Destinations, Food, Mongolia

How to plan a trip across Mongolia

May 4, 2011

Our driver, guide and van take a break in the Mongolian countryside

Ulaanbaatar is a pretty grim city so my first order of business when I arrived on the train from Beijing (aside from finding something to eat that wasn’t sweet bread, vegemite or bananas) was to figure out how to get out of Ulaanbaatar.

By far the largest city in the country, for all its shortcomings Mongolia’s capital makes an ideal base for organising trips to the countryside. That, and, um, you’ve really got no other choice.

Happily, UB is a budget traveller’s dream – the guesthouses (or at least the one I stayed in) are well-equipped with kitchen facilities and wifi and food is plentiful and fairly cheap although most of it is imported.

Most importantly though, UB is the perfect place to get together a group of (hopefully) like-minded people to share costs for a trip out onto the steppe.

Most travellers hire a driver and a guide in Ulaanbaatar, and that was exactly what I had intended to do, because it’s quite difficult to get around Mongolia by public transport. The train goes straight through to Russia and only a handful of towns, if you can call them that, are accessible by bus.

And oh yeah – only 1,500km of the country’s 11,200km of roads are paved.

But first, I had to make some friends.

Roads in Mongolia...actually one of the better onesDon’t be fooled – this is one of Mongolia’s better roads

Finding travel buddies

While I was still in China I started chatting with an Australian couple through the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forums. They were coming from Russia and would be arriving in UB the day after me. They were even staying at the same guesthouse. Perfect!

Once they arrived in UB it was immediately clear that the three of us got along really well and would be happy to travel together so we approached the owner of our guesthouse. A bit of an entrepreneur, he also runs a tour company that organises trips outside the city.

It was great timing – he knew of another two travellers (one from the Czech Republic and one from Korea) who were also looking for travel buddies.

We met them and decided that given the number of Apple, Canon and geo-tagging products between us we all had pretty similar goals for the trip.

So we figured that meant we probably wouldn’t kill each other, even though we’d be sharing uncomfortably close quarters for three weeks. It turned out to be true. Mostly.

Close quarters in a ger in Mongolia
Close quarters in a Mongolian ger

Choosing a tour operator

There are plenty of different tour companies operating in Ulaanbaatar. They all offer similar things – a driver and van, a guide who also serves as translator and cook, petrol, entry fees and the odd shower fee are all usually included.

We were happy to go with our guesthouse owner’s company. It gets consistently good reviews and most importantly, the drivers and guides are known to be trustworthy.

There are some dodgy setups in Ulaanbaatar and it’s not unheard of for a group to get stuck with a drunk and crazy driver.

Our driver, for the record, while he loved fermented mare’s milk and would quickly steer us off course if he caught glimpse of a nomad’s camp with horses in the distance, never drank much more than a polite mouthful while he was driving.

At any opportunity, our driver would take the van apart in MongoliaOur driver kept the van in meticulously good repair, taking it apart at any opportunity, just to put it back together again

What is there to see?

To be honest, I arrived in UB with a pretty flexible attitude towards what I wanted to see.

I knew that I wanted to visit the Gobi desert and preferably the lakes of the north but I was happy to go with the majority.

Monastery in Mongolia
Inside Amarbayasgalat Monastery, Mongolia

Our guesthouse suggested a route that would take 18 days, which was roughly the amount of time we wanted to travel. That particular itinerary usually starts in the Gobi but because winter was closing in they advised we head north first to get there before the snow did.

Incidentally, we spent the last night of our trip in the Gobi desert. When we woke to begin the long drive back to UB it was snowing.

Below is the route we followed. If I could go back and do it again, I’d do it the same way but include Western Mongolia, which is much more remote and several days’ drive from Ulaanbaatar.

