Everything you need to know about backpacking Mongolia. Where to visit, how to get around, safety, and more are covered in this comprehensive guide.
Mongolia is one of my favourite countries I’ve ever visited. Known as the “land of the blue sky”, Mongolia is home to an incredible nomadic culture and gorgeous natural beauty.
I spent over three weeks backpacking around Mongolia, and can’t wait to get back soon.
In this post, I’ll go over everything you need to know about backpacking in Mongolia – from rugged streets of Ulaanbaatar to the singing sand dunes of the Gobi Desert.
- 1 Which part of Mongolia to visit?
- 2 Group vs Independent Travel in Mongolia
- 3 Backpacking Mongolia Budget
- 4 Sample Mongolia Itineraries
- 5 Getting to and from Mongolia
- 6 Best time to visit Mongolia
- 7 Mongolia Visa Requirements
- 8 Safety in Mongolia
- 9 Internet in Mongolia
- 10 Backpacking Mongolia Wrap-up
Which part of Mongolia to visit?
Mongolia is the eighteenth largest country in the world – and it’s also the least densely populated.
Most of Mongolia is empty, so travelling around the country can take a very long time.
The country can be divided up into six distinct regions based on differences in culture and geography. Each region requires at least a week to properly visit (aside from Ulaanbaatar).
Almost every traveller will begin their adventure in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
Ulaanbaatar is the only real city in Mongolia and is home to over half of the countries population. The city is connected to China and Russia via the Trans-Mongolian Railway and has an international airport.
Mongolia’s capital is a great place to organize tours into the countryside, visit museums, eat, shop, and chill out after a long journey through the steppe.
I’ve met a lot of travellers who told me that they hated Ulaanbaatar, but I kinda liked it. There are some nice western-style cafes, good restaurants, and some malls if you need to get any gear.
I’d recommend staying at the Golden Gobi Hostel when you’re in Ulaanbaatar.
Central Mongolia is popular among backpackers. It’s not far from Ulaanbaatar and offers gorgeous natural beauty along with hospitable nomadic people.
The main tourist sights in Central Mongolia are the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, the ancient city of Karakorum, and the incredible Orkhon Valley.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is located only 70 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar and is a great place to visit if you have a short amount of time in Mongolia. In the park, you can go hiking, horseback riding, and stay with nomadic families.
Karakorum was the capital of the Mongol Empire and visited by Marco Polo on his during his travels through the area.
The Orkhon Valley is located about 300 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar and is a lush grassland home to many nomadic people. Orkhon Valley is where Mongolia’s tallest waterfall can be found.
Basically all of Southern Mongolia is covered by the Gobi Desert. It’s Asia’s largest desert and is home to camels, massive sand dunes, and a ton of other interesting sights.
This region is fairly accessible from Ulaanbaatar. You can get to the town of Dalanzadgad from Ulaanbaatar in about 10 hours by bus.
The main sights to visit in the Gobi Desert are Yolyn Am, Bayanzag, and Khongoryn Els.
Yolyn Am is a deep and narrow gorge about 30 kilometres southwest of Dalanzadgad. It’s a great place for hiking (or horseback riding), and is quite a bit different than the sandy desert environments you’ll see later on.
Bayanzag, also known as the Flaming Cliffs, is located 100 kilometres northwest of Dalanzadgad. In the early 1920s, the first dinosaur egg fossils were found here. The cliffs are gorgeous, especially at sunset. Be sure to bring your camera!
Khongoryn Els is definitely the most famous attraction in the Gobi Desert. Some of the dunes are over 300 meters tall, and they go on for over 100 kilometres. Hiking up the tallest dune and watching the sunset was one of my favourite travel experiences.
Mongolia’s north is home to Lake Khuvsgul, the most beautiful lake in the country. In the northwest of Lake Khuvsgul, the Tsaatan tribe are one of the only remaining groups of nomadic reindeer herders.
Most travel around Northern Mongolia will be based from the town of Moron. Getting to Moron can take a while – there are buses running from Ulaanbaatar that take about 12 hours, or you can take a flight for around $150 USD.
Visiting the Tsaatan tribe can take some time, requiring a multi-day horse riding journey. If you plan on visiting the Tsaatan, do your research and find an outfitter that places an importance on sustainability and preservation of the Tsaatan culture.
Western Mongolia is the most remote part of Mongolia. Most travellers will visit this region to journey into the Altai Mountains.
