Let's see, where were we? Ah, yes, Mongolia.
I recently told the story of our 28 hour train journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar in a sandstorm and also posted a video recapping the best of our nine day trek across the central Mongolian steppe. While getting there was less than ideal, hopefully the video showed that the time we spent in Mongolia was not just a highlight of this trip, but of my life.
Such a life-changing experience has inspired me to share my best tips on how to turn a guaranteed fantastic trip into something beyond your wildest dreams.
First, I can't stress enough how strongly I recommend a trip to Mongolia. From the Gobi desert in the south to the vast steppe in the center to the lush forests and rugged Altai mountains of the west, the diversity and beauty of the landscape alone make it worth the trip. Combine this with super friendly folks, who are genuinely interested in sharing their world-famous heritage, and Mongolia becomes the stuff of unforgettable vacations.
Not convinced? If you are a traveler, I'm certain you will enjoy Mongolia especially if you are any one of the following types:
- Adventure Buff. Do you love hiking, camping, kayaking, horse riding, etc? Mongolia has enough to satisfy even the most rugged travel aficionado.
- Animal Lover. Missed your calling as a veterinarian? If you want to get up close and personal with goats, sheep, camels, yaks, dogs and even wild horses, look no further. For maximum cuddling opportunities, visit in May when all the new babies make their appearance.
- Off-The-Beaten-Path Seeker. Looking for a place far from hordes of tourists or craving something authentic and completely different? Consider Mongolia ground zero.
- Culture Fan. Do you enjoy learning how people in other countries live? Got a thing for history or Buddhist temples? Bingo.
Perry and I are a little bit of all four, which is a big reason Mongolia resonated with us so strongly. I wanted something a little wild with plenty of activity balanced with an insider look at a unique culture. Perry was keen to cross 'sleep in a yurt' (aka ger) off his bucket list. In addition, we both have had Mongolia on our minds ever since we listened to the outstanding Hardcore History podcast series Wrath of the Khans.
We had many reasons to go and I suspect you will have your own as well.
Tip #1: How to Pick a Tour Company?
It's not impossible to travel independently, but at the very least you will need a driver to help you reach destinations with difficult terrain. In my opinion, a guide is worth the cost because this isn't a 'city break' type of trip, so going deep into the countryside and connecting with local people and places is essential. While I can't speak about tour operators other the than one we used, I have spoken with fellow trekkers and perused reviews in an attempt to glean insights on how to choose.
I would start with determining the type of trek and duration. Do you want more mountain trekking or have you always wanted to ride a camel in the desert? We focused on the central steppe to experience the life of a nomadic family living in a yurt and were lucky enough to find a tour that also got us fairly close to the northern Gobi, allowing for a thrilling camel ride.
Our tour lasted nine days, although due to the size of the country and lack of comprehensive highway system, many people go for 14 or 21 days. With more time (and money!), you can have an in-depth visit to the Gobi or visit the western Altai mountains where they famously hunt with Golden Eagles. There are tours that focus on adventure sports and others feature more historical landmarks.
Tours span all price ranges so it's possible to take a weekend tour for a couple hundred dollars all the way up to a two week trek for a couple thousand. Prices can vary quite a bit so check reviews before you book. My advice is that I would be wary of the cheapest company but that doesn't mean you need to go with the most expensive option, either.
One popular way to book a tour is through a guesthouse or hostel in Ulaanbaatar. Our Swedish friends Bob and Johanna booked a 14 day tour through Sunpath Hostel and found the price affordable and the tour to be very good.
In the end, we went with Goyo Travel for several reasons. [Note: I did not receive any compensation from Goyo for the following comments!]
- They had the type of tour and dates we were interested in.
- They helped us find a shared tour with two other people which reduced our cost and exponentially increased our fun. Thanks Lily and Kwok, we miss you guys!! Top Tip: I highly recommend going with a small group, even if it's someone you just met at hostel in UB. They are probably like-minded people such as yourself so go for it!
- Glowing reviews. The folks at Goyo are well-organized and have excellent customer service.
- They offered what we perceived to be more creature comforts (ger camps with showers for two of our nine nights, tea/coffee making facilities on board the tour van, etc.)
Tip #2: Mentally Prepare Yourself: Outhouses, No Showers and Hard Beds
This will not be luxurious travel and the sooner you put yourself in that mindset, the better. I realize this headline might seem horrifying, but it's not meant to scare you off. If you mentally frame things that might not be 100% comfortable as part of an exciting adventure, they won't seem nearly as bad. I viewed the lack of niceties as part of the authenticity (Genghis Khan didn't use a flush toilet out on the steppe after all!) and simply expected it to be rough all the time, which it wasn't. You can imagine my delight the first time our driver served french press coffee in the morning or when I had a surprisingly decent hot shower at a Ger camp.
