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. Mongolia may have various geopolitical, cultural and geographical meanings. Mongolia consists of historic Outer Mongolia. The province of Inner Mongolia is geographically and politically separate and located in northern part of China yet it shares common borders with Mongolia.
With only 1.7 people per km², Mongolia has the lowest population density among all independent countries in the world, and it is this vast and majestic emptiness that is the country's enduring appeal, bringing the traveller, as it does, into a close communion with nature and its nomadic inhabitants.
For several letters, the ISO 9 standard transliteration of Cyrillic is not widely used and there is no consensus either in Mongolia nor in Wikitravel. Specially, the same Cyrillic letter "х" is transliterated "h" or "kh", the letter "ө" is transliterated "ô", "ö", "o" or "u", but Latin "o" is also the transliteration of the Cyrillic "о", and Latin "u" is also the transliteration of Cyrillic "у" and "ү" (the latter should be transliterated "ù" according to ISO 9, but this is rarely done). So, if you can't find a name as you wrote it, try other spellings.
See also: Mongolian phrasebook
Mongolia is known as the "Land of Blue Skies," and with good reason: there are about 250 sunny days throughout each year, so you will need good sunglasses.
The weather is bitterly cold during the winter, dropping down to -30º C in some parts. With many types of terrain--from desert to verdant mountains. The weather during the summer varies from aimag to aimag, but it is generally hot. Outside of the Gobi desert, this time of year is marked with rains in some areas, and it can become quite chilly at night.
Although most travellers choose to come to Mongolia between May and September, with the highest tourist peak in July during the Naadam holiday, other seasons can also be excellent for travelling provided you are prepared. If you like the culture and the beauty of nature but don't like crowds, shoulder seasons from March to May and September to November are best. October is a very good time to visit, and November is not too late to travel to Mongolia. It is still warm during the days but a bit chilly during the nights.
For visitors not afraid of cold, travelling to Mongolia from November till the Lunar New Year is still an option. Winter tourism is a developing area of the Mongolian tourism industry. The most rewarding experience will be visiting the nomads, as this is the time when you will experience their culture first-hand during "Tsagaan Sar" or the traditional (Lunar) New Year celebration. Travelers will have the opportunity to watch lots of the best cultural activities: singing, dancing, wrestling, and winter horse racing.
History of ancient Mongolia dates back to third century BC when the Xiongnu came to power among many other nomadic tribes.
Due to illiteracy and nomadic lifestyle, little was recorded by Huns of themselves. They first appear in recorded Chinese history as "Barbarians" against whom the walls were built. Those walls later became known as the Great Wall of China.
There have been several Empires in Mongolia after the Hun Nu. For example, the A Tureg Empire around 650AD, with its capital approximately 110km north of Har Horin (Kharkhorum). There was also the Uighur Empire, with its capital Har Bulgas (Khar Bulgas or Xar Bulgas) near Har Horin. The Khitans who controlled North China around 1000AD as the Liao Dynasty had an administrative center (Har Bukh) 120km to the northeast. The Government of Turkey has been promoting some Turkish Empire monuments and there is a museum full of artifacts at the Bilge Khaan site.
The struggle for mere existence and power over other tribes kept going until the time of Genghis Khan. Chinggis Khan, as he is known in Mongolia, came to power and united the warring tribes under the Great Mongol Empire in 1206. He was proclaimed Genghis Khan (Chingis Haan), meaning ruler of all Mongol tribes. The Mongolian Empire was extended all the way to eastern Europe under Genghis Khan and to all of China and Central Asia, among other parts under his sucessors (including his grandson Kublai Khan), eventually becoming the largest continuous empire in history with thirty-three million square kilometers (about thirteen million square miles) of extension. After years of hegemony and exercise of a great connection between Eastern and Western civilizations, the empire suffered a collapse and split into four kingdoms (or Khanates) through Eurasia, each of which lately achieved nearly total independence. The easternmost of these kingdoms was called the Yuan dinasty and included Mongol native land and much of China. After times of dominance over China, the Mongols were driven back to the steppes by the Chinese Ming Dynasty under Emperor Hongwu. They were later conquered by the Manchurian-Chinese Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty.
