Mongolia might be #1 on your travel bucket list and a place you’ve always dreamed of visiting, but chances are you don’t know how to plan your dream trip.
Besides a lack of available information and accurate and up-to-date travel resources from locals and experts who actually live and spend time in Mongolia all in one traveler-friendly place (which, hello, that’s what we’re here trying to change), Mongolia is what I still like to refer to as, the wild, wild west.
A percentage of Mongolians still live without running water and electricity. They rely on horses to get around and eat meat and consume dairy from their own herd, making them totally self-reliant. It can feel like a lawless place at times, a real-life version of the Oregon Trail, if you will, but instead of being worried about dying from dysentery, you’re worried about the Bubonic Plague and giardia. (Both still legitimate fears.)
But those aren’t the only factors that stand in the way of you and literally any adventure out in the remotest parts of the vast Mongolian steppe. Weather, potholes, wolves, Genghis Khan’s revenge…
You name it and it can – and will – happen. That’s almost a guarantee.
This isn’t something I say to scare you (although a little bit of being prepared for the worst never hurt anyone), it’s something I say so you know what you’re getting into. This isn’t some cushy beach vacation – this is a real adventure. Usually in every sense of the word. And that’s exactly what makes it so rewarding.
It’s important to note that you can join tour groups that do take a lot of the travel aches and pains out of the process, but they’re often expensive – tours with Nomadic Expeditions, for example, cost about $7,000 to more than $10,000 for 11 to 15-day trips.
So, since not all of us can afford to drop a small fortune on a dream Mongolia trip that will have us traveling like a khaan, these are a few things to certainly keep in mind when you’re thinking about actually making that bucket list trip to Mongolia happen – especially if you’re thinking about planning a trip on your own.
While you can get around thanks to hand signals and the usual fumbling through miming, grunting, and pointing, it’s understanding the language that really gives you the nuances of what it’s like to really live life like a nomadic herder out on the steppe. You miss so many details when you don’t understand what’s going on. And those details are what make meeting the locals here so interesting and eye opening. Especially during family stays. A minimum, hire a translator for at least for a few days of your trip, hire a driver that can work as both a translator and driver, or join a small group tour. I promise it’s worth it.
And by roads, we mean paved roads. Dirt track roads are aplenty. It’s navigating them that starts to make things complicated.
Looking at a map, I can almost guarantee you’re going to think – this point doesn’t seem that far from this point, we can do that in a few hours. Wrong. What you’re not accounting for is the condition of the road. Or maybe I should say, the lack of road altogether.
While there are plenty of “main roads” that are paved and in good, drivable condition, don’t always expect that to be the case. Because once you start to get deeper into the steppe, deeper into the adventure, it’s all dirt track roads – and these are the roads that will beat you (and your car) up, literally. I call it, the Mongolian massage.
If you’re driving on your own, you better know how to change a tire. And carrying a satellite phone on you isn’t a bad idea either. And don’t worry, you won’t be the only one that Mongolia’s roads get the best of – it’s not uncommon to see local families changing tires, stuck halfway through a failed river crossing, or just plain trapped in mud or sand they underestimated. Usually in a Prius, no less.
Knowing all of that, if driving on your own seems too daunting a task, you can always hire a driver and a car made for these conditions (either a Land Cruiser or a UAZ Furgon) for about $65/day, plus gas.
While I know this is your vacation, it’s important to keep in mind that alcohol abuse is an unfortunate reality in Mongolia. You’re an adult. Use your best judgement.
Look, life here is hard. Especially out in the countryside where winters are long and maintaining your herd is a constant battle. There are no mental health days out here. No calling in sick. This is some real shit – and there’s no denying Mongolians are some tough sons of bitches. #respect
But when a bottle of vodka costs only a few thousand tugriks, and you’ve had one hell of a week (/month/year), it’s a recipe for disaster anywhere – the situation is just exacerbated out here. And if you’re in the middle of the steppe without another soul around, or a local police force to call, well, you see the problem here.
The government has banned the sale of alcohol on the first of every month (payday) as one way to combat this problem. Which is also something to note if you’re planning to have one shopping/supply prep day before heading completely off-grid.
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. A million times, wrong.
We’ve gone over this already. But, if you’re still up in the air, still wondering if the expense is worth it, consider this. This is the story of how travel insurance saved me more than $3,000 on my adventure-gone-wrong.
In spring 2019 I spent $411.32 on a World Nomad Standard travel insurance policy that covered me for 147 days as I adventured my way through Spain, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia.
Towards the end of my policy, when I was in Mongolia, I hit a turn too fast, got stuck in a rut and flipped my Ural motorcycle, breaking my collarbone and giving myself a concussion. (Cute, right?)
Three days later, when I finally made it back to Ulaanbaatar by hired car (we were WTF out in the countryside), I went straight for the hospital. Healthcare is covered for Mongolian citizens, and the first public hospital I went to for x-rays and to see a doctor was crowded and did not leave the best of impressions. I decided to go the private hospital route after that (borderline traumatizing) experience.
