I’d Like To Visit Mongolia (I Think)

A lot of my travel decisions are driven by airlines and hotels. I realize that’s a different motivation than most have when it comes to deciding what trips to take, though it has served me pretty well over the years, and I’ve visited some cool places thanks to that approach.

While departing Incheon Airport last week, I saw a 767 with a livery I was at first unfamiliar with. After taking a picture and zooming in, I saw that it was a MIAT Mongolian 767-300.

Korean-Air-Business-Class-777 - 24

While I’m familiar with Mongolia, I can’t say it has ever been anywhere close to the top of my list of places to visit. While taking a city tour in Astana, Kazakhstan a few months ago, my guide told me that it was the second coldest capital city in the world, after Ulaanbaatar. That’s probably the last reference I’ve heard to the place.

Well, I’ve been looking into Mongolia since I saw the plane last week, and am fascinated, both by the country and the airline.

MIAT Mongolian has a fairly limited route network. Here’s their routemap, though note that many of their routes are seasonal:

Mongolian-Routemap

Now, I sure as heck don’t want to visit in winter, given that I don’t handle cold well. So I’ve been looking at summer options, and it looks like the best way to catch a flight there on their 767 is via Seoul Incheon or Frankfurt.

Roundtrip business class tickets between Seoul and Ulaanbaatar run just under $1,000, though it’s a short flight:

MIAT-Flights-2

Meanwhile their seasonal Frankfurt to Ulaanbaatar route costs ~$1,750 roundtrip, which isn’t that bad for a pretty long flight:

MIAT-Flights

Given that I plan on being in Europe for most of the summer anyway, I was thinking of perhaps using that as a jumping off point to Mongolia (as if I didn’t already have enough places I wanted to visit this summer).

So I’d love to hear from anyone who has been to Mongolia. Going to Ulaanbaatar is easy enough, and there’s a nice looking Shangri-La there, that’s reasonably priced.

Shangri-La-Ulaanbaatar

But what else is worth seeing in the country? The Gobi Desert looks incredible, but also doesn’t look especially easy to get to. Furthermore, being able to constantly stay connected is important to me. I’m fortunate to be able to travel constantly, though at the same time that also means I have to be responsible and not disconnect for extended periods of time.

A majority of the stories I’ve found online about visiting the Gobi Desert involve backpacking, which doesn’t work all that well given my schedule.

So if anyone has been to Mongolia, I’d love to hear about it. Ultimately I’ll probably visit even if it just means trying MIAT Mongolian and visiting Ulaanbaatar, but I’d love to get out of the city, if it’s practical.

Anyone else have an interest in visiting Mongolia?

Comments

  1. Mongolia is on my short list. I recently read an article that discussed Three Camel Lodge which is listed as one of National Geographic’s Unique Hotels of the World. I imagine points options are limited in Mongolia (AwardMapper.com only shows a Ramada and Best Western in the capital city) so maybe this could be a good use of a paid rate with Citi Prestige 4th night free. I look forward to the trip report.

  2. Have not been to Mongolia (yet) but intend to go in 2018. Have begun some trip planning in a limited fashion.

    Mongolia has been on my wish list for a very long time – though it’s far outside my usual preferences for travel.

    I’m interested in your trip (and willing to provide you the little bit I’ve compiled if you’d like).

  3. Ben,

    We spent about 8 days there. We flew on Hunnu Air to Moron and stayed at a Ger camp on Lake Baikal. Total isolation and beauty. We visited a few local families and some nomadic people, rider horses, went on hikes, and relaxed. From there we returned to ULN and stayed three days outside the city at the Tuul River Lodge. Beautiful setting by a river with outdoor activities and good food. We did not want to do the desert area. You don’t need more than one day in ULN. Get out and see other sites. We flew Air China to ULN.

  4. Backpacking doesn’t work well because you’re a sheltered person, it has nothing to do with your schedule. Even presidents can take some time off, so you can too if you were capable of roughing it in the least.

  5. My husband and I went a few years ago and rented a private vehicle for the Gobi. There are a few day trips you could take as well. I’d be happy to discuss the ins and outs of our trip via email.

  6. You should listen to the amazing epic 6 part podcast by Dan Carlin – Hardcore History Wrath of the Khans. It’s made me want to visit and experience the history of the Khans.

