Travel to Mongolia means tackling a land of extremes, both in the landscape – from its vast desert lands and rolling sand dunes to its lush green mountainous national parks – and in its lack of infrastructure, where you become just as frustrated as you are in awe by the country’s areas of extreme isolation.
Visiting Mongolia is to find a canvas of untouched beauty capped by a sky so blue that pollution isn’t even a word that exists here. Passing only wild horses, herds of cattle, an isolated ger in the distance and the odd truck also on its way to the city, life here is at its most simple and beautiful
Outside of its unkempt capital, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia exists with very basic facilities, but that’s what makes it beautiful. On the road it can take hours of driving before you pass a small ger community, a Mongolian on horseback or another vehicle and in between you are blessed with the most stunning views of a country so untouched that you know you’ve reached the true heart of it.
Overlanding through it rather than flying or taking the train is one of the best decisions I have ever made, and this guide will show you how to travel Mongolia from China by land, in a vast loop that takes in some of the country’s most treasured hotspots and wilderness hideaways.
- 1 Travel in Mongolia Snapshot – Overlanding for Three Weeks
- 2 Mongolia Tours to Get Off the Beaten Track
- 3 Getting to Mongolia from China
- 4 Travel to Mongolia Itinerary – Where to Go
- 4.1 Day 1: Visiting Ulaanbaatar
- 4.2 Day 2: Getting from Ulaanbaatar to the Gobi desert
- 4.3 Day 3: Visit the Baga Gazryn Chuluu Rock Formations
- 4.4 Day 4: Sleep at a Ger Camp in the Gobi Desert
- 4.5 Day 5: Dalanzagad to Gobi Discovery Ger Camp
- 4.6 Day 6: Hiking in Yolin Am – Mongolia’s Ice Valley
- 4.7 Day 7: A Trip to the Gobi Desert Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes
- 4.8 Day 8: Visiting the Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs
- 4.9 Day 9: Seeing Ongii Monastery and Driving to Arvaikhee
- 4.10 Day 10: Stuck in Mongolia
- 4.11 Day 11: Hiking in Orkhon Valley
- 4.12 Day 12: Seeing the Orkhon Valley Waterfalls
- 4.13 Day 13: Visiting a Mongolian Family in a Ger
- 4.14 Day 14: Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin
- 4.15 Day 15: Camping at Ugii Lake
- 4.16 Day 16: Visiting Hustain National Park and Seeing Przewalski’s Horses
- 4.17 Day 17: Driving to Ulaanbaatar and Visiting Terelj National Park
- 4.18 Day 18: Hiking Terelj National Park and Seeing Turtle Rock
- 4.19 Day 19: A Trip to the Ghengis Khan statue on the Tuul River
- 4.20 Day 20: Back to Ulaanbaatar
- 5 How to Overland in Mongolia
- 6 Overland Mongolia – Realities of Rural Travel
Travel in Mongolia Snapshot – Overlanding for Three Weeks
Kilometres travelled: 2492
Number of major times the truck got stuck: 2
Number of minor times the truck got stuck: 12
Number of incredible driving days: 15
Mongolia Tours to Get Off the Beaten Track
If you want to get off the beaten track, then you will love Mongolia. But this also comes with its frustrations where you need droves of patience and a good chunk of travel time to play around with.
Firstly, there are hardly any roads. Roads are dirt tracks, or pre-made grooves in the land pointing the way and paved highroads are very few and far between.
Secondly, Mongolia is prone to unpredictable weather conditions. That means random onslaughts of rain and the likelihood that you are likely to get bogged at some point. There were countless numbers of times where we had to dig out and push the truck or find locals to come to the rescue – tractors are a saving grace here.
It’s a huge country that you could get lost in for weeks on end and when you accept the setbacks you start to see them as part of the big adventure – travel at its most raw. Back to basics, getting dirty and struggling with the lack of modern amenities we too often take for granted is part of what travelling in Mongolia is all about.
READ MORE: Preparing and Packing for Mongolia
Mongolia travel changes you and makes you appreciate the beautiful patches on the earth’s surface that are untouched by extreme modernisation, pollution and overpopulation.