Sometimes, expecting the worst makes everything that much better.
Oh, and the food was WAY better than I had anticipated. I think they ask the hosts to avoid offal (internal organs, intestines, etc) and such which was nice. If you enjoy meat, particularly lamb, you will do well in Mongolia. We had beef, yak, goat and mutton in a variety of dishes, including soup, stir fried noodles, and Khorkhog, a dish barbecued with rocks collected from the river and heated in the animal dung fired stove.
One additional note about the food. It's pretty low fiber with very little produce except for a few root vegetables and a bit of fruit our tour operator packed in our goodie box. I was lucky that my fellow tour companions happened to be doctors who packed single serve daily fiber supplements (aka Metamucil) which helped keep things, um, real. Something to consider for your own pack list.
Tip #3: Packing Essentials Are ESSENTIAL
I say this as our tour operator provided a list of what to bring, and being the minimalist packer that I am, I thought they were more like 'nice-to-haves'.
WRONG! Learn from my mistakes and be sure to include the following:
- Layers/Appropriate Clothing. Crikey, the weather here is as variable as it gets. We arrived to 32F (0C) daytime temps with several nights dipping into the teens, requiring our hosts to build a fire in our yurt's stove in the middle of the night. Our last day was 90F (32C) and we sweltered as we toured one last monastery. We experienced a sandstorm and also had evenings that were so perfectly still, you could hear a cow moo from miles away. Finally, ladies, I recommend you bring only big girl briefs, as thong underwear will prove to be useless and potentially, um, damaging as I discovered after our three hour camel ride. Ouch.
- Headlamp. I saw this on our checklist and thought 'I can just use my iPhone' until my first trip to the outhouse in the dark. One, the light doesn't penetrate the black hole-esque darkness in Mongolia, and two, holding an expensive iPhone while balancing, pants down, over a hole in the floor that drops 15 feet into human excrement is the opposite of a good idea.
- Wet Wipes and Toilet Paper. While most treks will provide these items, I found I used them so much that I not only exhausted their supply but my small backup supply as well. Wet wipes are your 'shower' and trekking isn't like a day at the office. You are going to be outside around animals and hiking a lot, and you will be sweaty and dirty as a result. This is not the time to test how much dirt one wet wipe can absorb. As far as toilet paper, an outhouse isn't the place to practice your reduced paper wiping strategy. Bring lots, you will use it.
Tip #4: Get Out of UB Sooner Rather Than Later
Ulaanbaatar (UB), Mongolia's capital city (home to half the country's population) has a few places to visit, so don't skip it altogether, but you won't need more than a day or two to hit up the highlights- a couple hours at the excellent National Museum of Mongolia, a poke around Gandan Monastery, an evening performance by the Tumen-Ekh Folk Song & Dance Ensemble capped off by a look inside the State Department Store ought to be sufficient.
No disrespect to UB, but it's just not a place you want to linger. Mongolia's appeal lies in the countryside, so hop to it as quickly as possible.
Tip #5: What to Bring for Host Gifts?
There's nothing like breaking the ice with a gift.
And when you face your host for the first time, presenting them with a gift you are proud of will make the minor effort of seeking out suitable gifts very much worth it.
In Mongolia, hospitality is taken seriously. You will find your hosts consistently go above and beyond to make your stay comfortable and meaningful. One of our hosts always had a smile and hot cup of tea or coffee ready for us and also made sure we tried on traditional Mongolian robes for a special photo op.
While I wasn't embarrassed by the tin of butter cookies and jar of jam I presented, I did wish that I was able to offer something a bit more personal. Food is always a great idea and something unique and special from your hometown (BBQ sauce, chocolate, etc) will be memorable. After seeing one host with a Yankees ball cap, I realized some Minnesota Twins gear would have been a great idea.
I also suggest you ask for the ages of the hosts' children to ensure you procure age appropriate gifts, but bear in mind that most nomadic families send their older kids to school in the city, so unless you are there in the peak of summer when school is out, you likely won't see them which makes providing a gift unnecessary.
Tip #6: Prepare For Mind-Blowing Moments
While I had too many to count, my favorite was one clear night when I stepped outside our yurt for a quick peek at the stars and ended up staring intensely at the heavens for a long time. Instead of the usual array of stars, I witnessed a never-before-seen night sky filled with so many twinkling lights, they were visible all the way to the ground because there was zero light pollution.
It was like standing in a planetarium. Or being on another planet.
Thanks for reading!
Next time on Gobsmacked: My Best Moments in Japan