Mongolia is one of those countries that goes largely unnoticed by the average traveller but once you come and experience it you will be in awe.
When I first moved to Mongolia in 2018 I was quite intrigued by this Asian country. I knew little to nothing about Mongolian history, only the infamous Genghis Khan, and I had no idea what the average Mongolian looked like, what they ate, what their hobbies were, and what they valued. After 4 years of immersion, I can say that life in the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky has never ceased to amaze me. I have somewhat grown used to certain aspects of the culture and lifestyle that were shocking to me when I first came so I thought I would put together a list of unique experiences in Mongolia that everybody must try when visiting the country.
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Unique experiences in Mongolia: explore the countryside
1. Sleep in a ger
Gers are commonly known overseas as yurts but in Mongolia that term is not used. Ger literally means house or home and this is the type of dwelling people in the countryside live in. A ger is a round and portable tent-like house built on a wooden frame and layered with felt sheets. It doesn’t take too long to mount and dismount between 4 people, hence making it a great asset for the Mongolian semi-nomadic lifestyle. Inside the ger, people cook, hang out and sleep. Although it might look crowded, everything has its own space, the stove goes in the middle, husbandry utensils to the left, kitchen utensils to the right, and the most important family items opposite the door. Beds, placed on both sides of the ger, and small stools are used to sit inside the ger.
When you travel around the countryside, you will have the chance to sleep in a ger, it might be your only available option in many cases, either in someone’s ger or in a ger camp.
2. Camp wherever you want
Outdoor lovers will be thrilled to know that in Mongolia you can pitch a tent virtually wherever you want. If you have it in you, hire a car and maybe a driver too and rather than staying in ger camps, stay wherever the heck you want. This option is particularly appealing if you want to be alone because although Mongolia is not densely populated, you will find that there will always be visitors in the main tourist spots, especially around lakes.
3. Search dinosaur fossils
The Gobi desert is known as the largest fossil deposit in the world, especially the Bayanzag area, also known as the Flaming Cliffs. You can join tours that offer fossil hunting expeditions, a walk around the desert in which you will probably find nothing of interest but will keep you excited about the prospect of a great finding. If you have the budget, you can also join official palaeontology expeditions where you actually get to participate in a proper excavation. You cannot take anything you find with you since the fossils are state-owned, ask Nicholas Cage about it.
4. Drive through the vastness of the Mongolian steppe…
There aren’t many places in the world where you can experience the vastness of a country in such an accessible manner. The distances in Mongolia from town to town are quite long, everything is far away. Anywhere you drive, you will see kilometres and kilometres of grassland, sprinkled with a few gers and herds of animals peacefully eating a free buffet of pasture (in spring and summer). I will be honest, after a while, the scenery can get boring, but when I experienced my first road trip for the first time (only from Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin), I thought it was fascinating.
5. … in a Russian van
Also known as UAZ, these Russian vans are the vehicle of choice for most tour operators due to their reliability to drive in the middle of the countryside in any type of terrain. These 4×4 vehicles will surprise you, they’re unstoppable and shamelessly utilitarian.
Unique experiences in Mongolia: Food
6. Eat dairy products
Mongolians make dairy products with absolutely any type of milk at their disposal: cow, yak, sheep, goat and even horse and camel. There is an innumerable amount of different dairy products besides the more mainstream cheese, curds and butter. While travelling in the countryside or during Mongolian festivals product displays you will have the chance to savour the creamy urum, the sour fermented mare’s milk or airag, or the famous aaruul (dried curds), all of them homemade. Alternatively, you can purchase some of these products at local markets and even supermarkets. Even cow milk will have a stronger taste than the one you are probably used to.
7. Eat the real Mongolian bbq
You may have heard of Mongolian BBQ before, but what you may not know is that the dish was invented by a Chinese chef in 2012 and has little to do with real Mongolian barbeque. Khorkhog and boodog are two ways of cooking sheep meat with the heat of stones that have previously been made piping hot in a fire. In the countryside, first an animal is picked, then killed and cut into pieces, bone-in. Usually, and if available, potatoes and carrots will be added to the pot. Then, round stones of a decent size are heated on a fire and strategically placed inside the pot with the meat and vegetables. Once everything is in place, the container is tightly closed (some people use a pressure cooker) and the food will be cooked just with the heat of the stones. The cook will only open the pot once the food is ready to be eaten, which usually takes around one and a half hours and the food is transferred to a big metal tray or some plates, including the burning stones. And voila! Your khorkhog is done. Before you start the feast, there is this ritual of taking one of the stones used to cook the meal and passing it rapidly from hand to hand (it’s burning hot!). Then you can proceed to eat the meat with your own hands and maybe a knife to help slice the meat. If you are lucky, you will get the bone marrow from the bigger bones. So what is boodog, then? The same exact dish, but done inside the sheep skin.