My time in Mongolia was spent experiencing everything from bush camping to ger camps, finally learning how to erect a tent (at the tragic age of 29), being at one with nature (and to not care who sees you squatting in the process) and realising that animals like to roam and Mongolians love to chat – right outside your ger from 5 am.
I’ve seen a night sky so clear that I didn’t think you could ever see so many stars, a land so serene in isolation and culture so welcoming that I hope it never, ever becomes ruined by tourist traps or the greedy grips of mass capitalism (currently contained to Ulaanbaatar).
Getting to Mongolia from China
We left Beijing at 6 am in our truck vehicle called Archie and drove, bounced and bumped along a scenic overland route through to Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar.
It is a 13 to 16-hour drive straight through Inner Mongolia in order to reach the border town of Erenhot.
During that time we passed beautiful untouched landscape, before hitting the new build high-rise town of Jingin – where we stocked up on two days worth of food supplies for the wild living which was about to commence – before on the way to arriving into Erenhot and camping in a field full of huge metal dinosaurs. As with a lot of South Mongolia and nearby regions, a lot of dinosaur remains were found here. It was fun to wake up in Jurassic Park.
Crossing the China Mongolia Border
After spending four hours getting to and crossing the border the next morning our camping spots for the next two nights were in the Mongolian areas of Sainshand and Choir. We really were the only ones out there and it soon becomes apparent that most of Mongolia is a landscape so vast it looks like it never ends, where the dusty orange desert sands peak through a blanket of green bushes and plants.
Travel to Mongolia Itinerary – Where to Go
Starting and ending in the capital of Mongolia I spent 20 days Overlanding in and across the central and western Mongolian plains, travelling in a big clockwise circle through the scorching Gobi Desert to beautiful lakes, forests, canyons and waterfalls all the while passing huge herds of wild horses, camels, goats, yaks and cows.
Day 1: Visiting Ulaanbaatar
We spent a full day in Ulaanbaatar exploring outside of the ugly Soviet communist-style architecture and all-round dodgy feeling of the city. There’s plenty to see and do here including a walk through the modern Sukhbaatar (Parliament) Square, the Gandan Monastery, the National History Museum and the shopping paradise of the Black Market. In the evening check out the singing, dancing and contortion talent at the Cultural Show before hitting a few bars and pubs. There’s so many you won’t know where to start.
Day 2: Getting from Ulaanbaatar to the Gobi desert
We set off in the truck from Ulaanbaatar for a drive to the Baga Gazryn Chuluu rock formations in the Gobi desert. Due to heavy traffic getting out of the city and general road conditions we got delayed and so decided to set up bush camp for the evening. Be prepared for delays in Mongolia but delight in being the only people in the area. All the space is yours.
Day 3: Visit the Baga Gazryn Chuluu Rock Formations
We got to Baga Gazryn Chuluu – rock formations worshipped by locals who make pilgrimages here partly because it is said that Ghengis Khan camped here – before journeying to the Gobi Desert.
On the way, we got to experience the famous Nadaam Festival when we passed through the local town of Mandal Govi. It was full of wrestling, horse racing, archery and fairground style fun. Nadaam means ‘games’ and the buzz was all around us. We were the only Westerners there and it was great to be a part of a traditional Mongolian community celebration, even if the afternoon was marred by a bogging which resulted in the truck not being released from the soft mud until midnight.
Day 4: Sleep at a Ger Camp in the Gobi Desert
Today was the day we were supposed to get to our first ger camp but after approximately 30 kilometres we encountered a huge ditch of water on the road resulting in us having to drain the water by hand and build a road and a dam for most of the afternoon to help us get across. Although this sounds horrendous it actually created a great sense of camaraderie and ultimately a huge sense of achievement. Afterwards, we got to camp on a high point of the Gobi Desert instead near to the town of Tsogoovi.
Day 5: Dalanzagad to Gobi Discovery Ger Camp
We began our journey without a hitch to the ger Camp called Gobi Discovery stopping at the town of Dalanzagad on the way. Mongolian towns are typically very small and compact settlements which are fairly large in size but without the ruin of a city like Ulaanbaatar.
