Guide to Backpacking in Mongolia

Guide to Backpacking in Mongolia

In this guide we will tell you all about travelling in Mongolia on a budget, including what to see, where to stay and how to get there.

Why Visit?

Mongolia is probably the most unique and visually stunning country you will ever visit. It is the most sparsely populated country on the planet, and the feeling of being truly isolated while travelling through the Mongolian countryside is one that is hard to describe. The generous locals, incredible scenery, and stunning nighttime skies make Mongolia truly unique – even if the food is terrible!

A storm rolling across the Mongolian steppe
A storm rolling across the Mongolian steppe

Must-See Places

Ulaanbaator

You will probably spend a couple of days in Ulaanbaator before heading out into the countryside, and while it doesn’t obviously have the natural splendour of other parts of the country, there is still plenty to see. Check out Chinggis Khan Square where local kids cruise around in electric toy cars and head to the National History Museum for an interesting look at Mongolia’s past.

Naadam Festival is held in Ulaanbaator on 11 and 12 July every year. If you are visiting during this time, make sure you book ahead! For tips on doing the Naadam Festival on a budget, check out our Naadam Festival guide.

TRAVELATOR TIP: If you are in need of a ‘treat’ meal, head to Hazara Restaurant for an incredible Indian feast. It is some of the best Indian food we have eaten! The bill for all we could eat and a couple of beers was around US$50 for two people.

The Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert stirs up all kinds of Marco Polo fantasies – and for good reason. The sheer isolation of the Gobi is incredible, and staying in a family ger under the desert sky is an unforgettable experience. Highlights include the White Stupa, the Khongor sand dunes and the Red Cliffs. Make sure your tour is visiting these amazing places!

TRAVELATOR TIP: There is pretty much no public transport in the Gobi, so we would strongly recommend hopping on a tour (although we did meet some intrepid travellers who had bought motorbikes and even horses to do it themselves!). Expect to pay between US$40 to $60 per person per day for a tour (all inclusive). Some less reputable guesthouses can quotes prices that exclude things such as fuel for the vans or food for the drivers, so be wary if a quote sounds too good to be true. We highly recommend Doljmaa at Sunpath Guesthouse and Tours – we had a great experience on her Gobi & Central Mongolia tour.

Riding camels in the Gobi Desert Mongolia
Riding camels in the Gobi

The White Lake (Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur)

After a week roughing it in the Gobi Desert, there is nothing quite like a few days relaxing by the shores of the White Lake in a fancy tourist ger camp. Most of the tourist ger camps around the lake have restaurants, electricity and hot water – luxuries after a few nights in the desert! There are also plenty of places pitch a tent, and great hiking nearby.

TRAVELATOR TIP: There are public buses from Ulaanbaator and Tsetserleg to Tariat, the closest village to the White Lake. Check the Fairfield Guesthouse’s website for the latest schedules. From Tariat it is a 6km hike or hitchhike to the White Lake – expect to pay up to MNT10,000 for a ride to the lake.

View of the White Lake Mongolia
View of the White Lake

Orkhorn Valley

The Orkhorn Valley sprawls along the banks of the Orkhorn River, and  is home to Mongolia’s old capital, Karakorum. You will also find Mongolia’s biggest waterfall (Ulaan Tsutgalan) here, which is very popular with local tourists and foreigners alike. It is the perfect spot to enjoy some incredibly scenic horseriding.

TRAVELATOR TIP: If you plan to head to the White Lake after your Gobi Desert tour, speak to your tour operator about incorporating the Orkhorn Valley into your Gobi tour and being dropped off in Karakorum. This saves you travelling all the way from Ulaanbaator back to the White Lake!

Horse riding in the Orkhon Valley Mongolia
Horse riding in the Orkhon Valley

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

If you only have a few days to spend in Mongolia, the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is a great way to experience Mongolia’s stunning scenery without having to drive hours from the capital. It is only 60 kilometres from Ulaanbaator, and can be easily seen as a day trip or an overnight stay. It is popular with local tourists though, so try to avoid the park on weekends if possible.

TRAVELATOR TIP: If organising a tour to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, make sure your driver stops along the way at the Chinggis Khan statue complex. The 40 metre high stainless steel statue is quite a sight!

