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!

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Pre-Planning

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.

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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.

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Image courtesy of The Wandering Angel under CC BY 2.0

Accommodation

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.

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Transportation

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.

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Image courtesy of yeowatzup under CC BY 2.0

Itinerary

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!

Tibet is a magical place! Visit this part of China, and you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. The plateau, bounded by the Himalayas to the south and west and the Thanggula mountain range to the north, can be a harsh climate to live in. In fact, some parts of the region are as-yet uninhabited. However, you’ll have a fantastic time exploring the beautiful landscapes and traditional villages, taking a Himalayan tour, learning about the history and having a totally unique holiday.

The thing is, the Chinese government is strict about allowing tourists into Tibet. You will need to acquire permits, and you won’t be able to travel on your own; you’ll need to have a guide and sign up for a licensed tour. Technically the permit is free, but most tour agencies will charge you $100+ for it, and you’ll need to apply for the permit a couple weeks before you plan to visit the region.

So why go?

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Image courtesy of Rosenzweig under CC BY 2.0

Teahouses

Teahouses are an excellent way to get involved in the local Tibetan culture, as they are an important place for Tibetans to socialize, meet friends and hear the news. There are two kinds of Tibetan tea: salted or sweet. The Tibetan butter tea, or pöcha, is a bit of an acquired taste that doesn’t appeal to a lot of tourists. A lot of people describe the taste as similar to a blue cheese, but if you imagine it as a kind of cheesy soup, you might find it delicious after some time spent in the Tibetan cold.

Sweet tea is a relatively new concept in Tibet and was originally reserved only for the rich since both the tea and the sugar had to be imported and were quite scarce. Now you should be able to find sweet tea at many cafés, and although not entirely cultural, this can be a great thing to drink while enjoying some time in a teahouse and warming up.

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Architecture

When you think of the best places in the world for architecture, Tibet may not be on your list, but only if you’ve never seen a picture of Potala Palace. This structure, rising above the city of Lhasa, was once the home of the Dalai Lama and currently houses a museum. It’s an immense building, truly a wondrous feat of architecture. Make sure you head up to the roof for some spectacular views of the surroundings!

To see a different side of Tibetan architecture, you should definitely head out to Palcho Monastery. Kumbums, or tiered buildings with separate chapels on each floor, are peculiar to Tibetan Buddhist architecture, and Palcho Monastery is one of the largest such structures in Tibet.

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Image courtesy of Rainer Haessner under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Pilgrimage

Religion is an important part of Tibetan culture, and no place exemplifies this more than Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa.  Originally constructed in the mid-seventh century, this is considered one of the most sacred places in Tibet and is the spiritual center of the Yellow Branch of Tibetan Buddhism. Head into the central hall to see the life-sized Buddhist statue and the pilgrims prostrating themselves before it. You will also see many pilgrims circling the temple on Barkhor Street in a devotional ritual.

If you have more time, visit Samye Monastery, the oldest monastery in Tibet and birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism. Traveling from Lhasa, it will take about a day to get out to the monastery, but it’s well worth the trip. Not only is the monastery itself of interest, but the surroundings of barren mountains and sand dunes lend a stunning backdrop to the building.

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Image courtesy of Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn) under CC BY 2.0

Everest

You can approach Everest through either Nepal or Tibet. Be aware that this plan is not for the faint of heart: it’s a long drive from Lhasa, and you’ll need to arrange separate permits in addition to your general permit to travel in Tibet. Even if you plan to go no further than the base camp, you might find it difficult to cope with the altitude, so make sure you’re aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness and bring along the appropriate medications in case they’re needed. But if you make the trip, you’ll enjoy stunning views of Everest and will get to explore little villages along the way, plus you’ll get to meet a lot of cool people during the journey.

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Image courtesy of Dennis Jarvis under CC BY 2.0

Tibetan New Year and Festivals

If you have the chance, don’t pass up the opportunity to visit Tibet during the Tibetan New Year. This is the most important festival in the Tibetan calendar. Thousands of monks flock to the cities, where there are plenty of special activities and events marking the occasion. The first three days are the most important days of the celebration, which lasts approximately two weeks. This is the time when Tibetans prepare for and then celebrate the New Year with much merriment and delicious food!

Although the New Year is the most important of Tibetan festivals, there are plenty of other festivals held throughout the year. These can be a great way to explore the local culture and traditions, so if you have the chance, don’t pass up this unique opportunity to get involved!

There’s no doubt that taking a trip to Tibet can be a challenging endeavor due to all the paperwork and planning that you have to do prior to your trip, but if you get everything sorted out, you’re in for the trip of a lifetime. Tibet is a truly special place, from the buildings to the landscapes to the history, and the people are extremely friendly and welcoming. You’re guaranteed to have a spectacular time.

Morocco is a popular travel destination, known for its stunning scenery, exotic food and intriguing culture. However, if you only have a weekend in Morocco, it can be difficult to decide where to go and what to do. Here’s a quick introduction the most beautiful and unique destinations in Morocco to help you decide where to spend your 48 hours.