An independent Mongol nation would only emerge again in 1924 but was not recognised by China until 1945, as the Chinese were forced to grant independence to Outer Mongolia by the Soviet Union, in exchange for Soviet assistance in fighting the Japanese invasion. Thus, the historic region of Mongolia was split into two, with Outer Mongolia becoming the independent nation of Mongolia, while Inner Mongolia remained a province of China. Since that time, Mongolia has had a close relationship with the Soviet Union (and Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union). Mongolia even replaced its traditional script with the cyrillic alphabet. (The traditional script, however, continues to be used by ethnic Mongols in China). As Inner Mongolia was the more populated area before the partition, to this day the number of ethnic Mongols living in China outnumbers the population of Mongolia.
The Secret History of the Mongols is one of the great recordings of Mongolian history. Every Mongolian reads the book in the modern Mongolian language. This is one of the the oldest books in the Mongolian language. 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 about the Bible. According to Hugh Kemp, Qadag (pp 85-90, Steppe by Step) is the most likely candidate for authorship of Secret History of the Mongols. He writes about the history of ancient Mongolia and connects the modern reality with the ancient world. Even though the book is about the history of Christianity in Mongolia, it paints a view of ancient Mongolia from the height of 21st century. The "History of Mongolia" by B. Baabar is a good source for the Modern History of Mongolia.
On the trail of Marco Polo covers some travel through the Mongol Empire in the time of Genghis' grandson, Kublai Khan.
Mongolia is more than twice as big as Texas and nearly the same size as Alaska. Its area is 1.6 million km² (603,000 mi²), four times the size of Japan and almost double that of Eastern Europe.
This makes Mongolia the sixth-largest country in Asia and 19th in the world, but the population is only 2,727,966 (as of 09 November 2009), which makes Mongolia one of the least densely populated 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 course, Gobi is even less densely populated.
Almost another 40% of population are scattered all over Mongolia with their 56 million head 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 and the genders are pretty well balanced. 84% are Khalkha Mongols, 6% Kazakhs and 10% other groups.
The majority of the Mongolian population; 90% follow a mixture of Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism while the remaining 10% follow a diverse range of different faiths, mainly Islam and Christianity.
Holidays and festivals
Mongolia is home to the "three manly sports": wrestling, horse racing, and archery, and these are the same three sporting events that take place every year at the Naadam festival.
Naadam is the National Holiday of Mongolia celebrated on 11-13 Jul. During these days all of Mongolia watches or listens to the whole event which takes place in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar through Mongolia's National Television and Radio. Many other smaller Naadam festivals take place in different aimags (provinces) around the country throughout the month of July, and it is at these Naadam festivals that you are able to get a much closer look at the action.
It is believed that Naadam celebrations started with the rise of the Great Mongolian Empire as Chinggis (also known as Genghis) Khan's strategy to keep his warriors strictly fit. After the fall of the 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 a man won a wrestling competition once. That is why open chest and long sleeve wrestling costumes, called "zodog", are meant to show that every participant is male. Wrestlers wear short trunks, "shuudag", and Mongolian boots, "gutal". The yellow stripes on the tails of wrestlers' hats will indicate the number of times the wrestler became a champion in Naadam.
Only Naadam gives official titles to the wrestlers. Mongolian 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 the title "Nachin" (bird), 6 rounds - Hartsaga (hawk), 7 rounds - Zaan (elephant), 8 rounds - Garuda (Eagle), 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 are no weight categories in Mongolian Wrestling tournaments but there is a time limit of 30 min, 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.
Mongolian 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 buttocks. 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.
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.
Foreign nationals of the following countries/territories can enter Mongolia visa-free:
For up to 90 days: Belarus, Brazil, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macau SAR, Serbia, Ukraine and the United States. Ukrainian citizens need an official or private invitation to qualify for visa-free entry.
For up to 21 days: Philippines
For up to 14 days: Hong Kong SAR
For other foreign nationals, the process for obtaining a thirty day visa or tourist visa is relatively painless, requiring a visa application form, a small fee at your local Mongolian embassy, passport sized photo and flight / train and accommodation bookings, or an invitation letter that is arranged through tour companies. However, the citizens of Indonesia, Russia, China and Taiwan and some other countries need to get an official invitation letter that is issued by the Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after confirmation by the tour company or firm or individual who is inviting you. Longer visas are available; it requires an invitation letter from a Mongolian company or individual.
