Mongolia is a landlocked country located between China and Russia. It is a vast emptiness that links land and sky, and is one of the last few places on the planet where nomadic life is still a living tradition.
The country can be categorized into five distinct regions based on culture and geography. These regions are further divided into 21 provinces and one special municipality.
The land is more than twice the size of Texas, it is even bigger than Alaska. It is 1,6 million square km (~618,000 sq mi) which is four times of Japan and almost the size of whole eastern Europe.
This makes Mongolia sixth largest country in Asia and eighteenth in the world, but the population is only 2.7 million which makes Mongolia one of the least dense areas in Asia.
If you consider that 40% of the population lives in the capital city of Ulan Bator or Ulaanbaatar that leaves lots of room for you to travel in the outback. Of cause, Gobi is even less dense.
Almost another 40% of population are scattered all over Mongolia with their thirty plus millions heads of sheep, goats, cattle, horses and camels. There are 21 provinces, called aimag. Each aimag has a central city or town and about 15-22 sub-provinces called soum, so you will know which aimag and which soum you are in.
70% of Mongolia is under the age of 35. Gender ratio close to 1:1. Ethnicity: 84% Khalkha Mongols, 6% Kazakhs and 10% other groups.
More than 50% will say they are Buddhists which is very much mixed with Shamanism, close to 10% will claim to be Christians of all forms and 4% follow Islam, the remainders will still say that they are atheists.
There is an excellent book on Mongolian Christianity by Hugh Kemp called Steppe by Step. It is an eye-opener for anyone who is interested in Mongolian Christianity.
The official language is Khalkha Mongol. English and Russian are widely understood but less spoken. If you speak one of the two you will survive. It is fun if you learn few phrases in Mongol before you come. Everybody will love you and try to understand you no matter how you say it.
With only 4.5 people per square mile, Mongolia has the lowest population density of any independent country, and it is this vast and majestic emptiness that is the country's enduring appeal, bringing the traveler, as it does, into a close communion with nature and its nomadic inhabitants. Mongolia is entirely landlocked, sandwiched between China and Russia. The weather is bitterly cold during the winter, dropping down to -40º Celsius (-40º F) 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.
Recorded history of Ancient Mongolia dates back to third century BC when the Huns (Xiongnu) came to power among many other nomadic tribes.
Due to illiteracy and nomadic lifestyle, little was recorded by Huns of themselves except they first appear in Chinese history as Barbarians against whom the walls were built which later became known as Great Wall of China.
The struggle for mere existence and power over other tribes kept going till the time of Genghis Khan. When he came to power and united these warring tribes under the Great Mongol Empire in 1206, he was proclaimed as Genghis Khan of all Mongol tribes.
If you are really into the history, try The Secret History of the Mongols by Professor Onon. Every Mongolian reads the book in the modern Mongolian language. This is probably the oldest book in Mongolian. There are vivid similarities with the Bible in literary style, wording and story telling. It is speculated that the author could have been a Christian or at least was very knowledgeable with the Bible. According to Hugh Kemp, Qadag (pp 85-90, Steppe by Step) is the most likely candidate on authorship of Secret History of the Mongols. He writes the history of ancient Mongolia and connects the modern reality with the ancient world. Even though his book is about the history of Christianity in Mongolia, he covers much more in a very interesting way. His book will help you to see the picture of ancient Mongolia from the height of 21st century.
Holidays and festivals
Mongolia wrestling is one the three "manly" sports but actually there are four types of sports and these are not truly manly except the wrestling. They are wrestling, horse racing, archery and "shagai", here sheep ankle bones serve as target.
Naadam is the National Holiday of Mongolia celebrated on July, 11-13. During these days all of Mongolia watch or listen the whole event which takes place in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar through Mongolia's National Television and Radio.
It is believed that Naadam celebrations started with the rise of Great Mongolian Empire as Genghis Khan's strategy to keep his warriors strictly fit. After the fall of Empire, the contests were held during religious festivals and since the communist revolution it was celebrated on its' anniversary.
The legend says that in old times a woman dressed like man won wrestling competition once. That is why open chest and long sleeve wrestling costumes, called "zodog", meant to show that every participant is male. Wrestlers wear short trunks, "shuudag", and mongolian boots, "gutal". The yellow stripes on tales of wrestlers' hats will indicate the number of times the wrestler became a champion in Naadam.
