What makes Mongolia special is that there is nothing to see. There are only one or two classic-tourist sites to head off to. The real majesty of this country lies in its vast emptiness, bringing the traveller into a close communion with nature and its nomadic inhabitants. This East Asian country is entirely land-locked, nestled between China and Russia. The weather is bitterly cold during the winter, dropping down to -40 celsius in parts. With many types of terrain--from desert to verdant mountains--the weather during the summer varies from region to region. Generally, however, this time of year is marked with many rains, and it can become quite cool at night.
The country is divided into 21 provinces, each with its own regional capital and government. Note that the English spellings of these regions are a bit out-dated, but it doesn't matter too much since its all a romanization of the original, Cyrillic names.
Mongolia was the second country in the world to become Communist. It had its own local equivalent to Stalin, a 'cheerful' fellow named Choibalsan who ruthlessly purged thousands of monks and intellectuals, but is still regarded as a national hero for defending Mongolian independence. During Communist times, the country was forced into an alliance with the Soviet Union in order to protect itself from China. The effects of this are still evident today in the alcoholism - problems caused by vodka, the population boom encouraged by the Communists and the appalling architecture. A relatively bloodless shift to democracy occurred in the early and mid 1990s. Interestingly, Mongolia is the only former Communist country to have re-elected the former Communist party back to power in an open and entirely democratic election; the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) is currently in office.
Today, nearly half the country lives a nomadic lifestyle, herding animals and residing in circular white tents called ger, or in Turkic yurt. The current government, particularly President Bagabandi and Prime Minister Enkhbayar, wish to see the country rapidly urbanised.
There are two border crossings open to foreigners, one by the Russian border and one near the small town of Erlian on the border with China. To stay in the country a visa is required. The process for getting a thirty day visa is relatively painless, requiring a simple form and a small fee at your local Mongolian embassy. Longer visas are available, but require an invitation letter from a Mongolian company. These can sometimes be arranged through tour companies. Also, it is possible to acquire an expedited visa in a matter of hours at the Mongolian consulate in Erlian, though there is a steep $40 US fee for this service. As of April 2004, a visa is required for everyone not a citizen of the following countries:
The Embassy of Mongolia website is useful for updates.
There are a few places which fly into the capital. From Europe, there is irregular and infrequent service from Berlin, Frankfurt and Moscow. Check with your local Mongolian Embassy too.
2nd class costs about $70 US from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar; The ride takes almost 36 hours, but you are given a berth in a sleeper-car. There is a small water-boiler at the end of each train car which dispenses free hot water, so it's a good idea to stock up on instant noodles and tea for the trip. Also, don't expect to encounter any English-speaking staff on the train or in the stations.
Outside of the capital, there are few paved roads. The easiest way to travel long distance is using the national airline MIAT. Air travel is Mongolia involves a two-tier price structure, with the costs for foreigners being significantly higher than for locals.
For the budget conscious, Russian Jeeps and 4wd Mini-buses act as a public transport system. About 15,000 togrog will pay for the all-day trip from Ulan Bator to Tsetserleg (the regional capital of Arkhangai). Note that this involves being crammed into a Jeep with about nine other locals and spending the entire day racing over dirt trails--a very bumpy ride.
It is also possible to charter a Jeep and driver for private use. Prices are typically negotiated at a per KM rate. While far more expensive than sharing a ride with the locals, it is considerably more convenient, and allows you to visit more remote sites.
Whichever method of long-distance travel is chosen, keep in mind that everything in Mongolia has a tendency of breaking down. Don't be shocked if part of the suspension breaks and the driver jimmy-rigs a carved wooden block in the place of a mount. For more serious breakdowns, it can easily take an entire day or longer for somebody to come along and help, so leave plenty of slack in itineraries. Finally, Mongolians are rather notorious for being late. A bus that leaves at 8AM will probably not be out of the city till almost 11AM.
For local travel, horse-back is probably the way to go. Note that Mongolians ride on wooden saddles, so if you value your buttocks it's probably a good idea to pick up a leather, Russian saddle in Ulan Bator.
Another great alternative is simply walking. Since you can camp anywhere, resting is never a problem. You will find nomads anywhere there is water, and if you stick to the major dirt-roads you will run across plenty of guanz, providing huge cheap meals to keep you going. One interesting thing to try is to camp Mongolian style. When sleeping away from their ger, nomads will wrap themselves up in wool blankets, cover themselves with their Russian raincoats (essentially a tarp in the form of a trenchcoat), and simply plop themselves down on the ground. One night sleeping this way gives a whole new appreciation for the wonders of sleeping bags and bivvy sacks/tents.
With the exception of the Western-most province, everybody in the country speaks Mongolian. The language is extremely difficult for Westerners to learn and speak, even after multiple months of being immersed in the culture.
There really isn't much worth buying. Note that it is illegal to take antiques out of the country without a special permit.
The staple of the Mongolian diet is mutton. After a month in this country, you'll either never want to see a sheep again or you might find that you get used to meat as tough as leather and with large lumps of fat suprisingly quickly. Yak might also hit the menu occassionally. The countryside is littered with cafeteria tents called guanz. Here, about 800 to 1200 togrog will buy you a large platter heaped with fried noodles and slivers of mutton. On the side will be a large bottle of ketchup. Closer to large towns there may even be chunks of potato or vegatables added in.
The marmot barbecue is particularly worth experiencing. For about 2000 tog rog, a nomad will head out with his rifle, shoot a marmot, and then cook it for you using hot stones.
The national drink is called airig. Made from fermented mare's milk, it is quite refreshing and about as alcoholic as beer.
Some western-style accomadations are avaialable in the capital, but they go for western prices. Out in the countryside, most of the hotels are rundown leftovers from the Soviet era.
Various entrepreneurial locals set up ger just for tourists. Staying at one of these costs about 2500 togrog per person per night. They often include breakfast and dinner as well. When staying in one of these guest ger, the usual gift-giving customs can be skipped.
Finally, there are also ger-camps. Set up by tour-companies, they do occassional rent out space to independent travellers. Unfortunately, they tend to be both expensive and out of the way.
Except for the cities and larger towns, all of the land is publically owned. This means you can pitch a tent pretty much anywhere. Courtesy dictates that you keep your distance from existing nomad encampments. Common-sense dictates that you don't pitch a tent in the middle of a road.
There are some language schools in the capital.
Don't expect to get a job in this country unless you work for a non-governmental organization.
The country is very safe to travel in. Naturally, the usual advice for lone or female travellers applies here.
The nomads' dogs may have rabies. The marmots should not be eaten certain times of the year because they can carry Bubonic Plague.
Also receive items with the right hand, palm facing up. Drink from the right hand with the palm up as well. It is very rude to refuse a gift. If offered a plate of hospitality munchies, take at least a small nibble from something.
There are plenty of internet cafes in the capital. The postal service is slow and most people have a PO box if they want to get anything. It is possible to buy phone cards that can be used to call abroad very cheaply from domestic phones, but not all phones can do this. (e.g. BodiCom will give about an hour calling to Britain on a $3 card.) In the countryside, don't expect to be staying in contact with anyone.