For most countries of the world, it is a visa-on-arrival at the airport or railway crossings (expect a 3-6 hour wait usually in the middle of the night) for a 30-day visa. Cost is $53 and 2 passport photos are required. You should also have an invitation from an organization or company in Mongolia. 30 day extensions are possible and should be applied for a week ahead, only in UB.
Visa free countries are US (90 days), Israel and Malaysia (30 days) and Singapore (14 days). For visas longer than 30 days, you must be invited or sponsored by a Mongolian citizen or company, or be part of an organized tour for a fee of ~ US$30. All visitors longer than 30 days must register within 7 days of arrival if American or before the 30 days is up for everyone else and has a fee. Check your local countries website.
Transit visas are necessary, last 72 hours and require ongoing tickets and visas for the next country.
Hordes of warriors rode down from the Mongolian Plateau in three waves – Hun, Turk, and finally Mongol, sweeping up nations and reassembling them into intercontinental empires.
Hun (209 BC – 4th century AD). The first steppe empire, stretching from Korea to Lake Baikal and south into N China, extracted wealth from the Chinese. In the 4th century, as the Hun empire collapsed, tribes left Mongolia. One reached Europe and created the Hun Empire from Germany to the Ural Mountains under Attila the Hun.
Turkic (6th-8th centuries). In the 6th century, Turkic speaking tribes rose. A literate people, they blended traditional nomadic herding with agriculture, urbanization and commerce. Spread from China to the shores of the Mediterranean as the Uighurs and the Kyrgyz who drove the Uighurs down into the oases of W China. After 840, there was a period of decentralized feuding and strife.
Mongols. Tenujin was born in 1162 and founded the Mongol Empire as Chinggis Khaan in 1206. With an army of 100,000, he was merciless, but to those who surrendered without fighting, he promised protection religious freedom, lower taxes and a heightened level of commerce and property. This did more to attract people into his empire than his military power. He extended his empire from Korea to Hungary and from India to Russia. Chinggis was followed by his son Ogedei (1229-1241), Ogedei’s widow Toregene to 1246, and Guyuk (1246-48). Civil War in 1259 resulted in Kublai Khan taking control primarily in China. The Mongols of Russia became independent (known as the Golden Horde), Persia and Mesopotamis became the Ilkhanate and Kublai created the Yuan dynasty in China and conquered the Sung dynasty. By 1368, the Mongol overlords had been overthrown by the Ming dynasty, and Mongols who did not assimilate withdrew back to the Mongolian steppe. Here their large court consumed huge resources impoverishing the herders and devastated the country.
Manduhai the Wise. Mongolia’s greatest queen reunited Mongolia in 1448 and undertook a new conquest of China and the creation of the Qing dynasty (1664-1911). They were eventually assimilated into Chinese culture under the Manchus.
Revolutions. In 1911, the Qing dynasty crumbled and the Mongols created their own country under a Buddhist leader Bogd Khan. When the Chinese broke free of the Manchus and created the Republic of China, they claimed part of the Manchu empire including Tibet and Mongolia. In 1915, Mongolia was granted limited autonomy. The Chinese invaded in 1919 but were expelled by the White Russians in 1921. With help from the Bolsheviks, The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) came into power and ruled for the next 69 years.
Soviet control. Mongolian communism came under the control of Stalin in the late 1920s, wealth was redistributed and private enterprise banned and famine resulted. Ruthless anti-religion policies resulted in thousands dying in the 1930s. in WWII, Mongolia donated 300kg of gold and 6 million animals to Soviet and Allied forces. With the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, Mongolia sided with the USSR and expelled all ethnic Chinese. In the 1970s, young Mongolians were educated in the USSR and Russian culture was imposed.
Transition to democracy. With collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, elections were held. Loss of Soviet subsidies resulted in economic disaster, loss of food supply and electricity. Rapid privatization occurred, freedom of speech, religion and assembly were all granted. Mongolia moved ahead with tremendous cultural vigour and relations were established with Europe
east Asia and the USA.
