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I’ve travelled to a lot of poor countries where poverty in no way detracted from the enjoyment of the trip. There’s no real abject misery in Mongolia, but there is a kind of grim poverty and lack of development that leaves a visitor feeling rather depressed.

I travelled alone, and ran into some serious language difficulties. In general, Mongolians don’t speak any foreign languages. I could only get by with English – to an extent – in the capital.

I didn’t get ill, but so far as I can see, if you’re unlucky enough to suffer a serious illness in Mongolia, you’re in trouble. The hygiene standards in rural Mongolia aren’t great: no running water, and no refrigerators in yurts. On the other hand, you can drink fresh milk, and eat meat from freshly slaughtered animals.
I’m not the sort of traveler who likes to do a lot of shopping while abroad, but it still bothered me that there are virtually no shopping opportunities in Mongolia, and even buying daily essentials was a challenge.

I’d read about it before I arrived, but the huge difference in temperature between day and night still came as a surprise. Out on the steppes it could be 35°C during the day, then fall below freezing at night! Travelling in Mongolia in winter is not recommended, as temperatures can fall as low as -20-30°C.

There are few opportunities to change money – it’s important to bring plenty of US dollars
Vegetarians should avoid Mongolia, as the country offers few meat-free dining options.

Transport vehicles (buses, cars) are, almost without exception, in extremely bad condition. There are only a few car hire agencies where you can rent a new, reliable car.



Practicals

Transport

Driving:

,, When you leave the capital, Ulaanbaatar, you discover the end of the asphalt. You traverse into the rambling steppe that is the Mongolian farmland. The streets become soil ways that have such huge numbers of potholes and rocks, that you're mostly happier merely driving on the grass."

Bus in Ulaanbaatar

Bus tickets within Ulaanbaatar cost 500MNT (0.18 USD) only. You need to buy a U-money card in advance for around 4000MNT (The price may have had increased). You can charge it with the amount of your choice.

Bus lines are hard to use since they don't consistently run along a single street, or follow a single direction. The lines are only known by their final destination (a.k.a Zaisan), and a sense of general direction. Most tourists will choose to take taxi instead.

Mongolia - Ticket inspector on the train - j.k. photo

Ulaanbaatar - traffic police - p.a. photo

Accomodation

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Mongolia - Yurt hotel - c.h. photo

Food

Restaurants:

Restaurants (except the very high-end) don’t provide knives. They expect you to eat with a spoon and forks only. That can be an inconvenience for many foreign tourists.

There are many Korean restaurants (mainly to cater the South Korean tourist groups)

In the restaurants, bars, check prices before ordering.

Mongolia - Khuushuur (or Huushuur), large, fried, meat dumplings - n.a. photo

Mongolia - Boodog, barbecued goat - a.k. photo

Shopping

Money:

In Mongolia money only comes in paper, no coins.

Mongolia - Ulaanbaatar - Market - m.t. photo

Fun

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Mongolia - Ulaanbataar - Street performance at the market - p.w. photo

Public safety

In Mongolia, tourists very rarely fall victim to crime. But: petty crime such as pickpocketing and handbag theft may occur in the capital city's markets, especially the Narantuul market, in shopping centers, department stores, and close to well-known restaurants, pubs, and tourist attractions. In isolated cases, drunken local men provoke a fight against foreign tourists.

Even outside of the cities, there are isolated crimes of violence, robbery, and theft against tourists. In some sporadic cases, taxi drivers cooperate with criminals. When taking a taxi, always take a seat in the back seat and not allow other passengers to board.


Mongolia - tourist guide-police - o.h. photo

Mongolia - Security man - s.n. photo

Health

Tap water is drinkable in big cities, but tourists should prefer to buy bottled mineral water. Stay away from street food.

Others

1. Mobile phone coverage is more or less O.K. Coverage may be erratic in mountainous or remote areas.
Probably the best and cheapest mobile operator is Mobicom. You can buy a SIM card at the airport or - cheaper-  in Ulaanbaatar city center.

2. Ulaanbaatar lacks a coherent address system. When giving an address, people tend to give direction relative to well-known landmarks around the city. For example, telling someone to "go to the coffee shop next to the wedding center" is enough to find the place.

Background

Mongolia - national flag flash mob - on the left side you see the gold Soyombo symbol, that is their national emblem

Destination in brief

Mongolia in brief


 
Mongolia - a landlocked country - is commonly considered as located in Central Asia (some however refer to it as an East Asian country). Neighbors: Russia (north), China (south, east, west).
 
Size: 1,566,000 km2 (605,000 mi2)
 
Population: 3,2 million (2020 estimate) - Mongolia is the world’s 6th least densely populated country (2.04 people per square kilometer). Most of the country’s land is unsuitable for growing crops and more than half of the population lives in the capital city.
 