Only Naadam gives official titles to the wrestlers. Mongolia wrestling tournaments have 9 or 10 rounds depending on the number of 512 or 1024 wrestlers registered for the competition that year. If the wrestler wins 5 rounds, he will be awarded title "Nachin" (bird), 6 rounds - Hartsaga (hawk), 7 rounds - Zaan (elephant), 8 rounds - Garuda, 9 rounds - Arslan (lion) and 10 - Avarga (Titan).
In 2006, Zaan (Elephant) Sumyabazar won 9 rounds that made him Garuda but that year 1024 wrestlers had 10 rounds which he won all. This entitled him to Avarga. Or Arslan (Lion) must win 2 in a row to become Avarga (Titan). The titles are for life. If Avarga (Titan) keeps winning at Naadam more and more attributes will be added to his title.
There is no weight categories in Mongolian Wrestling tournaments but there is a time limit of 30 minutes, if the wrestlers can not overthrow each other, referees use lots for better position which often settles the match. One who falls or his body touches the ground loses the match.
Mongolia Wrestling matches are attended by seconds whose role is to assist their wrestlers in all matters and to encourage them to win by spanking on their butts. They also sing praise songs and titles to the leading wrestlers of both wings, west and east, after 5 and 7 rounds. The referees monitor the rules but the people and the fans are the final judges. They will speak and spread the word of mouth about who is who till the next year.
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 $50 US fee for this service. A similar service is available in the Mongolian consulate in the Russian city of Irkutsk.
As of January 2007, a visa is required for everyone not a citizen of the following countries:
The Embassy of Mongolia website is useful for updates.
The Embassy of Mongolia's China website you will need if you are applying for your Mongolian visa in China. You must print off the application form from this website since the embassy doesn't have any application forms.
When and Why
So, when is the best time to travel to Mongolia? The ideal Mongolia travel season starts in May and hits its highest peak in July, during Naadam Holidays, and in August when the weather is most favorable for traveling. This is the best time if you like the culture and bear the crowds of other tourists. Not a good time if you want to getaway from your busy lifestyle because you will hit the traffic, busy schedule, waiting in lines etc.
September is also a very good time to visit Mongolia and October is not too late to travel to Mongolia. It is still warm during the days but a bit chilly during the nights. In the fall Mongolia is not very crowded, and this is time for late-comers and last minute, non planned trips. You will get to sightsee and to enjoy the culture, and taste mare's milk, a bitter and at first somewhat unpleasant drink throughout the country.
For those of you are not afraid of cold and of fermented mare's milk, traveling to Mongolia in November through Lunar New Year is still an option. Winter tourism is a developing branch of Mongolian Tourism industry.
The most rewarding experience will be the nomads, as this is the time when you will experience their culture first hand during "Tsagaan Sar" or traditional New Year celebration.
You will have the opportunity to watch lots of cultural activities: singing, dancing, wrestling and if you are really into the horse racing, you will get to see winter horse racing.
Mongolia is known to have 250-260 sunny days throughout the year. So, you will need good UV protection. During winter, protect your eyes, and during summer, protect your skin.
There are a few places which fly into the capital, Ulaanbaatar. From Europe, there is irregular and infrequent service from Berlin, Frankfurt and Moscow. Check with your local Mongolian Embassy too. There are almost daily flights from Seoul on Korean Air as well as other flights through Beijing. It is also possible to fly to Ulaanbaatar through Tokyo's Narita Airport. Don't buy a non-refundable or unchangeable ticket if you are going to Mongolia, because flights don't always actually happen.
2nd class costs about $70 US from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar; The ride takes almost 26 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.
Be wary of scams at the border where people in uniform will attempt to sell you "required travel insurance." There is no such thing and you can safely ignore them.
From Beijing to Erenhot by bus costs 169RMB for 12hrs. The bus departs around 6:00p.m. from the bus terminal just southwest of the West train station. The border check point is visible from the town, 2km away you will see the a big decorative rainbow. At the Chinese border checkpoint you can pay a taxi driver 50RMB to drive you 500m to the Mongolian border. You are not allowed to walk the 500m according to the Chinese taxi drivers -- true since the Chinese border police will not allow walking. Walking North out of the border area you will find a place where jeeps congregate to take people to the train station. Expect to pay 500 Tugruk per person for the 3km ride. Trains cost 12,000 tugruk, about US$10, to Ulaan Bataar. The train leaves once a day at 5:20pm, and arrives at about 10:00 the next morning.