Today. Dubbed Mingolia because of its enormous mineral wealth (copper, gold and coal), Oyu Tolgoi, a massive gold and copper deposit in the Gobi was developed with US investment, and is expected to account for 1/3 of Mongolia’s GDP. New rail and road links to China and Russia are being developed. The country has embraced democracy successfully with the MPRP and Democrat parties fighting fair elections and forming coalitions as necessary.
Life remains hard with poverty, especially in the rural areas, forcing many into the cities. The struggle for work, housing, food and education for some contrasts with with business leaders rocketing to riches.
BOOKS ABOUT MONGOLIA
Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire – Christopher Atwood.
Genghhis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – Jack Weatherford
The Secret Life of the Mongols – Written in the 13th century, made public in the 20th century.
Modern Mongolia, Reclaiming Genghis Khan – Paula Sabloff.
Imperial Moongolain Cooking: Recipes from the Kingdom of Ghenghis Khan – Marc Cramer with food from all lands once part of the Mongol empire.
chriskaplonsky.com An anthropologist writes about Mongolian culture and history.
nadaam.viahistoria.com. Pictures and historical info on the Nadaam Festival.
jeetsundhampa.com. Information on Buddhist leadership.
mongolfood.info. Cooking techniques and recipes.
Films: The 2010 documentary, Babies, featured 4 newborns from USA, Japan, Namibia and Mongolia and gives great insight into the life of a typical Mongolian family. www.filminfocus.com/film/babies.
You Tube – Timothy Allen BBC Earth. The 80 second video of the set up of a ger using time lapse photography.
Every Mongolian is a nomad at heart and many still follow that traditional lifestyle. Essential to that life are the ger (the ubiquitous felt and canvas tent), and animals (cows, sheep, goats, camels, and horses) providing everything they need. Reverence for nature is seen in all aspects of Mongolian life, especially song, dance and art. A Mongolian is typically humble, stoic, and reserved, rarely expressing emotions in public. Spring is dry, dusty and windy, summer is filled with chores and tending livestock, winter is a time for relaxation. Hospitality is renowned as each ger serves as hotel, restaurant, pub and repair shop. They tend to move 2-4 times a year as one nuclear family or an extended family of 3-4 gets with an average of 300 animals per family. 98% are literate.
Nomadic lifestyles are reflected in the layout of buildings and driving habits as Mongolians move to the cities. Ger districts in Ulaanbaator are phasing out. Horse-branding ceremonies and the ‘haircut’ ceremony (at 2 for girls and 3 for boys) are traditional.
Naadam Festival. Usually in mid-July, every village has a Nadaam. Festival with wrestling, archery and horse racing.
Gers. Do sleep with feet towards the door, say hello, try to converse in Mogolian, and bring a gift. Don’t touch someone’s hat, whistle, lean against the support column, step on the threshold, touch anyone’s head especially a child, or serve yourself food. Inside the ger, women are on the right, men on the left, guests at the back slightly towards the west and elders and the family altar at the back.
Religion. They are deeply spiritual but organized religion plays a small role. Shamanismis reflected in the lack of infrastructure throughout Mongol history (maintain a balance with nature by not digging holes or tearing up the land). Mineral exploitation is difficult to deal with. Shamans cure sickness and accompany souls of the dead to the other world. Sky worship is integral (leave blue scarves on ovoos and flick vodka before drinking).
Buddhism. Kublai Khan was exposed but it was not till 1578 that it was formally adopted and males went into monasteries instead of the army. In 1924, the eighth Buddhist leader died ending two centuries of Buddhist rule. Peace is part of contemporary society. In 1937, the communist purge destroyed 700 monasteries and over 30,000 monks killed. Freedom of religion was reintroduced in 1990 but 2 generations of atheists leave little understanding of Buddhist rituals or meanings, and few visit monasteries.
Islam. Sunni Muslims, ethnic Kazakha live in Bayan-Olgii in the far west of the country. About 5% of the population.
Christianity. Initially Nestorian Christianity was part of the Mongol empire. Now missionaries from fundamentalist sects have arrived. There are 65,000 Christians with 150 churches.
Tribes. Initially there were 12 ethnic sub-groups united under the great Mongol empire (1206-1368) but reverted to 20 squabbling ‘nations’ mostly located along the borders. Today tribes lack much independence but promote their cultural identity with annual festivals, traditional clothing and individual features.