  7. I was there for a week last October. I can only recommend that if you bother to fly there, don’t just stay in Ulaanbaatar – it would be a waste (horrible smog and the worst traffic I’ve ever seen)! During the summer there are regional flights, and beyond that there are some busses. That said, outside UB the level of English proficiency quickly goes to zero…if you have some Russian, it can get you by with older people, but only sort of. By far my recommendation would be to arrange a private tour, which would get you off the paved roads out onto the steppes with the nomads (we went with Goyo, a joint UK/Mongolian company). That said, connectivity was surprisingly good (on Project Fi, at least). I had LTE while near/on highways, and 3G most other places. Shoot me an email if you’d like and I’d be happy to share greater detail (and photos to help woo you)….because you should go. It was amazing.

  8. I recommend you overnight on the Trans-mongolian between UB and Beijing. You’ll get to see the dessert, experience a midnight bogie exchange(they change the train wheels while you wait at the border!) also, get out of town, stay in a ger, drink airag(but not too much), watch horse race, and just enjoy not being connected for a fee days.

  9. The winter is undesirable but so is the summer. Also be mindful of air quality – the climate and industrialization in parts of Mongolia, including ULN, can create very unhealthy pollution which you should avoid prolonged exposure too. Finally, the food in Mongolia is largely meat based so be prepared to survive with limited fresh fruits and vegetables. That all being said, Mongolia is unlike anywhere else and you can have a great time if you have the right expectations.

  10. I was in Mongolia this past summer for the Naadam Festival (July). That’s their Olympics. I suggest to time your visit around that time. The people in this country will be almost identical to your experience in Bhutan. Warm, generous, and hospitable. I also went to Terelj National Park where I experienced riding a Mongolian horse and stayed in a “ger”. I then went to Karakorum, which was their ancient capital. Along the way, we stopped by Khustain National Park to search for the endangered Takhi horses as well as ride Bactrian camels in one of their tiny deserts. The landscapes were all pristine.

    A little side note though. I took the Trans-Siberian Railway which I highly suggest if you have the time. Flew F via JL from SFO-PEK, took the train from PEK to Mongolia, then to Siberia for Lake Baikal, then onwards to Moscow. Flew F via SQ from DME – IAH. It was an experience of a lifetime!

  11. I redeemed Delta Skymiles last year for a Business Class ticket YYZ-JFK-ICN-ULN, with Delta on YYZ-JFK, then Korean Air for the rest of the journey. Stayed in Mongolia for a week. I was toughing in out around Central Mongolia because after researching online, I found there were very few luxury options. Not sure if that was due to the Asia-Europe Summit that was taking place right at that week. For the event, the government actually closed the Ulan Bator airport terminal from the general public. Upon arrival, after passing immigration and picking up luggage, all passengers were bused to the stadium 5 minutes away from the airport. The stadium became the temporary airport meet and greet area. My Korean Air flight was parked right next to the Spanish Government’s A310 and the Japanese Prime Minister’s 747-400.

    I believe unless you want to pay $$$$, there probably won’t be anything luxurious outside of the capital. And even then, luxury maybe a loose description for the money that one pays. Also, during the Naadam Festival in early July, many Ulan Bator hotels become fully booked months in advance.

    I took MIAT to Beijing after Mongolia. It was an ok flight. Uneventful (on economy class). The most memorable thing was it arrived in Beijing half an hour early.

  12. Kris and Ruy–did you do all the planning and research for your travels, or did you have some help? And we’re your trips for pleasure only? Did you need visas and any immunizations? Your trips sound fabulous, so maybe I need to put Mongolia on my Bucket List.

  13. I was in Mongolia a few years ago, it’s definitely different and off the beaten path. Internet is easy to come by in the capital. But once you’re outside of it, it’ll be hard to find….depending on the ger you stay in. I would recommend going just to check it out. I spent a day in the steppe with some nomads and then a day up in the mountains with another group. 3-4 days would be enough to see Ulaanbaatar and do a quick day trip or an overnight trip. If anything you’ll have some interesting stories to tell us. There’s rumored to be a gun range where you can shoot anything from an AK-47 to an RPG, if that’s the sort of thing that whets your whistle. Cheers!

  14. Nice. You are doing some fun travels now. Unlike the boring lounge and first class, same gilded experience every time like before.

  15. I was supposed to go to Mongolia two years ago but had to cancel. I just booked my trip for this fall. In both cases, I was able to use my United miles for my ticket. I am doing a classic tour that doesn’t require trekking. The tour visits the Gobi, the grasslands, dinosaur fossil areas, hot springs, and a number of other places over two weeks. I did research on a number of tour companies. While you can do the trip without a tour and book most Ger camp stays online, it seemed easier to have a guide. There are a number of British tour companies offering trips to Mongolia. I had some difficulty booking with a Mongolian based tour company which led to canceling my first trip. US citizens don’t require a visa for a stay less than 30 days.

