Are you planning to road trip around Mongolia? Congratulations! You just signed up for one of the most unique experiences you will have in your life. As an expat who has lived in the country for over four years, I will share with you my tips for a road trip in Mongolia, which, in my humble opinion, is the best way to experience this country at its finest.
Whether you are a resident, like me, venturing into the unspoiled Mongolian countryside for the first time, or a foreigner lured by its striking landscapes and peculiar culture, this post will prove useful in your Mongolia travel plan. My husband and I finally took the plunge into long, self-sufficient road trips with our own car in 2021 and I would love to share with you a few road trip tips that will for sure make your adventure a safer, more comfortable one.
Choosing travel options in Mongolia
First of all, how are you travelling?
You have different options to travel around Mongolia. There are private or group tours, car rentals, you can hire a driver or go in your own vehicle. Whatever you choose will depend on your budget and comfort level, but here are a few things to take into account:
Group tour: The easiest and oftentimes the cheapest option to do a road trip in Mongolia. The cost of fuel, accommodation and staff fees is shared among all guests and prices tend to be lower than if you hire a driver or do a private tour. As expected, the itinerary and accommodation is prearranged and cannot be modified. You have to go with the flow.
Private tour: This is the most expensive option, but obviously the easiest one, especially if you don’t have a car. You won’t need to worry about anything; itinerary, accommodation and food will be taken care of and you can usually customise it to your liking. With this option, you will have a guide/translator, a driver and if you are camping, a cook. When you go on tours you will most likely ride on a UAZ, a Russian 4×4 van.
Private driver: A little cheaper than going on a private tour. You can tell your driver where you want to go and they will take you. If you intend to go to places that are off-road, hire somebody with a heavy-duty 4×4, like a Toyota Landcruiser.
Car rental: I have never rented a car in Mongolia but in my dutiful research I found out that there is a mileage limit, which will delimit how far you go on your road trip. Also, make sure that you have the necessary recovery gear if you rent a 4×4 and are expecting to go off road.
Drive your own vehicle: This option will definitely test your limits, especially if come across any complications like getting bogged (see picture below), getting lost or getting rained inside your tent in the middle of the night because of a random summer storm. All true stories. You will only have yourselves to rely on, but that is part of the experience!
Road Trip Tips before you go
The best road trip tips for Mongolia are related to planning and being prepared, so don’t skip this part!
- Weather forecast: it is likely that you organise your road trip during the summer months but that doesn’t mean you’ll always get sunny and warm days. Summer storms are typical in the country and they come along with a temperature drop and strong winds. Be prepared for that, and in case you are camping, always have a second option available, for example, the ability to overnight in your vehicle or stay at a ger camp. The first night of our road trip to the West was miserable, we came across a massive storm and had no shelter whatsoever. I thought we were going to fly away inside the tent, husband and dog included. Looking back, we should have seen it coming and I wish we had overnighted in the car.
- Road conditions: Mongolia has pretty bad roads and they are constantly under repair. You will find potholes galore and sections that are entirely ripped off and under construction. The best thing you can do is to plan ahead and ask what roads are the best to get to your destination.
- Map apps: There will only be internet in urban areas, so make sure you have downloaded the area you will be driving in on Google Maps. Get Maps.me, too, an offline map application that will be extremely useful when taking secondary roads that don’t appear on Google Maps.
Tips on Food on your Mongolian road trip
I am personally big on food—I want to eat nice food and not get hangry. If that is your case too, read carefully the following food road trip tips for Mongolia:
- On the road options: As remote as Mongolia is, you will notice a few gers on the side of the road with signs such as Tsainii Gazar, Guanz or Delguur. Those are your typical road diners Mongolian style. There will not be a menu to choose from, but they will offer you a hot meal, usually soup or tsuivan, and of course, Mongolian milky tea, for 8.000 Tugriks, around 3 USD.
- Bring snacks: On a road trip in Mongolia, you will spend a long time in your vehicle so you may want to have something to munch on. Another reason to bring snacks is that the options for food in the countryside are very limited, especially when it comes to vegetables and other healthy options. The standard food in Mongolia relies heavily on wheat flour and fatty meats, usually beef or mutton, and a very small quantity of vegetables. At some point, you are going to grow tired of it so make sure you bring your favourite snacks with you. I suggest you bring some fruit that keeps fresh for a long time, like mandarins or apples.