There are more horses (3 million) and about 4 times more sheep than men in Mongolia. The livestock live outdoors all year round, whether in the 30°C (86°F) summer heat or in harsh, −40°C (−104°F) winters.
 
Capital city: Ulaanbaatar (formerly anglicized as Ulan Bator), with a population of about 1,3 million. Ulaanbaatar means Red Hero.
 
Language: Mongolian is the official language (a so-called Mongolic language), and is completely different from Russian or Chinese  (true, Mongolians did loan many words from the Chinese - mostly nouns that are related to food). Mongolians write in Mongolian Cyrillic, which is written vertically.

The Mongolian language is not even remotely like Chinese. It isn't tonal; it doesn't utilize characters.
Mongolian is often described as 'harsh and guttural.'
Text spoken in Mongolian often is longer than spoken in English (noticeable when watching Mongolian videos with English subtitles).
In 2020, Mongolia announced a plan to revive the use of the traditional Mongolian script, which is still in use in Inner Mongolia, a northern province of China. Mongolians have already adopted English as an international language in favour of Russian, so it became inconvenient to use the Cyrillic alphabet that was adopted in the 1940s.

 
Religion: Mongolian Buddhism and Mongolian shamanism are traditionally dominant. Most religious people identify themselves as Buddhist, but at least 40% of Mongolians are atheists - a consequence of anti-religious pressure and the repression of Buddhism under communist rule (1924-1990).
 
Most frequent surname: Ganbold
 
Currency: tugrik or tögrök (MNT) – The Mongolian stock exchange is so small that it fits in the building of a former children’s movie theatre.
 
Average net monthly salary: about 190 USD (2020)
 
Mongolia is a safe tourist destination, but some culture shock related discomfort should be expected.  No compulsory vaccination is required.
 
Mongolia is not that expensive for tourists, but hiring a van with a personal driver is pretty expensive, which is important, since almost all tourist attractions are outside the urban areas.
 
The tourist season is between the middle of June and beginning of September. The rest of the year is too cold to enjoy traveling around.  Those who are only staying a few days should visit the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which is only about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the capital. There are organized stays with local families in comfortable yurts (a traditional round tent) so visitors can learn first-hand about the everyday, semi-nomadic life of the Mongolian steppe.
 
The Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape is a UNESCO world heritage site.
 
Mongolians insist that ice cream was invented in Mongolia. More than 700 years ago, their horsemen were carrying cream in animal intestines in on long winter journeys on horseback across the Gobi Desert, and it shook until it became ice cream. Nowadays, it is a profitable business for Mongolian entrepreneurs to produce and sell ice cream from yak’s milk.
The legendary Genghis Khan, who ruled over the largest contiguous empire in history (died in 1227), is truly worshipped as a national hero in Mongolia. He’s on banknotes, the main airport is named after him, and there is a square in his name in front of the Mongolian Parliament. Many hotels and buildings are also named after him.


Geography

A typical misconception about Mongolia is that they are part of China. The mistake comes from the fact that China has a vast, autonomous region called "Inward Mongolia." But, Inward Mongolia is outside of Mongolia – in China. External Mongolia is Mongolia, an independent county, a northern neighbor of China. Inward Mongolia borders Mongolia. 

Climate

There is extreme cold in winter and extreme heat in summer.

History

To most Mongolians, Genghis Khan is a hero, a symbol of national/ethnic pride. The Mongol national identity itself was born as the result of Genghis’ unification of the Mongol tribes. Under his leadership (during the 13th and 14th centuries), the Mongol Empire became the most powerful empire in the world, and it is the second-largest empire (after British Empire) to ever exist in the world. There is even a local beer named after him.

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“The cult of Genghis Khan is strong in Mongolia – it’s become practically the embodiment of national self-consciousness. At least there is some legitimacy to this since it was Genghis Khan who united the Mongol tribes and established the mighty Mongol Empire.

The greatest conqueror in world history was born around 1162 and, as they say, had a difficult childhood. His father was poisoned, he killed his half-brother, his wife Börte was kidnapped, his first-born son didn’t really know who his father was, and so on. Winning all sorts of tribal wars, he finally united the Mongol tribes in 1206 and the bloodthirsty conquest began, which eventually led to the largest empire on earth. It is true that in his lifetime the empire only reached only from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan, including much of China. In addition to the massacres, there were also positive aspects to his reign, including the unified political environment of the Silk Road, which allowed communication and trade between the West, the Middle East, and Asia. He introduced Mongolian writing, the first written code can be linked to his name, he banned corruption, allowed religious freedom in the conquered territories, and so on.