  16. Visiting Ulaanbaatar alone is a waste, this is not what this country is all about – making it to the Gobi desert is a must (Three Camels Lodge is by far the most luxurious option). If you are in that part of the world, you might as well visit Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island in Russia.

  17. Spent 10 days in Mongolia in September 2015. Hired a car and driver and guide and roamed the countryside. Was a wonderful trip as the three of us got along quite well…essentially a road trip, stopping at various sites and ger camps along the way.
    Snowed in the north (this was around Sept 10) so I wish I had packed a better coat, in hindsight.

    Food was nuts though. Mongolian food wasn’t easy on my stomach and the Russian food (mayo-drenched beet salad, meat, etc.) wasn’t too enjoyable either.

    Nonetheless, awesome place. Wonderful people.

    Yak vodka FTW!

  18. Having spent 5 days in Ulaanbator for work, without knowing a word of Russian or Mongolian, here are my notes:
    1) There is internet available, both at hotels and via mobile cell phone service.
    2) ULN is also served by Air China and Korean Air. There is a Korean Air lounge at the airport.
    3) ATMs are available for cash withdrawals.
    4) You’ll most likely need a visa to visit.
    5) There is a Louis Vuitton (and Zegna) store in the center of the city. There are two restaurants above it that have English menus – an international cafe and a Korean restaurant.
    6) The state department store is where you can buy all the stuff, including alcohol such as Mongolian vodka.

    For pictures: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjtJvr2n

  19. it’ll still be there a year from now. Maybe plan next summer around it. Being disconnected for a week or two might be good for you

  20. MIAT = Maybe I Arrive Today

    Fly Korean, which you won’t regret.

    Ulaanbaatar is a great city, lots of fun … but the real fun begins on the outskirts in the beautiful grassland. Let go of your devices for 2 days and experience the countryside.

  21. I highly recommend Mongolia. Went for a 5 days trip there, and the landscape of the steppes were nothing like i’ve ever seen anywhere else before. As people above said, spend minimal time in Ulanbaatar which felt like a derelict ex Soviet Union city (although we had an interesting time eating at NORTH Korean restaurant there which blasted propaganda karaoke as the background entertainment). Spend time on the steppes and desert and trying the ger (there is a tourist class version at many camps and a luxury one at HS Khaan resort). We went in July right around Nadaam festival and weather was perfect, not too hot nor cold. Paid 250 bucks for a 5 day private tour with driver and guide – very great value of money back in 2013. Shoot me an e-mail if you need guide recommendation – I am still in touch with her.

  22. I spent two weeks in Mongolia while doing the Trans-Siberian (Trans-Mongolian in my case). GO GO GO. It’s an amazing country, though to truly experience it you’ll have to do a few night in a Yurt in Terelj National Park and spend a few nights in the Gobi under the stars. It’s an amazing country though. The people is great, the food is yummy, and it’s a great value!

  23. I lived and worked in Mongolia for two years. I was based in Ulaanbaatar, but had to travel exentively in the countryside visiting mine sites for work. Mongolia is stunning once you are out of the city, and thankfully it only takes about 20 minutes by car to be truly in the countryside. I’ve been to 60+ countries and Mongolia is still the most unique place I’ve ever visited. Feel free to PM me if you’d like more detailed info on activities once you’re in the country.

    I disagree with one of the above commentors calling MIAT “Maybe I Arrive Today.” I found Air China flying PEK-ULN to be the single most cancelled flight I’ve ever seen. Slightest bit of bad weather (or undersold cabin) and that flight got cancelled. I remember having beers next to a couple MIAT pilots at the Big Irish Pub downtown and they laughed that the Chinese pilots are scaerdy cats, but us “tough Mongolian pilots” will fly in anything. Not sure I find that terribly comforting, but four cancelled Air China flights let me to converting to MIAT only when flying out ULN.

    I know you are into trying out exotic airlines. Business class seats on MIAT are basic and nothing special. Only nice thing about biz was boarding early and not having to deal with fighting for overhead bin space with all the professional merchandise importers. The food on MIAT is easily the most disgusting food (airplane or otherwise) I have seen. It’s sadly representive of Mongolian food in general.

    If you’re feeling REALLY adventurous, charter a flight on one of the old soviet helicopters several companies operate and head out further afield. I rode on those a couple of times to the Gobi desert which was great fun.

  24. Highly recommend Bayan-Ulgii. There are direct flights; you had better go with privates rather than MIAT (Eznis was good but it’s now defunct, so check to see what is best these days). The national park nearby is phenomenal – you can hire a guide who will take you out by Jeep, and you will sleep with the locals in their yurts. Many i talked to told stories about traveling a month overland each day to Russia to trade for supplies when they were younger. Phenomenal scenery as well.