Citizens of countries where a Mongolian Embassy or Honorary consulate of Mongolia doesn't exist, can apply for a Mongolian visa at the Mongolian borders - Chinggis Khaan Airport, Zamyn - Uud and Altanbulag. It requires your official permission letter that is issued by Immigration Office in Ulaanbaatar according to your invited person or entity's request, exact arrival date and time, flight or train number. Once you got the permission, you have to bring the copy of permission, passport sized photo and visa fee of c. US$105 per applicant and then you can get the visa at the airport. For most cases, it is easy to seek a help from licensed travel company that can get permission for you from Immigration Office in Ulaanbaatar.
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 and Ulan-Ude. Indian nationals are required to apply for a visa, although the visa fee is waived.
You won't get more than 30 days on a tourist visa. In Mongolia you can extend your visa for another 30 days maximum.
The Embassy of Mongolia in the UK website is useful for updates.
The Embassy of Mongolia in China website allows you to print off the application form you will need if you are applying for your Mongolian visa in China, although the consulate does have them too. If you going to stay more than 30 days you have to get registered at Mongolia Immigration.
As of September 2013, the consulate in Irkutsk does not require an invitation letter any more and will issue even one year multiple entry visas without a fuss.
There are a few places with flights into the capital, Ulaanbaatar. National air carrier MIAT Mongolian airlines operates daily flights (during some peak season - twice a day) from Beijing and Seoul, twice a week flights from Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Moscow and Tokyo (during some peak season - from Narita). During peak summer season it increases flight frequencies and operates direct flights from Berlin. There are branch offices in Berlin, Moscow, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. North American branch office is in Denver, CO and can be reached via Air Bridge
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. There are also direct flights from Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. Don't buy a non-refundable or unchangeable ticket if you are going to Mongolia, because flights don't always actually happen. You can also fly in from Beijing, with MIAT Mongolian airlines being the cheapest, then Air China after that. You may find the cheapest air ticket to Mongolia from travel agents.
Hunnu Air, a Mongolian Airline, offers flights from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok to Ulaanbaatar.
Once you are in the country you can also fly to all the provincial capitals. Plane flights between the capitals may be hard to find though. But air travel agents, guest houses, and hotels can help you to obtain your domestic air ticket in Mongolia.
As of 24th September 2014 MIAT has started cheap (relatively) flights from Singapore to Ulan Bator twice a week (Wednesdays and Saturday).
How to travel from Beijing to Ulaanbataar on budget (September 2016).
Every Wednesday train number K3 and every Saturday train number K23 (Legendary Trans Mongolian train) runs all way to Ulaanbataar, but if you buy ticket only for Erlian (the border town) you will pay 130RMB for hard sleeper, this is cheaper than overnight uncomfortable bus from Beijing . The train leaves at 11:22AM from Beijing and arrive at Erlian (Erenhot) at 21:48.
Stay overnight in one of the cheap hotels in Erlian around train station (double bed with bathroom from 60 RMB).
Next day pick up one of the old jeeps from the main park (50-70 RMB) or there is local bus from the bus station which runs between Erlian and Zamiid Uud, this bus has clear sign on the front Mongolia, leaves when full (40RMB). The bus and the jeep will drop you off in front of train station in Zamiid Uud.
There is daily local overnight train from Zamiid Uud to Ulaanbataar at 18:15. Very comfortable first class bed (soft sleeper) is 33950 MNT (4 beds in closed compartment, ask for bottom bunk) and second class (hard sleeper) 24000 MNT. There is hard seat option, which is very cheap. You will arrive around 9.30am to Ulaanbataar.
The Trans-Mongolian train crosses the Russia/Mongolia border at the town of Naushki, Russia.