The road stops at the border town of Zamyn-Uud and leave room to an open desert with tracks going in various directions but generally heading north in the direction of the capital city. Hitchhiking in Mongolia is not easy and a little bit of money can be expected. There is an average of one car every hour that leaves into the desert. Expect a bumpy road with not much to see, but this is the real Mongolian steppe.
Outside of the capital, there are few paved roads. The easiest way to travel long distance is using AeroMongolia, a subsidiary airline owned by the government which replaced all domestic operations by the national air carrier MIAT, after that airline's propeller aircraft were grounded and scrapped. AeroMongolia uses newer, Russian built aircraft and is generally safe. Air travel in 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 45,000 tugrik pays for the all-day trip from UB to Tsetserleg (the regional capital of Arkhangai). Note that this involves being crammed into a Jeep with about nine locals (some of whom may be drunk) and spending the entire day racing over very bumpy dirt trails.
Traveling by local bus is also an option, though these buses tend only to connect the provincial capital with UB, and it is quite difficult to find any public transportation linking one provincial capital with another.
It is also possible to charter a Jeep and driver for private use. Prices are typically negotiated by the kilometer. While far more expensive than sharing a ride with the locals, this means of transport 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 to break 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 is scheduled to leave at 8AM will probably not be out of the city till almost 11AM.
For local travel, horse-back is good option. Note, however, 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 UB.
Another great alternative is to simply walk. Since camping is possible anywhere, resting is never a problem. Wherever there is water there are nomads, and if you stick to the major dirt-roads you will encounter plenty of guanz, who can provide huge cheap meals to keep you going. Adopting the Mongolian style of sleeping outdoors is also an option - wrap yourself in wool blankets and then cover yourself with a Russian raincoat (essentially a tarp in the form of a trench coat), and simply plop yourself 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. Westerners typically take a minimum of 9-18 months of full time Mongolian language study to be conversant. Most locals will appreciate attempts to speak phrases in Mongolian, although the traveller will inevitably pronounce them wrong (be careful when ordering water in a restaurant - the word for water [pronounced "oos"] is indistinguishable for that of "hair" to the English ear! Makes for a good laugh over and over ...). Picking up a phrase book and practising a few phrases will help, such as "hello" ("Sain bano"), "good-bye" ("Bayair-tae"), "thank you" ("Bayair-la"), "yes" ("teem"), and "no" (oogwai). The numbering system is regular, and fairly easy to learn.
Sometimes it is possible to communicate in Russian. English is not widely spoken, although it's been getting more popular lately.
The Mongolian currency is the tugrik (төгрөг), also spelled tugrug or togrog. There are 1172 tugrik in US$1 (as of 19 Dec 2007).
The main diet in rural Mongolia is mutton or sheep. Yak might also hit the menu occasionally. Here, about 800 to 1200 tugrik will buy you a large platter heaped with fried noodles and slivers of mutton. On the side will be a large bottle of ketchup. A tasty and greasy dish served is khurshuur (hushoor), which is a fried pancake stuffed with bits of mutton and onion. Three to four make a typical meal. Also, the ubiquitous buuz (boots) can be had at any canteen in town or the countryside. About 6 buuz should cost 500 tg, or 60 cents USD, and serves one.
The boodog, or marmot barbecue, is particularly worth experiencing. For about 10000 tugrik, a nomad will head out with his rifle, shoot a marmot, and then cook it for you using hot stones. Along the same lines as boodog is khorhog, which is prepared like so: build a fire; toss stones into fire until red hot; place water, hot stones, onions, potatoes, carrots, and, finally, mutton chops, into a large vacuum-sealed kettle; let the kettle simmer over a fire for 30-60 minutes; open kettle carefully, as the top will inevitably explode, sending hot juices flying everywhere; once the kettle is opened, and all injuries have been tended to, eat contents of kettle, including the salty broth. This cooking method makes mutton taste tender and juicy, like slow-roasted turkey. Ask your guide if he or she can arrange one (but only during summer).