Early in the 20th century the Communist government forbid clan names and most people only had one name which worked with a small and scattered population. In the 1990s, few could recall their clan name, the phonebook had pages of one name and in elections, 6-7 candidates would have the same name on the ballot. Inbreeding from cousins intermarrying was serious. An ancient tradition forbid marrying within ones clan for 7 generations. The government made people adopted clan names or simply make one up.
Hearty but bland mixtures of meat and dairy products supplemented with rice, bread and potatoes. Mutton dumplings and fried mutton pancakes are common. The classic dinner staple, and the one most dreaded by foreigners is mach (meat) consisting of boiled sheep bits (bones, fat, organs and head) with potato served in a plastic bucket. It is polite to bring something to contribute to the meal – drinks, rice or sweets for dessert.
Do cut food toward you, accept food with right hand, drink tea immediately after receiving it, take at least a sip or nibble of the delicacies, hold a cup by bottom not rim, cover your mouth when using a toothpick. Don’t point a knife at anyone (offer the handle), get up until everyone has finished, cross legs or stick feet in front of you when eating.
Classic drinks include milk tea with salt, but you can ask for black tea. There is pressure to drink alcohol. Most young people prefer beer instead of vodka. When drinking vodka, dip your left ring finger in the vodka and fling a drop in the four directions. Airag is fermented mare’s milk with 3% alcohol.
With the world’s lowest population density, huge tracts of virgin landscape, minimal infrastructure, varied ecosystems and abundant wildlife, Mongolia is considered to be th least bastion of unspoiled land in Asia. Nomadic life combined with Shamanistic principles protected the land.
At 1.566 million sq km, it is 3x the size of France. The southern third is the Gobi Desert. Only the southern sliver is sand dunes and the rest is desert steppe which can only support scattered herds. Much of the rest is grasslands (or mountain forest steppe) covering 35% with gazelle, birds and livestock. The far north is taiga with larch and pine forests. Mountain ranges consist of the Khangai Nuruu (highest mountain 3905m) in the centre with its largest river, the Selenge Gol flowing north to Lake Baikal, and the Khentii Nuruu to the NE of Ulaanbaator, the highest and most accessible. There are many saltwater and fresh water lakes. Other features are caves, dormant volcanos, hot springs, Orkhon Waterfall, the Great Lakes Depression in western Mongolia and the Darkhad Depression.
Wildlife. The distinction between wild and domesticated is often blurred. There are at least 21 major large mammals, 469 bird species and 76 species of fish. 28 mammals and 22 birds are endangered. 300 falcons are sold each year, especially to Arab countries, for $12,000 per bird. The wild horse is one that is reviving. 1000 snow leopards remain.
Issues. The natural environment remains in good shape comparatively. 70% of pastureland is degraded. Forest fires are common in the dry spring. Mining has polluted 28 river basins with 300 mines in the country. The huge Oyu Tolgoi min will require the use of 360 litters of water per second which may not be sustainable. Urban sprawl and deforestation for wood for heating homes has reduced river levels. The ‘Millennium Road’ cuts through important gazelle emigration route in eastern Mongolia. It will increase mining and commerce inside fragile ecosystems. A proposed railway from the Gobi Desert east could cause similar problems especially if fences are built along the railway.
AIR. Ulaanbator’s Chinggis Khaan Airport’s code is ULN, but Olgii, Choibalsan and Khovd also have connections to China or Russia. EZ Nis has gone bankrupt as of June, 2014. I have found it very difficult to book domestic flights. I wanted to fly from UB to Ulgii for the Golden Eagle Festival October 4-5, 2014. Companies offering tours to the festival simply didn’t respond for requests to book flights.
