With heaven’s aid, I have conquered for you a huge empire.
But my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world.
That task is left for you.

Genghis Khan


Language restrictions or requirements 

Have you ever considered traveling to Mongolia? Or even to travel to Mongolia on your own, without any pre-organized tour? Then this article is for you!

Firstly, you need to be aware that the Mongolian language is not understandable, even if you speak some Russian. Knowing Cyrillic will help you read signs. However, the sound of words has no relation to any words or expressions you are familiar with. This means, you should consider bringing a translation book with only images, as pointing to an image with a house doesn’t require any common verbal language to communicate. Within the capital Ulaanbaatar, many people are able to speak English because of the many tourists. However, as soon as you consider leaving Ulaanbaatar, the level of English is very low if existent.

The way how I got around was to communicate a lot with landlords of hostels, as they are used to English for the tourists coming in. I asked the landlords how to get from A to B, what I need to take care of, and if there are any restrictions I need to consider. Whenever I was “on the road” without any guide, I tried to speak up to young adults, who I assumed to be in their teens, as they learn English at school. This is actually a very useful tip, this approach helped me a lot wherever I tried to get around.


Jumping on an organized tour as an individual traveler

Depending on the season, there are multiple tour organizers offering tours to any region of Mongolia, for more or less quality and money. If you want to preplan everything and secure your spot, you might contact tour organizers even before booking your flight. However, this is what I would only recommend if you desire to have a private tour, having an individual guide and no other travelers with you. Obviously, private tours are more expensive, no matter which organizer you pick.

If you are a larger group, like 4+ people who want to be on the same tour, it would also be useful to contact the organizer beforehand. Then they would most likely organize a guide, chef, and drivers for your group of people, for your dates, and fill up any remaining spots (if any in the cars) with individual travelers who request a tour. This way you save some money compared to a private tour. If you are just on your own, I suggest doing some preparation of your trip, to avoid any pitfalls which you might not think about last minute.

Preparing your trip to Mongolia

I mentioned the “individual traveler”, this was me when I entered Mongolia by train. Already when jumping off the train at Ulaanbaatar station, plenty of tour organizers approached me with their offers, trying to convince me to join one of their tours. This can be very overwhelming, so I highly recommend doing some preparative research beforehand:

  • How many days do I have available for a tour?
  • Do I have any fixed date when I will leave Mongolia (like train or plane ticket)?
  • Which region of Mongolia is a must to explore for me personally?
  • Which other regions would be interesting to check out?
  • Do I want to travel across Mongolia, including or excluding domestic flights?
  • Which regions are not relevant to me?

My preparation

My personal preparation was to read a travel guide of Mongolia (I personally prefer DuMont travel books) and check out TripAdvisor. I had 3 weeks of time available and considered this as a reasonable amount of time available to get on a tour of 10-14 days. My must-regions were the Gobi Desert and Central Mongolia. I didn’t consider to check out Eastern and Western Mongolia (the Altai region with its multiple lakes), since a flight would have been required, which I wanted to avoid. My “nice to have” destinations were the Lake Khovsgol with the town Khatgal as well as the Terelj National Park.

I did some research on TripAdvisor regarding tour providers for the Gobi and Central Mongolia. There are multiple providers available, I focused on those which are rated very high, have been operating for quite some years already, and consider your food requirements. The food is a very important part, especially since Mongolians often have meet with meet after meet, for most of the dishes. So if you have any dietary requirements, you should check whether the operators highlight that they will consider your requirements when preparing the food. Based on this research, I picked four operators as possible candidates and noted down their names.

As always during travels, when you are open to any conversation with other travelers, you get the best tips “on the road”. A girl who I met in Andong, South Korea, recommended me one tour provider which she went with and which she already got recommended by another friend. This operator was on my list, so I highlighted it to be my first choice when checking for possible tours.

First contact with tour provider

When I was in China, like 2 weeks before I took the train to Mongolia, I contacted the tour provider (Sunpath Mongolia) and asked if they have tours to the Gobi and Central Mongolia available within my time in Mongolia. Their response was the invitation to stay in their hostel, since I would be able to get first-hand information like this, and that there are plenty of tours which will head off almost every day. I was told to just show up and ask for the next available spots. This is what I did.