Trans Mongolian Railway
2nd class (hard sleeper) costs about US$200 (Mar 2011) from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. The ride takes almost 30 hours, but you are given a berth in a sleeper-car. The train leaves twice per week from Beijing. Currently, as of Mar 2011, tickets cannot be purchased from the Beijing station. Instead you will be directed to the China International Tour Service (CITS) office at 2nd floor of the Beijing International Hotel (10 min. walk north of the station, large, white building).
Beijing to the border: If the Beijing - Ulaanbaatar train is sold out, as seems to be common, or you need a more frequent option, you can make your way from Beijing to the border at Erlian by local train as described below, and then on to Ulaanbaatar by bus and train. You may also try looking on eLong.com for flights from Beijing to Erlian (Elianhaote on eLong). As of March 2011, there are morning flights from Beijing to Erlian out of Capital Airport Terminal 1 that only cost 160Y, which is cheaper than the bus.
Trains run daily from Beijing to Jining (Inner Mongolia) or Hohhot. You can change there for a train to the border town of Erlian near the Mongolian-Chinese border. The K89 leaves Beijing in the morning and arrives at Jining in the evening. Jining has many hotels near the train station and has karaoke bars to keep you entertained while you wait. From Jining to Erlian there is a slow train that leaves in the morning, passes the great wall multiple times, and arrives in the early evening. For up to date train times and costs see China Guide. Note that this will take a night longer than getting the sleeper bus as described in "By Bus".
Crossing the border
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.
In Erlian you can cross the border in a Jeep or by Bus. The bus goes everyday. In the bus station look for the international ticket window.
Once in Zamin-Uud, the only option is the train.
From the border to Ulaanbaatar
Once you have crossed the border, you will need to get from Zamiin-Uud to Ulaanbaatar as described in Zamiin-Uud get in.
This website here has a full write up (including maps, times, specific details, etc.) of how you can get from Beijing to Mongolia. It was updated in 2016 and I just took this trip so I think the prices/times here are the most accurate for now since they seem to change a lot.
From Ulaanbaatar there are several options.
Firstly, the International train. Tickets at the International ticket office located across the street from the train station. The ticket office is on the second floor in the VIP lounge.
From Beijing to Erlian by bus costs 180 RMB and takes 12hrs. Several buses leave different bus stations in Beijing bound for Erlian:
From Hohhot by bus cost 88 RMB and takes 6 - 7 hrs. There are several buses each day.
Once you've got to Erlian you should then follow the Crossing the border and From the border to Ulaanbaatar steps above.
Should you be travelling at a busy time (i.e. around Naadam on the 11th/12th July) and want to be sure of getting tickets for the last leg of the trip in Mongolia, you could take one of the packages from the guesthouses in Beijing. These cost around 570 RMB (July 2009). They include will include a taxi to the coach station in Beijing, Beijing to Erlian by sleeper coach, a bed in the hotel in the bus station for a few hours, a bus from Erlian to Zamyn-Uud across the border, then soft sleeper overnight from Zamyn-Uud to Ulaanbaatar. Purchased separately the tickets cost about 360 RMB. The Saga guesthouse in Beijing sells these, and although they insist til they're blue in the face the train is hard sleeper it's actually soft sleeper!
The bus leaves at 7:30 AM from South Bus Station in Ulan Ude and reaches Ulanbaatar at about 10:00 PM, depending on the time taken at border. It drops passengers at Dragon Bus Station. Try getting window seat for enjoying beautiful scenery on your way.
The road stops at the border town of Zamyn-Uud and gives way to an open desert, with tracks going in various directions but generally heading north toward 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 heading into the desert. Expect a bumpy road with not much to see -- but this is the real Mongolian steppe.
If you plan to travel around the countryside without a guide, take a GPS and get some maps. The "Mongolia Road Atlas" is available in many bookstores, it is over 60 pages and covers the whole country: note there is a latin character version and cyrillic character version, in the countryside most people won't understand the latin version. More detailed maps are available at the Mongolian Government Map Store. These maps are 1:500,000. Also some other special purpose maps and a very good map of downtown Ulaanbaatar. The map store is on Ih Toiruu St. Go west from the State Department store on the main street, called Peace Avenue, two blocks to the large intersection with traffic lights, Turn right (North) and the map store is about half way along the block. There is an Elba electronic appliance store set back from the street, a yellow and blue building, the next building is a large Russian style office building 4 floors in height, the map store entrance is on the west side, toward the south end of the building, it lines up with the North wall of the Elba building.
