Posted by Selena Travel / 03 02, 2024
Mongolia offers some of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes that a person could hope to experience--desert, steppe, rivers and lakes, taiga forest, and mountains. However, travel within Mongolia is not at all what one might assume it to be. When I initially came as a tourist, I came with far too many assumptions and mis-expectations. In the hopes of better preparing future visitors, I’d like to share a few insider tips and observations to ease your travel and make your preparations more intentional.
Distance and Time are not a simple Equation
As you are planning your trip or reading through your itinerary you may have questions about the time you are quoted for travel in comparison to the distance listed or that which you can see on the map. Please listen to your guide/driver or tour company in this regard. They KNOW the roads and distances!
The way you are accustomed to traveling in the U.S., or Canada, or most Western nations is not how travel works in Mongolia. Once you are outside of Ulaanbaatar, most travel, even if on paved roads (which is a small minority), will take more time than expected. You may be traversing creeks, mountains, or rocky, rutted terrain. This requires time and careful execution by your skilled driver. They will get you anywhere you want to go, but it will take more time than you think!
Additionally, if you are someone that suffers from motion sickness, do bring motion sickness medication with you. I always keep some tucked in my day pack.
Where, oh where, can I pee?
I expect for male travelers this topic is not as of great importance as it will be for the ladies. As a woman I have never thought about peeing as much as I did, and yet do, while traveling in Mongolia. There are two parts to this topic.
First, if you are in Ulaanbaatar or another city, please note that there are very few public toilets to use or access (gas stations do not have a public restroom for your use!). If there is one available, it will rarely have toilet paper stocked. It’s smart to carry a small packet of tissues on your person at all times. They are sold widely at all super or mini markets within the country, often right at the checkout counter. Anytime you are at a restaurant or a coffee shop take advantage of the access and use the restroom! Certainly, do so just before you leave your hotel as well.
Relieving oneself while in the countryside is a somewhat different matter. Most of your travel outside of the capital will include a great bit of off-roading (approximately 80% of Mongolia’s roads are NOT paved). Most of your off-roading will also occur in wide open spaces with little or no vegetation or terrain features behind which you can be shielded from your fellow travelers or other vehicles on the roads. My advice on the matter is for the men to walk towards the front of the vehicle, allowing the ladies to go behind the van or SUV. And if you see a terrain feature in the distance and are going to be passing it--make use of it.
A final thought on this topic--DO be sure you stay hydrated. In my initial travels I suffered from mild dehydration because I hadn’t worked out a comfort-level with the bathroom business. Mongolia is a dry, arid climate and you won’t notice perspiring all that much. It’s easy to become dehydrated. Make sure you consume water on a regular basis and simply accept the reality (and be prepared for) your necessary pit stops.
Dental Floss--Keep it at the Ready!
My father and I learned early in our travels that it was necessary to have dental floss on-the-ready after most every meal! As compared to our standards, the meat in Mongolia can often be chewy and tough. It can also be flavorful and I certainly recommend you try all of the Mongolian staples (Khuushur, Buuz, and Tsuivan), but know that you will need to be attentive to your teeth after the fact. Every restaurant has toothpicks available and Mongolians are adept at using them, but for someone like myself who has crowns, a toothpick is not enough! I carry dental floss everywhere I go in Mongolia and I strongly recommend you do the same (or dental piks, or whatever your dental accessory of choice may be).
As every Mongolian will tell you, summer in Mongolia is the best! It’s true, and that’s why most tourists visit between May and October. When it comes to planning your attire for traveling in the countryside (and even in the city), there are a few important things to keep in mind.
While many summer days will be in the 60-80-degree Fahrenheit/15-17-degree Celsius ranges, night time on the steppe can be considerably cool. Be sure to pack layers that you can put on, and peel off, as necessary. Summer rain storms can blow through quick and dirty, or on a rare occasion you might have steady rain or drizzle for a day. It’s not a bad idea to keep a rain poncho tucked away somewhere--but nothing bulky.
Additionally, while it might not be especially hot on the temperature scale, the sun in Mongolia can be intense. It’s wise to keep sunblock in your travel gear, and a boonie style hat and sunglasses are also advantageous and useful.
You gotta go with the Flow!
While most travelers develop the ability to “go with the flow” or “roll with the punches,” I think it’s especially important to have that skill while traveling in Mongolia. Be prepared for delays or changes in your itinerary and unexpected interruptions. Your vehicle could need work, the driver/guide may be late because of traffic, a rainstorm might blow through, and sometimes places that are expected to be open, just aren’t.
While a delay or change can cause anxiety or frustration, I encourage you to look for the silver lining. What happens when things go differently might just be more fun, unique, or memorable than the original plan.
My father and I couldn’t fish one day because of vehicle problems (we got stuck in the river!) and then because of rain and lightning. Instead of the planned activity, we had an impromptu afternoon picnic on the porch of the restaurant at our ger camp. We watched the weather while sipping vodka and trading stories with our guides and driver. It was great fun and one of our best memories of the trip!
Photo credits to Heather Caveney
“Carpe diem” is the best attitude for Mongolia. Mongolians are good at being present--being with the people and the place. Foreigners should follow their lead on this matter. Happy Travels!