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Mongolia

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Travel Guide Asia Mongolia

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Introduction

Gobi - Temple in the middle of nowhere

Gobi - Temple in the middle of nowhere

© All Rights Reserved fredrik_p

In the 13th century, Mongolia rose up under the wings of Genghis Khan to become the largest empire the world has ever seen. Flash forward to the 20th century and early 21st century and Mongolia's glory days are all but forgotten. Mongolians, who for the most part still live in nomadic ways, have suffered heavily from drought and poverty. As seems the case with most economically struggling nations, tourism is shaping up to be something of a solution.

Mongolia is a unique destination. The desolate Gobi Desert, the massive Lake Khövsgöl and the Four Holy Peaks around Ulan Bator are the most memorable geographical sites, but it is the people who make Mongolia a highlight. Their nomadic way of life creates some logistical problems for your average tour operator, but Mongolians' hospitable nature and rich culture makes for a fascinating holiday. Just wait till they start khoomi singing and you'll realize just how unique Mongolia is.

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Brief History

Mongolia has been inhabited for over 800,000 years. Mongolia, since prehistoric times, has been inhabited by nomads who, from time to time, formed great confederations that rose to prominence. The first of these, the Xiongnu, were brought together to form a confederation by Modu Shanyu in 209 BC. During the 7th and 8th centuries, Uyghurs and then Khitans and Jurchens ruled. By the 10th century, the country was divided into numerous tribes linked through transient alliances and involved in the old patterns of internal strife.

In the chaos of the late 12th century, a chieftain named Temüjin finally succeeded in uniting the Mongol tribes between Manchuria and the Altai Mountains. In 1206, he took the title Genghis Khan, and waged a series of military campaigns - renowned for their brutality and ferocity - sweeping through much of Asia, and forming the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Under his successors it stretched from present-day Poland in the west to Korea in the east, and from Siberia in the north to the Gulf of Oman and Vietnam in the south, covering some 33,000,000 square kilometres.

The next centuries were marked by violent power struggles between various factions, notably the Genghisids and the non-Genghisid Oirads and numerous Chinese invasions. The last Mongol Khan was Ligden Khan in the early 17th century. He got into conflicts with the Manchu over the looting of Chinese cities, and managed to alienate most Mongol tribes. Until 1911, the Manchu maintained control of Mongolia with a series of alliances and intermarriages, as well as military and economic measures.

With the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Mongolia under the Bogd Khaan declared independence in 1911. However, the equally newly-established Republic of China claimed Mongolia as part of its own territory. The area controlled by the Bogd Khaan was approximately that of the former Outer Mongolia. In 1919, after the October Revolution in Russia, Chinese troops led by Xu Shuzheng occupied Mongolia. In 1924, after the death of the religious leader and king Bogd Khan, a Mongolian People's Republic was proclaimed with support from the Soviet Union. The Stalinist purges in Mongolia beginning in 1937, affected the Republic as it left more than 30,000 people dead. Japanese imperialism became even more alarming after the invasion of neighboring Manchuria in 1931. During the Soviet-Japanese Border War of 1939, the Soviet Union successfully defended Mongolia against Japanese expansionism. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, both countries confirmed their mutual recognition on October 6, 1949. Mongolia continued to align itself closely with the Soviet Union, especially after the Sino-Soviet split of the late 1950s. In the 1980s, an estimated 55,000 Soviet troops were based in Mongolia.

The introduction of perestroika and glasnost in the USSR by Mikhail Gorbachev strongly influenced Mongolian politics leading to the peaceful Democratic Revolution and the introduction of a multi-party system and market economy. A new constitution was introduced in 1992, and the "People's Republic" was dropped from the country's name. The transition to market economy was often rocky, the early 1990s saw high inflation and food shortages. The first election wins for non-communist parties came in 1993 (presidential elections) and 1996 (parliamentary elections).