  1. UB – Amarbayasgalat Monastery
  2. Hutag-Undur village
  3. Khatgal town
  4. Horse riding to Khovsgol Lake
  5. Khovsgol Lake
  6. Shine-Ider village
  7. Terkh White Lake
  8. Horse riding around Khorgo Volacano
  9. Tsenher Hot Springs via Testserleg
  10. Orkhon Waterfall
  11. Kharkhorin Monastery
  12. Ang Temple
  13. Khongor Sand Dunes
  14. Khongor Sand Dunes
  15. Yol Valley
  16. Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs)
  17. Baga Gaziin Chuluu
  18. Return to UB

How much does it cost?

The above trip cost $37 a day per person.

We travelled as five people, plus our guide and driver, in a van that seated eight. If we’d added an extra person it would have reduced the cost but also reduced the space in the van – we were glad we stuck with five.

The cost included:

  • Driver
  • Van & petrol
  • Guide who translated and cooked for us
  • Three meals and a 1.5L bottle of water each day
  • Showers where available (water is usually scarce so you have to pay to shower in the countryside)
  • Entry fees and activities (e.g. monasteries, horse riding, camel riding)
  • Accommodation each night in a 5-share ger

What do you eat?

A typical breakfast on a Mongolian road tripA pretty typical breakfast in Mongolia…aside from the beer

The two Australians in our group were vegetarian, the woman from Czech Republic ate her own secret stash of food (either that or she was a hollow robot) and I was more than happy to forgo fatty mutton for three weeks.

The Korean (who had travelled to over 80 countries, became the spouter of random facts and music trivia and saved me from muggers when we were back in UB) ate whatever our driver ate (usually mutton or horse meat). And with gusto. And with slurping. Endearing slurping. But slurping nonetheless.

Twice a day, our guide whipped up great vegetarian dishes with whatever ingredients she could find along the way.

One evening she even made sushi after we discovered seaweed in a store in a dusty, middle of nowhere town.

Vegetarian food prepared by our guide in MongoliaPretty typical vegetarian fare for the middle of nowhere – noodles, potatoes, carrots, ‘soy meat’ and Tabasco sauce

Our guide prepares some Mongolian dumplingsPreparing dumplings

Was it worth it?

Oh yes.

I had a 30-day visa for Mongolia and spent 29 days in the country.

It was one country I’d really been looking forward to and dreaming about for a long time. It met my expectations and then some.

I made some great friends who I’m still in touch with. Looking back, memories of my time in Mongolia are some of the strongest from my entire trip around the world.

Our guide, translator, cook and friend in Mongolia

Want to know more about planning a trip to Mongolia?

Read about what it was like to travel in a Russian-made van, or what it’s like to spend three weeks sleeping in a ger with four other people.

You can also read my tips on getting a Mongolian visa in Beijing and travelling on the Trans-Mongolian railway from China.

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23 Comments

  • Reply Naomi May 4, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    I might head up to Mongolia this summer, and it’s definitely encouraging to hear that the vegetarians in your group got fed….I’ve always wanted to go to Mongolia but have been worried that I’d just have to eat dairy the entire time!!

  • Reply MeganRTW May 4, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    I think we were quite lucky with our guide – she also preferred to err on the side of vegetarian (oddly enough for a Mongolian). They’re generally very accommodating of vegetarians though it does mean that you don’t get to sit around and interact with the locals as much – they don’t want to eat what you’re eating 😀

  • Reply Romana May 4, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Is the girl on the last picture your guide? Somehow I assumed she was a he 🙂
    After reading your stories I’m looking forward to going there now 🙂
    Thanks for sharing! And nice pics by the way 😉

    • Reply MeganRTW May 5, 2011 at 6:54 am

      Yes, that was our guide! For whatever reason that’s how they seemed to do it – the driver was a guy and the guide was generally a girl, I think because they cook as well.

  • Reply rent a limousine May 4, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Mongolia is nice for go to trip and nice pic. Thanks for sharing these post.

  • Reply Faraz May 5, 2011 at 6:55 am

    Fascinating blog! I’m preparing to cross the Gobi Desert by foot over 2 months from 25th May — not long now and your posts are fuelling my excitement exponentially!

