A Whistle Stop Guide of Mongolia
Updated: Feb 15, 2022
Hi, I’m Alice and I usually write over at Discoveny. I love off-the-beaten-track adventures, particularly in Central and Eastern Asia. My main aim is to be an advocate for sustainable travel. Our planet is beautiful, but it’ll only stay beautiful if we take good care of it. I hope that exploring this post and more on the Discoveny blog and Instagram will encourage you to incorporate sustainable travel and explore little-known locations.
Having existed in a Soviet bubble for most of the 20th Century, Mongolia is now welcoming tourists. This epic adventure destination remains off-the-beaten-path. If you choose to visit, be prepared for a wonderfully welcoming nomadic culture and vast, untouched landscapes without a soul in sight.
I am very much a DIY traveller. I hate organised tours and the lack of freedom they bring. But Mongolia is the exception. To make the most of your experience, we recommend booking onto a tour or at the very least, hiring a driver for your trip.
Unless you’re a very experienced driver and navigator, getting around Central Mongolia will be difficult. Most roads are unmarked and at times you won’t even be on roads at all. Additionally, to get anywhere in Mongolia you’ll need to hire and be comfortable driving a 4WD (expensive!) and driving is heavily ‘off-road’, you may even need to ford some rivers. There are no good up-to-date maps, very few road signs, and satellite service is patchy.
A nomadic homestay in a traditional Mongolian ger
Cities and Culture
All trains and planes stop at the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar. Home to over half of the country’s population, this sprawling, industrialised city of Soviet architecture isn’t easy to navigate or particularly beautiful. But it’s here that you’ll discover world-class museums, international cuisine and thriving nightlife. It’s ridiculously cheap too.
Be sure to check out the National Museum of Mongolia to appreciate the country’s ancient past which covers everything from the Mongol Empire to the World Wars and the Soviet Union. Also don’t miss Sukhbaatar Square, which holds a Chinggis Khaan Statue, the Parliament House, the Cultural Palace and National Art Gallery.
Ulaanbaatar is home to some of the country’s best restaurants, so don’t forget to sample some Mongolian cuisine whilst you're here. Strolling around, you’re bound to find something you fancy. If you’re vegetarian or vegan and worried about the nomadic diet of meat and dairy, don’t panic. We managed Mongolia on a plant-based diet and you can too! Check out this guide for vegan and vegetarian travellers in Mongolia.
The ancient capital of the Mongol Empire (c. 13th Century), Kharkhorin will be one of your first stop-offs on your tour of Central Mongolia. The town itself is fairly nondescript. What makes this an ideal stopping point are the remains of 16th Century Monastery, Erdene Zuu Khiid, and the impressive museum that accompanies it.
Like us, you’ll probably stop off at Kharkhorin on your way out of Ulaanbaatar. This town makes a wonderful base for those looking to explore Central Mongolia and is a wonderful place to arrange a nomadic homestay to experience Mongolian culture.
On our way to Kharkhorin, the weather was too cold to camp, as we’d planned. It’s said that Mongolians are famously hospitable and will treat you like a member of their own family. This was proven to be true when complete strangers invited us into their home, shared their food and gave us a place to sleep in their ger for the night. I recommend arranging a nomadic homestay near Kharkhorin through your guide to be guaranteed this wonderful experience. Remember to brush up on your Mongolian ger etiquette before you go with this guide.
Erdene Zuu Monastery
Founded in 1586, Erdene Zuu Khiid was the first and most important Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. At its peak, it had up to 100 temples and 1000 monks who lived in gers nested inside the protective walls. All but three of the temples were destroyed during the Stalinist purges of 1937 but a remarkable number of artefacts were saved. These have since been restored and the functioning monastery now also serves as a museum.
Erdene Zuu Monastery complex
Nature and Wildlife
Gorkhi Terelj National Park
Just 55km north of Ulaanbaatar, Terelj National Park is a great way to make the most of Mongolian wilderness, especially if you’re only passing through (e.g. on your way as part of a Trans Siberian Railway trip). Its proximity to the capital means that this National Park is geared up for tourism. It’s a great location if you want to experience Mongolia without hiring a guide with a 4WD as you can get there by public transport.
These cool alpine forests and beautiful hills and valleys have plenty of opportunities for hiking, swimming, river rafting and riding the famous Mongolian horses. Travelling by horse is a great way to see a lot of the park and there are ample opportunities for single and multi-day horse treks. Those that are a fan of winter sports will enjoy skiing and dog sledding in the colder months.
Particularly interesting to visit is the Gunjiin Sum Buddhist Temple which was not destroyed as part of the Stalinist purges. You can also visit the 100 Lama’s cave, where 100 lamas hid in an attempt to escape the communist purges.
