Bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south, Mongolia (also known as Outer Mongolia) is marked by vast mountains, valleys, steppes and desert land. It is an independent country, unlike Inner Mongolia on Mongolia's eastern border, which is under Chinese rule. Sparsely populated outside of its capital, Mongolia has the lowest population density in the world and much of its land is barren and very wild.
Its recent history has been tied to Russia, being a part of the Soviet Union for seventy years until 1990, when it moved towards new democratic and economic reforms. Since the withdrawal of Soviet support, however, Mongolia has struggled to develop economically and, as such, unemployment and poverty are commonplace. Such facts should not dissuade the visitor from venturing beyond the cities and exploring its incredible countryside.
Mongolia has an extremely varied climate with temperatures ranging from 0°C up to 37 °C in one day. The climate in the desert areas varies between extreme heats and night temperatures, reaching up to 40°C during the summer months and as low as -30 °C with the winter winds.
The rainy season in the north lasts through July and the duration of August and the travel season lasts from May to October, when the temperatures have not plummeted to the bitterly cold depths of the winter months. Between May and October, extreme snowstorms cause road blockages and in March and April it is not uncommon for livestock to die through lack of rain and freezing conditions.
Things to see and do
Outside of the Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital conditions are wild and largely uninhabited. Widely regarded as the coldest capital city in the world, Ulan Bator is over 360 years old and was founded in 1639 as 'Urga' by Bogd Zanabazar, the first Mongol spiritual leader. Since the 1960s, however, Ulan Bator has become dominated by Soviet style buildings and is today home to over a million inhabitants. Despite being heavily populated and surrounded by bleak suburbia though, Ulan Bator is situated along the banks of the Tuul river and backed by a beautiful mountain range. As a result, it is a truly fascinating city to visit.
Surrounding Ulan Bator are four mountains known as the four holy peaks. Known as Named Tsetseegum, Chingeltei, Songino Khairkhan and Bayansurkh, the peaks roughly correspond to the four points on a compass and offer the visitor spectacular views, woodland walks and a wide variety of bird, plant and animal life.
Over in the east of Mongolia stands Shiliin Bogd, an extinct volcano that at 1778 m high is a sacred peak to natives. The mountain can be reached by Jeep and offers splendid walks and views ranging to the Chinese border.
Mongolia is perhaps best known for the Gobi desert, the coldest desert in the world. The desert consists of gravel-like sands and conjures images of camels and galloping wild horses. The best time to visit the desert is in June or September when the temperatures are neither freezing nor blisteringly hot, although it is advised that backpackers do not attempt a trek in the desert without an experienced guide.
Separated from China by a range of snowcapped peaks, the Tavanbogd National Park has a wealth of natural attractions. The park has three lakes which offer beautiful lakeside walks and visitors can also take a raft trip down the Dayn Nurr river.
Built by the Manchurian emperor Kansu in 1737, Amarbayasgalant Khiid is considered to be one of Mongolia's most beautiful and important Buddhist monasteries. In the 1930s, the monastery met opposition from the communists and ten of its thirty seven temples were destroyed. Today, the monastery is inhabited by 30 practising monks and visitors are welcome to watch the monks conduct their daily routines.
Mongolia's main airport is situated in Ulan Bator, which is served by regular flights from Berlin, Moscow and Beijing. Alternatively, visitors can travel to Mongolia via the Trans-Mongolian railway which links Beijing and Moscow. The best way to get around the country is by air, as other transport links can be very unreliable due to the weather and the sparse population outside of the major cities. There are regular scheduled flights served by MIAT airlines and Aeromongolia to most major cities across Mongolia, although tickets for foreign nationals are usually very expensive.
There is no railway system outside of the north-south Trans-Mongolian line and the roads outside of the cities are in dangerously poor condition. There are very few buses anywhere in Mongolia and, instead, backpackers wishing to travel across land can hire a shared Jeep and driver. Journeys by Jeep are guaranteed to be slow and will often by hindered by poor weather conditions or breakdowns. It is not advised that visitors attempt to drive across land themselves, as petrol is very hard to come by outside of the cities.
There is a reasonable amount of accommodation available in Ulan Bator, including six large Western-style hotels and a range of guest houses and hostels. Outside of Mongolia's capital, accommodation is harder to come by and generally in poor condition, although it is also the cheapest option. Some locals rent out a room in their house to tourists, which usually includes breakfast and an evening meal. Alternatively, it is permissible to camp almost anywhere in the country as nearly all the land is public property.
Health Care Issues
While Mongolia's health care system has improved significantly in recent years, its health care facilities are still very poor even in Ulan Bator. It is strongly advised that visitors take out private travel insurance when visiting Mongolia as, otherwise, it is very difficult to organise emergency treatment.
There are no immunisations recommended for British travellers but it is advised that visitors travel well-equipped with medical supplies, as even basic medicines are difficult to come by anywhere in the country. The biggest risk to visitors is petty crime and violent muggings, particularly in Ulan Bator, and travellers should be wary of going out unaccompanied at night.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides up to date advice for British nationals travelling to Mongolia.