At the private hospital, the orthopedic surgeon I consulted ordered a CT Scan, MRI, wrote me a prescription for painkillers, and told me he’d see me in a few days when all of my results were back in.
A week later I was scheduled for surgery and another round of testing. Pre-surgery testing included an EKG, ultrasound, blood samples, and another round of x-rays.
Once my pre-surgery results were all cleared, it was surgery time. With the help of a translator and a close friend, I checked myself into my new home for the next five days – a private room in the private hospital with all meals included. I’d be undergoing surgery with my new favorite surgeon the next day. Surgery consisted of an incision across my collarbone where he repaired the break, setting it back in place with a plate and screws. My pain up to surgery had been so bad that flying home to the United States was not an option, I was in far too much agony as the bone rubbed back and forth.
Surgery now complete and four sleeps in my hospital room and a bag of prescription pain medicines, antibiotics, and everything else later, I was released back into the world. I’d have a month of recovering to do in Ulaanbaatar, and weekly visits and phone call check-ins with the doctor in my future.
I ended up hiring a translator to help with my initial doctor visits and to help the day I was released from the hospital – because, hello, I was not messing around.
All in all, I paid $3,027.98 for the entire ordeal. All paid out of pocket.
World Nomads, under my policy, covered it all. How’s that for a happy ending?
Look, there’s nowhere to leave trash out here. So, whatever you take out to the countryside, you absolutely have to take back to the city (or a soum) with you. Otherwise, it will liter the beautiful lands and the locals will just end up burning it, creating dangerous, toxic fumes. Have you ever burned a plastic bottle? It’s gross. It smells. It’s toxic. Have you ever seen Mongolia? It’s beautiful. It’s remote. It’s not a nomad’s responsibility to pick up trash after your spoiled behind. In fact, you should probably leave it better than you found it and take any litter you come across back to the city with you whenever you can.
Using something like a Grayl portable water purifier is an easy way to eliminate unnecessary plastic waste. (And, if you ask me, it’s a piece of gear every serious traveler should have.)
Mongolian name vs Persian name. Russian name vs Mongolian name. There, now you can be the smartest person in the ger.
If you ask me, there are plenty of things to discover in Ulaanbaatar, but most people have it right when they plan to only spend a few days in the city before heading out to the countryside. Or vice versa. It’s a small city in every sense of the word, and unless you want to check out something in particular – Mongolia’s growing fashion scene, the street art, or a music festival – you don’t need that much time to discover the best of what the city has to offer. Two to three days will do.
No cell service, no problem. Until there is an actual problem. And then, well, you’re fucked. Ain’t nobody out here going to save your ass. So, if you plan on going way TF off-grid, invest in that good old Garmin inReach Mini and that service plan, because you’re going to want to be able to call for help when shit hits the fan. Because, it inevitably will.
Remember what I said earlier about life out here being hard and being prepared for anything? Well, time, the weather, broken axels, flat tires, and everything else waits for no man. Plan accordingly with plenty of wiggle room. The best itineraries are ones that account for delays.
It bothers me to no end when people call Mongolia a poor, third world country. Yeah, it has its fair share of problems, and there’s no denying that 28% of Mongolians live below the poverty line, and that nomads still roam the countryside, and that industrialization and development isn’t exactly at its peak, but Mongolia is a Second World country. Thanks to Soviet influences and being part of the old “Eastern bloc,” Mongolia is a developing country where industries are growing, especially when it comes to mining and cashmere, and there’s some interesting stuff going on when it comes to financial technology companies in Mongolia that just might surprise the world one day soon.
Oh, a blizzard in July? Sure, why not. Hailstorms in August? Cool. Crisp, sunny days with -30 temperatures in February? Absolutely.
This doesn’t mean, go ahead and pack anything and everything. This means, pack smart. You don’t need much out here, truly. Solid layers. Good shoes. A reliable rain jacket and waterproof pants. A puffer. Camel or yak-hair socks. A beanie. Gloves. You’re set.
Gers out in the countryside are simple. They run off solar power and generators. There’s no running water. There’s no Wi-Fi. What did you expect – these families move every season, so it’s not like they have time to run fiber optics out to their ger. This is Mongolia, baby. Go with it. They do.
While you’ll never run out of meat or dairy anywhere in Mongolia, running out of coffee – or snacks, or tequila, or Advil – can be an all too real problem. Plan accordingly.
Also, because this is an important one, don’t expect more than the simple instant stuff when it comes to coffee anywhere outside of Ulaanbaatar – if you want a good cup of coffee or an espresso, you’re going to have to make it on your own. Probably by hand.
Author: Breanna Wilson
Hi! Sain uu! I’m Breanna, an American travel writer and adventurer living in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for more than 5 years. I’ve written for and been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, CNN, Forbes, and the New York Times, among others. Read more of my Mongolia travel articles here.
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