His successors then further expanded the empire, extending it from Kyiv to Korea, from Siberia to Central Asia, and to the Gulf of Oman. After his death, his empire was divided into khanates, and his successor became his son Ögedei. Even his grandchildren were conquerors. Batu (the child of a previously deceased son of disputed descent) was responsible for the Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe, and led the Golden Horde, while Kublai Khan occupied all of China, founding the Yuan Dynasty. The family tree, they say, runs to eight printed pages, and these are just the legal children they know of – there were obviously a lot more illegal births during the conquests – so allegedly 0.5% of the male population is genetically related, although of course, this is mostly speculation. (2017) "



Mongolia - 44 kilometers (27 mi) from the capital, Ulaanbaatar - Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue - Elter photo

Nowadays

There are significant corruption, fatal environmental, and health issues in Mongolia.

Most of the tourist visitors are Chinese, Russians, South Koreans. 

Mongolia - Ulaanbaatar - Blue Sky Tower - K Elter photo

People

The female beauty ideal is women with long breaded hair. There are even contests for long-haired women.

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People of Ulanbaatar often live their entire lives in their city, without ever moving to other (smaller) towns or regions in Mongolia. Moving from the city to the countryside is very rare.
Families tend to stay connected and tightly bound. Friends someone made in elementary school will still be around years afterward. In this way, Ulaanbaatar has the feel of a small town despite being a capital city.

Most of the education and job facilities are also strongly concentrated in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians of the countryside gravitate to the capital in pursuit of education, career, and other opportunities.

There is a bit of tension between longtime residents and new arrivals from the countryside. Residents regard the newcomers as boorish and uncultivated, while those from the countryside regard residents snobbish, snooty.


Mongolia - Ulaanbaatar - locals

Mongolia - Ulaanbaatar - young people

Mongolia - Ulaanbaatar - newlyweds - p.w. photo

Karoly Elter's photo

Tourist etiquette

1. There s no bargaining in Mongolia, not even in markets.

Gastronomy

Mongolian eating culture is very much meat-based. The appetizer is mutton with bones. Most locals handle that with a small knife. 

Chatsarganii shuus or sea-buckthorn juice is the favorite juice of Mongolians. They drink it cold or hot alike.

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About kumis:

“Unfortunately, the Mongolian tradition of drinking kumis, or ‘ayrag’, in the local language, is, alas, still going strong. I think I may end up writing a little Mongolian survival book. The chapter on kumis would look something like this: For the Western stomach, the alcohol content is negligible, but the taste and quantity served can quickly lead to problems. When it’s an old vintage, the taste is pretty sour and unpleasant, and the only thing likely to make you forget about it is the sight of dead flies suspended in the liquid. The fresh stuff, by contrast, can be quite good, at least so long as you don’t want to drink vast quantities of it. The problem is, you’re not likely to have many choices… The smallest cup that’s likely to be pushed into your hands is about a quarter of a liter, and the polite thing to do is drain it almost completely, then hand it back so it can be refilled and handed on to the next victim. By the fourth round of this, a drink which was never great, to begin with, is beginning to get genuinely unpleasant, but true despair only set in when the big Western traveler glances away and sees the huge plastic drum by the door, containing at least 80 liters of the stuff.

Since for some reason I had an upset stomach on the last day, I didn’t drink any more kumis, but even if you’re visibly sick, they’ll still press a cup (or five) of it into your hand. In addition to kumis, we also have to talk about the equally ubiquitous Aaruul, which is actually delicious when fresh, and a bit like cottage cheese, but when it’s old, you might end up needing dentures if you bite into it. The advantage of aaruul over kumis is that you can easily stack it in your pocket, and eat it much later, somewhere out on the steppe. Unlike kumis, the local vodka will get you drunk very quickly, and Mongolians, who have less tolerance for alcohol than most Westerners, are particularly susceptible. The other problem, in my experience (admittedly only one occasion), is that Mongolians like to drink to excess, and may become aggressive.”

Mongolia - Khorkhog, barbecue mutton dish cooked using hot stones - m.a. photo

Mongolia - Buuz, steamed dumplings filled with meat. - b.r. photo

Attractions

Ulaanbaatar

PRONOUNCED OO-LAN-BAH-TER (NOT OO-LAN-BAY-TAR)

Ulaanbaatar is the only major city. About half of the population lives here.

Ulaanbaatar is, in its way, an exciting city, settled in a valley, encompassed by moving slopes. A dynamic city, as it is under consistent development, eager to prove that Mongolia is quickly developing economy.

Choijin Lama Temple in Ulaanbaatar

That is a highly recommended attraction in the very center of the city.
It’s one of the few old religious buildings that survived Stalinist anti-religious purges that happened in the 1930s in Mongolia.

Ulaanbaatar - Palace Of The Government Of Mongolia On Sukhbaatar Square - Karoly Elter's photo

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