Travel to Mongolia means tackling a land of extremes. Both in the landscape, from its vast desert lands and rolling 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 purest and beautiful.
Outside of its unkempt capital, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia exists with limited facilities, but that’s what makes it attractive. 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 blessed with the most stunning views of a country so untouched that you know you’ve reached the real heart of it.
Overlanding through Mongolia, rather than flying or taking the train is one of the best decisions I have ever made. 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 Why Travel to Mongolia
- 2 Best Time to Go to Mongolia
- 3 Is Mongolia Safe to Travel?
- 4 Mongolia Tours
- 5 Where to Go in Mongolia – Itinerary
- 5.1 Day 1: Visiting Ulaanbaatar
- 5.2 Day 2: Getting from Ulaanbaatar to the Gobi desert
- 5.3 Day 3: Visit the Baga Gazryn Chuluu Rock Formations
- 5.4 Day 4: Sleep at a Ger Camp in the Gobi Desert
- 5.5 Day 5: Dalanzagad to Gobi Discovery Ger Camp
- 5.6 Day 6: Hiking in Yolin Am – Mongolia’s Ice Valley
- 5.7 Day 7: A Trip to the Gobi Desert Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes
- 5.8 Day 8: Visiting the Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs
- 5.9 Day 9: Seeing Ongii Monastery and Driving to Arvaikhee
- 5.10 Day 10: Stuck in Mongolia
- 5.11 Day 11: Hiking in Orkhon Valley
- 5.12 Day 12: Seeing the Orkhon Valley Waterfalls
- 5.13 Day 13: Visiting a Mongolian Family in a Ger
- 5.14 Day 14: Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin
- 5.15 Day 15: Camping at Ugii Lake
- 5.16 Day 16: Visiting Hustain National Park and Seeing Przewalski’s Horses
- 5.17 Day 17: Driving to Ulaanbaatar and Visiting Terelj National Park
- 5.18 Day 18: Hiking Terelj National Park and Seeing Turtle Rock
- 5.19 Day 19: A Trip to the Ghengis Khan statue on the Tuul River
- 5.20 Day 20: Back to Ulaanbaatar
- 6 How to Overland in Mongolia
- 7 The Realities of Rural Travel in Mongolia
- 8 What to Pack for Mongolia
Why Travel to Mongolia
Visit the Least Densely Populated Country in the World
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 meant experiencing everything from bush camping to ger camps, 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 saw a night sky so clear that I didn’t think you could ever see so many stars. I traversed a land so serene in isolation and culture so welcoming that I hope it never, ever becomes ruined by tourist traps or the tight grips of mass capitalism (currently contained to Ulaanbaatar).
Off the Beaten Track Adventure
If you want to get off the beaten track, not be on any set grid and take each day as it comes, 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 spare.
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 vast 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.
Best Time to Go to Mongolia
The summer season between May to September is said to be the best time to go to Mongolia. July and August are the hottest months, with temperatures in the Gobi Desert reaching up to 40°C. Rainfall is at its highest between June and September, balancing out the heat while keeping the forest and valley lands, in particular, lush and fertile. I travelled Mongolia in July and experienced a lot of rainfall alongside high temperatures.
Mongolia’s winter season is from November to February. While some people like to experience the landscape in this snowy season, temperatures can drop to below minus 20°C – a harsh and challenging environment to travel in. You’ll find that not many companies run tours during this time.
Is Mongolia Safe to Travel?
While petty crime and pickpocketing are common in the capital, Ulaanbataar, Mongolia is a relatively safe place to travel, and I never encountered any significant problems. It pays to be more streetwise and alert in the city, as you would in any other. As the landing and departure point for tourists, opportunism poses a higher risk.
Despite the lack of infrastructure and the relative isolation when travelling through the country, the only minor issue we encountered was related to the high levels of alcoholism in the country. We saw drunk drivers when on our long drives, and an occasion or two when inebriated locals came to our makeshift camp out of curiosity. Even then, it never felt threatening, and we were always within the safety of our group.
On the whole, we rarely saw other people, and when we did, we were met with kindness, invited into homes and welcomed into common spaces such as markets and small-town social spaces.
It Pays to Know a Local
I also travelled alongside a Mongolian guide – someone who could speak the language when we got stuck; who could walk to a nearby home and explain the need for assistance and who understood the general navigation of the land. Therefore, in Mongolia, it pays to get yourself a local guide, join a small group tour, formulate a small group of your own in Ulaanbataar or be equipped with general wilderness survival skills if going out there entirely on your own.
At the time I was planning my travel to Mongolia, Dragoman was the only company offering Mongolia tours that lasted more than 10 days to two weeks. The 21-day overland journey was the very first trip itinerary of its kind they were running here, which included Inner Mongolia. Today the 21-day trip, called Nomads & Wilds of Mongolia is on a loop from Ulaanbaatar and includes Khovsgol Lake in the north.
My favourite adventure travel people, and partners, G Adventures offer the following Mongolia tours, that all start and end in Ulaanbaatar.
Classic Nomadic Mongolia
A 14-day trip, including all the highlights at a great price (from €1999) this Mongolia trip includes a Gobi Desert and Mongolian Grasslands stay, alongside packing in the major historical must-sees and cultural experiences that make Mongolia an unforgettable adventure.
Local Living Mongolia
This 10-day local immersion includes staying with three different families in Gers to experience life as a nomad. Mix historical monuments with cultural moments, exploring pastures, forests, lakes and national parks by foot and horseback, while helping your host families prepare traditional dinners and learn the skills of their nomadic trades.
Discover Mongolia – National Geographic Journeys
G Adventures, in partnership with National Geographic Journeys, offers a two-week comfort adventure through Mongolia. You get to visit Khustai National Park, Karakorum (the ancient capital of Mongolia), Tsenkher Hot Springs, the Orkhon Valley and more. You will also visit a nomadic camel-herding family to dive deeper into the culture of Mongolia and support the local community where tourists pass through.
Experience the Naadam Festival in Mongolia
Want to stargaze from a ger camp, hike up an (extinct) volcanic crater, get right up into the wilds of Khövsgöl Lake and end on the high of experiencing the Naadam Festival horseracing, archery and wrestling tournaments? This 15-day trip takes you to places not on the standard route and throws you right into the buzz of traditional Mongolian festivities.
Where to Go in Mongolia – Itinerary
I spent 20 days Overlanding in and across the central and western Mongolian plains. We travelled in a big clockwise circle from Ulaanbaatar, through the scorching Gobi Desert to beautiful lakes, forests, canyons and waterfalls all the while passing vast herds of wild horses, camels, goats, yaks and cows.
Overlanding in Mongolia for Three Weeks:
Kilometres travelled: 2492
Number of significant times the truck got stuck: 2
Number of minor times the truck got stuck: 12
Number of incredible driving days: 15
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 legend states 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
The plan was to get to our first ger camp, but after approximately 30 kilometres we encountered a considerable ditch of water on the road. It resulted 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 created a great sense of camaraderie and ultimately, a massive sense of achievement. 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 tiny and compact settlements which are reasonably large 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 colossal glacier all year round. The hike was spectacular but, unfortunately for us, little of the iceberg 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
There were lots of sandy riverbed crossings that eventually lead us to our second Ger camp, Khongoryn Els Ger Camp. Here, you only have to open your ger door to be 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, which are a Mongolian version of the Grand Canyon, but smaller. It’s a significant site where lots of dinosaur fossils and eggs were uncovered and which is also a stunning 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. At times, random bad weather makes bush camping in Mongolia impossible, so it is essential to prepare for a budget recount at any given time.
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 (local jeeps rescued a few) 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 and stable 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.
Day 11: Hiking in Orkhon Valley
I highly recommend staying in a ger camp in the beautiful Orkhon Valley. There’s nothing like a pleasant 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 went skinny dipping and enjoyed a few refreshing beers.
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 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 a tourist 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 with an electric atmosphere. I get a high from moments when you 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 remained, alongside several 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.
Ugii lake emits a calming atmosphere and invites you to explore it slowly. While it would take almost a day to walk around, 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. When you finally track down a small group of them, it’s still hard to see their beauty up close as you can’t 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 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 incredible 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. Anyhow, a bit of a pilgrimage spot for locals, it was fascinating (if not a bit odd and imposing in the same way a colossal 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 – worth a visit alongside the State Department Store, which is right next to the hostel area. It’s an excellent chance to rest up after adventure through the vast, untouched landscapes of Mongolia.
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. I embraced it and loved every minute of ‘roughing it’.
Twenty-three seats, a fridge, a safe, a bookshelf, prominent 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. 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.
The Realities of Rural Travel in Mongolia
“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.
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 substantial bogging incidents on this trip, I began to embrace them when they did happen. After all, the locals have to face these situations regularly. It 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 merely meant us having to walk a short distance 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 short spurts in the evenings, and we were bumping along the wet dirt tracks just fine. 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?
The usual scenario rested on two possibilities – drive through it or find hard enough ground around it. Except that this time it was different. We were told: “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 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 get right in there and scoop out the water as the men started digging to create a road. 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 highway that could be crushed in seconds and need rebuilding), but he made it in one unbeaten run, and our handmade route was left to the land and in nature’s control.
Getting Stuck in the Mud
Happening upon grassy, muddy areas is sporadic. You can never tell exactly how hard the ground is beneath it. After bouts of rain, the ground softens, 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. 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 big, industrial tractor to help pull the truck out of the mud – 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 at 5 pm, and it took until approximately for the truck to be plucked from sludge. 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 freshwater, 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 about alternative roads around the river and 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, although 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.
What to Pack for Mongolia
With unpredictable weather conditions, a challenging landscape to navigate and a trip mostly comprised of wild camping, packing for Mongolia requires some planning. In short, you need to factor in the following:
- Items of clothing that you don’t mind getting dirty and completely ruined
- Clothing layers for the constant switch of hot and cold climates – thermals to moisture-wicking and waterproof items
- Sun protection and bug spray for mosquitos and sandflies
- All medications you need as you’ll often be far from any major stories or aid
- Snacks from home as the food variation can get very repetitive
For a more extensive overview, read: Preparing and Packing for Mongolia