I’ll have to admit that when it comes to certain parts of the world, I’m pretty ignorant. For a very long time, my knowledge of Mongolia was from the brief 2 hours feature of the scary looking Shan Yu and his angry eagle in Disney’s Mulan. As I got older I started learning more about history in other parts of the world and that of Mongolia and its powerful emperor, Genghis Khan truly fascinated me. Mongolia was once a formidable nation, spreading its influence from the far east to parts of the west. Ammad, a Lawyer from Houston embarked on a unique journey, off the beaten tourist path as a nomad in Mongolia. He gives us tips and shows us what life is like in Today’s Mongolia through his captivating photos. Here is his story.
Nomad in Mongolia: How it all began
Adventure is what drew me to Mongolia. I had already traveled to dozens of countries and was craving something off the beaten path. Some years ago, I learned about the Mongol Rally: a 10,000-mile journey from London to Ulaanbaatar, which must be completed in a small, used car, this eventually led me down a rabbit hole of pictures and websites about Mongolia. As a student of history, I was also intrigued with how the Mongols and the empire Genghis Khan started. In short, I wanted to see the vast, desolate landscape whence Genghis Khan and his armies emerged. I also wanted to learn a bit about the culture and people that enabled such astounding success (after all, they ruled the largest land empire to date!). The fact that relatively few Americans have visited Mongolia and the country is not known to be “easy” for tourists was an added bonus.
Fun Fact: After Genghis Khan died in August 1227, his body was returned to Mongolia and buried in an unmarked grave, according to his request. At the time of his death, his empire stretched from Beijing to the Caspian Sea.
Nomad in Mongolia: Logistics
Although I normally travel alone and organize my own trips, for Mongolia I made an exception given the dearth of tourist information and facilities; in retrospect, I am very glad I did book an organized tour, which allowed me to get much more out of my trip. A quick Google search will show you that there are many operators out there, and – perhaps quite obviously – the prices and quality vary dramatically. I personally decided to go through Discover Mongolia and picked the Western Mongolia/Golden Eagle Festival Photography Tour. For me, group size was a significant factor, and my tour had only three others. If you go during popular times such as the Nadaam Festival in July, it can be quite busy. I went during mid-September, at the tail-end of the tourist season and enjoyed it very much. For a two-week trip, expect to pay around $2,000 for airfare, $2,000 for a tour, and at least another $500 for incidentals. A trip to Mongolia will not be cheap but it is certainly worth it. I would also recommend budgeting at least ten full days in the country.
As a general matter, you will need to adjust expectations of comfort before traveling to Mongolia: hotels are not luxurious by any stretch, facilities are bare-boned, and most travel is done across miles of dusty, gravel roads in fifty-year-old Russian vans. You will often see dishes being wiped down instead of washed with hot water and soap. Food is often cooked with the same unwashed hands that are tossing cow-dung into the stove for fuel. My personal rule is that if the locals are doing it and have no obvious problems, then I will probably be fine as well. A ger stay will be “cozy” and you should expect a “natural” toilet. You will definitely have a “we are not in Kansas anymore” moment, but if you are able to make it past the surface and be flexible, then the rewards are great.
Travel on roads in Mongolia
Fun Fact: The Gobi desert, a part of which lies in Mongolia, is the largest desert in Asia and is the fifth largest in the world
Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital, is where you will likely enter the country. The airport is compact and immigration is a breeze. The ride into the city takes about thirty minutes with no traffic. Note, UB has awful traffic and it is not uncommon to need over an hour to cover three miles or less within the city. UB has interesting museums, is open late, and is famous for its cashmere shopping. I would recommend the National History Museum and the Zanabazaar Art Museum for a great overview of Mongolian history and art. For shopping, go to the State Department store. The main city center is relatively compact and you will not need more than a day to explore it on foot. By the way, do not bother buying souvenirs from a place other than the sixth floor of the State Department because you will likely overpay for the exact same item (plus they accept credit cards).
City of Ulanbataar
From UB, I flew to Ülgiy in the west. It is a small city, with aging Soviet-era buildings, and a few drab hotels. If you come for the Golden Eagle Festival (the festival grounds are actually a two-hour drive from the city) you will likely stay here and be able to attend a folk concert which was actually an interesting, albeit touristy, experience. The best restaurant here is actually a Turkish one called Pamukkale.
