One of the few countries in the world that has not been colonized by a Western nation, Mongolia is just waiting to be explored and experienced; no walls can stop you! From the steppes in the east and to the Gobi Desert in the south to the forests in the north and the mountains in the west, adventure travel is part of everyday life for visitors and locals alike in Mongolia. Ride along the historical hoofsteps of Genghis Khan, experience the true meaning of community, try your luck at the nomadic life, and test the limits of your travel and adventure definitions.
The four cardinal points of Mongolia are as contrasting in their extremes as temperatures are throughout the year. Getting to each region is adventurous travel on its own, so focus on one area and get ready for the adventure (or take the route more traveled and opt to fly).
The Gobi Desert is unlike any other, with moving red sands, camel herders, and endless dunes. This is a prime location for off-roading through sandscapes, riding two-humped Bactrian camels, and staying with a Mongolian family in their ger (yurt). In the summer months, temperatures in the Gobi Desert can reach 40 degrees Celsius and shade is sparse. August and September are the best times to visit, as the weather is cooling down, but isn’t too cold yet.
As you move east from Ulaanbaatar, there are the sacred mountains of Khenti (the rumoured birthplace of Chinggis Khaan) and endless prairies, grass rolling in the wind. For those who want to stay in a ger and ride horses in what is probably the most “Mongol” landscape, opt for the iconic steppes of the east.
If these areas of Mongolia aren’t sparse enough for you, head west and experience the most-scenic and least-traveled portion of the country. Here, there are rare animals (snow leopards!), isolated ethnic communities, and snowcapped mountains that offer more than just spectacular hikes. The local Kazakh people will always have a cup of warm, salty milk tea ready for guests, and will be more than happy to show off their skills in the Golden Eagle festival that is held in this region every year. Traditional games, costumes, and rituals make this a guaranteed-fun event.
For those with extra days in their travel itineraries, check out Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of the Mongolian empire. It is located in the south of Mongolia, and is a great peek into the traditions of the Mongolian people and how their lifestyle has evolved over the last 1000 years.
Adventure Travel Programs in Mongolia
Wild landscapes and outdoor activities are the definition of adventure travel, and there is hardly a better place for these than in Mongolia. Sleeping under the stars and experiencing the herder life is the norm in the Land of the Blue Sky, by far one of the best places to get off the beaten path.
Living the Nomad Life. Probably the most popular choice among those looking to stay a while in Mongolia is to live with a herder family outside of Ulaanbaatar. Homestay guests can help with daily chores, such as fetching water, taking care of the herds of goats and sheep (or killing some for dinner), and helping with food preparation. Homestays are best for those who are up for some hard work, sleeping under the stars, and escaping technology.
Horseback Riding. It is traditionally said that "A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without the wings.” Dating back thousands of years, and helping Genghis Khan conquer most of the known world, Mongolians have a strong tradition of horseback riding. Some adventure programs in Mongolia allow travelers to help small tourist businesses who lead horse treks, while others allow visitors to help prepare and learn about the horseback races during the summer festival of Naadam. Mongolia's equine population outnumbers its human one; tap into your wild side as you run with mustangs (or just watch from the sidelines, which is still just as impressive!).
Trekking. With so many different types of geography in Mongolia, there are hundreds of opportunities to go on treks. Longer hikes go across multiple regions of Mongolia, showing off desert, steppes, and mountains. These often include a lot of car riding, but also multi-day hiking, and a night or two with a Mongolian herder family in a traditional yurt. The shorter treks are easier to plan and more affordable, but a week offers only a glimpse into all of the natural splendor of Mongolia.
Costs & Affordability
The main industry of Mongolia is tourism. During the summer, the whole country is geared up to receive multitudes of adventure travelers. The affordability of adventure travel programs in Mongolia varies significantly and largely depends on the type of activity, duration, inclusions, and location. As a rule, adventure travel programs in Mongolia become more expensive further away from Ulaanbaatar, but the experiences will also be more authentic and wild.
The national currency, the Mongol Tugrik, converts to about 2000 Tugriks to $1. Daily expenses, such as groceries, food, and ground transportation, will be cheap; eating local yak dumplings or fried noodles will only set you back a few dollars. If you get tired of red meat, there are also foreign restaurants and grocery stores, but be aware that these will be more expensive than local markets and cuisines. Be sure to save some extra Tugriks for ice cream, as legend has it that Mongolian horsemen invented it years ago by accident!
Accommodation & Visas
While the visa process is a mere shrug of the shoulders, accommodation in Mongolia might prove to be a whole other adventure in and of itself. Get ready for some bonding time with the land and its people!
No adventure in Mongolia is complete without staying for at least one night in a ger. Traditionally, gers are simple tents built around the nomadic lifestyle. For the more tourist-oriented ger experiences, measures have been taken to ensure basic comforts, such as electricity (although keep frequent electrical outings in mind) and options for heating. It’s always a good idea to bring a flashlight, a padlock if you want to lock up belongings, and some extra toilet paper. A few campgrounds offer limited internet, but don’t rely on this! Indulge in good food (lamb hot pot, anyone?) and conversation instead.
Since a lot of adventure travel in Mongolia, such as hikes and horseback riding, are on the move, camping is a common accommodation option. Most adventures in Mongolia offer transportation of ger tents, but it’s always a good idea to pack a weather-proof sleeping bag and a basic survival kit. In larger cities, there are hostels based in apartments that are generally centrally-heated with simple bunk beds.
For most nationalities, advance visa applications are not needed to travel to Mongolia. Mongolia gives out tourist visas for up to 90 days for free for the majority of nationalities. Contact your nearest Mongolian Embassy for more information.
Benefits & Challenges
Meat, Meat, Meat. Mongolian meals tend to be based on red meat. Chicken is not popular in Mongolia, as chickens freeze in the winter and are expensive for the average Mongolian. The main meat served is mutton or goat, and it has a very gamy taste that may be foreign to Westerners. For vegetarians and fragile palettes, Mongolia’s cuisine might be difficult. The best way to enjoy Mongolian food is to dive headlong in, because if you look at what you’re eating you might regret it! But hey, that’s a part of the adventure, right?
Convenience. Because of its remoteness, there are a lot of unexpected issues in Mongolia that take a lot of time to resolve. Most of these inconveniences involve car trouble. Mongolians are incredibly adept at repairing their car, even out in the middle of nowhere, but it can take time and set back your trip one to seven hours. Just be patient and you’ll get to where you need to be.
Hospitality. One of the sacred laws that Genghis Khan wrote was to accept guests for dinner, and this tradition still lives today. Wherever you find yourself in Mongolia, if you are in need of food and a roof, Mongolians are always willing to oblige. Do expect this to work both-ways, but know that you will always leave with a new friend and another story to tell.
Camels, gers, archery, a mighty empire that stretched from Korea to Germany, and mutton galore, Mongolia is an adventure traveler’s paradise. Whether you want to trek, find out what it’s like to live as a nomad, or horseback ride, the Land of the Blue Sky is the perfect adventure.