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I’ll Never Forget Mongolia—But I Probably Won’t Go Back

I’ll Never Forget Mongolia—But I Probably Won’t Go Back

Mongolia is a country that was on my radar before I even started traveling to any great degree. An online acquaintance of mine had volunteered there with the Peace Corps—though notably, his experience was not a positive one.

“It’s -80ºC with blizzard conditions outside,” I remember him saying, going on to lament how he’d been unable to leave the small ger he’d been living in for several days. “I’m losing the will to live.”

As dramatic as his commentary was, it did not deter me from wanting to see Mongolia for myself. Well, at least not during warmer times of the year. Yet when I Googled “is Mongolia worth visiting?” more than a decade later, on the cusp of putting my own trip together, I was surprised by how little my search ended up revealing.

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I Was Unprepared for What Mongolia Would Be Like

I’ll be frank: Because Larry exaggerated how cold it was in Mongolia (I Googled it at the time), I assumed his lamentations on the general state of things in the country had also been hyperbolic. My first few days in Ulaanbaatar (a simple city, but not an uncivilized one by any means) seemed to confirm this. Then, I headed southward into the Gobi desert and got a reality check.

It wasn’t just the lack of internet service (good luck gambling at offshore casinos or watching Netflix!) that ate at me, either. No, I think it was the first time I relieved myself in actual hole in the ground. Or maybe it was when the 40-year old Russian van that I and three strangers were traveling in capsized when fording what appeared to be a modest river. Or when I felt like I’d won the lottery when I got to eat chicken, rather than mutton. 

Why Mongolia is the World’s Most Unique Country



When I visited Mongolia in 2018, I’d just gotten into the habit of reading some essential non-travel book about a country before and during my trip. In Mongolia, this was Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford. Although modern Mongolia can seem like a geopolitical afterthought, when you realize how much we all owe to the Mongolians of centuries past, it suddenly seems like a very important country.



Unfortunately for that book, it didn’t make it back from Mongolia unscathed. That’s because as the driver of my Soviet-era UAZ van attempted to ford a swollen river in the Gobi, our vehicle capsized, submerging the tome. In this case, the lack of infrastructure underlies why Mongolia is worth visiting. Well, except when you consider how there’s basically no running water, i.e. no showers for days on end, and pooping in a hole in the country.



Before I visited Mongolia, I assumed the country’s steppe landscape would be boring. But whether because of how green the rain I alluded to earlier made the Gobi (which is ostensibly a desert), or because of pink canyons or thundering waterfalls, or how generally huge a canvas the country made for stunning sunsets and dark-sky scenes (or the “Eternal Blue Sky” during the day time), Mongolia is incredibly interesting in this regard.



I’ll be blunt: Food is not one of the reasons I believe that Mongolia is worth visiting. In fact, I grew so sick of mutton (which, for my fellow Americans out there, is the older—and less delicious—form of the lamb that most of us already don’t like) I almost didn’t want to eat. Late in the trip, to be sure, I felt like actual royalty when I had the privilege of being able to eat chicken for the first time in almost two weeks.



Whether or not you decide you “like” the way Mongolians live, it is the picture of sustainability. As I was traveling, in fact, it was remarkable just how often what I saw before me seemed identical to how the people Weatherford described in his book lived a millennia ago—well, minus the occasional generator or Wifi signal. But if civilization as we know it ended up tomorrow, most Mongolians would be just fine, with few adjustments.

Can You Visit Mongolia Without a Tour?

As I’ve alluded to above, Mongolia doesn’t have much infrastructure outside of its capital. Indeed, even with a professional driver and a tour organized by a locally-registered company, I encountered one particular situation that could’ve ended not only my trip, but my life. So while it may be possible to travel independently in Mongolia, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have local contacts (and a travel insurance policy with evacuation, ha).

The good news, of course, is that Mongolia tours tend to be extremely affordable. This is especially the case if you purchase your tour, as I did, from a local company. Which is not to say there is no value in going to Mongolia with an international travel company—there may be, if only because it makes you feel comfortable enough to book in the first place. But you pay a premium for comfort in a country where little of it exists.


Other FAQ About Visiting Mongolia

Is Mongolia good for tourists?

Although I usually hate weighing in on the travel vs. tourist debate, Mongolia is one of the places where you really need to be a traveler more than a tourist. There aren’t destinations so much as there are experiences; being in Mongolia more about experiencing epiphanies than ticking attractions off your list.

Why do tourists visit Mongolia?

Whether they consider themselves travelers or tourists, I’d say most visitors come to Mongolia because they want something different—and they want something real. Now, some of these people are wiser than me—they pay extra for “luxury” accommodations, to the extent those exist in Mongolia—but we all leave understanding that there’s nowhere else in the world like Mongolia.

Is English spoken in Mongolia?

One of the upsides of the fact that you (basically) can’t visit Mongolia without a tour? Well, you’ll almost never be in a situation where you’ll have to speak to someone who can’t speak English. With that being said, as someone who loves speaking to strangers even when he shouldn’t, I was surprised by just how many Mongolian locals could speak English.

The Bottom Line

Is Mongolia worth visiting? Well, I’ll certainly never forget my trip there. At its best it was a trip back in time, a land (and a society, to the extent that there is one) preserved as if it was still the time of Genghis Khan. This was also, of course, the underlying theme of my worst times there, be that going a week without a shower, or doing my business in a hole in the ground. With one possible exception, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Mongolia again, though I encourage you not to let this deter you from planning your own trip. In fact, I do hope you will go, and that you’ll consider hiring me as your Travel Coach before you do.


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