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 08:00 will probably not be out of the city till almost 11:00.
Domestic flight to the popular capital city in the province is available. There are 3 domestic airline companies including Aero Mongolia, Eznis Airways, and Hunnu Air. All websites have online booking system but Aero Mongolia does not accept last name less than 3 letters. Hunnu Air's online booking system can process for sure. Contacting travel agents for booking flight tickets is another way to get the domestic flight ticket in advance.
Traveling by car in Mongolia is a fun and independent way of discovering the country, as long as you are away from Ulaanbaatar, where traffic is in a complete standstill almost all the time. Although the road accidents in the countryside are frequent, there are not many cars outside of the capital, and by using common sense and driving defensively, traveling by vehicle is relatively safe. Mongolia has a small, but a rapidly growing paved road network, mainly connecting Ulaanbaatar with other provincial centers. If traveling to a more remote location, a 4x4 vehicle is often a necessity to get to your destination, even though locals frequently use small city cars to drive across the country.
For the budget conscious, Russian Jeeps and 4WD Mini-buses act as a public transport system. About 100,000 tugrik pays for the all-day trip from UB to Tsetserleg (the regional capital of Arkhangai). Note that this involves being crammed into a vehicle with about nine locals (some of whom may be drunk) and spending the entire day racing over very bumpy dirt trails.
If you are considering renting and driving a vehicle on your own, Mongolia Car Tel. +976 9570 5709 provides great, lifted Russian jeeps for rental from $65 per day, and Jeep Wranglers from $125 per day. You can hire a driver from them too at $20.
If driving a car in the countryside, avoid driving at night, ensure you know where you are going, and have a working GPS or location with pre-loaded map in your phone. Filling stations are not as frequent, sometimes 200 miles apart, so try to fill at every possibility.
In case of breakdowns and punctures locals are usually very friendly and happy to help, but if venturing into remote areas you may need to wait a quite a while until another vehicle passes.
With poor road safety and few paved roads in Mongolia, you might be put off by touring the country by motorcycle but you would be missing out on some of the best motorbike touring in the world: open steppes, freedom and a culture of hospitality make Mongolia one of the best motorcycle touring destinations - period.
If you haven't brought your own you can rent them for as little as 13 Euro per day in UB. Alternatively, you can arrange buy-sell back agreements with motorbike sellers of Chinese motorbikes at motorbike markets like the Black Market that will often end up being cheaper than renting if you plan on biking for two weeks or more. Plus, you will ride a brand new bike as opposed to the often quite run-down rental bikes. New Chinese Mustang bikes sell for 725 USD and can be sold back for about 2/3 the original price, depending on your negotiating skills. Registration of the motorbike is a must and must be done by a Mongolian or a person holding a visa of 90 days or longer.
Travelling 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. Lately the Bus situation is much better. Most cities and towns are refered to in two ways, their name or the name of the Aimag (province) or Sum (county). e.g. Dornod or Dornod Aimag or Choybalsan (the actual city name). Most buses have their destination on a card in the front window. If you have either name written down in Mongolian Cyrillic, you can just show to the drivers or helpers and they will get you on the right bus.
There are two types of buses, micro vans and large buses (some large buses are old Russian types and some are modern western type), depending on the road. The large buses run on schedule, but the micro-buses are much more lax. In Ulaanbaatar, there are two bus stations, one on the west near the Dragon Shopping Center and one on the East near the Botanical Gardens. Get local to write directions. For the large buses buy your tickets the day before.
In the Aimag centres, there will be service to Ulaanbaatar and to local suems (small county seats) and usually the next Aimag Center. However, all locations may not be available at one location. Ask for help from the locals. For example, In Ondorkhaan, the capital of Khentii Province, there is bus service between Ondorkhaan and UB from a central bus station, however the through buses going to/from UB to Dornad and Sukhbaatar Aimags (Choybalsan and Baruun-Urt) will stop at a gas station on the North side of the city.