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Geography

Mongolia covers well over 1.5 million square kilometres but only has around 2.75 million inhabitants. The country is located in the northern part of Asia and is landlocked between China and Russia. It mostly lies between latitudes 41° and 52°N (a small area is north of 52°), and longitudes 87° and 120°E. Although Mongolia does not share a border with Kazakhstan, its westernmost point is only 38 kilometres from Kazakhstan. The terrain is mainly mountains or consisting of rolling plateaus. The high Altay Mountains of the west and the north slowly descend into the plains and depressions in the east and the south. The Khüiten Peak in the extreme west of Mongolia and bordering China, is the highest point at 4,374 metres above sea level. The lowest point in the country though is still above 500 metres and the average elevation is 1,580 metres. The landscape includes one of Asia's largest freshwater lakes (Lake Khövsgöl), many salt lakes, marshes, sand dunes, rolling grasslands, alpine forests, and permanent montane glaciers. Northern and western Mongolia are seismically active zones, with frequent earthquakes and many hot springs and extinct volcanoes. The name "Gobi" is a Mongol term for a desert steppe, which usually refers to a category of arid rangeland with insufficient vegetation to support marmots but with enough to support camels. Mongols distinguish Gobi from desert proper, although the distinction is not always apparent to outsiders unfamiliar with the Mongolian landscape. Gobi rangelands are fragile and are easily destroyed by overgrazing, which results in expansion of the true desert, a stony waste where not even Bactrian camels can survive.

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Regions

Mongolia is administratively divided into 21 Aimags (provinces); Arkhangai, Bayan-Ölgii, Bayankhongor, Bulgan, Darkhan-Uul, Dornod, Dornogovi, Dundgovi, Govi-Altai, Govisümber, Khentii, Khovd, Khövsgöl, Ömnögovi, Orkhon, Övörkhangai, Selenge, Sükhbaatar, Töv, Uvs and Zavkhan.

For travellers, it is more useful to think of the country as divided into these distinct cultural and geographic regions.

  • Central Mongolia - home to the capital Ulan Bator and the popular region of Arkhangai.
  • Eastern Mongolia
  • Gobi - the desert region in the south of Mongolia.
  • Northern Mongolia
  • Western Mongolia

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Cities

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Sights and Activities

General Information

Khongor Sand dunes

Khongor Sand dunes

© All Rights Reserved Lavafalls

While Ulan Bator is the heart of the nation, most visitors to Mongolia come for the opportunity to trek deep into the Gobi Desert in the south or adventure around the White Lake area to the west of the capital.

It is possible to take such a trip independently as it is permitted to camp anywhere in Mongolia unless it is specifically advised otherwise (such as National Parks and Military Zones). However, this would require significant planning and logistic support. It is far easier and generally no more expensive to arrange the services of a guide, driver and van for your trip. There are an endless number of adventurous trips that can be found in the capital city for different prices and level of comfort. If you can imagine trip, then someone will be able to arrange support.

These trips are great value for money and easily organised through the guesthouse or hotel you stay in. Essentially the trips are arranged for groups of 6 people. Although it is possible to secure the services of a driver and van for individual or smaller groups, it is much cheaper for a group of six as all the costs are shared. The vans are Russian 4wd vans big enough for 6 people, a driver, a guide and all the gear you will need to seriously get out there. For solo travellers it is very easy to find groups of six on the countless notice boards at cafes and guesthouses around town.

Costs vary from guesthouse to guesthouse and generally reflect the standard of your accommodation choice. If you are staying in a 5-star luxury hotel, you may be quoted for a 5-star luxury adventure. Guesthouses generally provide a much cheaper service, although the level of low comfort is perfectly fine. An example is on a luxury tour the tour will use new European style saddles, while a guesthouse tour will provide used Russian saddles. No matter the expensive of the trip, the same extremely basic bumpy roads with no signs will be used that even experienced drivers get lost driving on.

Gobi Desert

When people think Mongolia they think the Gobi Desert. The Gobi desert is one of the colder deserts in the world during winter but this place still gets amazingly hot during summer. There is stunning expansive flat desert patches, great camel rides, gorges and dinosaur digs to be seen. Of all the things to see in the Gobi the ultimate must see is the beautiful Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes. These stunning sand dunes climb to amazing heights right in front of impressive mountains. Their beauty can be stared at for days as camels, horses and sheep slowly graze in front of them. The only way to reach most sights in the Gobi is by arrenging a tour in Ulan Bator.