Ölgii is the starting town for most adventurers in the region. Ölgii a 48-hour bus ride from Ulaanbaatar, or a short flight.
In early October, the Kazakh inhabitants of the region host the Golden Eagle Festival.
I haven’t visited this region yet, but I plan on making it out west next time I’m in Mongolia.
Eastern Mongolia is rarely visited but is home to the birthplace of Genghis Khan if you’re interested in checking that out.
Much of the region is a vast steppe without many interesting tourist sights. If you’ve been to Eastern Mongolia, let me know more about it and I’d love to update this section!
Group vs Independent Travel in Mongolia
Before my trip to Mongolia, my biggest challenge was figuring out how I was going to get around the country!
Public transportation connects the main regional hubs to Ulaanbaatar, but other than that there isn’t any way of getting around. All of the incredible sights are hours away from town and require a 4×4 vehicle to reach.
This means that the typical “backpacker” travel style of staying in hostels and taking public transportation doesn’t work here.
Group tours in Mongolia
Almost every hotel, hostel, and guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar will offer group tours.
An organized group tour in Mongolia will typically include the following things:
- Vehicle and driver
- English-speaking guide
- Accommodation in gers or tents
- Food (not including snacks or alcohol)
- Entrance fees and activities
As you can see, a group tour will include pretty much everything you need!
Now, how much does a group tour cost? Well, it varies.
The tour cost depends on the number of people who sign up. Expect to pay between $50-70 USD per day for a group tour that has a few other backpackers on it.
It’s hard to give an exact number, so budget for the high end to be safe.
When you are in Ulaanbaatar, I’d recommend staying at the Golden Gobi hostel. They’re very well organized and have multiple tours leaving every day in the summer.
Another hostel that I heard good things about is Sunpath Mongolia. If you can’t find the tour you’re looking for, or Golden Gobi is all sold out, consider staying there.
Don’t worry about booking a tour before you get to Mongolia – it will be much more expensive. Both of the above hostels have many tours leaving each day, so it’s easy to show up and join a group that’s leaving the next day.
Independent travel in Mongolia
If you want to independently backpack around Mongolia, you’re gonna need your own vehicle or a lot of cash.
If you have your own vehicle (4×4, bicycle, motorbike, horse), then getting around won’t be too difficult.
Most tourist sights have ger camps that you can pay to stay in, but you’ll need to bring a tent and cooking supplies for the places that don’t have ger camps.
If you don’t have your own form of transportation, you’ll need to hire a private vehicle and driver. Hiring a private vehicle will cost a couple hundred dollars per day.
Backpacking Mongolia Budget
Mongolia isn’t the cheapest country to backpack around. Due to its massive size and low population, a tour is pretty much required to see anything outside of Ulaanbaatar.
To be safe, budget between $50 and $70 per day in Mongolia if you plan on taking a group tour.
If you’re just visiting Ulaanbaatar, costs will be much lower. A hostel dorm bed (I recommend the Golden Gobi) will be less than $10 USD, and you can eat at local restaurants for only a few dollars.
Check out the State Department Store if you need to do any shopping – they have everything from camping gear to televisions.
Sample Mongolia Itineraries
All of these sample itineraries will assume that you’re starting your Mongolia adventure in Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolia 1-week itinerary
With a week in Mongolia, you’ll want to stick around the Ulaanbaatar area.
Spend a couple of days in Ulaanbaatar visiting its main sights, and then head to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. I’d recommend spending a few nights here, you’ll get to stay in a ger, try fermented horse milk, and go horseback riding.
If you arrange a driver with your hostel in Ulaanbaatar, you could also take a trip to the ancient capital of Karakorum. It’s a good 5-6 hour drive from Ulaanbaatar, so plan accordingly. I’d only recommend this if you’re really info Mongolian history, as there isn’t much else to do in Karakorum.
Mongolia 2-week itinerary
Two weeks is the perfect amount of time to check out Ulaanbaatar, Central Mongolia, and the Gobi Desert.
A typical tour of Central Mongolia and the Gobi departing from Ulaanbaatar will take about 12 days, and you’ll get to spend time in all the major sights.
For info on arranging a tour like this, see the Group tours in Mongolia section above.
The Gobi and Central Mongolia offer a perfect intro to the country and is what I’d recommend for a first-time visitor.
Mongolia 3-week itinerary
With three weeks, you’re able to add on another region to the above itinerary. Northern Mongolia would make the most sense, as you’re able to drive there pretty easily after visiting Central Mongolia.
A week in Northern Mongolia probably won’t be enough time to go and visit the Tsaatan people, so plan for a longer amount of time in the north if this is something you wish to do.
Mongolia 1-month itinerary
A month in Mongolia – I’m jealous! With this amount of time, you could make it all the way out to the western part of the country. You’ll be able to go hiking in the Altai mountains and meet the Kazakh people that inhabit that area.
Western Mongolia will take up about two weeks (the exact amount of time depends on if you fly or bus there). For your other two weeks in the country, consider checking out the Gobi and Central Mongolia. You’ll also probably want to plan some rest time in Ulaanbaatar.
Getting to and from Mongolia
Mongolia is wedged between China and Russia, and it’s possible to enter overland from both.
Overland to Mongolia
I wrote a complete guide to getting from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, so check that out if you’re planning on taking that route (or that route in reverse).
Between Russia and Mongolia is pretty easy too. There are frequent trains between Ulan-Ude and Ulaanbaatar.
Air travel to Mongolia
Mongolia isn’t connected very well by air and can be a bit pricey to fly into.
There are direct flights to Ulaanbaatar from a few cities including Moscow, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Irkutsk.
Best time to visit Mongolia
Mongolia has a four-season climate and depending on the experience you’re looking for, you’ll need to figure out when you want to visit.
For most people, the best time to visit Mongolia is in summer, but let me go over the pros and cons of the different seasons.
Mongolia in the winter
Unless you like -30°C weather, it’s probably best to avoid visiting Mongolia in the winter (November to March). If you do visit Mongolia in the winter, dress warm and you’ll experience a Mongolia that few other backpackers do!
Be warned – in the winter, Ulaanbaatar becomes one of the most polluted cities on Earth due to wood-burning heating.
Mongolia in the spring
In the spring (April to May), weather can still be unpredictable and roads can be quite muddy as the snow is still melting.
Mongolia in the summer
Mongolia’s summer lasts from June to August and is definitely the best time of year to visit Mongolia. In the summer, the steppes will be green and the skies will be blue (for the most part). Still, be prepared for any type of weather.
I backpacked around Mongolia in August, and when I was in the Gobi Desert climbing the Khongoryn Els sand dunes, it started pouring rain. Later on, I was in the Orkhon Valley and we were hit with a hail storm that covered our ger in ice. Be sure to bring gear for a any sort of situation.
In late July/early August, the Naadam festival takes place all over the country. It’s an incredible experience that shouldn’t be missed!
Mongolia in the fall
In the fall temperatures begin to drop, but gorgeous fall colours help make up for it. After summer, fall is probably the best time to visit Mongolia.
If you’re in Mongolia in early October, try to make it out for the Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii.
Mongolia Visa Requirements
Citizens of most countries need a visa to visit Mongolia. The typical tourist visa has a validity of 90 days from its date of issue and allows for a stay of up to 30 days in Mongolia.
A few passports that are able to get some duration of visa-free access to Mongolia are: USA, Canada, Germany, Japan, Israel, Singapore, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, Philippines, Hong Kong, and Macao.
Other citizenships, you’ll need to apply for a tourist visa at your nearest embassy.
For complete and up-to-date info on Mongolian visa requirements, check out Caravanistan’s great Mongolian Visa page.
Safety in Mongolia
Mongolia is a fairly safe country.
Be careful around drunk people. Unfortunately, certain people can become quite aggressive, especially if you’re talking to a Mongolian woman.
Carry some medical supplies if you’re going anywhere outside of Ulaanbaatar. It’s a long way to a pharmacy when you’re in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
Use common sense and you’ll be perfectly fine when backpacking Mongolia.
Internet in Mongolia
As most of Mongolia is very sparsely populated, expect to be offline most of the time while you’re in Mongolia.
I recommend picking up a local SIM card from either MobiCom or Unitel. With one of these local SIM cards, you’ll have 4G coverage in Ulaanbataar and quite a few towns around the country. You can purchase a SIM at any of the MobiCom or Unitel shops – just be sure to bring your passport.
For detailed info about the different plans offered by the telecoms, check out the Mongolia Prepaid SIM Card Wiki.
Backpacking Mongolia Wrap-up
And that’s it for my guide to backpacking Mongolia! I hope this helped you plan your Mongolia adventure.
If you’ve got any questions about travelling in Mongolia, feel free to ask me!
Yay transparency! There are affiliate links in this guide. If you book or buy something using my links, I’ll make a bit of money at no extra cost to you.