You purchase your ticket at the station, not in the coach. Don't expect any cashier, driver or conductor to speak anything but Mongolian and, possibly, Russian. It's not possible to pay by credit card. Your passport is required to buy a ticket. If you have a luggage exceeding the standard (written in your ticket) in weight or size, you'll be asked for an extra fee by the conductor. You can negotiate this one.
Inside a bus
On some destinations, the driver and the conductor illegally add extra passengers and get the money for themselves. They might even try to make 3 people sit on 2 seats, for instance: you can protest in such a case. Your ticket gives you the right to a full seat and this is what you get in most coaches. The coaches for different destinations have normally 20-40 passenger seats.
The coach will usually stop for a rather quick lunch or dinner at a local snack or canteen.
There is only one railway company in Mongolia, owned by the Russian and Mongolian States. It is probably the best way to experience something of the communist time, even if it has evolved a bit since then. The railway network is poor, consisting mainly in the Irkutsk-Beijing trans-mongolian way with a few extensions. The rolling stock consist of 30–40 years old Soviet cars. Trains are extremely slow. They usually leave on time, and arrive on time or less than 20 min late.
Don't expect to encounter any English-speaking staff. Conductors and cashiers speak only Mongolian, and if you're lucky, also a little bit Russian.
The local trains stop at many small stations in the countryside. For example, there is the small town of Batsumber, located about 34km north of Ulaanbaatar (as the crow flies) longer on the train. Take your camping gear and hike to the mountains about 10km east of the town. There are two streams flowing west out of the mountains, hike and camp along the streams. There is a small restaurant, and food shops in the town.
See train timetable and ticket prices on the company website  (only in Mongolian).
Mongolian trains are cheap, even in comparison with Russian and Chinese trains. You pay an extra fee if you book in advance, and also an extra fee if you buy it in the train, which is the only possibility left if there are less than 10 min left before the train departure. Your passport is required to buy a ticket.
There are 3 classes: tasalgaat, untlagyn, and niytiyn, they directly correspond to the Russian train classes kupeyniy, platskartniy and obshchiy.
Tasalgaat class is the only one with closed compartments, with 4 berths for each. You'll be charged for MNT200o for compulsory bed sheets inside the train (Aug 2013).
Untlagyn cars have open compartments with 6 berths.
Niytiyn class is the cheapest, but definitely not recommended. You have to spend your night sitting and even with little space on crowded days. The tickets are numbered, but, when the seats are exhausted, the company overbooks public seats with tickets numbered "0", at the same price.
Inside a national train
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. You will be offered drinks and Mongolian food inside the train, both by official sellers of the company and, at the big stations with long stops, from private people getting in the train for that purpose.
Be careful of your belongings: thefts are not rare. But there are policemen in each train.
On a long trip, your ticket will be checked again and again, and you'll be woken up in the middle of the night for that. Nobody will wake you if you have to get off during the trip, but if you get off at the terminus, you'll be woken up, even more than one hour before arrival, depending on the agent. The train toilets officially close 30 min before the terminus, sometimes even before that.
Public countryside taxis and minivans offer more destinations than coaches and many more than train, especially between provinces. They are more dangerous than coaches and trains. Most drivers don't respect the traffic rules. Countryside taxis and minivans leave when full. They always say they will go "now" ("odo") but it's rarely true and you can wait hours before they really go. See how many people are already sitting inside the vehicle to have an idea of how long you'll wait.
By chartered jeep
It is also possible to charter a Jeep and driver for private use. Prices are typically negotiated by the kilometre. 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. It can also be quite convenient to hire a guide to use during the length of your stay. Doing so can allow you to travel without worrying about taxi drivers wanting to overcharge up to 10X just for being a foreigner.
If you would like to book a jeep with an English speaking driver in advance, contact Traverse Mongolia tel. +976 9199 6099, prices are usually fixed at $55 per day plus fuel and meals for the driver (and accommodation, if an overnight trip) , but you can negotiate.
In the cities, taxis should charge about MNT800/km. The drivers will set their trip meter and charge accordingly.
For local travel, horse-back is a 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.