White Lake

White Lake is a stunning lake in the central park of Mongolia. It is located in the Arkhangai Province, next to the city of Tariat. The large lake is surrounded by rolling grass hills and some scattered forests. Many nomads set up camp along the lake shores during the summer time and there yaks and sheep can be seen grazing along its shore. There are some excellent horse back riding trips around the lake including through some old lava flows. There is a very good short hike up the top of an old volcano just outside the entrance to the lake.

Terelj National Park

For those with less time Terelj National Park is only a short distance from Ulan Bator. Accessible by public transport and taxi, Terelj makes a great weekend or overnight getaway location. There are many excellent hikes and chances to see some of the great wildlife of Mongolia. During the tourist season there are several ger camps set up in the park that are very affordable to stay in. Some budget tour companies operate some budget tourist ger camps near the park which is a great place to hang out with Mongolians and other travellers.

Trans-Mongolian Railway

Siberian plains between Irkutsk and the Mongolian border

Siberian plains between Irkutsk and the Mongolian border

© All Rights Reserved GregW

Running through Russia, Mongolia and China, the Trans-Mongolian route is 7,622 kilometres (4,736 miles) long and runs through the Ural Mountains, Siberia, the Gobi Desert and the high steppe of Mongolia and passes through the Great Wall of China on its way to Beijing. The train ride from Moscow into the Urals is mostly Pine and Birch forests interrupted by industrial wastelands, and includes a crossing of the Volga river. After leaving the Urals, you enter Siberian plains, forests, open grass plains and boggy, swampy areas. Approaching Irkutsk the land starts to get hillier heading up towards Lake Baikal. Heading down through Mongolia you get more grass plains. Looking out the window, travellers will likely see wild horses, and Mongolian nomads gers surrounded by small herds of cows and sheep. After Ulan Bator, you start to enter the Gobi desert, continuing into China. After Jining, the desert ends and you get into Chinese agriculture and mountains. Getting towards Beijing, travellers will get many chances to spy the Great Wall during the times when the train emerges from the long, dark stretches through tunnels.

Khövsgöl Lake

Khövsgöl Lake near Mörön is the deepest and contains the most water of any lake in Mongolia. This massive lake is very hard to get to and is completely worth it. Known as the Small Lake Baykal this lake is one of the most beautiful places in an already beautiful country. Being so close to Russia the climate is very similar to Siberia. That means dense forests and cold nights. Winter comes very early to this part of the world so be prepared for cold even in late September. Unless you plan to go the great winter festival, which is held every January.

Other Sights and Activities

  • Eagle Hunts - Watch eagles attack prey for their Khazak masters in Olgiy in far western Mongolia.
  • Gandan Khiid - Is the Ulan Bator's main monastery and the center of Mongolian Buddhism.
  • Sükhbaatar square - Is the main government square in Ulan Bator.
  • Randier Herders - Visit traditional randier herders in the far north of Mongolia and experience amazing shamanistic culture.

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Events and Festivals

The Nadaam Festival is held every year from 11 to 13 July (National Holiday) in the capital of Mongolia: Ulan Bator. The National Sports Stadium is the place to be for 3 days long when military parades and sports competitions are held here, with wrestling, arching and horse racing being the most important sports. It is believed that the Nadaam Festival has been a tradition for hundreds of years and nowadays foreigners can enjoy watching traditions in the stadium in Ulan Bator.

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Weather

Mongolia is characterised by a continental climate with relatively short but warm summers and long cold winters. There is a short transition period in April (spring) and October (autumn). Generally, Mongolia is also a dry country, with on average no more than 400 mm of rain during wetter years in the mountains. Most of the country receives less than half of that amount though. In winter, most of the precipitation falls in the form of snow, but mostly in the more moutainous western part of the country. Mostly though it is just too cold to have snow at all. Rain falls mostly between June and September when the influence of the Chinese monsoon can happen.
Between June and August, average daytime temperatures are between 20 °C and 25 °C, dropping to around 12 °C at night. From December to February, nights are as low as -32 °C, but can drop way below -40 °C on some nights. Although it is sunny most of these times, the windchill can make things even worse.

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Getting There

By Plane

Chinggis Khaan International Airport (ULN) is served by several international airlines including Aeroflot, Air China, Korean Air and Japan Airlines. The airport is located 18 kilometres southwest of the city. The national airline MIAT Mongolian Airlines has flights to Beijing-Capital, Berlin-Tegel, Moscow-Sheremetyevo, Seoul-Incheon, Tokyo-Narita, Irkutsk, Osaka-Kansai and Tokyo-Haneda.
Aero Mongolia destinations include Hohhot in China and Irkutsk in Russia.

