )
3. PROBLEMATIC COMMUNICATION:
More than in other Central Asia countries, in Mongolia it is very hard to make oneself understood.
Apart from the cosmopolitan Ulaanbaatar, the rest of the country is totally unaware of English
Even Russian is disappearing here. Be prepared to fight strenuously to get info.
4. CHINESE VISA IN UB NO LONGER POSSIBLE:
Once upon a time an easy checkpoint to get the Chinese Visa on the road, now Ulaanbaatar seems to be no longer useful for this purpose.
At least until further notice (check future updates though). Brimming with hopeful enthusiasm, we had crossed all Kazakhstan and Russia just to get there and apply for the long-awaited visa. But in vain…
5. LACK OF TOURIST INFORMATION:
A bit related to the point 3), the problem affects travellers at many levels.
Missing websites, absent or closed tourist offices, changing regulations and other barriers strongly discourage travellers when trying to visit places especially in the countryside. Very tough for independent travellers!
6. LOW STANDARDS IN ACCOMMODATION:
Outside Ulaanbaatar the standards drastically diminish.
The difference between the traditional tent (Ger) and a regular hotel is sometimes imperceptible (also prices are quite similar). No or outer shower, long-drop outer toilet and basic, dirt bedrooms are all same part of the offer
Wifi connection is often missing or badly working. Breakfast almost never included. Finally, fares are hardly negotiable.
7. PATCHY AND SLOW PUBLIC TRANSPORT:
Unless you are directly travelling from / to Ulaanbaatar, be ready to struggle for information or schedules.
Informal bus / minibus stands and stations, irregular departure hours and missing itineraries to secondary cities are the notable highlights here
In the end we found it better to move from Ulaanbaatar to any destination than following a step by step progression from the North-West. In addition, without your own vehicle, you are very limited and restrained in your movements, as only the main towns are connected. Secondary roads, national parks and all the protected areas are badly or not served at all.
Therefore, should you wish to visit those places, be prepared to spend quite a lot in tours and private drivers….or test your luck with the hitchhike : )
Another relevant side is the travel conditions on public vehicles. If you travel by bus, expect a more reliable departure time but a slower pace.
Due to the dirt roads, buses take very long to get to destination (even days)
Furthermore, sometimes you are confined in miserable spaces jammed with boxes (apparently buses also serve as goods carriers in Mongolia) and have to endure long stretches with no toilets, even though there are frequent stops for open-air “piss-stops” : )
If you travel by minibus or jeep, you will face endless waiting times while the driver is attempting to recruit new customers and fulfil his own needs. Forget about a trustworthy schedule. Price is often the same of the normal buses.
8. GOBI TOUR:
The most popular of all the tours. Despite the peerless beauty of the desert landscapes, we advise to carefully ponder the pros and cons of these tours, which according to us are by far overpriced for what they offer.
Generally you can sign up for them at your hostel, sharing the tour cost with other guests
However, you will face the following iniquities:
- Most of the times, hostels and tour operators sell a 4 or 5 nights tour for a few standard places (Bayanzag, Khongoryn Els and Yolyn Am) which honestly you could see even in two or maximum three days. Roads between these areas are good enough to run at even 50 – 60 Km / h for a good 4 X 4 jeep.
- They charge you at least 90 dollars / day for car and driver plus additional fares for meals and sleeping. Normally, you could even end up paying 100 dollars per person / day, which is totally overrated for the distances (in total 100 Km per day); the type of accommodation (simple ger with no facilities) and the meals (mostly basic vegetable soups with small pieces of dry mutton meat).
- Should you wish to save some money, you can avoid the English speaking guide. If so, you will experience rough times to make yourself understood by the local driver.
It all depends on your standards and needs. Just remember that you can travel independently to a certain extent. You can easily take a bus from Ulaanbaatar Bayanzürkh bus station at 8 am or 4 pm (10 hours duration) to Dalanzadgad. There you can charter a jeep to drive you along the classic circuit: Dalanzadgad – Bayanzag – Khongoryn Els – Yolyn Am – Dalanzadgad, with just one night sleep in Khongoryn Els. This way you can save up to 50 % of the tour price.
9. SPECIAL PERMITS TO BORDER AND PROTECTED AREAS:
Another great challenge for independent travellers is represented by the regulations in force for the border and protected areas. There are plenty of them in Mongolia, often overlapping beautiful National Parks, like the notorious Altai, at the border with Russia.
To go there autonomously is almost mission impossible: no or limited public transport and special border permit required, which means going to the non-English speaking border patrol office and apply for it
However, besides a fee, they generally ask for an accompanying Mongolian tour operator and other minor formalities hard to dodge if you don’t speak Mongolian or sometimes Russian.
10. LACK OF FACILITIES IN TE REMOTE AREAS:
Following the previous point, another hindrance is the shortage of guesthouses and accommodation in the naturalistic areas.
Sometimes, there is no offer at all. Other times just one or two expensive hotels or ger camps
If motivated and limited in financial resources, you could think of buying (you will hardly find places to only rent) a sleeping equipment (tent and sleeping bag) to more independently travel across these inaccessible sites.
To sum up, Mongolia is a unique country with a precious but hardly reachable “fruit”. On the one hand it offers boundless, “inhuman” landscapes at the edge of the world; on the other, however, it makes your way to the wild very tough and exclusive, with expensive tours to ease the problematic displacements by public transport and the communication barriers with locals. All together an original experience to make in your Silk Road trip!
And you, we would love to hear about your impressions and experiences in Mongolia !