Remember to stop by the Chinggis Khan Statue on the way from Ulaanbaatar. This 40m tall figure stands out sharply. You can climb into the horse for panoramic views of the countryside.
The Chinggis Khan Statue
If you’re planning a trip to Mongolia to embrace the vast, mountainous steppe then the Orkhon valley region should be on your itinerary. Bumping along in a jeep all day, passing through groups of goats and sheep that scurry out of the way, you’ll hardly see another vehicle. Herds of semi-wild horses graze in the distance. Yaks and wild camels are scattered across the hills as pointed, white gers are dotted in the distance, contrasting against the lush greenery.
This route is popular with tourists travelling through Central Mongolia. Orkhon Valley is home to the Orkhon Falls, Mongolia’s tallest waterfall - impressive but still on the small side. There are multiple ancient monuments and burial sites to visit, all inscribed with Mongolian runic script. I found Orkhon Valley to be the perfect place to relax. We borrowed some horses to gallop across the valley, practiced Mongolian wrestling, and cooked dumplings with the family of our homestay.
On the road to Eastern Mongolia, Ugii Nuur (1387 meters above sea level) is a wonderful place for bird-watchers. Cranes and ducks migrate to the area in late spring and remain here throughout the summer. The pristine lake is also perfect for fishing, with plenty of perch and pike.
The lake makes a nice overnight break between Ulaanbaatar and Tsetserleg. We camped by the banks on our way back to the capital but there’s a few tourist ger camps and a restaurant for those that prefer a little luxury. If you eat at the restaurant, the owners are happy to let you try out their archery equipment too!
Riding Mongolian horses in the Orkhon Valley
Tsenkher Hot Spring Resort After an active trip of hiking, horse riding, camping, and (most likely) a limited number of showers, Tsenkher Hot Spring Resort is the perfect place to chill out before heading back to the capital. Set between forested hills, the hot springs are a popular location for locals in the summer, and a great detour for travellers to Central Mongolia. It’s a lovely place to relax after a bumpy jeep ride and worth a visit to enjoy the hot showers you’ll have undoubtedly missed during your journey across Central Mongolia.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Central Mongolia is during the Mongolian summer, from June until August. The weather is mild to warm, and there are enough sunny days and sufficient rainfall to make the steppes lush and green. July is the best time to experience the Naadam Festival, an ancient nationwide cultural festival of horseriding, archery and Mongolian wrestling.
That said, you can still have a great time in the shoulder-season. We visited in May and the weather was beautiful, but trails were dusty and nights were chilly. Visiting in September will see the steppe explode in autumnal colours and temperatures will be similar to May.
There are two main ways of getting to Mongolia. Train and Plane. All routes will lead you to the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
Flights are run year round by Mongolia’s National Airline (MIAT) to Europe (Germany via Moscow) and several cities in Australia (via Hong Kong) as well as to Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and Delhi.
Many travellers also choose to take the train through Mongolia as part of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing. This adventurous way of slow travel is much more sustainable and will take you through China and Russia. Why not
Although Central Mongolia is the closest area of the country to the capital, getting around can be difficult.
The best and easiest option for tourists is to hire a guide that speaks your language and/or a driver with an off-road vehicle, preferably one with 4WD. This will allow you to get the best experience in the most comfortable way possible. If you share the costs with others it doesn’t work out to be too expensive.
You can also explore Central Mongolia on horseback through a multi-day horse trek. This is often more expensive but could be a great option for horse-lovers. Options to explore the National Parks on fooot are also available through a hiking tour.
Your guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar will be able to organise a tour at a reasonable price - you can even tailor it to your interests. It’s important to note that it’s bad form to stay in a guesthouse and book a tour with another. This is something that we didn’t know before our arrival which caused a little hostility. If you want to brush up on your etiquette before your trip, check out this guide.
Camels on the Mongolian Steppe
We would like to thank Alice from Discoveny.com for writing this fascinating guide to this far less known region of the world. The Mongolian Steppe has fascinated us for years and we would love to see the hardcore home of the Mongols.
As mentioned at the start Alice is a ethical traveller who provides great tips about how to travel more sustainably on both Instagram and though her blog. If you re put off Mongolia by the idea of it not being the easiest for a Vegan Alice has gone into more depth about how to overcome that struggle in her blog post Vegan in Mongolia.
She is also making an appearance on our podcast on the 23rd of March where she goes through her great travel stories from amazing food in Nepal to travelling through the Caucasus. You can find that when it comes out on the podcast section of the website.
Finally we have also written a piece for the Discoveny blog called Planting Trees in Costa Rica so go check that out.
Thank you for reading guys, we appreciate you.