Day 6: Hiking in Yolin Am – Mongolia’s Ice Valley
We hiked in Yolin Am, a beautiful canyon in the Gobi which is also an ice valley, and which hosts a huge glacier all year round. The hike was spectacular but, unfortunately for us, little of the glacier remained although we had lots of fun playing with what little ice there was regardless.
Day 7: A Trip to the Gobi Desert Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes
Lots of sandy riverbed crossings eventually leading us to ger camp number two, Khongoryn Els Ger Camp, where just by opening your ger door you were greeted with a breathtaking view of the Gobi and the Khongoryn Els sand dunes, which I later climbed, drank beer on and ran down. That was after a camel ride, of course.
Day 8: Visiting the Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs
Bumpy mountain roads took us to the spectacular Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs, like a Mongolian version of the Grand Canyon, but smaller, where lots of dinosaur fossils and eggs were found. A great backdrop for bush camping.
Day 9: Seeing Ongii Monastery and Driving to Arvaikhee
When the communists invaded Mongolia in the 1930s (known as the Purges), nearly all Monasteries were destroyed. Ongii Monastery was one of them and we visited the ruins here before driving to Arvaikheer where heavy rain forced us into a hotel for the night (cue a huge whoop of joy). At times, random bad weather makes bush camping in Mongolia impossible so be prepared for a budget recount.
Day 10: Stuck in Mongolia
We began our journey to the third ger camp but got badly bogged around midday after the truck had to swerve slightly, of course, to miss a drunk driver who came in our path (sadly a lot of people drink and drive here). It took over five hours to get out, with the help of a small local tractor, and during that time a few of us who remained to help with the truck (a few were rescued by local jeeps) lost our minds. It was a hilarious few hours that would have made an excellent documentary and which is probably how a Lord of the Flies scenario starts.
The roads were not hard enough for the truck to continue, especially with all the hills. After setting up tents and cooking dinner two small vans came to the rescue to take us on our two-hour journey to the Ger Camp. It was a scary ride in the dark, where we stopped at the driver’s backyard and where a small boy jumped into the hold of the van for the rest of the journey. We decided to name this poor hostage Wilfred.
Day 11: Hiking in Orkhon Valley
I highly recommend staying in a ger camp in the beautiful Orkhon Valley. There’s nothing like a good hike through the beautiful forest to reach the Tuvkhon Monastery and to see the surrounding area. Pure bliss.
Day 12: Seeing the Orkhon Valley Waterfalls
The Orkhon Valley waterfall was the next stop on our five-hour drive to the next ger camp. This camp plays host to the famous hot springs in the region where I lost my skinny dipping virginity after copious amounts of beer and vodka shots. I still haven’t seen any photos.
Day 13: Visiting a Mongolian Family in a Ger
Fully clothed, of course, we took a short hike through the lush green forest to visit the source of the hot springs. When you come across your first sighting of trees after two weeks of barren land you really begin to appreciate such incredible surroundings.
As we had two Mongolian guides with us (invaluable support in a country where very little or no English is spoken or understood) we were able to visit a Mongolian ger and a local family to learn about nomadic life. It wasn’t one of those dodgy ‘we have tourists here every week’ set up, but a traditional, local family who lived on an isolated patch of land in the valley. We tried their dairy products (their source of income) including fermented mare’s milk, curd and butter, before learning about ger rules and traditions and asking each other lots of questions!
Day 14: Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin
A quick stop in the nearby town of Tsetserleg was needed to stock up on food supplies. It was a market day so the atmosphere was crazy. I get such a buzz from those moments when you really don’t know where you are at and what to do and where you have to work hard to communicate and negotiate.
We later visited what is considered to be the most important Monastery in the country, Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin – the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia which had up to 100 temples and 1,000 monks before the purges in 1937. Only three temples were left standing, alongside a number of statues and other items.
Day 15: Camping at Ugii Lake
A visit to the museum we camped next to – the Kultigen Monument, housing artefacts from the Turkish empire – set us on the way to the nearby Ugii Lake where we would relax all day and camp for one night. This lake is stunning and would take most of a day to walk around but it’s a great place to unwind and reflect. I count this as one of my most favourite spots in all of Mongolia.