    • Reply MeganRTW May 6, 2011 at 6:44 am

      Wow, what a massive undertaking! Good luck with it – Mongolia is amazing, you’ll have an awesome journey.

      • Reply Faraz May 8, 2011 at 7:07 am

        Thanks! The more I read, the more fascinating a country it seems. I’ll try to report back in just over 3 months’ time…

  • Reply Red May 6, 2011 at 1:00 am

    Good read! I might plan a trip to UB myself, so this helps. Thanks!

  • Reply Christy @ Ordinary Traveler May 9, 2011 at 2:21 am

    Mongolia is high on our list of places to visit. I really enjoyed reading your tips and getting a better idea of what it is like to travel there. It sounds really fun to meet up with other travelers and just go for it. Great post!

    • Reply MeganRTW May 9, 2011 at 7:05 pm

      Thanks Christy! Mongolia is a lot of fun – one of the most memorable places I’ve travelled to. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  • Reply Mike Lenzen | Traveled Earth May 13, 2011 at 3:26 am

    Very much enjoying your Mongolia posts. I’m going to have to find a way to expedite it’s place in our itinerary.

    • Reply MeganRTW May 13, 2011 at 7:01 pm

      Thanks Mike – glad you’re enjoying them.

      I always have a hard time prioritising where to go next – every day I read about a new place and want to add it to the top of the list. It never ends! 🙂

  • Reply Top 5 Blogs I’ve read this week #2 May 17, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    […] On My Way RTW – How to plan a trip across Mongolia […]

  • Reply Rob and Mandy May 17, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    Really enjoyed visiting this blog

  • Reply Leif aka The Runaway Guide May 18, 2011 at 3:55 am

    Mongolia is one place I have always wanted to go to. Your post has got me Mongolia dreamin!
    Cheers,
    Safe travels,
    Leif

  • Reply kehog June 29, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Great entry! Very helpful. Heading to Mongolia in Sept — what is the name of the guest house you stayed at in Ulaanbaatar?

    • Reply MeganRTW June 29, 2011 at 2:11 pm

      Hey there Kelly, thanks for your comment. I stayed at Khongor Guesthouse – definitely recommend it, I met lots of great people there.

  • Reply Abenteuer Weltreise February 17, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    Mongolia is a country of blue sky, great open space and ChinggisKhaan. It is an unbelievable place, mixed with new and old. Ancient historical country is extremely latest place for modern tourists. Every year thousands of visitors come to Mongolia and get surprised with its beautiful wild nature and friendly nice people. When you come to Mongolia you can clearly observe the difference of ancient nomadic lifestyle and modern high technology life rhythm.
    Your blog is really very helpful and provides valuable information about Mongolia’s tourist places.There is also a book “World Travel Adventure” which is a proven aid in planning and organizing the tour around the world. Here, you can find detailed tips and information on financing options, route planning etc.

  • Reply Lauren October 14, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    This is exactly what I want to do, I’m so excited! Good to know it’s fairly easy to find travel buddies and a good guide.

  • Reply John R McLean August 5, 2013 at 12:34 am

    Nice blog. We are leaving for Mongolia in 3 weeks and we have also booked with Khongor Guest House for a 26 day trip that I have worked out with Degi to include some hiking and house trek to the Tsatsan people. We are very excited and your blog was fun to read as we prepare.
    Cheers!
    John

  • Reply Bill Raney September 8, 2013 at 4:13 am

    Oh my god, there you are in the middle of the Gobi Desert, or some such place, with your Volkswagen bus! Although my wife took a Chinese train by herself to Ulan Bator in 1990, and then onwards to Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, she never managed to get deep into Mongolia, let alone in a VW bus. What a remarkable adventure you must be having!

    I to0 had a great adventure in a VW bus when we bought a brand new one in Munich for $3,500 in 1967 and ended up driving it all the way to Calcutta via Afghanistan and Pakistan, with our one-year-old son and our dog. I have written a book about it, which you can read about on my website at http://www.WaltzingAroundTheWorld.com. Let me know if you would like me to send you a free copy.

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