The boodog is also made of other meat, usually goat, and is similar to the khorhog with one major difference: the meat, vegetables, water and stones are cooked inside the skin of the animal. They skin it very carefully, and then tie off the holes at the legs and anus, put the food and hot stones inside, tie off the throat, and let it cook for about 30 minutes.
In Ulaanbaatar, there are restaurants of many different ethnicities, including traditional Mongolian, Chinese, German, Indian, and "California-style" restaurants.
The national drink is called Airag. This is a summer seasonal drink made from fermented mare's milk, and is certainly an acquired taste. The alcohol content is less than that of beer, but can have noticeable effects. Be careful, if you aren't accustomed to drinking sour milk products the first time might give you diarrhea as your stomach gets accustomed to it. This should only happen the first time though. Once you've completed the ritual, your digestive system shouldn't complain again. There are numerous ways to describe the taste, from bile-like to a mixture of lemonade and sour cream. The texture can also be offsetting to some people since it can be slightly gritty. It is worth keeping in mind that Airag is milk and a source of nutrients. After a day of riding it can actually be quite refreshing, once acquiring a taste for it.
The first thing you will be served every time you visit a ger, will be milk tea, which is essentially a cup of boiled milk and water, sometimes with a couple pieces of tea leaf thrown in for good measure. You might want to build up your tolerance by drinking lots of milk in preparation for your stay because they don't drink much else, except perhaps boiled water if you specially request it during a longer stay. Also, most traditional nomadic foods such as dried yogurt and the like require acclimatization to milk as well. Cold drinks don't actually exist in the countryside (unless you intend to drink straight out of a river, generally not recommended), and it's generally recommended that you don't drink anything cold after eating mutton, as it can cause the fat to congeal in your stomach and make you ill.
Local beer, such as Chingiss or Sengur is fine. Bottled water is particularly recommended.
Some western-style accommodations are available in the capital, but they go for western prices. The Chinggis Khan Hotel looks the fanciest, but I've heard the other hotels in the city are better. You might also want to consider the Ulaanbaatar Hotel which is centrally located near Sukhbataar Square.
There are a few nice guest houses in UB for less than $US10 per night (even as cheap as 3,000 tugrik if you're willing to share a room), but they are crowded during the tourist season and hard to get into.
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 tugrik 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 occasional 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 publicly 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. The two most well known ones to foreigners are Bridge School and Friends School. Both schools offer group study classes or individual tutors. It usually takes Westerners about 9 to 18 months before they acquire good conversational abilities in Mongolian. Speakers of the Altai-Turkic languages, such as Koreans or Japanese, tend to pick it up quicker due to the similarities in grammatical structure.
There is a huge demand for "Native" English speakers as English teachers. Anyone who is interested in teaching English will have no trouble getting employment and a work visa through a school or organization. However, the pay is generally low compared to other countries. Though it'll usually be just enough for room and board plus a little extra.
Local English-language media are another source of employment for native English speakers, offering work as editors, proof-reader or photojournalist.
Volunteer work is available teaching English, assisting with charity work and joining archaeological digs. These jobs are easy to find and are very rewarding.
Mongolia is generally a very safe place to travel. However, incidences of pick pocketing and bag slashing have been on the rise in recent years, so always keep your personal belongings in a safe place (money belts are highly recommended), especially in crowded areas or in places where your attention is diverted, such as internet cafes . Notorious places for theft are the Black Market (bazaar), the railway station and crowded bus stops.
Violent crime is uncommon, but still caution is required at night, and dark or deserted alleys and streets, in particular, should be avoided. Lone or female travellers obviously need to exercise a higher degree of awareness of their surroundings.
Be careful when travelling by horse as it is not unknown for groups to follow tourists and then steal their goods, including the horses, while they sleep at night.
Dogs in Mongolia can be aggressive and may run in packs. It is a good idea to be wary of them since they are not likely to be as tame as domestic dogs elsewhere.
Nomads' dogs may have rabies, and marmots should not be eaten certain times of the year because they can carry bubonic plague. As a precaution, consider having a rabies shots before coming.
Always 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. (You can ask for MiCom or MobiCom cards) In the countryside, don't expect to be staying in contact with anyone.
To make local calls in Ulaanbaatar use a phone of one of the many entrepreneurs with cellular telephones on the street corners. Expect to pay from Tg100 to Tg200 per minute (August 2005 prices).