Day 16: Visiting Hustain National Park and Seeing Przewalski’s Horses
We arrived at Hustain National Park in the afternoon to settle into a ger camp. This National Park is known for its rare Przewalski’s horses unique to Mongolia. It started off like a mad safari where we were expecting to see a Unicorn and in all honesty, I’m not crazy about horses, so when we finally tracked down a small group of them it was an anticlimax since we couldn’t actually get that close to them.
Still, we got to meet the ‘Best Mongolian Folk Band in Mongolia’ called Domog in the evening after a fantastic show where rock style tunes were belted out via throat singing. I guess it is the equivalent of meeting Westlife in Ireland. Seriously.
Day 17: Driving to Ulaanbaatar and Visiting Terelj National Park
We had to journey back through the crazy, construction overloaded, traffic-ridden Ulaanbaatar in order to get to Terelj National Park and the last ger camp of the trip (we were due to bush camp but, you guessed it, the weather put a stop to that). It’s amazing how just a few hours down the road from the capital brings you to some of the most spectacular landscape of the country.
Day 18: Hiking Terelj National Park and Seeing Turtle Rock
If you love walking and hiking, you will love Terelj National Park. Here you can wander for hours, hike to a Monastery and horse ride through the forests and rocky hilltops. Make sure you check out ‘Turtle Rock’ too. You may think it looks like something else from a certain angle!
Day 19: A Trip to the Ghengis Khan statue on the Tuul River
Nothing beats the end of the wilderness journey than a visit to the giant 40-metre tall silver Ghengis Khan statue just outside of Ulaanbaatar on the banks of the Tuul River. Legend has it that it was at this spot that Ghengis Khan found his golden whip. What a clever whip that was to turn itself into gold. Anyhow, a bit of a pilgrimage spot for locals, it was slightly fascinating (if not a bit odd and imposing) in the same way a huge silver statue of Hitler in Germany would probably evoke the same feeling.
Day 20: Back to Ulaanbaatar
Back in Ulaanbaatar, I turned my hostel room into an office and distracted myself with a pizza slice, cake and coffee at Wendy’s Bakery – definitely worth a visit alongside the State Department Store, which is right next to the hostel area. As much as Ulaanbaatar is teeming with life (and pickpockets) nothing beats being out in the vast lands which I will always class as the ‘real’ Mongolia. I guess I need to get used to this city life again now that Beijing is my next stop.
How to Overland in Mongolia
The Dragoman overland truck is what we called home, except we didn’t sleep on it overnight. Instead, we went wild camping and every night, checking into a hotel once when the rains were too much to settle a tent comfortably.
The outside of the truck has lots of compartments – storage for luggage and tents as well as a clean water supply, mealtime equipment and food supplies. It’s a travelling transformer and everyone has to lend a hand setting up and packing down for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you have no sense of camaraderie or hate getting dirty then this isn’t the kind of adventure trip for you. Personally, I embraced it and loved every minute of ‘roughing it’.
23 seats, a fridge, a safe, a bookshelf, big speakers and a place to recharge equipment, this is where we spend hours at a time, or what could end up being an entire day, traversing the landscape. All the while we filled it with our belongings like a messy bedroom and made it cosy.
Along the Way
The two drivers are the mechanics, the navigators and the troubleshooters all rolled into one. Everything about the truck from where it goes and how it gets there hangs on their decision making. Alongside our Mongolian guide who knew the land better than anyone else and could speak the language when we needed to call upon locals for help.
Along the drivers would jump out to check the road, walking far ahead to determine the best track to take or to check waterlogged areas (often by getting in the water) to limit the chances of the truck getting bogged. We often stopped to help locals whose cars were stuck, knowing that one day the karma will need to be returned. Which it did.
Overland Mongolia – Realities of Rural Travel
“Ok guys, you have to get off, it’s not looking good.” This phrase, accompanied by the low hum and strain of the engine as it finally gave up, became a regular occurrence during the three weeks I spent in Mongolia. Getting dirty in Mongolia is a given, but I never thought on my travels that I would push a truck out of thick, stodgy mud, build a road complete with a dam or wade knee-deep through a river to get to the other side. Bruce Parry, Simon Reeve and Michael Palin, eat your heart out!