LAND BORDER CROSSINGS
CHINA. Ereen/Zamyn-Uud is the only Chinese crossing open to foreigners. Only the train crossing is open on holidays. It is not possible to walk across the border. To enter Mongolia, a visa can be obtained same day in Ereen at the Mongolian consulate. It requires 2 hours to pass through immigration. If entering China, it is not necessary to pass through Beijing and you can continue on via Datong and onward to Pingyao, Xi’an and points south in western China. Cars crossing into China require a guide and Chinese driving permit. There are 2 direct trains between UB and Beijing per week. Plan visas and stays on both sides to coincide with train days. I found www.russiantrains.com a great web site to book all my trains. Tickets are only issued 45 days in advance but I purchased most of my e-tickets 2 months ahead. Local trains are possible but more hassle. Train 21 or 22 from UB to Ereen Thursdays and Sundays or UB to Zamyn-Uud, then cross the border by minivan or jeep and catch an ongoing train from there.
RUSSIA. Most travellers cross at Naushki/Sukhbaatar, but there are 3 road crossings. This can be agonizingly slow with 3-6 hour (occasionally 10 hours) delays on the Russian side. Apparently train travellers can get out and stretch their legs. Direct trains are faster than local trains. Immigration declarations must be stamped on entry and exit to be valid and are required. Don’t change money at the border crossings.
Bus is probably fastest to cross. A bus from Ulan Ude takes 10 hours to UB.
This is a segment of the vast network connecting Beijing and Moscow. The final link connecting Vladivostok was finished in 1916 but the section across Mongolia was only finished in 1956. The train goes from Beijing through Ulaanbaator and onto a junction called Zaudinsky, near Ulan use in Russia, where it meets the Trans-Siberian. The Trans-Manchuria almost completely bypasses Mongolia.
Vendors on platforms sell food and snacks. Toilets are locked when the train is in the station and 5 minutes before arrival and after departure. 1st and 2nd class carriages have a washroom and toilet at the end of each carriage which gets filthier as the trip progresses. Only first class has showers. The train are generally safe but lock cabins from the inside. Arrive at least 30 minutes before to orientate yourself to the station and platforms. The train only stops in Ulaanbaator for 30 minutes.
Have US$ in small denominations to buy meals and drinks. Also buy some Russian roubles or Chinese Yuan before departure. Stock up on munchies like biscuits, chocolate and fruit plus water and juice. Also useful are a mug, toilet paper, reading material and a track suit to blend in with the locals.
Most travelers travel in second class or hard sleeper, or kupe, small but perfectly comfortable, 4-berth compartments with a fold-down table. It is printed on tickets as 1/4.
Customs and Immigration. Delays of 3-6 hours occur at each border, usually at night. Your passport will be taken for inspection and stamping. Inspect it closely on returning. Foreigners usually sail through without having their baggage inspected. You can get off and wander around.
If in Ulaanbaator and, avoid getting on the Moscow-Beijing trains and use the trains that originate UB. It is only possible to buy the ticket the day before for these trains.
GETTING AROUND MONGOLIA
AIR. It is impossible to book domestic fights from outside the country. Aeromongolia and Hunnsit are the only carriers since EN Zis has gone bankrupt. The web sites for aeromongolia.com is impossible to navigate as it blocks constantly with popups in Mongolian script. I wanted to fly from UB to Ulgii for the Golden Eagle Festival October 4-5, 2014. Companies offering tours to the festival simply didn’t respond for requests to book flights. One must go into many google pages to find tourist agencies who might book a flight for you. The foreigner price is often higher than for locals. Tickets can be difficult to get in the summer.
BUS. Private bus companies connect UB to the aimag capitals. They have an assigned seat, leave on time and drive straight to their destination. There is luggage in the aisles so try sitting closer to the front and the heater in the middle can be a blast furnace. Music is common so earplugs may be of help.
CAR OR MOTORCYCLE. This is a dangerous business as many roads are little more than tire tracks in the dirt and there is hardly a signpost in the entire country. Roads change, follow telephone lines or ask directions at gets along the way but towns with food and water are few and far between and few speak English. International Drivers Licences are required. Only low octane gas is available in the countryside.
HITCHHIKING is recognized and often the only method of transportation in the countryside. It is seldom free and you are expected to pay for gas. It is always slow with stopping at gets, fixing flats, running out of gas, getting stuck, and breakdowns. The best place to wait is the petri station on the outskirts of town. Bring water, a bag to cover your pack for all the dust and a huge amount of patience and time.
BUS, MINIBUS, TROLLEYBUS and TAXI are available in UB and a few towns.
