4 Mongolian Travel Experiences You Don’t Want to Miss

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Mongolia is epic.

In size, in landscape, in open space.

With so much emptiness, how do you find amazing Mongolian Experiences?

Independent travel is tough. Not only that, but it’s less rewarding than in other Asian countries. The limited public transport system only connects the major centres, none of which are good reasons to visit Mongolia.

So, most travellers opt to jump in a Russian van on an organised tour. Some tours are fixed, some are flexible. If independent travel is your thing, the flexible options are going to be better.

We gathered a group of 7 people together, planned an itinerary, hired a driver, stocked up with our own food and camped for free most nights. This got our final price down to about $38 per person per day, including all expenses, transport, camping gear, attractions and entertainment/alcohol.

Some of the things we did were amazing, some were average.

The 4 experiences below were the cream of the crop and worth adding when you plan your trip.

 Naadam

Visit the secret Naadam festivals tourists don’t know about

When you first research visiting Mongolia, you’ll almost certainly hear about the Naadaam festival. Not so secret, you’d think.

But there is more to it than most of the tour agencies and guide books let on.

Naadam normally happens in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, in mid July. By the time we arrived in late July, even our tour agent thought that it was too late for us to experience this traditional sporting festival. We insisted she check with the central tourist authority. We were not too late.

The main event in Ulaanbaatar brings together all of Mongolia’s best athletes to compete in wrestling, archery and horse racing. In a stadium atmosphere, at a premium price, tourists can enjoy the event at a distance.

But, heading to the rural Naadams is a whole different experience.

Small stadiums, free entry and a mostly local crowd enjoy all of the traditional events, close up. You can often get so close to the competition that you can smell the wrestlers sweating.

You can read a more in depth account of the local Naadam festival in Tsetserleg, 460KM west of Ulaanbaatar.

How to have this experience.

Rural Naadams happen from late June until early August – though most major events occur in July.

The main events will be registered with the Mongolian Tourist Authority from May onwards every year. It is best to contact them directly, or get your tour organiser to do so, as they may not speak English.

For accommodation, unlike in Ulaanbaatar, it is easy to camp, for free, a few KMs from the rural festival sites. It is best to find a quiet spot, rather than camping in the organised fields, as Mongolians tend to get very drunk at festivals and can sometimes cause problems.

 Gobi Sand Dunes Mongolia

Climb a Sand Dune

One of the most fascinating things about visiting Mongolia is the ever changing landscape. From snowy mountains to epic grasslands to rolling hills and deep cut gorges, it’s visually stunning. The view from the top of a dune is a highlight.

A large part of Mongolia is covered by the Gobi Desert. The Gobi is the largest desert in Asia, but only 5% is Sand dunes.

But, this isn’t going to be a problem.

Just a couple of hundred kilometres west of Ulaanbaatar lie massive sand dunes on the edge of the Gobi. Bordered by mountains and grassland, as you drive west the landscape suddenly changes and you feel like you are in a scene from Lawrence of Arabia.

Mongolia is a movie set waiting to happen. Today the infrastructure isn’t there to support it. So, now is the time to get in and see this unspoiled wilderness before the roads do get built.

How to have this experience.

Ask your tour organiser about visiting the sand dunes in the semi-Gobi, south west of Ulaanbaatar. These are the quickest to get to but there are other, some would say better, options further away too, it all depends where else you are planning to visit.

 Hot Springs Mongolia

Get Steamy at a Natural Hot Spring

There’s nothing like jumping into scalding hot water on a freezing cold night. Or sitting around in a steamy, outdoor bath, drinking beer with new friends.

Driving through empty wilderness, it’s easy to imagine that I’m talking about using a divining rod to find a bubbling spring in a field somewhere. Fortunately the hard work has been taken out of it with surprising efficiency. As you off-road across Mongolia, you may just drop over the next ridge to see a massive spa complex surrounded by Mongolian Gers (tents) – in the middle of nowhere.

From about $7 per person you can get a few hours in a hot spring bath.

And, after camping for many days, with nothing but icy rivers to bathe in, a spa is not just a must try experience, it’s a necessity.

How to have this experience.

There are a surprising amount of hot springs resorts in the non-desert areas of Mongolia. Either ask your tour organiser to include a spa stop in your itinerary, or just ask the driver to take a route that includes a spa.

Most resorts offer decent accommodation options, sometimes as low as $15 per person. If you are on a budget you can normally just set up your tent a short distance from the resort, for free.

 

Stay With a Local Nomad Family

But, a real nomad family.

As tourism in Mongolia increases, more and more local families are using the opportunity to set up “tourist camps”. These normally involve you and other groups of foreigners or Mongolian tourists camping in traditional tents, called “Gers”, often with plush interiors, comfy beds and a price tag to match…

And that’s all very nice.

However, if you have come to Mongolia to experience the real Mongolian lifestyle, a tourist camp is not going to cut it. Nor is a staged family Ger where they host tourists every night, albeit in a more traditional way.

Homestay Nomad Ger Mongolia

The closer you are to Ulaanbaatar, the harder it is to find the real thing. As you travel away, camps appear less often and, eventually, you find real nomad families, off the tourist trail. For $5 – $10 per person per night (maybe 10,000 MNT) you’ll get a pile of thick blankets on the floor, a home cooked meal and a roaring fire. You’ll also be sharing with the family, everyone inside one big tent. The traditional lifestyle.

If you are lucky – some would say, unlucky – you’ll get to sample the famous Mongolian “Five Fingers” dish. Fortunately, this does not involve eating someone’s fingers, but it does involve a table of ravenous people digging into a massive plate of meat, only meat, with their bare hands – their “five fingers”.

You’ll be presented with the boiled, chopped carcass of a whole lamb or goat. When I say whole, I mean whole. Head, organs, everything – vegetarians need not apply. Meat with a side of meat.

Mongolian cuisine is a surprise for most foreigners. Be prepared with our guide to typical Mongolian food which includes an English/Mongolian menu you can use for translations.

How to have this experience.

The best solution is to get on a tour that goes a long way from Ulaanbaatar. If you simply ask to stay with a local family, the driver will just take you to the nearest place he knows, which will invariably be one of the places that always get tourist visitors.

It’s often easier to discuss the home stay options with your tour operator before leaving. They will assume you want a tourist Ger, because most people they deal with do, so you have to explain specifically that you want to stay with a family who does not regularly host tourists.

Alternatively, it’s quite normal for locals to approach camps they don’t know and simply ask if they have space on the floor. Results vary from this method though, not the safest option.

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Which of these experiences would you most like to do? Leave us a comment.

 

Zip-line-tom-profile-thumbTom Williams is chief editor of the Five Dollar Traveller website & author of Budget Burma: A comprehensive budget travel guide for Myanmar. From riding a crocodile in Thailand to getting drunk and going clubbing with Muslims in Mongolia, Tommo is living the dream… and then writing about it! Follow on Facebook, Pinterest or Google+

 

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