By Train

Trans-Mongolian railway is one of those journeys that every traveller would like to make sometime during their life. The trans-Mongolian branch takes you through Mongolia to China. For more information and details about possible trains to take check the Trans-Siberian Railway page. There are several direct trains between Ulan Bator (Mongolia) and Beijing (China) every week. It is best to book the tickets in advance because they tend to sell out, especially in the summer time.

By Car

With your own car it's actually pretty straightfoward to cross borders when your documentation regarding car and insurance is in order. Be sure to have your visa as well before you try to cross. You don't need a special driving permit or guide like in China.

By Bus

Minivans shuttle between the train stations of Zamyn-Üüd, on Mongolia’s southern border, and Ereen, the Chinese border town. Mostly travellers cross by train though to China. It is, though, very common to cross to and from Russia by bus, for example on one of the regular buses between Ulaanbaatar and Ulan Ude in Russia.

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Getting Around

IMG_2672

IMG_2672

© All Rights Reserved Lavafalls

By Plane

Aero Mongolia has flights between Ulan Bator, Altai, Bayankhongor, Choibalsan, Donoi, Hohhot, Hovd, Irkutsk, Ölgii, Oyutolgoi, Ovoot, Ulaangom, Urumqi, while Eznis Airways flies between Ulan Bator and Bayankhongor, Choibalsan, Dalanzadgad, Khovd, Khuvsgul, Ulaangom, Bayan Ulgii, Zavkhan, Oyutolgoi, Ovoot and Hailaar.

By Train

The Trans-Mongolian runs from the northern part of the country to the Chinese border. Although it is possible to take the train to a few cities it is really not worth it unless going to the Russian or Chinese border.

By Car

Although it is possible to rent a car and drive around Mongolian, it is very easy to get lost. Most Mongolian roads are just tire tracks in the grass or desert. There are almost no signs and no mile markers. If a traveller does plan to drive his or her own car make sure to bring a GPS unit, good maps and plenty of spare parts to fix the car in case it breaks down. On the other hand it is very reasonable to rent a car and a driver with a few other people and enjoy Mongolia that way. Many times a guide/cook will be added at not additional cost.

By Bus

There are public buses among the major cities and regional capitals and less so to smaller towns. Although the buses are fine the roads they drive on are not, which can make for a very long trip. It would be wise to keep bus rides to only to places that are connected by paved highway. Remember that assigned seats can be strictly enforced on many buses in Mongolia.

By Horse

Riding a horse around Mongolia sounds like a great idea! Most tours and trips people go on do include a few days of horse back riding and camel riding. Now, for the more adventurous person the horse ride across Mongolia sounds great. That said, buying a good horse is really hard as most Mongolians save their best horses for themselves and don't like to sell them. The best thing to do is to "buy" a horse from a guesthouse or a travel agency. Then "sell" the horse back to them at the end of the trip.

Remember that most horse trips require two pack horses for every person riding a horse. That means three horses per person. Also horses are very moody and can be a little crazy so the riders must watch them constantly. Lastly make sure to either bring a saddle from home or buy a Russian saddle. Do not ride a wooden Mongolian saddle, they are extremely uncomfortable especially for men.

Horse theft is still common in Mongolia. Horse thieves target people not from the area and foreigners stick out big time. It is best to remember this and set up camp with nomads that will help watch the animals or set up camp not right next to a town. There are still many animals such as wolves and less often snowleopards in Mongolia that would love to turn a horse into a tasty meal. Any animal in lost to thieves or animals will have to be paid for at the end of the trip. Just remember that sometimes horses just run away. One traveller lost a horse for three days then found it again after losing all hope.

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Red Tape

Almost all travellers to Mongolia are required to get a visa before entering the country. Occasionally the government will allow people to get visas at the airport in Ulan Bator but this can change. There are a few exceptions though. People from the following countries to not need a visa (maximum stay is indicated): Cuba - 1 month, Hong Kong - 14 days, Israel - 30 days, Kazakhstan - 90 days, Malaysia - 1 month, Philippines - 21 days, Singapore - 14 days and USA - 90 days. If people from these countries want to stay longer, they just need to register within 15 days of their arrival, which will allow the citizens of these countries to extend their visas 3 more times for 30 days.