Where To Stay

Mongolia is great value for money – even in the fancy tourist ger camps you are unlikely to be spending more than USD$30 per night per couple. Here are our favourites:

  • Ulaanbaator – Sunpath Guesthouse – Incredibly clean with great facilities and comfy beds. Doljmaa’s tours though are the real highlight though – she is upfront, honest and flexible.
  • Tsetserleg – Fairfield Guesthouse – After a couple of weeks roughing it in the countryside, Fairfield is like an oasis. Murray, the Australian owner, is incredible helpful and friendly so have a chat to him if you need help planning the next leg of your journey. The food in the cafe is to die for!
  • White Lake – Ikh Khorgo (pronounced ikh khor-og) – This is one of the bigger tourist ger camps by the lake, so your ride from Tariat should know where it is. It has comfy beds, electricity, hot water, clean toilets and a nice restaurant.

Must Eats

We’re not going to lie – the food in Mongolia isn’t great. You are going to be eating a lot of mutton. If you want a fancier Western-style take on Mongolian food, head to one of the Modern Mongol restaurants in Ulaanbaator.

Buuz

Buuz is a traditional Mongolian steamed dumpling stuffed with meat (usually mutton). They are very cheap and easy to find.

Khuushuur

Khuushuur is fried what flour dough stuffed with meat (again, usually mutton). Warning for those with sensitive stomachs – khuushuur can have some pretty unpleasant side effects if you’re not used to eating fatty foods!

Milk Tea

When you visit a family ger, you will usually be invited to drink milk tea with the family upon your arrival. Traditionally the most respected visitor receives their tea first, and you should accept your cup of tea with your right hand. It has a pretty strange flavour – kind of salty and milky at the same time. Don’t expect your usual English Breakfast with a dash of milk and some sugar.

Getting Around

Most public buses to the regional centres will depart from Ulaanbaator. It is difficult to travel between the regional centres by public bus without returning to Ulaanbaator. There are two main bus stations in Ulaanbaator – Dragon (for buses going north and west to destinations such as Moron and Tsetserleg) and Bayanzurkh (for buses going south and east).

Once you are in the countryside, you will probably be hitch-hiking or hiring private drivers between destinations. Shared taxis and private drivers often congregate in market areas – ask your guesthouse where the best place is to wait and how much your journey should cost. Hitch-hiking is also pretty easy, and often someone will approach you without you even having to stick your hand out. Remember hitch-hiking usually isn’t free so make sure you negotiate a price before hopping in.

Hitch hiking to the White Lake Mongolia
Hitch hiking to the White Lake

If you are heading to more far flung destinations, such as Moron or Ulgii, you can save tonnes of time by flying. MIAT and Aero Mongolia are two of the more well-known operators. Book online or head to a local travel agent.

Getting In and Out

Ulaanbaator’s Chinggis Khan International Airport is a good option if you are arriving from South Korea or China, as these are often the most affordable flights. If you want to avoid the USD$20 taxi from the airport to the city, walk across the paddock to the main road and hail down the number 7 local bus (MNT500 per person) which will take you to Chinggis Khan Square.

Most travellers tend to arrive by train, as Ulaanbaator is a major stop on the Trans-Mongolian rail route. We arranged our tickets before arrival with RealRussia.co.uk and collected our tickets in person from Goyo Travel. However, you can easily buy rail tickets on arrival by visiting the train station or a local travel agent.

We also met a couple of travellers who had arrived by bus from Russia, as the bus from Irkutsk and Ulan Ude is much cheaper (and quicker!) than the train.

Budget

USD$100 per day (for a couple) will get you good quality private rooms, a couple of ‘treat’ meals in Ulaanbaator, a few beers, and a tour of the Gobi Desert. Of course, you can do it much cheaper if you have your own tent and head out hiking for a few days.

Best Time To Visit

Winter (November to February) is bitterly cold, with temperatures sometimes plummeting to below 40 degrees celcius. Unless you are a fan of the extreme cold, it is best to visit in summer (June to August). Naadam Festival is usually held on 11th to 12th July in Ulaanbaator, with regional centres hosting their own festivals during the remainder of July. This means July is pretty packed with tourists, so if you would prefer it a bit quieter consider visiting in the shoulder season (May, September, October).

Yay for transparency! This page contains some affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation through a link on this page, we get paid a small commission. Don’t worry – you don’t pay anything extra! And we promise that we only recommend places that we have truly enjoyed staying at.

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