See also: Mongolian phrasebook
With the exception of the westernmost province where Kazakh is spoken, 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 from that for "hair" to the English ear! Makes for a good laugh over and over ...). Picking up a phrasebook and practising a few phrases will help. The numbering system is regular, and fairly easy to learn. Despite the government's efforts to promote the Mongolian writing system, the Cyrillic system is still the standard and being able to read it might help you.
If you can speak Russian you should not have any major problems communicating. Mongolia has had a long history of alliance with the Soviet Union, and Russia after the break up of the Soviet Union, so Russian is compulsory in all Mongolian schools and widely spoken in urban areas. English is not widely spoken, although it's been getting more popular lately.
Foreigners able to speak German should give it a try, as especially in the older generations there are folks that do speak it due to Mongolia's ties to the G.D.R. that caused many Mongolians to work and study in East Berlin.
Mongolia is a big country with bad transportation means, so trying to see too many provinces you would spend your holidays inside vehicles. Hôvsgôl (or "Hövsgöl") lake, in Hövsgöl province, is very beautiful, which can easily be accessed from Khatgal. There is not much architecture in Mongolia, but Amarbaysgalant monastery, Selenge province, in the middle of nowhere, is worth seeing. Interested by the economical aspect? See Erdenet's open copper mine, the biggest copper mine in Asia, in Orhon province.
The Trans-Mongolian Railway passes through the country.
The Mongolian currency is the tögrög (төгрөг), also spelled tugrik, tugrug or togrog, Unicode and local symbol: "₮", ISO symbol: MNT. There are around 2,600 tugrik for USD1 or MNT3,000 = EUR1.
The main diet in rural Mongolia is mutton or sheep. Beef might also hit the menu occasionally. Here, about MNT8,000-10,000 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 khuushuur (huushoor), which is a fried pancake stuffed with bits of mutton and onion. Three to four make a typical meal. Also, the ubiquitous buuz (booz) can be had at any canteen in town or the countryside. Buuz are similar to khuushuur in that they are big dumplings stuffed with mutton and onion, however they are steamed rather than fried. About 6 buuz cost MNT3,000-5,000 (USD1.50-USD2.00) and serves one.
The boodog or goat/marmot barbecue, is particularly worth experiencing. For about MNT100,000-200,000, a nomad will head out with his gun, shoot a marmot, and then cook it for you using hot stones in its skin without a pot. Along the same lines as boodog is khorkhog (made of mutton), 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 back side, put the food and hot stones inside, tie off the throat, and let it cook for about 30 minutes.
The legal drinking/purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18.
The national drink is called Airag. (It is available in for example in traditional mongolian "ger" tents in Ulan Bator at the main entrance of Gandantegchinlen Monastery, GPS decimal coordinates N47.92069 E106.89467 for 1500T and a the West Market N47.91118 E106.83569 for MNT1000 per bowl as of September 2010) 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 offputting 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).
If you are in Mongolia especially in the country side try their National Home Made Vodka. It's usually made from distilled yogurt or milk. It doesn't have any weird taste. After you have your first shot of the vodka you won't feel anything, but few minutes later it will get to your head. Most people in Mongolia usually drink this for medical reasons. First you heat up the vodka then put in a little bit of special oil which is also made from milk. Careful don't overheat it, you might get blind. Mongolians call their national vodka nermel areehk ("distilled vodka") or changa yum ("tight stuff"). There are lots of Russian type Vodkas sold all over the country. The best ones are Chinggis Khaan vodka, Soyombo and Golden Chinggis.
In Ulaanbaataar you can find most of Western beers, from Miller to Heineken. They sell Budweiser -- not American Bud but the Czech Budweiser. Local beer, such as Chingiss, Gem Grand, Borgio or Sengur is fine.
Some western-style accommodations are available in Ulaanbaatar, but they go for western prices. There are a few nice guest houses in UB for less than US$10 per night (even as cheap as 3,000 tugrik if you're willing to share a room), but they are crowded during the tourist season and hard to get into. Apartment rentals on e.g. AirBnB are much better and more affordable option than hotels or guesthouses.