At the train station in Ulaanbaatar, I didn’t consider any offers, responded that I already have a booked one, and made my way to the hostel. There, I met the owner of the hostel and tour company who suggested me to even jump on a 12 days Gobi and Central Mongolia tour starting the next day. Indeed, I took the chance! After coming back from the 12 days tour, I still had enough days available to ask whether a tour to Terelj will take place during any of the next days. This was the case, and I also jumped on the (one-day) tour from one day to the next.


Exploring Mongolia without an organized tour

Taking a taxi

Maybe you need to go somewhere that is too far to walk. Perhaps you are aware that no bus would take you there, then you would need a taxi. There has not been any taxi company within Mongolia, everyone driving a car can take people and the price has to be negotiated before taking the ride. At that time, the conversion rate was 1000 Tögrög (€0.30) per 1 km of distance. Negotiating without any knowledge of the Mongolian language is not that easy, so whenever I required a taxi, I asked other younger Mongolians (mostly girls) to help me out.

Within Ulaanbaatar, the city traffic is heavy enough to be faster walking than driving if the distance is not too long. So before stopping anyone and negotiating, evaluate whether you might be able to walk that distance. If your hostel is located within central Ulaanbaatar, I highly recommend walking. As soon as you either need to go to outer suburbs of Ulaanbaatar or need to get to another town, you should take a taxi.

Taking a bus

Public busses within Ulaanbaatar

Within Ulaanbaatar, a public bus system is available. However, these buses are overcrowded, the direction and stops are not always straight forward and the bus will most likely stand for more time than drive. Due to the heavy traffic within Ulaanbaatar, all day long but specifically during rush hour, I highly recommend walking. If you really need to take a ride, rather consider taking a taxi, as the drivers might be able to take shortcuts which buses won’t take. I have never taken any public buses within Ulaanbaatar, I have only watched them pass by. From the outside, these busses looked quite old, (over-)used and not easily accessible (stairs). 

Long distance busses across Mongolia

You find the long-distance bus terminal (Dragon Bus Terminal) within a (rather ugly, industrial) outer area of Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia’s long distance buses are not built to be accessible, so if you are using a wheelchair, you won’t be able to take such a bus. Back in 2019, when I was in Mongolia, the long-distance buses were similar to those we had in Germany 15 years earlier.

If you plan to take a bus, you should consider buying your ticket one or two days ahead, to ensure your preferred timing, especially during high season and for popular routes. It is said that the schedule of buses would be available in English these days, however, the link must have changed in the meantime. In order to book online, you might still need a Mongolian bank account, so online booking is still not doable as easily. If there are limited buses available for a specific route, or you need to need a specific time, I recommend asking your hostel landlord to do the booking for you and pay her/him the money. If you may take any bus during a day, you could head to the bus station and check for the next available spot.

My personal experience

When I traveled from Ulaanbaatar to Mörön, I took a taxi to Ulaanbaatar bus station and asked for the next available spot on a bus to Mörön. Unfortunately, the next bus was booked out, so I had to wait for 4 hours to catch the later bus (whole-night-trip, 11-15 hours, in my case 13.5 hours). On my way back from Mörön, I wanted to be sure which bus to take, since I had to take a 1.5 hrs taxi ride from Khatgal to Mörön first. So my landlord booked the ticket for me and sent me all details, screenshots, tickets while I was using the hostel’s Wi-Fi.

As I highlighted, the time you will be on the bus cannot be easily predefined. They usually mention a time-range, since the condition of the ground (not street!) as well as the amount of breaks or the weather may have an impact. I don’t exactly know how the bus drivers orientate themselves, especially during dark hours. I was happy and relieved when I realized that we’ll arrive, without knowing whether the route we took was the least bumpy, shortest, or whatsoever. In this context, I highly recommend packing some snacks as well as whatever you need on a bumpy ride to not feel sick (which is coke in my case).


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