How many of you have at least once dreamt about travelling to a very remote country, one of those rarely visited?
Pretty sure most of you have, and how many of you had thought about Mongolia?
We included it as a quick stop on our way from Russia to China and in truth, most of the Mongolian tourists pass by via the Trans-Mongolian route. The question we have received many times after we mentioned Mongolia:
Is Mongolia worth a stop when travelling the Trans-Siberian?
Watch our Vlog on our Mongolian experience
We will not make you wait until the very end of this post and we will give you straight away the answer to the question: after visiting a small part of Mongolia, we regretted we had not planned more time to explore. So, yes, you should plan to visit Mongolia!
Said this and looking at the positive side, we have a good reason to come back!
If you are planning the long train journey through Asia from Russia, we believe the Trans-Mongolian route is probably more varied than the full Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok.
Of course, we have no direct comparison to make, but after almost a month spent in Russia we really enjoyed the change in culture and scenery. You can get a sense of it when arriving at Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatsia, even if the landscape is still not comparable to what you’ll find once you have crossed the border.
Mongolia is unique in terms of nature, people and culture. It is a mix of nomad traditions with Chinese and later Russian influences.
The alphabet (adopted in the 1940s) and the consumption of vodka are the main influences that you can notice coming from Russia.
However, you will wave goodbye Christian Orthodox churches and discover Buddhist temples, mainly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.
For those interested, Ulan Bataar has the main temple where you can also experience chants early in the morning.
What we thought we would have found?
An almost deserted country with mostly nomadic inhabitants, infinite natural (but a bit boring in the end) landscapes and a heavy meat based cuisine.
What we actually discovered?
We were right with the few inhabitants and the nomadic tradition.
What we did not imagine was the insane traffic and pollution we would have found in Ulan Bataar, just a few kilometres from the gorgeous green valleys of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.
As well as we did not think about how much we would have loved to live in a ger (traditional Mongolian yurt), completely unwired from the rest of the world for a couple of days and immersed in the most beautiful green valleys with wild horses just camping next to us.
It is also true that natural landscapes are almost infinite but we were completely wrong when thinking they could be boring. Although repetitive, you kind of get hypnotised by what you see, you can not get enough of looking at the never-ending green fields with animals crossing, led by a Mongolian farmer riding his horse.
It is a mesmerizing beauty in its simplicity and ancestry. And eventually, we were partially right about the meat diet as this is true for freezing Mongolian winters, while dairy products are the substitutes for summer months.
Which route and stops we went for?
When planning our trip we did our best to squeeze an intense itinerary through Russia and China in 2 months, so left us only less than a week for Mongolia and thinking that would have been enough. Well, not really.
If time is a constraint we do recommend to schedule a pit stop in the capital and a couple of days in the outskirts at Gorkhy-Terelj National Park to experience some nomadic life. But with a week or more, explore the Western country and the Gobi sand dunes in the South.
To get to Mongolia you can either take the train or the bus from Ulan Ude. After some reading, we decided for the bus, as it was cheaper and quicker.
In fact, we managed to get to Ulan Bataar in 12 hours including the 2 hours we spent at the borders.
What to eat and drink?
Here comes one of the main lows of a trip to Mongolia, as the diet here is not particularly varied and long stays can be a bit of a struggle even if you love stewed or roasted mutton meat.
Said this Buuz (dumplings) and Khuushuur (fried pastries), both filled with mutton meat, are a must to try.
When in the outskirts, you will also have the chance to taste Khorkhog, which simply consists of chunks of meat cooked in a stove on the fire and together with stones.
Once the meal is ready it is tradition to toss the hot stones from hand to hand as it is considered to have beneficial properties.
At breakfast or for dessert you can try Khailmag, the typical Mongolian caramelised clotted cream.
Life can be tough here for vegetarians and almost a nightmare for vegans. The capital has all choices, so better to stock up on grocery here and catering your own food, if you don’t want to compromise on your diet for a few days.
After dinner, give Airag a try. This is produced out of fermented mare milk but it is alcoholic, so be cautious with it as it might not be what it seems!
For those not very fond of dairy products, you can enjoy a nice cold vodka. We tried the Chinggis Khan (how would you name it otherwise?) and it didn’t make us miss the old days back in Russia.
Where to go?
Ulan Bataar is not a charming city, however, it is the best place to start from in case you need any services.
But definitely, most of your Mongolian experience needs to be in a ger in nature.
We did the Gorkhi-Terelj, which is the simplest choice if passing through the capital.
There are many different travel operators arranging every type of tour you might wish for, depending on the time available to explore.
We went for a treat and booked with Nomadic Journeys, a Swedish – Mongolian company that provides a superb location in the Gorkhy-Terelj, together with sustainable premium services in the camp and amazing adventures on horses, kayaking on the river and riding a yak cart as well.