[Title photograph: Roland Amon]
A big, wide and open country with a lot to offer. A land of big and small numbers: sparsely inhabited – less than 2 people per square kilometer – it is the second least densely populated country in the world, after Greenland. It is also almost five times the size of Germany. Of its more than 3 million inhabitants, approximately 1.7 million live in cities, and 1.3 million of them in the capital Ulaanbaatar. The capital, which translates as “Red Hero”, is home to almost half of the country’s total population. Other important cities are Erdenet with 79.649 inhabitants, Darkhan with 72.386 inhabitants and Choibalsan with 44.367 inhabitants.
Around 95% of the population are ethnic Mongols, mostly belonging to the Khalkha group, and therefore this Mongolian dialect is the most widely used, but there are many other dialects and some Turkic languages are also common in the west. Turkic peoples like Kazakhs and Tuvans make up for the rest of the local population.
Geographically, Mongolia can be divided into four regions from north to south: mountains, forest steppe, mountain steppe and (semi) desert.
The life of a typical Mongolian is closely interwoven with that of his animals. Despite the progressing urbanization, a large part of the population still lives as nomads. The tradition of the steppe is still strong here. Even in the cities, the majority of Mongols live in a ger (Mongolian: “home”), called yurt in Turkic, whose door is always south-facing.
For centuries, Mongolia has been closely associated with Tibet and its Buddhist heritage. Despite the decades-long association with the Soviet Union and the ban on all religions during the communist phase of the country, the vast majority of the population still calls themselves Buddhist. Or at least they do now: there has been a true revival of Buddhism since the 1990s, with many monasteries and temples rebuilt and renovated.
Mongolia is also known as the land of the blue sky, and not without reason: with an average of over 250 sunny days per year, it has more than earned such a title. But it is also a land of extremes in terms of temperature: a strong continental climate characterized by warm to hot summers and very cold winters. The annual average temperature borders the freezing point. In Mongolia, on some winter nights the thermometer can drop below -40°C, while in summer it rises to over 40°C in the Gobi Desert, and even in the capital temperatures over +30°C are common. In some regions, there can be a temperature difference of up to 30 degrees between day and night. A plus point, however, is the very low amount of rainfall – soaking wet clothes is not an usual wish for most holiday travelers 😉
Average summer temperature: +20°C (+65°F)
Average winter temperature: -24°C (-13°F)
Average annual precipitation: 200-220mm (80-90% of precipitation occurs between May and September)
Best travel time
Mongolia has four seasons and these are very different. Winter starts in November and lasts until February, spring follows from March to mid-May, summer extends from mid-May to late August, and finally a short autumn comprising September and October.
From November to February it is really, really cold. These extreme weather conditions, with blizzards and icy winds, are called “Zud” by the Mongols. Temperatures drop below -40°C. Nevertheless, a trip in this season can be an experience in itself – for example by finding out first-hand what it means to live in a ger while the world outside howls and freezes. Actually, the Mongols do not find the winter so bad. The hardest months to bear are March and April, when the herd is starved and thin after a long winter and people and animals alike grow desperate due to the lack of rainfall.
Spring can still be very windy – among other things it can come to unexpected snowstorms – so when checking the temperature on weather forecast sites don‘t forget to account for the wind chill factor. In a strong wind, 0°C can feel like -5°C. In northern Mongolia – especially in Khentii and Khövsgöl – rains are expected during this period. Otherwise, the spring is usually dry and sunny.
With the summer begins the best time to travel to Mongolia. You can start from mid-May already. At the beginning of May there may still be some snowfalls – especially in the north. The weather in June is usually good and mostly dry – especially in the center and the southern regions. July is the peak holiday season, not just because of the weather, but also because the Naadam festival (more information about Naadam below). In August, there may be more precipitation in the north and in the central country. However, this also has some advantages, because as the ground absorbs the moisture and the rivers fill, the dusty steppe becomes a beautiful and fertile green carpet. Disadvantage: some roads are too muddy to drive on, and the mosquitoes enjoy the increased humidity.
The autumn months are difficult to estimate. One moment you feel like wearing just a T-shirt, the next one you change into a thick sweater and put your feet in warm boots. The splendor of colors, especially in the forested north of the country, is wonderful to look at, and there’s a quiet charm impossible to find in any other season. It’s just that the weather is a bit difficult to predict, so be prepared for everything.