Out in the countryside, most of the hotels are rundown leftovers from the Soviet era. A better option is tourist ger, set up by various entrepreneurial locals. Staying at one of these costs about MNT10,000 per person per night. They often include breakfast and dinner as well. When staying in one of these guest ger, the usual gift-giving customs can be skipped.
Finally, there are also ger-camps. Set up by tour-companies, many also rent gers to independent travellers. Unfortunately, they tend to be both expensive (>35 US$ per person per night with 3 meals) 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 or too close to a road.
In Mongolia, nowadays there are more 300 hotels and these are graded between 1 to 5 stars in the international standards Hotels holding 3 stars or more are for tourist service. 3 – 5 star holders must obtain special permission in order to operate. “Accommodation grading committee” consisting of the Ministry, travel industry associations and tourism researchers categorize an accommodation according to Mongolian standards.
Currently, 4 five star hotels: Shangri-La Hotel, Best Western Premier Tuushin Hotel (one of the Best Western international chain hotels, located next to the Mongolian parliament building), Terelj Hotel (set in the natural environment of the popular Terelj National Park, around 70km from Ulaanbaatar.) and Ulaanbaatar Hotel, three 4 star hotels: Chinggis, Kempinski hotel Khan Palace (German-based Kempinski Hotels took over the management of Khan Palace, renaming it Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace.) Ramada Hotel and Bayangol hotel.
Three stars 30 hotels and other hotels have one or two stars hotels are operating. Most hotels offered on a bed and breakfast basis and hotels have three types of rooms: a deluxe, a semiluxe, and a standard.
There are some language schools in the capital. The two best known ones to foreigners are Bridge School and Friends School. Both schools offer group study classes or individual tutors. Also the National University of Mongolia offers courses.
It usually takes Westerners about 9 to 18 months before they acquire good conversational abilities in Mongolian. Speakers of Turkic languages, such as Turks or Kazakhs, tend to pick it up quicker due to the similarities in grammatical structure.
There is 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-readers or photojournalists.
Volunteer work is available teaching English, assisting with charity work and joining archaeological digs. These jobs are easy to find and are very rewarding.
Unfortunately, xenophobia is rampant, and violence towards foreigners happens often. Violence is part of everyday life in Mongolia and especially in the capital violent crime rates are among the highest in Asia. Alcoholism is a huge social problem. Do not acknowledge or approach any Mongolian man under the influence of alcohol. Nearly all foreigners who go to bars / clubs at night report assault and general aggression.
Violent crime is common outside the capital city, caution is required at night, and dark or deserted alleys and streets, in particular, should be avoided.
Apart from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is generally a 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.
Corruption is a huge problem in Mongolia, and locals are convinced that the police are not to be trusted.
There are small bands of Mongolian ultra nationalists that style themselves as neo-Nazis who assault foreigners: be cautious.
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.
Many tourists are injured from falling off of horses. Mongolian herders are expert riders, thus their idea of a horse suitable for riding is quite different from most casual riders. Also, the horses are trained differently than in the west. If you are injured in Mongolia, you may be hundreds of kilometres from medical aid and ambulance service may be hard to obtain and consist of a Russian minivan or a helicopter pickup. Medical evacuation insurance is advisable.
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 and they may be rabid.
Nomads' dogs may have rabies. As a precaution, consider having a rabies shots before coming.
Marmots should not be eaten at certain times of the year because they can carry pnemonia. That said, the disease is carried by the marmot's fleas so the afflicted tend to be fur traders, and marmot is not a mainstream dish even in Mongolia.
Hepatitis and tuberculosis are common throughout Mongolia.
Mongols traditionally live on the steppes, breeding horses, just like their ancestor Genghis Khan. Not surprisingly, following Western pleasantries will not have the intended effect in Mongolia. That being said, there are still a few rules to follow. 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. You should never point at anyone with your index finger since it implies disrespect.
Whenever you approach a nomadic family, or enter a ger, you will, without knowing, break one or several of the many traditional, religious and superstitious customs. If you do become confused, don't panic, minor indiscretions will be tolerated and forgiven. The following do's and don'ts will help minimize cultural differences.
There are plenty of Internet cafés 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. Most Aimag Centers (Province Capitals) have an Internet Café in the post office.