Mongolia, land of Genghis Khan, the Gobi Desert, and one of the remotest places on earth, is one of few remaining truly challenging destinations for independent travellers. It is also the most sparsely populated country in Asia, and the combination of these two factors make it one of the most unspoilt landscapes and cultures in the world. The Mongols are a friendly people, for whom tradition is of central importance. They maintain a unique and fascinating lifestyle, including residing in gers, performing throat singing, and celebrating ancient festivals.
Mongolia has an amazingly vast and diverse landscape, with mountains, lakes and deserts, supporting a fantastic array of wildlife. It also has an equally impressive history and is home to a significant collection of dinosaur remains, and the site of one of the world’s greatest empires, while its natural beauty is complemented by the beautifully restored Buddhist Monasteries.
What is generally called Mongolia is technically Outer Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is a province of China, south of the separate country. Although many Mongols do live there, it is under Chinese rule, and not included in this guide.
The national currency of Mongolia is the Togroog or Tugrik, which is commonly abbreviated to T or MNT. Exchange rates are approximately as follows:
$1 = 1100 MNT
£1 = 1600 MNT
1 Euro = 1000 MNT
For up to date currency information, check the Currency Converter.
If travelling independently, costs are low, under $20 a day for the budget traveller, but travelling with a tour group (a popular, and much easier option) can be very costly. Credit cards are useless outside the capital, so it’s best to bring money in US dollars traveller’s cheques, and some cash in small denominations.
For a country that has been invaded so many times by its neighbours, China and Russia, it is amazing that Mongolia has managed to keep such a high proportion of ethnic Mongolians, about 85%, with about 2% each of Chinese and Russians, and at least ten other minor ethnic groups. The whole population of Mongolia is only 2.6 million, with a quarter of those living in the capital,Ulaan Baatar, giving it a very low population density – a fact that is immediately obvious on any journey through the countryside!
There are four transport options in Mongolia; bus, train, plane or jeep, but unfortunately all have their hitches. Buses are the most popular budget transport option, but the quality of service is a far cry from that of western countries. Buses are old, slow and unreliable, and can be dangerous. The drivers are little better, and often drunk, making breakdown of either driver or vehicle quite frequent as well as accidents. Routes are also limited, all starting and finishing in the capital, with none venturing into the Western part of the country. You can pay a bit more and travel on theminibuses that make the journeys between more popular spots. You could also try the more expensive, far quicker train, but be aware that there is only one line through Mongolia, and that’s part of the Trans-Mongolian Railway, which only runs about once a week!
If you’re willing to fork out a bit more, you can always fly from point to point, but this is expensive, and booking can be a real headache. The best way to get around is by jeep, which can be hired with a driver from most major towns, but you may have to haggle for a decent price, and even then, costs are best shared between a small group of you.
Mongolian food is basic, and not particularly popular with western palates. Horsemeat, boiled mutton, and other (usually very fatty) meat dishes are popular, as are rice, and various dairy products based on yak’s milk. Tea is the most popular drink, though you are unlikely to find it in the form most recognisable to Westerners, a more salty variety being the most popular. For those wishing to have a tipple, vodka (arkhi) is common, strong, and could be used to strip paint in many cases, but at least it’s cheap, while the local speciality is airag, fermented horse’s milk!
Tap water should be avoided as Cholera and Giardia are prevalent here. Drink only bottled water, and make sure food is hot and fresh. Also, beware of milk, which is often untreated and can cause a very upset stomach.
Mongolia’s official language is Mongolian, and is used by Mongols both in Mongolia proper, and in Inner Mongolia, within the borders of China. It is a member of the Ural-Altaic group of languages, which also includes Kazak, Uzbek, Turkish, Korean and Finnish. The Cyrillic alphabet was adopted in the 1940’s, and is still in use, though there have been some calls for the restoration of the original script.
Temperatures drop very low in Mongolia in the winter, so if you’re planning to come then be prepared for temperatures as low as – 25F. The main tourist season (if Mongolia can really be said to have one) is from May to October; though bear in mind that as well as being the warmest, July and August are also the wettest months of the year. Early July can be very pleasant and is a popular time for visit for the national Nadaam festival. If you’re planning to visit the Gobi Desert it is best to come in June or September, when temperatures are not at either extreme.
Seasonal temperatures reach great extremes, going from -25F in Winter to +105F in the summer, though evenings can be cool due to the high altitude, so bring clothes appropriate for the season with this in mind. An umbrella or waterproofs are also recommended for the rainy season (July and August), and a windproof jacket in spring, when strong winds are frequent. Even in the summer, women will probably find it best to keep shoulders and knees covered, and avoid more transparent clothing, as this will ease their acceptance by locals. A money belt that can be worn under the clothes is also a useful item to have as in busy areas, such as markets, where pick pocketing is becoming more common.
There are a number of serious health risks in Mongolia which travellers should be aware of. Avoid stray animals as there are both rabies and the plague in the animal populations of Mongolia, though neither should be a serious threat. Travellers to more remote areas should consider having the rabies injections before departure, and all travellers should have Hepatitis A and B vaccinations, and check with their doctor whether Meningitis is necessary at the time of travel. Health insurance is essential, preferably that which covers evacuation, as medical treatment in Mongolia is very basic. Carrying your own sterile medical kit is also advisable.
All visitors to Mongolia require entry and exit visas, or a transit visa if you’re travelling through on the Trans-Mongolian railway. Application processes have changed over the last few years and it is no longer possible to obtain visas at the airport on arrival, they should be applied for in advance of travel, average cost is $15-25 US. They can be obtained in a hurry, or bought at border crossings, but you will pay about twice as much for the privilege. In the past, applications have needed to be accompanied by an invitation or sponsorship from a national company, resident or Tour Company, making entry difficult for the independent traveller (and often expensive), but fortunately this too has changed, and application is simply by application form and payment to the embassy. Despite the now simpler process, many people still prefer to travel with tour companies. Ones worth a try include Monkey Business for Trans-Siberian Packages including Mongolia.
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