Mongolia is a special country in Central Asia that boasts the lowest population density in the world—only about two people per square kilometer! As most of the country’s population lives in its capital city, Ulaanbaatar (UB), you could go days trekking through the Mongolian countryside without seeing anyone except the people you’re traveling with. Because of this, backpacking through Mongolia isn’t for the faint of heart, but with a little patience, you’re guaranteed to have a remarkable time exploring this fascinating country!
One thing that can be frustrating to those looking to backpack around Mongolia is that there isn’t always a ton of information to be found online. This is both because Mongolia’s tourism industry is still growing, as well as because oftentimes plans are made in person in Mongolia. While this may initially annoy you, you’ll come to understand the reasons for it. Mongolians do very little planning when they themselves travel, and Mongolians like to do business with people they “know” and trust (because they’ve met in person). You can certainly find some information online, but you might find it’s best to fly into the country, book a few nights in UB and then start figuring out the logistics.
One thing you may need to figure out before you arrive in the country is a visa. If you’re coming from the US, you can legally enter Mongolia for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa. For other countries, including the EU member states and Canada, you can usually enter for up to 30 days. Once you arrive in Mongolia, you may be able to extend your visa for another 30 days.
When to Go
You’ll want to time your trip carefully. Mongolia’s climate is not dissimilar to Siberia’s in many ways, and UB is actually known as the coldest capital city in the world! During the winter, temperatures frequently drop well below freezing, and there’s often a biting wind to go with it. You also may have a difficult time finding transportation or tour groups during the winter, which can make it expensive for a solo traveller, although you’re usually fine in a group.
In the summer, temperatures can be quite warm and comfortable. No matter when you go, though, remember that most of Mongolia is at a relatively high altitude—UB itself is at 4,300 feet above sea-level—and mostly arid, so you’ll want to drink plenty of water and factor in possible altitude acclimatization into your backpacking plans.
The further you travel outside the cities in Mongolia, the fewer accommodation options you’ll have. In UB, you’ll have your pick of hostels, guesthouses and hotels. Mongolia can be rather inexpensive to travel, and a bed at a local hostel or guesthouse wouldn’t cost you more than $5-15 per night. In other cities such as Erdenet or Darkhan, you probably won’t find many hostels, but you will have options for guesthouses and hotels.
Heading out of the cities, you’ll be able to find ger camps in most of the major tourist sites such as Gorkhi-Terelj National Park or the Gobi Desert. These will usually cost about $20-35 per night but will often include meals in the price. If you strike out off the beaten path, you may have the opportunity to stay with locals in their ger. Mongolians are very friendly and welcoming, and a difficult life on the harsh steppes has made them a very hospitable people. Or know that you can legally pitch a tent nearly anywhere in Mongolia, as most of the land is publicly-owned.
If you’re staying at a hostel in UB, they can usually set up a tour for you or will know someone else who can, and there are plenty of tour operators based in the city who can help you out! If you’d rather go it alone, you can often fly or take a train between major cities, but you’ll probably want to rent a car (and likely a driver as well!). Although you could forego the driver, Mongolian roads and storms can be difficult to navigate. Plus, your driver can be of great help in finding accommodation for the night. Don’t expect the driver to always speak great English, but there is a growing number of English-speaking guides or Mongolian-English translators.
If you’re trying to get around Mongolia on a budget and have a little time and patience, you can—and should!—try hitching a ride. This can be more difficult depending on where you are (eg. in the middle of the Gobi), but if you can afford to wait a day or so, drivers will generally stop for you, and you might be surprised at what shakes loose.
When it comes to planning where to go, the sky’s the limit! You’ll probably want to spend at least a couple days in UB, which has some great museums, monasteries, as well as tons of festivals. If you’re on a time crunch, the closest national park is Terelj, where you’ll find many trails to hike along. Check out the park’s main sights, the “Turtle Rock” and “Praying Lama Rock.” Keep your eyes and ears peeled; 250 species of birds roost in the park!
If you’ve got a bit more time, head to the Altai Mountains, located at the crossroads of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China. These mountains are untouched by the modern world and offer a unique experience for the physically-fit and adventurous traveler. Or head south to the Gobi and spend some time wandering through the desert, viewing ancient dinosaur remains, sledding down sand-dunes and exploring how locals have traditionally existed in this difficult climate. The options are endless.
Some people call Mongolia the last great frontier, and that definitely rings true in many ways. Westerners often only know about the country’s nomads, horses and national hero, Ghengis Khan (locally known as ‘Chinggis Khan’). But that’s doesn’t nearly do justice to this fascinating culture. There’s no denying that there is a charm to this country that transcends the ages and makes it a mesmerizing place to backpack through. Don’t stress the details and go with the flow, and you’ll have a wonderful time there!