The Busy City: Marrakech

Marrakech is the first stop for many travelers to Morocco. From the stunning architecture to the vibrant atmosphere, this city is an excellent place to spend 48 hours. It offers a great taste of Moroccan culture, with its kaleidoscopic array of colors, shops and more.

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Image courtesy Anton Zelenov under CC BY-SA 3.0

Top Things to Do:

  1. Explore the Medina

No visit to Marrakech would be complete without a visit to the chaotic medina, or market. You’ll likely find yourself overwhelmed by its unique odors, sights and sounds! Here, you’ll find everything from colorful fabrics to unique spices—plus people in every direction as they complete their shopping, have a meal or visit with friends. It’s sure to be one of the most exhilarating shopping experiences of your life.

  1. Admire the Koutoubia Mosque

Although Marrakech—and Morocco as a whole—is home to many stunning buildings and mosques, the Koutoubia Mosque is one of the most popular and memorable. Day or night, you can view this architectural masterpiece. Take a stroll through its lush gardens, and marvel at its beauty.

  1. Relax in the Hammams

Hammams, or public baths and spas, are a great way to relax after a long day spent wandering through the medina. They usually contain baths of varying temperatures, where you can relax or receive various treatments performed with black soaps and scrubs. The experience can leave you feeling refreshed, but be forewarned: hammams may not be comfortable to the shy individual, as hammam attendees typically remove their clothes upon entry.

 

The Adventure: Sahara Desert

The Sahara Desert is the perfect place to go if you’re looking for something more adventurous and away from the city. There are many amazing treks and tour groups that will take you out camping in the desert or to an oasis. The breathtaking beauty of the Sahara makes this one of the most stunning weekend getaways in Morocco.

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Top Things to Do:

  1. Go on a Camel Trek

If you choose to visit the Sahara Desert, be sure to arrange a camel ride, one of the quintessential Saharan experiences. Just be careful: they spit! The incredible silence and solitude that you’ll find in the desert, far from your home, will leave you feeling totally awe-inspired.

  1. Explore the Berber Villages

Throughout the Sahara, you will find Berber villages. Many tour groups or trekking guides will take you to a village to see how daily life is. They may even allow you to prepare a meal with a Berber family! Experiencing the ways of life of the Berber people is incredibly fascinating, and you’re sure to create memories that will stick with you for a lifetime.

  1. Go on a 4×4 Ride

The Sahara is full of sand dunes and not much traffic, making it one of the most amazing places in the world to ride a 4×4. Given the tons of open space, it’s even possible to go on a night ride. This is an unforgettable experience for the thrill-seeker.

 

The Cultural Experience: Fez

If you want to explore a city that is not quite as overwhelmingly large as Marrakech, then this is your place! Fez’s winding alleyways give it a magical feeling that will take you back in time.

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Image courtesy Torrenegra under CC BY 2.0

Top Things to Do:

  1. Get Lost in the Souks

The souks, or shops, of Fez are a must-see.  The medina (again, market—learn this word!) is full of tiny passageways where you can find everything from beautiful rugs to camel heads for sale. It is the best place to get lost, wander aimlessly and see what surprises hide around every corner.

  1. Smell the Tanneries…or Not

Fez has some of the oldest tanneries, or leather-making and dyeing factories, in the world. The smell of the factories is quite pungent, but most tanneries will hand out mint to hide the odor. The experience might sound odd, but it is also incredibly intriguing and beautiful in its own way.

  1. Enjoy Moroccan Cuisine

Fez is full of amazing restaurants where you can find traditional Moroccan food—everything from delicious tagines, to couscous, to unique street food. You can even try your hand at a cooking class so you can bring a little bit of Morocco back home with you!

 

The Relaxing Getaway: Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen is perfect if you want to slow down and relax a little. It’s a picturesque city known for its unique architecture and blue-tinted buildings. Although size-wise it’s still a city, it has a smaller, quainter, feel to it than Marrakech or Fez.

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Image courtesy Steffan Jensen under CC BY-SA 2.0

Things to Do:

  1. Go on a Hike

There are several hikes near Chefchaouen that are suitable for all levels. The most popular is the hike to Akchour, a stunning waterfall. It’s important to take safety precautions and know where you’re going. As long as you prepare a little, the hikes of Chefchaouen can be a great way to lose yourself in the natural beauty of Morocco.

  1. Walk through the Medina

As you may have noticed, Morocco is full of medinas and souks to explore; however, each city puts its own little twist on them. The medina of Chefchaouen is much smaller and easier to navigate than many larger cities’ medinas. The calm and relaxing environment makes it the perfect place to spend an afternoon strolling and shopping.

  1. Relax

There is so much to see, do and taste when you come to Morocco, but if you’re looking to get away from it all, Chefchaouen is a tranquil city where you’ll find you just want to wander around, relax and soak in the atmosphere. Whether you choose to stop by a coffee shop for mint tea and people-watching or amble around exploring the cute blue buildings, you should find the peace that you desire in Chefchaouen.

Morocco has so much beauty and culture to offer that it can be overwhelming to decide where to go. Hopefully, you now feel a little more confident and ready to take on Morocco. Whether you decide to go on a camel-riding adventure, relax in the hammams or anything in between, I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed.