Where to go in Mongolia
Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populate countries in the world with a population of just 3 million people in an area of 1,564,116 km². To give you more of an idea, the UK would fit into Mongolia nearly 7 times and it is 2,368 km (1,471 miles) east to west with just 2,600 km of paved roads in the entire country! The world’s largest landlocked country contains very little arable land with mountains to the north and west, the Gobi Desert in the south and much of the land covered by grassy steppe. So now we know the size and have touched on the infrastructure, we can start to consider the various regions and distances in between to help plan your trip to this fascinating country.
Although Mongolia is divided into 21 provinces, it can be split into five distinct areas to visit:
1. Khovsgol and the North
Flight time Ulaanbaatar – Muron; 1.5 hours
Distance Ulaanbaatar – Muron; 695 km (432 miles)
Ask most Mongolian’s which their favourite province is, and they will say: “Khovsgol, such a stunning and beautiful area”. The lake is crystal clear and surrounded by larch and pine covered mountains. Imagine the Alps with yak! Great for horse riding and hiking, activities on the lake such as kayaking or hiring a motorboat to explore more remote areas; fishing is possible in nearby rivers; there may be a chance to see reindeer (although these are kept for tourists). Get away from the crowds and stay at a remote eco-ger-camp, reached by boat, with composting loos, and a lakeside sauna – perfect for warming up before a dip in an icy lake.
2. Central Mongolia - we like to call it "The Heartland"
Drive time Ulaanbaatar – Khustai Nuruu Nature Reserve; 2 hours (130 km)
Drive time Khustai Nuruu Nature Reserve – Kharkhorin; 5 hours (440 km)
There is more driving involved to visit the heartland of Mongolia but you will see regions of wide open steppe, rolling hills and mountains. Visit the old capital, Kharkhorin, stop at Khustai Nuruu Nature Reserve then go on a safari drive to find the ancient Przewalski’s wild horses. There will be opportunities to hike, visit Erdene Zuu monastery in Kharkhorin and ride camels at the small dunes of Bayangobi, which is the very northern edge of the Gobi. To visit this region you can expect to stay in cosy ger-camps along the way or perhaps a family homestay to experience real yet basic nomadic life.
3. The Gobi Desert
Flight time Ulaanbaatar – Dalanzadgad; 1.5 hours
Drive time Dalanzadgad – Khongoryn Els; 5-7 hours (200 km)
The Gobi is a vast gravelly plain with spectacular sand dunes to climb and slide down, camels to ride and dinosaur remains to be found at the sandstone cliffs of Bayanzag. You can hike into Yolyn Am, a gorge which cuts through the mountains – there are snow leopards in this area but it is very unlikely for you to see one! Probably best to keep a look out for ibex and gazelle amongst smaller animals such as pika and marmot. There is a whole host of different accommodation in the Gobi, from homestays with camel herding families to the Three Camel Lodge amongst other options which offer ensuite gers!
4. Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and Khentii foothills
Drive time Ulaanbaatar – Gun Galuut Nature Reserve; 3 hours (130km)
Drive time Terejl National Park – Gun Galuut Nature Reserve; 2 hours (70km)
This area is closer to the city so less travel time is involved and generally less cost. You can feel as if you are in complete wilderness within 2 hours driving out of the city. Even though it is closer in distance to Ulaanbaatar, for many visitors to Mongolia, it is this region and its spectacular landscapes that wow the most. There is plenty to see in this area. The landscape in Terelj is interesting with lots of ancient rock formations, perfect for hiking and horse riding. There are several rivers in the area which are good for kayaking or rafting and one or two good fishing rivers. There is history at the giant Chinggis monument and at the 13th Century Camp – a living museum from the times of Ghenghis Khan. For something more extreme there is a microlight plane and even paragliding! There is also plenty of wildlife to see at the Gun Galuut Nature Reserve. There are a range of accommodation options from the luxury Terelj Hotel to beautifully located ger camps and to immerse yourself in nomadic culture, you can also stay at our Panoramic Journeys homestay where you will have your own ger next to a nomadic family who will invite you to share their daily lives.
5. Western Mongolia
Flight time Ulaanbaatar – Ulgii; 4 hours
Drive time Ulgii – Altansogts (eagle hunting families); 3 hours (45km)
The wild west of Mongolia is characterised by rugged mountains, lakes, glaciers and is perfect for trekking on foot, horse or camel. The region is home to several different ethnic groups and feels very different to other parts of Mongolia. The Altai Mountains run through the province of Bayan Ulgii and is home to a large Mongolian-Kazakh population who have their own distinct culture and identity. In fact, it is said that to see the real culture of Kazakhstan, you should visit western Mongolia. The practice of hunting with Golden Eagles is still common in Bayan Ulgii and we can arrange a homestay with an eagle hunter. It is a 4 hour flight or a 5 day drive to visit this area from Ulaanbaatar and so is less visited as infrequent and unreliable flight schedules make it difficult to visit on a short trip to Mongolia. There is less tourist infrastructure, and apart from a couple of basic hotels and ger camps in the main towns, accommodation will either be in tents or staying with families, so this region is not for everyone, but the complete wilderness and stunning landscapes make up for the lack of facilities! Wrap up warm and embrace nomadic life. Visit in late September or early October for the Eagle Festival (group trips or tailormade tours available) where eagle hunters gather to show off their skills.
Hopefully this breakdown of regions has armed you with a little more knowledge of Mongolia allowing you to initially consider how long you have available in country and then where might be possible locations to travel to once there, before narrowing your itinerary down and hearing incredible ideas from our consultants to really make your trip unique. All distances and timings are approximate and are dependent upon the route taken at that time and road conditions when you are there.