Mongolia is a land of the unexpected, taking you across a diverse range of landscape from flat barren land and mountainous terrain to the heat of the Gobi Desert. The weather can be unpredictable and the travel landscape difficult to navigate. So what should you prepare for and what should you be packing for Mongolia - a beautiful country untouched by the overdrive of tourism and relatively unknown?
This applies more to my overlanding trip and the truck I travelled in but even if you are travelling around in jeeps there is also a big possibility that you will get stuck along the way – and you may just need (or want) to get involved with the process of digging and pushing a vehicle out of the mud. I ended up using an old pair of PJ pants, but a friend used a pair of waterproof trousers; easy to wash and dry out afterwards.
Generally, travelling in Mongolia runs the risk of getting your hands dirty in these kinds of situations, including having to walk through muddy areas and shallow water, so expect the worse to happen and stock up on the baby wipes and hand sanitizer. I embraced it as part of the travelling experience, but many people in my group stood on the side-lines not wanting to get involved because they hadn’t done their research on the place – and they were the ones who sadly enjoyed the whole experience the least.
Hot AND Cold Clothing
I expected Mongolia to be cooler in the evening so had packed a cardigan, leggings and a fleece but the further into Central Mongolia we travelled the colder it was at night. I luckily had packed a compression sack full of super warm clothing for my forthcoming Everest Base Camp trip and I was surprised when I had to use my thermal top, thermal leggings and my down jacket! In the day time, shorts and a vest top will suffice, but a long sleeve top is sometimes helpful for the slight chill or a rain jacket for the unexpected downpour.
If you are camping then it’s wise to get a sleeping bag that’s at least a Season 3. There will be nights when you need that extra warmth!
Mosquito and Bug Repellent
When there is heat and humidity our flying friends like to make an appearance. Within the first few days I managed to get a few sandfly bites and then the mosquito bites began to rapidly appear. I get bitten really easily so became a regular super tasty treat for the little critters here, especially on my face! Pack the repellent and the after-bite creams and lotions. It’s not a malaria risk area so you don’t need to worry about anti-malaria medications.
There are also areas where flies are common – the kind that land on you and not move unless you brush them off. They are completely harmless so don’t be alarmed and only become a pain if you are bush camping and nature calls…
This applies more so for the hot areas as you approach and get to the Gobi Desert and when it’s hot in Mongolia it’s scorching! The sky is so blue and clear and there is no pollution meaning the sun is strong. So pack the sun lotion, at least Factor 30 – it can sometimes catch you off guard, even if you are sitting outside for an hour.
The Language is Hard to Grasp
In most countries I find it easy after a few days to learn the basics of hello, goodbye, thank you and numbers in the given language but learning and speaking Mongolian is tough. When they speak they speak quickly, in a low tone and almost in a mumble, making distinct words hard to understand and pick up. There is also a lisp-like pronunciation to certain words that doesn’t come easily to the Western tongue. The one word I learnt properly was ‘thankyou’ which is ‘bayarlalaa’. To me that is one of the most important words to retain, if any.
Lack of Variety in Food
If you rock up to a random town, there is a chance they may not be able to cater for everything listed on the menu so be flexible when it comes to the food and what they have available (especially if there are a few of you) – it’s normally delicious regardless of what they serve up.
In ger camps it is more than likely that nearly every meal will be a beef stew and rice variation. It’s limited and when staying at multiple ger camps, tiring, but that’s the way it is. I found washing it down with a beer took away the pain of repetition as well as multiple stops to snack shops which are pretty much everywhere catering to Western sugar and salt cravings!
Ulaanbaatar is Not Representative of Mongolia
Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. I love cities but this one felt dodgy. There’s a few things to see and do including temples, museums and shopping and it has some great eateries and nightlife, but don’t let your guard down as a lot of crime takes place here. It’s a city where a beautiful way of life has been corrupted by the quick grips of opportunism and even some of the Mongolians I spoke to who live there said they were not the biggest fans of Ulaanbaatar – unfortunately it’s just the best place for them to be for their line of work and a far cry from their rural, community driven upbringing.
Enjoy the city for a couple of nights but make sure you get out into the far reaches of this stunning country – it will be totally worth it and you will get to see the real Mongolia.
A Tour or a Guide is Invaluable
Mongolia is the world’s least densely populated country and one of its largest. This makes it beautifully isolated and not ruined by tourism but also so difficult to get around. I choose a comprehensive three week overlanding tour because I wanted to really get out into the far reaches of the country but most hostels in Ulaanbaatar offer excursions that last a few days where you can hire a driver and a guide.
Make use of Mongolian knowledge because it is invaluable – they know the nocks and crannies of their country better than anyone (even if they do draw maps on the ground!) and when you look at how isolated some of the landscape it, you will see how much of a skill it is. A guide book doesn’t always cut it if going alone.
Mongolia is a fantastic please to explore that’s off the beaten track, but it’s a country with very little infrastructure so pack some patience and flexibility for an experience that’s generally slower, more difficult and with challenges, all of which will not deter from the overall experience you will have there, but add to the adventure!