Unique experiences in Mongolia: cultural activities
8. Witness some of the most amazing festivals
Mongolia proudly exhibits some of the most unique festivals revolving around their nomadic culture so don’t miss out if you have a chance to participate in any of them during your visit. Learn about heard animals, eat some Mongolian delicacies and enjoy the colourful atmosphere.
9. Buy a deel and go to a Naadam festival
Are you visiting Mongolia in July? Then, chances are you will be able to see Naadam either in the city or in the countryside. I really like how the city thrives in colour during Naadam, so you should be part of it too! Go to a store and buy a deel or alternatively a deel-like shirt or dress. You can find nice shirts in fair trade shop Mary and Martha, or in the top floor of the State Department Store on Peace Avenue.
10. Ride a horse, or a camel, or a yak, OR A REINDEER!
I know that riding a horse is not something unique to Mongolia, but it is known to be more challenging due to the wild nature of the horses. It is also fascinating when you can trot across the vast steppe. If you are a horse rider you can book tours you can entirely do on horseback, or schedule parts of your trip with shorter horse rides. If you visit parts of the country where there are yaks or camels, riding them is also a possibility. Just imagine yourself at the Gobi Khongor Sand dunes on a camel…
11. Visit the largest equestrian statue in the world
This activity is perfect if you will be in the city for a limited amount of time and will not be able to venture very far. The Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex is around 1 hour west of Ulaanbaatar and you can easily take a cab or hire a driver for a day. As its name states, the statue depicts Genghis Khan on a horse and you can go all the way to the top and get your picture taken at head level.
Unique experiences in Mongolia: people
12. Visit a nomadic family
Did you know that around a third of the Mongolian population are still nomads? It is a shame that their numbers are decreasing but who is to blame them when life in the countryside can be so full of hardship. So, while nomadic lifestyle is still a thing in Mongolia, you should experience it before it becomes a thing of the past. Expect extreme hospitality from your hosts, they will prepare milky tea and offer you homemade dairy products; and if you stay with them for a couple of days they may kill a sheep and cook it for you in the form of the delicious khorkhog. As a symbol of respect, always accept what you are offered and if you do not like it just wet your lips. Also, bring a little gift for the family and their kids.
13. Meet an eagle hunter
Eagle hunting is an ancient practice that still takes place in some parts of the world, including the province of Bayan Olgii in western Mongolia, where most Kazakh people live. There are two ways in which you can have this unique experience and meet an eagle hunter: one is by attending the Golden Eagle Festival and the other is by booking a tour in Olgii and visit an eagle hunter in the village of Sagsai. Having done both, I would say that visiting a family of eagle hunters gives you the opportunity to learn more detailed information about how they get the eagles, how they organise hunting trips or what kind of relationship they have with their bird of prey. During a festival, you will see a big gathering of eagle hunters displaying their skills in different competitions which is visually striking but there is a low chance that you can have a meaningful conversation with any of the participants.
14. Visit the Reindeer People
Reindeer herders, also called Tsaatan People, are a minority ethnic group who inhabit the Mongolian taiga, north of lake Khuvsgul, bordering Siberia. As you can imagine, the area where they live is remote, even by Mongolian standards, and accessing it makes this trip an extremely challenging one. The trip to get to the Tsaatan families’ camp could take 3 to 4 days, then you spend a couple of days with them before embarking on another tiring journey back to the city. This is one of the most unique experiences in Mongolia for many reasons, one of them being the magical landscape. The difficult accessibility of the area makes it quite unspoiled, and the winter scenery is just as if you had climbed into your wardrobe and stepped out into Narnia. Another reason is the fact that Tsaatan’s lives revolve around such an unusual animal as the reindeer. If you can endure extremely cold temperatures; a long, rough journey that will involve riding a horse during summer, and have your bare needs covered in a very basic manner, then I encourage you to go!
As you can see, each of these unique experiences can get you out of your comfort zone at different levels, so let me know in the comments below what would you be willing to try and what is a bit too much for you.