    UB is of little interest – it is a fairly new city and essentially exists for mining finance reasons. The best sites are the Gobi or the Tavan Bogd park I mentioned.

    Mongolia is a top 10 on my list after 120 countries, btw. If places like Slovenia or Burma are your kind of destination, you will love it.

  25. Does anyone know if knowing some Mandarin will help in Mongolia? Somebody mentioned Russian….

    @Lucky: Go disconnect, the pics of pre-departure water bottles, hot towels, and hotel toilets can wait! Your loyal readership will totally understand!

  26. @RobPHX, I speak fluent Mandarin and its of zero use in Mongolia. Most educated people under age 40 speak English. The ones over 40 are likely to speak Russian.

    Mongolian uses the cyrillic alphabet, so its more helpful to know Russian if you need to read signs.

  27. Went to Mongolia about 7 years ago. As others have said a night is enough in UB and you should definitely get out of the city. 2 options within 1.5-2 hours drive are the HS Khaan Resort (luxury get with ensuite bathrooms and super fast wifi) – when I went it was Japanese run so you can imagine the standard maintained and the Terelj Resort (an old Tsarist hunting lodge redone as a 5 star hotel) – when I went service was impeccable including one of the best spas I’ve been to in Asia and great food.

  28. Try to go in July during the Nadaam Festival. The trip to Mongolia is super worth it. I flew MIAT to and from Beijing. I have the impression that their 767’s all have different configurations.

  29. Hello Barbara, I planned the Trans-Siberian independently. There are a lot of amazing websites out there with info such as http://www.seat61.com. The train between Beijing – UB has showers in their first class suites. I’ve outlined the steps on how I did it here: https://globetraveler.blog/2017/01/08/trans-siberian-railway-in-7-steps/ . China and Russia will require a visa. I booked my RTW trip using miles. I used AA miles for the JL F SFO-HND-PEK leg and SQ miles for the DME-IAH leg. I used a paid ticket from the IAH-SFO leg.

    I will echo one of the commenters regarding visiting Lake Baikal, which is just an overnight train away from UB. It’s magical. Mongolia is my favorite country along the Trans-Siberian line.

  30. Ulaanbaatar is worth checking out. The National Museum of Mongolia and the Fine Arts Zanabazar Museum are among the better places. It is easy to arrange visits to the nearby Genghis Khan statue complex (the tallest equestrian statue in the world) and Terelj Park (where you can sleep in a yurt, ride horses in the mountains, and more). Note that UB has some serious traffic, and you should get to the airport early.

    The Gobi desert is well worth visiting. You can walk the frozen Yolyn Am canyon; climb the “singing” sand dunes at Khongoryn Els; hike around the cliffs at Bayanzag; ride a Bactrian camel; and sleep in a yurt. (BTW, you might make a positive impression if you use the Mongolian word “ger” instead of the Russian word “yurt,” although everyone will understand the latter.)

    In the future, I plan to see the Golden Eagle festival in the western Altai Mountains (Kazakh hunters compete with their trained birds); visit Lake Khovsgol in the north (“sibling” to Lake Baikal in Siberia); and learn more about the northern Tsaatan people (whose lives are intertwined with their reindeer). I would also like to see some of the popular Nadaam festivals in July (archery, horse races, and wrestling).

    All of these are pretty easy to arrange in the warmer months (especially July and August, the most popular time for tourists). Keep in mind that Ulaanbaatar is, literally, the coldest capital city in the world and quite chilly even by early October. Mongolia is not on most people’s radar (a good thing!) and, while maybe not the most “comfortable” place to visit, it is still pretty remarkable.

  31. Mongolia is OK. Every summer there is a big festival, Naadam, where there are archery, horse riding, wrestling competitions. Expect to eat a lot of mutton. Also I wouldn’t exactly call the Mongolian people warm and friendly.

  32. Haa! Mongolia? Take it from your fellow BA blogger, don’t bother. I actually lived there as a ‘lawyer’. The Shangri-La is garbage. It actually caught on fire when I was there and they had no way of putting it out. There are many conspiracies as to what happened.

    Go in December so you can experience the pollution and the crippling smog that turns everything black. And go in December so you can feel with cold really feels like.

    And MIAT airlines lol? What does a flight go for these days? It was $700 from ULN to HKG when I lived there. There’s another one too (forget the name) that’s another gem.

    I had fun when I first moved there till the firm turned my job into volunteer work before constructively deporting me.

    Good luck!