- Dietary restrictions: if you are going on a tour, be very specific about the type of food you need to avoid or you need to eat. If food is important to make your Mongolia travel experience pleasant, make sure you do follow up on the menu you will be offered. It can be especially challenging if you are vegan or gluten-free, since most Mongolian dishes are made with flour or meat. You may struggle to find appropriate food in the countryside but there are several restaurants in Ulaanbaatar that offer vegan food. You can buy some prepackaged vegan products from them, for example, Loving Hut.
Tips on Accommodation on your Mongolian road trip
- Free campsites: If you want to pitch a tent during your road trip you are very lucky, this is one of the unique things to do in Mongolia. Here, everybody can camp wherever they want as the land belongs to nobody. Having said that, expect herds of cows, sheep and other animals passing by.
- Ger camps: When I moved here, I thought that the only way I could book accommodation at a ger camp was through a tour company or a friend. The truth is, you can rock up at any touristy spot in Mongolia and there will be a few ger camps. Just ask to see the place and ask for the price before agreeing to stay. Ger camps are cheap but you get what you pay for. Usually, beds are very hard because sometimes there is no matress, only a thin foam sheet on top of a wooden plank. If you are looking for a dry and warm place to spend the night, rest assured that you won’t have a problem finding one if you know where to look.
Encounters with locals on your Road Trip in Mongolia
- Rules of hospitality: There is a chance you come across a herder, they will either show up at your campsite or they may invite you to their ger. If you are invited into their home, have what they offer you. If you don’t like milky tea or don’t feel like a shot of vodka, make the effort and have a sip or wet your lips. Don’t gulp it down to be done with it, if you drink it all they will pour more. If somebody shows up at your camp, invite them to some hot tea. If you are eating, offer them a seat and some food, even if you don’t speak the same language. The effort to communicate even if you don’t speak the language will be highly appreciated.
- Be grateful: the Mongolian countryside is rough, luckily Mongolian hospitality is top notch and you will find that people are willing to get out of their way to help you out. For this reason, it is important to have a little stash of gifts you can offer. Some good gifts are a bottle of vodka for the patriarch, some fruit, little games or toys for the kids (colouring books are great!). If you are visiting from overseas, bring a little something from your country. I do not recommend bringing any sort of sweets as gifts and opt for healthier options.
Tips during your Road Trip to Mongolia
Travelling around Mongolia can be very unpredictable so don’t be the person who says “I’ll will do that at the next stop”.
- Take cash with you: If you pass by major cities you will have no issues using your local bank card. If you have an international card, the chances of using it outside of Ulaanbaatar are slimmer. Once you are in the middle of the countryside you absolutely need cash to purchase food from locals and pay for accommodation and fuel.
- Fuel up often: even if your tank is half full. You may have seen on the map that there is a gas station in the next 100 km, but you don’t know if they are going to have fuel or not. With this one, better safe than sorry. If you stick to main roads you should not need a jerry can, but if you intend to go offroading for very long (which I would not recommend unless you go with a group of people) then do take extra fuel with you.
- Make sure you have enough water: if you have to purchase big bottles, make sure you start off with enough to get you by until you reach the next big city. If you have a water filtering system (I have a LifeSaver jerry can) make sure you top up as often as you can from the rivers and lakes you pass by. Don’t judge the bodies of water by what you can see on the map, sometimes the stream is too small, murky or not easily accessible, so do not miss your chance!
Things you must bring with you on your road trip in Mongolia
- Toilet paper: not only because of the number of times that you will have to use nature’s toilet but also because some ger camps don’t have toilet paper available at their facilities.
- Hand sanitiser or soap: same reason as above, you will spend a long time in the countryside with no facilities and when you finally come across a bathroom, there might not be soap.
- Insect repellent: If you are travelling during the summer months.
- Sunscreen: the sun can be intense in Mongolia, no matter what time of the year.
- Trash bags: you will be in the middle of nowhere most time. Take several bags with you and dump them in the trash when you pass a city or town.
- Warm clothes: Mongolia usually has warm weather during its short summer season but sometimes it may get cold at night, especially if you are up north, like Bayan Olgii or Khuvsgul provinces.
- And of course, anything else you think you might not be able to live without during a whole week. For me, that’s my loose leaf tea.
I hope these tips for a road trip in Mongolia are useful and make your adventure more enjoyable. If you are a foreign tourist, make sure you enjoy the perks of city lifestyle and explore Ulaanbaatar if you have some extra days.
If you have any further questions, leave them in the comments section.