Nomad in Mongolia: Language
Mongolian is a difficult language to get a handle on but I would recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet to at least be able to read signs. Most Mongolians do not speak any English or other European languages (some older people speak some Russian, however). Again, to get the most out of your Mongolia experience, I would recommend having a translator/guide to accompany you – or at least have a very good and recent guidebook – because, many of the signs, even for tourist sights, are only in Mongolian.
Nomad in Mongolia: Food
The food in Mongolia is quite different than what most people are used to. There is a very heavy emphasis on meat, and vegetables make only a fleeting appearance in the cuisine. The Central Mongolian cuisine has a lot of pork but the western region, which is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Kazakhs, has mainly beef and other non-pork options (such as yak, mutton, and horse!). For those seeking halal options, I would recommend asking around for a Kazakh restaurant. The Mongolians are quite accommodating, and if you tell them you do not eat pork they will certainly help you find a suitable option. Also, it is a sign of respect and hospitality when Mongolians offer you homemade airag (fermented mare’s milk) in a bowl, which you are expected to entirely finish; if you do not drink, you should let your guide/hosts know in advance so as to prevent any awkwardness.
Straining yak milk in a ger
Fun Fact: There is a theory that Mongolian horseman may have invented ice cream, when they took cream in containers made from animal intestines as provisions on long journeys across the Gobi desert in winter. As they galloped, the cream was vigorously shaken, while the sub-zero temperature caused it to freeze. The expansion of the Mongol Empire spread ice cream through China, from where Marco Polo reputedly brought the idea to Italy when he returned from his travels in 1295
The Mongolians also drink unbelievable amounts of “tsay” which is an herbal, salty tea with milk added (I had yak’s milk in mine!). In a single sitting, it is not uncommon to have three or four bowls. I will only say that this is an acquired taste but you must try it. My favorite dish in Mongolia was “bots” (pronounced “boats”), which is a steamed dumpling filled with meat and served with some broth. A close second was “khushuur”: a fried flatbread stuffed with minced beef and onion. Both dishes are widely available.
Nomad in Mongolia: Religion
Mongolians are mostly Buddhist today but in western Mongolia (predominantly inhabited by ethnic Kazakhs), the residents are mostly Muslim. However, you will generally notice that religion is not a significant factor in daily life and most people would identify as secular – a consequence of the Soviet-era culture. In UB there is a central mosque, and in western Mongolia, there are many mosques scattered throughout the cities. Do not be surprised, however, if you are the only person actually praying there. One of the guides working for Discover Mongolia (Fatima, but goes by Crystal) is actually Muslim, and you may want to request her to get better insight into Mongolia from a Muslim perspective.
Buddhist temple near UB
Mosque in western Mongolia.
Nomad in Mongolia: Lifestyle
I was also lucky to be able to stay in a ger with a Mongolia family in the Altai region. This experience really highlighted how much of daily life for nomads is a tough and simple existence. They wake up at dawn and begin tending to their animals. Almost everything in a ger is somehow connected to the nomad’s animals, ranging from the clothes, food, and even the ger’s structure. Everyone, old and young, has a job to do. They have very few belongings and, in my particular ger, no cell reception, TV, or internet. They live a life that has been largely unchanged for hundreds of years. It was a very refreshing and unique experience and made me reflect how busy our modern lives seem to be, and question what is truly necessary for a good life. Despite the hardships of daily labor for these families, they were all uniformly content and happy. When I asked why they did not move to UB and into a centrally-heated home, the response was always that such things were unnecessary and they loved their freedom and open land to ride their horses on.
And that, I think, encapsulates the Mongol spirit.
Fun Fact: Thirty-six percent of the Mongolian population is under age 18
Baby nomad girl outside her ger. She loved chocolates!
Ammad is a Houston-based lawyer at the international law firm of Mayer Brown LLP. He has been to 50 countries so far and is always looking forward to the next adventure. He is also an amateur photographer and loves to share his pictures. You can find them on Instagram @ammad537.
- Budget around $2000 for airfare (From the U.S.), $2000 for a tour guide and a miscellaneous of $500.
- Ideal duration to enjoy Mongolia is 10 days.
- Offseason is by the end of September.
- Best restaurant in Ulgiy is a Turkey one called Pamukkale. If you want halal food options, stick to the Kazakh Restaurants.
- Visit the National History Museum and the Zanabazaar Art Museum to appreciate the Mongolian culture.
- Some key festivals to look forward to are The Nadaam Festival and the Golden Eagle Festival.
- If you want to learn about Mongolia through the Islamic perspective ask for Fatima (Goes by Crystal) with Discover Mongolia.
I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I did! To learn more about Mongolia check out these cool facts.