The Mongols love their tea – specifically the Suutei Tsai, tea with salt and milk. And they are not averse to alcohol either – the favorite alcoholic drinks here are vodka and airag, a self-brewed drink made from fermented mare’s milk and with an alcohol content of 3%. Of course, meat has a predominant presence in the kitchen, while vegetables are scarce, as expected in a country with massive herds and almost no cultivation of crops. Mutton and beef are the most commonly consumed types of meat, but it isn’t rare to find marmot on the table. Naturally, the menu includes also potatoes, carrots, rice and pasta. Nowadays it is possible to get fresh fruits and vegetables all year-round.
Foreigners can enter or leave the country either via Ulaanbaatar International Airport or by train: via Sukhbaatar when coming from Russia or at Zamyn Uud if arriving from China. It is also possible to cross the border by car at Altanbulag/Khiagt, Tsgaan-Nuur/Tashanta and Zamynd-Uud/Ereen. All other border crossings are open only to Mongolian and neighboring country nationals. If the use of these border crossings is intended by Austrian nationals living in China or Russia, it is advisable to clarify the issue beforehand with the competent Mongolian authority.
Since 1 January 2016, visa requirements apply to most nationals. For a tourist visa, you need a valid passport at least 6 months old and with at least two blank pages, plus an invitation letter or proof of at least one hotel reservation in Mongolia. The application form can be found here:
For the address of your nearest Mongolian Embassy, please contact us.
It is required to declare any stay longer than 30 days. The registration must be made at the Foreign Citizens Bureau in Ulaanbaatar within 7 days of arrival. Before leaving the country, a police cancellation is required as well as an exit visa issued by the Consular Section of the Mongolian Foreign Ministry. In the event of an infringement, a refusal of departure and administrative penalty can be expected.
Frankly, the quality of medical care in Mongolia does not meet the European standard. It is highly recommended to bring a first-aid kit, containing not only regularly needed medicines, but also drugs against typical travel illnesses. Our guides only carry a first aid kit and are not allowed to give medication.
Most health problems can be avoided by following basic sanitary rules (e.g. washing hands, avoiding raw foods). It is recommended to drink only boiled and/or bottled water. Fruits and vegetables should only be consumed after peeling or cooking respectively.
Tuberculosis is common in Mongolia. Other dangerous infectious diseases such as anthrax and hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) appear sporadically. In remote rural areas, even some cases of plague have been reported in the past.
No specific vaccinations are required for entering Mongolia. However, protection against diphtheria, tetanus, polio and hepatitis A and B is advised. Please consult your doctor or ask at your local Tropical Medicine Institute.
Occasionally you may witness (or worse, not witness) pickpocketing in the capital, especially at places frequented by foreigners. The streets of Ulaanbaatar are especially dangerous at night. Unlicensed taxis charge inflated prices or take their passengers to accomplices, who then rob them. So here in the capital, additional caution is required. Otherwise, Mongolia is a fairly safe destination.
The import of national currency is prohibited; on the other hand, there is no limit for the amount of foreign currency on entry, but it must be declared. Undeclared goods can be confiscated upon departure. It is advisable to carry dollars or euros in cash or travelers checks. Credit cards are not always accepted. Some items for personal use (including 600 cigarettes and 2 liters of alcohol) are toll-free. All goods and foreign currency must be declared at customs again upon departure.
The national currency is freely convertible. It is recommended to exchange money only in banks or official exchange offices. In the countryside changing foreign currencies is often not possible. So while in Ulaanbaatar and if planning a trip inland, you should get enough money in the national currency.
In Ulaanbaatar you can withdraw money – in the national currency – with your credit card, both at big banks offices or directly in ATMs (which sometimes also accept debit cards). Large hotels, restaurants and shops frequented by foreigners (i.e. larger supermarkets, souvenir and cashmere shops) accept all major credit cards.
The export of the national currency is prohibited; the amount of foreign currency when leaving the country must be declared and can’t be higher than at the time of entry. At customs, authorities often look for antiquities, precious minerals, metals and hunting trophies. Certified hunters are allowed to carry their personal hunting weapons including ammunition in and out again.
The Naadam festival is one of the most important festivals in Mongolia and at the same time an excellent opportunity to experience the culture of the country and its people. The full name is Eriin Gurwan Naadam (эрийн гурван наадам; “the three games of men”). During the Naadam festival, the three major national sports are celebrated over two days: horse racing, wrestling and archery. This is not limited to the capital Ulaanbaatar, but it is celebrated in the whole country. Surrounding all the sports activities there is food, music, crafts and a lot of cultural highlights to experience. Here you can truly and fully immerse yourself in the hustle-bustle side by side with the Mongols. The most important Naadam in Mongolia takes place on the national holidays between July 11th and 13th, but there are also different smaller Naadam festivals during the summer in other parts of the country.
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