MINIBUS AND JEEP are used for long and short-distance travel. They can be shared or private. Speeds average 30-50km/hr except in the Gobi where it can reach 60. They come with a driver and for a little more, a guide. Use buses to get to major centers and the hire the vehicle. Guesthouses are a good source. Agree on costs including tolls and paying for a returning vehicle returning empty. Besides the driver, there is only seating for 4 in a jeep and 6-7 in a van. Agree on an itinerary on a map, gerry cans for extra gas. Put luggage in dust proof bags. It is assumed that you will feed the driver along the way. Shop and cook as a group. Rotate seats. Bathhouses and restaurant meals provide some needed luxury. As few speak English, a guide can be indispensable tp explain local traditions, help with any hassles with the police, find accommodation, explain captions in museums and act as linguistic and cultural interpreter. Breakdowns are common and may disrupt the entire trip. Of the 49,000km of roads in Mongolia, only about 2800 are paved and taxis only go on paved roads.
TRAIN. Domestic railways have limited routs as the Trans-Mongolian does not have domestic use. Food is of poor quality. The seats available are soft seats (actually 4 bunks in a compartment, twice the price but probably worth it), hard sleeper (like a hard seat but seats are assigned), and hard seats (padded bunks but not assigned and no limit on the number of tickets sold so are crowded and dirty). Book soft seats well in advance.
It is a good idea to book ahead especially in the summer and in rural areas where resources are limited.
Camping. Is available anywhere but poor public transportation limits access to great camping sites.
Ger Buudals (hotels). Found in popular tourist destinations, they are family run operations usually consisting of a ger next to the family’s her. They are very basic with no showers, toilets and thin bedding.
Ger Camps. Popular with tourists, they consist of many gers and have hot water, toilets, sheets, karaoke bars and separate gers for a restaurant and bathing. Most close at the end of August.
Traditional Ger. If invited, you will usually not pay, so a gift is mandatory. Cigarettes, candy and vodka are customary. Constructive presents include sewing kits, multi-tools, fleece sweaters, toothbrushes and paste, books and newspapers and hand powered flashlights. Supply some of the food (bread, fruit, salt, rice or pasta). Rarely will you stay more than 1-2 nights.
Guesthouses. Aimed at western backpackers, they are mostly in UB, and are like hostels with dorm beds.
Hotels. Rooms are deluxe, standard or occasionally dorm style. Budget hotels in UB tend to be on the fringes and cater to Mongolian truck drivers, so guesthouses are a better idea. In the countryside, facilities tend to be dodgy and service poor so have patience and don’t get angry, it will only make things worse. Security may be a problem.
CHILDREN. Can be a great icebreaker but long jeep rides over nonexistent roads through boring landscapes, poor food, and lack of child seats are problems. Children love riding animals and will have lots of playmates.
INTERNET. Internet cafes are common in UB and decrease in frequency as town size decreases. Wifi is uncommon in rural areas. There are several internet service providers. Mobile broadband is the best in rural areas.
MONEY. The Togrog (T) comes in 5-20,000 (about US$17) denomination notes. Exchange rates in July, 2014 were 1000 T = .54US$, .4 Euro. Possible to use US$ if paying out large amounts. Cash offers the best exchange rates. I never travel with traveler’s cheques but they may be handy in extremely rare circumstances. Change all your togrog before leaving the country as they are worthless everywhere else but make good souvenirs.
ATMs are in most towns and allow up to T600,000 withdrawals with fees of 1-3%.
Credit cards can be used in upscale hotels, travel agencies and antique shops but will incur a 3% charge.
Tipping is generally not done except 10% for guides and drivers.
PHOTOGRAPHY. Extra batteries are necessary if going anywhere remote with no recharging capability. Seal equipment in plastic bags to deal with all the dust. Always ask before taking a photograph but most people are happy to pose.
SAFETY. Mongolia is generally safe but there can be problems with drunks, the usual pickpockets and other petty crime, and stray dogs. Heating and hot water shortages, along with electrical blackouts are common. Single women are generally treated respectfully.
Dodgy tour companies are common. Read trip advisor reviews to search out different companies.