  33. I took a flight out of PEK last September and loved it. Nice people. Very different than Chinese. Stay at the Shangri-La as it is the only 5 star hotel and well worth it.

    Horses will cross the road. Very safe.

  34. Amazing country. Loved the vast grasslands in the countryside. Fet really welcomed in the full hospitality of a ger.

  35. Mongolia is an amazing place, and if you want to keep trying “weird” airlines, there are a bunch in Russia. Right across the border from Mongolia is that autonomous republic of Tuva. Culturally, they are extremely similar to Mongolians, and like Mongolia, the natural beauty is just stunning. I’d suggest going to see the Naadam festival and do some horseback riding and stay in a ger camp.

    If you can make it out to Tuva, fly in or out of Kyzyl on Tuvan Airways. It was certainly quite the experience when I did it about 10 years ago.

  36. Yes, you absolutely do want to visit Mongolia.

    I was there for a couple of weeks as our first stop on our Trans-Siberian Railroad trip from Beijing to Moscow, and like most places, it was not enough time. We have spent the last year traveling around the world, and for me, it was one of the highlights of the trip.

    You do want to spend, as others have pointed out, a day or two in Ulaanbaatar, and I chose to spend most of my time in the Gobi desert, with a guide and his trusty Toyota Land Cruiser. The Gobi is one of the most remarkable places in the world, with its subtle and not so subtle features. But I can’t stress enough you do need a guide that really knows the Gobi and the current and past history and culture of Mongolia. When you dive deeply, as you can with a knowledgeable guide, the complexity and sophitication of the culture will amaze you. I also did get out to the Steppes, but my goal was quality, not quantity, so I still need to get back to explore the north, which I only got to see when we left on the train for Ulan Ude in Siberia. I wrote three posts about it, http://trvb.us/2mJ5Nga, http://trvb.us/2lXfk4s, http://bit.ly/2azHV7V so check them out for my experiences.

    If you want to know the guide worked with email me and I’ll find it.

  37. Hi Ben
    Definitely take the train from UB to Beijing, you can see all the view as well as trans-Mongolia/seberia train experience!

  38. You can find super cheap trains from Beijing, less than $45. Don’t fly straight to UB, unless you wanna spend extra money to save a little time.
    Here’s a very detailed list of many points of interest. I haven’t finalized my eastern Mongolia research yet, and only ½ through the Western regions. It will be updated in the next 2 weeks. I am going for a month in July.
    https://www.google.com/maps/placelists/list/13e5lsY8UcHYLg5RdaIYrVRY5Ol8
    Here’s am interactive Google maps I’ve also created. Enjoy!
    Ch-Mong-Ru_TSR 2017

    https://goo.gl/maps/UiKRVYBVon82

  39. Echoing what others have said, it would be helpful to be familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet. I never knew what kind of store I was looking at from the outside…had to go in and look around. The meat in your stew at a restaurant may be horse. I took a day tour of UB, and discovered there just isn’t much there to see. The air was clean, so pollution may be a seasonal thing.

  40. Mongolia was one of the most memorable travels I’ve ever had. We did a van tour for two weeks and then spent 4 days in Ulaanbaatar. The tour was pretty amazing – spectacular natural sites with huge variety. Our pictures rival those that we have taken anywhere else. The travel is not easy – we smashed around in an old Russian van driven recklessly fast through the wilderness, with no seat belts and not much to hold onto. The food was absolutely terrible – very old meat, however no tourists on these trips ever seemed to get sick – perhaps the climate is too harsh for much bacteria to live? Somebody mentioned mutton in another post, which we had a lot of, a long with Yak, Camel, & Horse, but it was gross because if its age, not because westerners don’t like mutton. One of the most enjoyable parts was meeting the other tourists, as the groups tended to all be taken to the same spots. Mongolia tends to only attract the more serious travelers, so you meet people who have really been everywhere in the world. There is always cheap vodka available in the little towns and the evenings around the Gers were very social as a result.
    Ulaanbaatar on the other hand may have been my least favorite city that I’ve ever visited. It was dirty in an industrial way, with pipes oozing and horrible traffic. Crossing the street was one of the hardest things – not like places like Hanoi that you just start walking and everyone drives around you. I’m talking no pedestrian crosswalks and cars honk at you if they have to slow down for a second. At one point we followed a lady carrying a young baby crossing and a public bus just held down the horn at us (and her) for making it wait a second. Lodging was difficult there too, although it could be different in the four years – then there were very cheap but undesirable hostels or hotels north of $250 per night. I didn’t think the people were very friendly.
    In summary, definitely go, go on tours outside of the city, and spend as little time in Ulaanbaatar as possible.

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