Our time in Mongolia was a huge contrast to travelling through Russia. The almost empty wide open expanses were humbling. Seeing a country of horse riders from the back of a horse was great and living with nomads was an experience we will remember forever. Mongolia is vast and despite travelling for many hours we still only covered the centre of it. It would have been great to see the Altai mountains and north, but we have saved them for another time.
We spent 29 days in Mongolia and spend just over £1800. The exchange rate at the time was £1 = 3150 Tugrik.
During this time we went on two organised tours, one horse riding and the other around the gobi desert. As you can see it’s not the cheapest place to travel but we certainly didn’t regret spending the money.
Most Europeans require a pre-arranged visa to visit Mongolia, although lucky Germans receive a visa exemption for 30 days. Zoë got her visa within 10 minutes at the Mongolian visa centre in Irkutsk. It’s an easy process but not the cheapest visa costing $60. It’s possible to extend the visa at the immigration department outside Ulaanbaatar airport. We didn’t find out but it’s likely not possible to extend a visa exemption.
Mongolia uses Mongolian Tugrik but many tourist agencies or hotels will quote prices in USD. When withdrawing money from an atm you will get a bundle of notes and probably enjoy being a millionaire.
Ulaanbaatar has a decent range of accommodation from hostels to hotels and we paid 40000 Tugrik £13 on average. In other towns there are more limited choices so it might be worth looking them up in advance. We usually stayed in double rooms in fairly basic hostels. Dorms are cheap, but sometimes only converted hallways without anywhere safe to put valuables which did not float our boat. In addition double rooms worked out cheaper than two dorm beds at a number of occasions.
Transport in Mongolia is centred around Ulaanbaatar and the aimag (state) centres. This often means that you have to return to Ulaanbaatar and take another bus back out again rather than move between aimag centres. The roads are in decent condition and the buses are fairly new. Sadly Ulaanbaatar has a huge congestion problem and getting around the city can take a long time (1 hour for 8 km in bad traffic). Sometimes walking can be faster. If you need to catch a train, plane or bus give yourself plenty of time to get there.
If you are travelling North or South through Mongolia there is a train line, but there are few stations and the train is slow and usually more expensive than buses. Trains also don’t go on every day of the week so check in advance whether they go on the day you need them.
Mongolian food is plain and hearty. Don’t expect any culinary wonders but do expect to be very full. The national dish of fried noodles, meat and limited vegetables is called tsuivan. Other dishes include noodle soup, meat filled dumplings, fried breads and rice. Fruit and vegetables are expensive as only potatoes, cabbage and carrots are grown in Mongolia. Besides a meal containing copious amounts of meat, it will also be full of fat to get you through the winter. Don’t expect a proper cut of meat like a steak unless you go to a very nice or special restaurant. Usually meat gets chopped into small bits (sometimes while still frozen) before being fried. Mongolians also enjoy dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, butter and milk. The Mongolian milk tea is a little special since it is half tea, half milk and salty. It takes a while to get used to but is good for keeping you warm and hydrated. Overall food is cheap costing 7000 Tugrik per meal (Tsuivan) and 500-1000 Tugrik for a cuppa.
Sightseeing independently is expensive so group tours can help to reduce costs. A good tour including food, accommodation, English-speaking guide, transport and sightseeing should cost around $50 per person per day. It is possible to spend less but bear in mind you will get what you pay for. In Ulaanbaatar it is possible to see a few museums and markets and make day trips to some national parks and monuments.
We loved travelling in Mongolia. We felt safe, well fed and found their way of life, countryside and traditions very interesting. We feel privileged to have experienced how nomads live but sadly their way of life is becoming less and less common. We wouldn’t be surprised if in 15 years time there are more people in cities and fewer gers dotting the landscape. So if you want to see Mongolian traditions then go soon.