Independent Travel Tips: Mongolia
Be flexible with your travel plans. Shared jeeps and minivans don’t run to a fixed schedule, instead, they leave when they’re full. This may mean hours of waiting or driving around looking for passengers, and, if passengers can’t be found, it may mean the trip may not take place at all.
Get receipts. Otherwise hotels may claim that you haven’t paid, or may raise the rates unexpectedly.
Try to have the exact amount when paying for transport and hotels, as people often don’t have change (or claim not to).
The Gobi desert is tough to travel in independently, unless you have your own car and very reliable satnav. Public transport between sights doesn’t exist. You don’t have to go full package tour either though- you can hire a van and driver for as little as $60 per day (with some bargaining) and plan your own trip. Read more about planning a Gobi trip here.
English is not widely spoken in Mongolia. Bring a Mongolian dictionary to help with translations, and be prepared for a lot of charades.
Meat and dairy are staples of the Mongolian diet. Vegetarians and especially vegans may prefer to find self-catering hotels. Read more about vegetarian and vegan travel in Mongolia here.
Even if you want to travel independently, it is often useful to find other travellers who are doing a similar trip, and arrange to share jeeps or short tours. Popular hostels such as the Golden Gobi Hostel in Ulaanbaatar are good places to meet like-minded people.
Terelj, the national park on Ulaanbaatar’s doorstep, is an excellent choice for a short and easy independent trip. Local buses run from UB to Terelj village (or to Nalaikh, from where you can get a seat in a shared van). Once in the park, you can trek without a guide, or hire your own horse to explore the area. Read more about visiting Terelj here.
When communication gets difficult, it’s common for the people you are trying to speak to to giggle and talk to each other. This isn’t them trying to be rude, more like laughing to diffuse an awkward situation. So be patient and remember Mongolia is not an English speaking country!
When staying with a family, look out for rules and customs. For example, you shouldn’t wear shoes inside a house, but it’s ok to wear them inside a ger. Accept food with both hands. Don’t throw any rubbish on the fire- we found that in Western Mongolia this was ok but were told not to do it in the Gobi as the fire is clean and rubbish is unclean (ironically, this was the region where they burned dung).
Just because a road exists between two destinations, doesn’t mean you can get a bus from one to the other. For example, buses from Western to Central Mongolia originate in Khovd and terminate in Ulaanbaatar. It’s usually impossible to get a ticket for anywhere between the two, as the driver will give the seats to those willing to pay for the complete journey. Of course, you can always buy a ticket to Ulaanbaatar and get off at your destination, but be warned that you may struggle to find a free bus seat when you want to continue your journey to UB.
It’s often recommended to use licensed taxis only in UB (arranged through your hotel). However, we used unlicensed taxis (read: flagging down anyone who had a car) quite a few times, with only one incident where the driver suddenly tried to double the price. Agree on the price beforehand, have the exact change, and keep your bag with you, not in the boot. That way, if there’s a problem, you can just hand over the cash and get out.
For a full overview of what a month long itinerary in Mongolia looks like, head over to Stride Travel, where I’ve written a blog post covering our whole trip. I loved every minute (well, maybe not the 40 hour bus trip). If you’re planning your own independent trip to Mongolia, then hopefully this itinerary will provide a good starting point (though, if you’ve decided independent isn’t the way for you, Stride Travel offers several guided tours here, too).