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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- UB – Amarbayasgalat Monastery
- Hutag-Undur village
- Khatgal town
- Horse riding to Khovsgol Lake
- Khovsgol Lake
- Shine-Ider village
- Terkh White Lake
- Horse riding around Khorgo Volacano
- Tsenher Hot Springs via Testserleg
- Orkhon Waterfall
- Kharkhorin Monastery
- Ang Temple
- Khongor Sand Dunes
- Khongor Sand Dunes
- Yol Valley
- Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs)
- Baga Gaziin Chuluu
- 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:
- 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?
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.
Was it worth it?
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.