In Mongolia, aside from the small handful of roads available, you will take the path less travelled; one that hasn’t been used for days or worn in by other vehicles for an easy pass. You could call it bad luck or you could call it a reality but travel comes with its challenges and getting stuck in Mongolia is by far the most common. While I wasn’t expecting huge bogging incidents on this trip, I came to embrace them when they did happen. After all, the locals have to face these situations regularly and so it simply became a part of what Mongolia is and what it means to cross her lands.
The drivers of the truck were responsible for assessing each situation when it arose. They were the first to get dirty, walk through the water and determine the outcome. At times it put you on edge wondering how long you would be stuck somewhere with no one passing by for hours, at other times it simply meant us having to walk a short distance in order to lighten the truck.
Either way, the result was a massive whoop and roar for our truck, Archie, when he made it through. It felt good and we then knew the next stage of the journey could begin. These are the times I’ll always remember.
Building a Road in Mongolia
It had been raining on and off for a few days, mainly in the evenings and not for too long and we were bumping along the dirt tracks just fine. But when the truck stopped and we saw that two pools of water had filled two road tracks, we knew a bogging incident was imminent. The drivers walked, pondered and walked through the water. Could we drive through it without getting stuck?
This was the usual scenario – drive through it or find hard enough ground around it. Except that this time it was different. We were not prepared for the words “So, we need to empty this road of water and then let the ground dry out so we can cross over it.”
Cue the mad dash to empty our camping gear in order to find our plastic washing-up bowls and any other form of a plastic container to begin the removal process. The ladies rolled up their shorts to squat right in there and start scooping out the water, the men began digging to create more of a road and everyone built a dam by hand on each side of the tyre track grooves so that the emptied water wouldn’t flow back in.
It was hard work but we became a team, a great team. The sun was shining that day which meant we only had to wait a couple of hours while the heat dried out our creation. We ate, we played, we sang and we marvelled at what resourceful people we were. It was a scary moment when Archie made his move to cross our road (our beautifully crafted road that could be crushed in seconds and have to be rebuilt) but he made it in one successful run and our road was left to the land and in nature’s control.
Getting Stuck in the Mud
Grassy, muddy areas are hit and miss – you can never tell exactly how hard the ground is beneath it. After sporadic rain, the ground had certainly softened and even though there were times when the truck had to work a little harder, it made it through.
We had just had a fantastic afternoon checking out a local Nadaam festival and were in high spirits, which we needed knowing that we would be driving for the rest of the day. Except we didn’t – we were soon stuck in thick, sticky mud and no amount of pushing and revving was going to change it.
Our Mongolian guide walked to the nearest ger to get help and the locals later returned on a motorbike to check out the situation. In fact, the whole family came out – we regularly became a source of fascination or amusement en route through the country. However, they kindly decided to use their huge tractor to help pull the truck out of the mud – a big, industrial tractor… that too got stuck.
With two vehicles out of action and night starting to fall, we decided to set up camp on a drier patch of land nearby and the drivers worked relentlessly with the locals throughout the evening. We got bogged around 5 pm and the truck wasn’t released until after midnight. It was a day wasted but yet another example of how unpredictable travelling in an untouched land can be.
The Unexpected River Crossing
When the truck stops dead at a deep area of water you know the situation isn’t going to be resolved quickly. Can a truck this size pass through a river without sinking or getting stuck? Although we enjoyed paddling in the cool water, we didn’t know whether we could have to completely re-route to get around it and thus lose more time.
The conclusion was that there was a distinct lack of knowledge amongst everyone about alternative roads around the river and that somehow we would have to find a way to get through it. With a small truck already stuck right in the middle, it was a scary prospect.
The drivers identified the most shallow and hard ground area in the water to pass but unfortunately, we couldn’t be on the truck. You can imagine the chaos – a group of locals trying to rescue their vehicle and 20 non-locals trying to navigate through the water, knee-deep and screeching, scared of falling in.
My heart skipped a beat watching our truck splash through the water and wondering whether it would stop dead in its tracks and slowly swim in a sea of mud taking all our belongings with it. But Archie made it and this time, he got the biggest cheer. And the biggest sigh of relief.
Mongolia with always in my heart as the place where travelling was challenging, basic, gritty but always absolutely beautiful.