On June 12, 2014 the Mongolian Government, in its efforts to promote the tourism industry of the country has decided to wave visas for the passport holders of following 42 countries until the end of year 2015. The nationals travelling on tourism purposes will be exempt from Mongolian visa up to 30 days. The countries are: Andorra. Argentina, Austria, Bahamas, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Costa-Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Uruguay.

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Money

See also: Money Matters

The Mongolian currency is the tögrög (T), which comes in notes of T5, T10, T20, T50, T100, T500, T1,000, T5,000, T10,000 and T20,000. There T1 notes but they are more like souvenirs. There are also T50 and T100 coins.

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Language

Mongolian is the national language of Mongolia. There are courses at the National University of Mongolia, but it takes at least a year to learn this language to interact at least a little with locals.

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Eat

Mongolian cuisine is pretty basic. The Russian influenced has helped a bit but there is still a long way to go. Most of the food is boiled mutton in noodles with salt and is pretty bland. Mongolian hot pot can be pretty good but it is only for special occasions. This country is not vegetarian friendly and if vegetarian food is required it is best to inform the guide who is usually also the cook on most tours.

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Sleep

Outside of the main cities hotels and hostels don't really exist. Most accommodation while travelling on the road will be some form of a ger (yurt) camp. Staying in gers can range from nicer hotels that just use gers instead of buildings to a family that has set up a few extra gers for tourists to sleeping with a nomad family on their floor.

One of the lines in Mongolia is that every ger is a restaurant, hotel and brewery. Although the family may refuse payment it best to pay some money for spending the night and any food eaten or help with chores. Lastly remember Mongolians believe it to be very rude to wear a hat indoors so promptly remove any head gear unless it is very cold and you have on a knitted hat.

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Drink

Alcohol

  • Vodka is the main drink in Mongolia. Some of the vodka is cheaper then the water and tastes pretty vile. While the more higher end stuff could compete with the best vodka brands from the west.
  • Airag is a home brewed "moonshine" beverage commonly made by local nomadic people living in the countryside. It is essentially fermented milk, made from the milk of whichever animal is commonly herded by the people in the local region (camels in the Gobi, horses in the northern parts, for example). The alcohol content is only around 6%, so don't expect to get drunk from it. Rather, expect other strange things to happen to your stomach and intestines if you drink more than one serving. After all, this is just non-pasteurized milk that has sat out in the open for several days.

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Health

See also: Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Mongolia. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Mongolia. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.

If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. It is also recommended to have a vaccination against tick borne encephalitis when you go hiking and/or camping for several days or more in the north of the country in the period of March to November. A vaccination against meningitis is recommended when travelling for more than 6 months, in combination with close contact with the local people.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also: Travel Safety

In general, Mongolia is a very safe country to travel in, especially once outside the capital Ulan Bator, where you have to take care and watch your personal belongings. This is especially true in more crowded areas, as the trainstations, bus stations or markets. Also, avoid walking around when it is dark, especially when there are few other people around. Instead, take a taxi or stick to the main well lit roads if it's just a short stroll. That said, violent crime is very rare in Mongolia and you will generally be fine. Just keep your personal belongings wel hidden, use a safe in hotels if possible and don't wear jewelry or expensive watches and the like.

Outside the main urban areas, the main hazzards will probably roads, falling of a horse or other issues instead of dealing with criminals.

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Keep Connected

Phone

See also: International Telephone Calls

Post

MongolPost is the national postal company of Mongolia. It has relatively cheap but slow services, although it's fairly reliable nowadays. It takes at least 10 days to several weeks before your letter or postcards arrives. For packages, although also cheaper with MongolPost, it's better to pay the extra cash and send it by companies like DHL, FedEx, TNT or UPS.

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Quick Facts

Mongolia flag

Map of Mongolia

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Capital
Ulan Bator
Population
2,712,000
Government
Parliamentary
Religions
Tibetan Buddhist Lamaism, Islam, Shamanism, Christianity
Languages
Khalka Mongol
Calling Code
+976
Nationality
Mongolian
Local name
Mongol Uls (Монгол улс)

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