“Mongolia?” Our colleagues once again looked at us with concern, or maybe it was incredulousness, or maybe just confusion. It’s hard to interpret their faces and words sometimes, but it always basically means, “What are you thinking?”
It didn’t stop us, though, it was planned and we were packed and ready to go to a country that really isn’t on too many people’s list. The trip we were going on was a nine day steppe, Gobi, wilderness road trip in a 7 seat, 15 year old Russian military van.
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Planning and Booking Mongolia
We booked the trip the entire tour with Bobbi at the UB guesthouse in Ulaan Baator. After booking your hotel stay, contact the owners and ask them about their Russian van tours around the country. They were extremely helpful and tailored our trip to our exact requirements.
For instance, we preferred staying in a hotel before and after the trip so she arranged that as well as the airport transfers. Typically, the van trip requires a minimum of 5 people which allows for a driver and a guide and the passengers.
We were able to set the trip for our group of six and one driver who acted as our guide. The driver, Jack, was phenomenal, he really made the trip for us. Your trip cost is based on the number of passengers, if you are traveling alone or with a friend, Bobbi will pair you up with other travelers to fill a van and you then divide the total cost among all passengers.
So even if you wanted to go with only one or two other passengers you could, provided you pay the total cost of the van between you. We stayed with families that had a few extra gers (aka yurt) they use for travelers. It was a fantastic experience and we really felt we were getting to know a little about the people, customs, and traditions of the nomadic people of the steppes and Gobi.
We went on the trip in mid June with a limited amount of time so the Lake regions were not an option. On our next trip, we’ll plan on spending more time in central Mongolia and then into one of the Lake areas.
Where is Mongolia?
The Asian country of Mongolia is sandwiched between Russia and China, and it’s barren and rugged, and stunningly beautiful. The capital is Ulaan Baator, which is also the largest city. Most people enter and exit this way.
There are technically two Mongolias. One is often referred to as Outer Mongolia and the other is Inner Mongolia. The country of Mongolia is Outer, and Inner is an autonomous region in China. Culturally they are similar.
Is Mongolia Safe?
One thing many people are concerned about when contemplating this trip is safety and security. I really don’t think you need to worry about being kidnapped or anything like that. Everyone we met along the way was curious and friendly; or at worst, too busy to pay us any attention at all.
This was not a luxury tour. I didn’t see any luxury tours, so I’m not sure if they exist. This was a rough and ready tour, sometimes traversing over dirt paths, but sometime Jack would take us off-piste completely…no track. It was wild!
You will have at least one vehicle break-down in one of the most remote spots on earth, and you may wonder just how long it will take the vultures and wolves to find you, rip the meat from your limbs, and leave your bones to dry and bleach under the relentless sun and blowing sand.
Don’t sweat it! Go for a little walk, and give the driver time to work his mechanical magic. Even if he can’t fix it (which would be rare indeed) another van, horse, motorcycle, truck, or whatever, will come by sooner or later to offer assistance. If you still think this trip is for you read on for further advice and notes from our experience.
Amenities While Traveling in Mongolia
Again, this was a backpacker’s trip for nine days on the barren steppes. We did come across little cities here and there, about one per day, so we know the route was a real one.
However, it is certainly not something I could have accomplished without a driver. There really are no amenities on this trip.
Bathrooms, as we know them, were non-existent. We used what we lovingly called “slit-trines.” A slit-trine is a hole in the ground, with boards covering it, which you stand on while you do your business. It is away from the gers and is enclosed with either a wooden fence or tarps, so it is private.
Out on the steppes I saw no plumbing. Therefore, you won’t be washing clothes anywhere along the trip and you won’t even be washing yourself very often. Shower houses are only in the large towns and there aren’t many towns (large or small). We had a shower stop about every third day, I can imagine that is what you should expect.
Sleeping in family gers is basically camping so you should consider bringing your sleeping bag, too. None of us did and it wasn’t a real problem. The families had blankets for us at the gers but Corinne and I were very happy to have brought along our own silk sleeping bag liners, they made all the difference.
What to Wear in Mongolia
Clothing wise, anything you would wear camping is good. A good idea would be zip off pants or shorts because it will get hot during the day and it will definitely get cold at night. So a decent light jacket (or windbreaker with a fleece) and good layering will be needed. Additionally, a good hat and sunglasses, and sun screen are a must.
What to Eat in Mongolia
The families will feed you a small breakfast (tea and cookies) and a hearty dinner of meat and noodles or meat dumplings and of course more tea. We were on our own for lunch, though.
We brought along a good supply of trail mix, beef jerky, granola bars, and dried fruit. Bring a decent size bag of stuff like that and maybe some extra for sharing with the driver and guide and families along the way.
Your van should stop on the way out of UB at the grocery store where you can stock up on a few snack things and some other items to supplement the dinners if you want it (canned fruit or vegetables, other snack items, etc).
But most IMPORTANT, buy a case of water there. Oh, and maybe a roll (or two) of toilet paper if you didn’t bring any…
What to Bring
I would recommend bringing some small things for gifts for the kids of the families that own the yurts or gers. Small toys, small writing pads, pens, pencils, color pencils, toiletries, hair ties, berets, bracelets, beads, magazines (there are a few teenage girls along the way that were surprisingly western savvy and they begged for fashion magazines or catalogs).
Use your imagination but be careful not to pass it all out at once! We never ran in to anybody who was demanding or pushy about these things, but they definitely loved getting the few things we gave out. Don’t be shy about asking the driver to stop when you see something interesting.
If it has been a while he’ll probably be grateful for the cigarette break. Remember to smile at everybody, be friendly and sharing and they will treat you the same. Be careful in the city and towns, they have a real frontier feel about them, I think you’ll pick up on that.
Hopefully your companions will be fun and adventurous and friendly. Most of the other groups we met along the way seemed like decent people, I don’t think too many jerks like to travel to out of the way places like Mongolia so there’s probably a natural selection process going on in the background.
Don’t Forget to Bring Lots of Water
You will need water. The families we stayed with boiled water for tea and we used it with no problems but aside from that you will need to bring water of your own. Don’t worry too much about the food, don’t think about what animal the meat is from, try things and share with the families, and you will have a fantastic time!
For me, traveling in Mongolia was extremely exotic, adventurous, and eye-opening. I loved the wide open steppes, the friendly people riding their horses or motorcycles by you, and just stopping and observing a life that has not changed too much in thousands of years. I am already planning my next trip.
Author Bio: Jim Vail, is a travel, food, and video creator and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 15 years. For many years he lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands, and he’s visited over 90 countries.