Mongolia: What to Know Before You Go
Mongolia… even the name conjures images of Genghis Khan and his warriors galloping across the endless steppe. I have been dreaming of visiting Mongolia since I was a little Girl and in the autumn of 2016 those dreams became a reality. Tourism in Mongolia has been extremely limited until the early 90’s when the fall of communism finally allowed a trickle of adventures to venture into this mysterious country. Over the years Mongolia has enticed “off the beaten track” travelers due to its unique and relatively unexplored nature, a wide variety of untouched landscapes and wildlife, nomadic life style and culture.
Over the years I have kicked myself for not getting to some of those untouched places before they became too touristy. Like Ethiopia and Burma. I had opportunities to visit both countries several years back before they were on every photographers bucket list but sadly missed out. I had no attentions of letting Mongolia join that list of “I should have” destinations.
Luckily for travelers in the future, I think Mongolia has many years before it turns into an easy accessible tourist destination. Because of its remote location it’s like nowhere I have ever traveled to before. Being a nomadic culture it does not have some of the monuments and temples that many other countries have which is usually my starting point. When I started to plan my trip it was difficult to know where to start and what not to miss. The more I read about Mongolia the more I was inspired by the people and the faces, and I knew I just really wanted to sap up as much culture as I could.
Here are some of my suggestions if you are planning a trip to Mongolia in the near future.
What to See and When to Go
The weather in September was perfect with chilly nights and days in the 70’s but over the course of a month that would drop severely to 16 and snowy at nights. A warm sleeping bag is a MUST because the weather can literally change overnight. The weather is tricky in the winter it’s brutal, -40 brutal! And in the summer it can be very hot and filled with mosquitos. August and September are generally the best months to go. Come prepared for the weather. Boots, hat, jackets and warm sleeping bag did not go unused. Waterproof clothing is a must.
I found this part to be very difficult and like always I spent more money than I anticipated. Mongolia is not South East Asia and don’t expect to find those prices and deals. Mongolia is changing at a rapid pace and I felt like my beloved lonely planet was very out of date on prices and some all around things on Mongolia. Mongolia is not really on the main tourist trail as of yet but I think that is changing fast. For this reason the travel infrastructure outside the cities and major travel destinations is minimal at best. If you are not going on a organized tour (which is not my style, but they sure make things easier) then you will be hard pressed to find hotels, restaurants and even roads in some of the areas I was in. Outside the cities it is very tough. So as an independent traveler this makes thing difficult. I did meet people doing it. Taking local transportation, camping and so on but you will need a lot of time. Now if you had your own car and you were camping that would be pretty easy and cheap if you had a good GPS.
Finding A Local Guide
I don’t normally use guides, mostly because of budget but Mongolia will forever change my mind on this matter. As a photographer a guide can really take you to places where you could not get otherwise. I met people and had incredible experiences that would not be possible without a great guide. I paid about $100 a day. If you share this with a few people it’s not very expensive at all. Worth every penny. Then you would also need to hire a driver which is around $50 a day. Again things in Mongolia are changing fast, so this may not be the case forever. Of course there are so many guides. Having had a fantastic guide for some of the trip and then a really terrible one later on it’s important you do your research and try to find a great guide.
What to See
My favorite part was the Ulgii region (in the north with the eagle hunters) the mountains up there are incredible. There are a lot of national parks and wildlife areas so if you like to hike this is a fantastic area. I spent 4 days riding horses, which is a must. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to ride all-day and camp at night. Besides that it’s really all about the culture and meeting people and again this is where a guide can really help.
Hotels & Transportation
Outside the cities and major tourist areas…good luck. I spent a lot of time camping which is completely safe and you can camp most places. I also did a few of home stays which was one of the highlights of the trip. We organized a few days stay with the eagle hunters in the north which was incredible.
The More Time, The Better
Like always the more time the better, but Mongolia can be tough. Flights can book up early sometimes 6 months ahead of time during holidays and festivals and there are very limited seats on their domestic flight. Flights like ours can be canceled with no warning or fee so it’s good to have some extra time if you need to change things up a bit. Roads can be terrible and it can really take 5 days to drive some places.
I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable at all. I was traveling with my husband but I would do that trip again without him. I did meet many independent female travelers. Mongolia has a long history of some pretty bad-ass women so for the most part I think it is very progressive and violence against woman travelers is very rare
If you are up for an amazing adventure Mongolia will not disappoint. It’s a beautiful country with much to offer. Whether you are into horseback riding on the Mongolian steppe, hiking in some of the more remote places on earth or experiencing untouched culture, Mongolia is one of those places that should not be missed.
Contributor: Amy Vankanan
Some girls dream about their wedding day, Amy dreamt about a safari and the ruins of Machu Picchu. She left home with a backpack and a camera when she was 20 years old and has been traveling the world ever since. She has dedicated these travels to tell the stories of threatened cultures, people, wildlife and environments through photography. You can follow Amy's adventures on her website AdventureCalls.us and her instagram @amyvankanan