Mongolia i/mɒŋˈɡoʊliə/ (Mongolian: ᠮᠤᠩᠭᠤᠯ ᠤᠯᠤᠰ, Monggol Ulus and Монгол Улс, Mongol Uls) is a landlocked country in east-central Asia. It is bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south, east and west. Ulaanbaatar, the capital and also the largest city, is home to about 45% of the population. Mongolia’s political system is a parliamentary republic.
The area of what is now Mongolia has been ruled by various nomadic empires, including the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, theRouran, the Turkic Khaganate, and others. In 1206, Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire, and his grandson Kublai Khan conquered China to establish the Yuan dynasty. After the collapse of the Yuan, the Mongols retreated to Mongolia and resumed their earlier pattern of factional conflict except during the era of Dayan Khan and Tumen Zasagt Khan. In the 16th century, Tibetan Buddhism began to spread in Mongolia and it was accelerated by the unwavering support of the Qing government after Mongolia was incorporated by the Qing dynasty. In the 1900s almost half of the adult male population were Buddhist monks.
By the mid-18th century, all of Mongolia had been incorporated into the area ruled by the Manchus’ Qing dynasty. During the collapse of the Qing dynasty Mongols established the Temporary Government of Khalkha on 30 November 1911, before the abdication of the last Qing emperor and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. On 29 December 1911 Mongolia declared independence from the Qing dynasty and this National Liberation Revolution ended 220 years of Manchu rule (153 years after the collapse of the Dzungar Khanate).
Shortly thereafter, the country came under Soviet control, resulting in the proclamation of the Mongolian People’s Republic as a Soviet satellite state in 1924. After the breakdown of communist regimes in Europe in late 1989, Mongolia saw its own peaceful democratic revolution in early 1990; it led to a multi-party system, a new constitution of 1992, and transition to a market economy.
At 1,564,116 square kilometres (603,909 sq mi), Mongolia is the 19th largest and one of the most sparsely populatedindependent countries in the world, with a population of around 3 million people. It is also the world’s second-largest landlocked country. The country contains very little arable land, as much of its area is covered by grassy steppe, with mountains to the north and west and the Gobi Desert to the south.
Approximately 30% of the population are nomadic or semi-nomadic. The majority of its population are Buddhists and non-religious population is the second largest group. Islam is the dominant religion among ethnic Kazakhs. The majority of the state’s citizens are of Mongol ethnicity, although Kazakhs, Tuvans, and other minorities also live in the country, especially in the west. Mongolia joined the World Trade Organization in 1997 and seeks to expand its participation in regional economic and trade regimes.
There are four border crossings open to foreigners, three on the Russian border of which the main one is Altanbulag, and one called Zamyn – Uud near the small town of Erlian on the border with China.
Foreign nationals of the following countries/territories can enter Mongolia visa-free:
For up to 90 days: United States, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Macau SAR
For up to 30 days: Canada, Cuba, Israel, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Turkey, Japan, Romania and Russia. From 25 June 2014 to 31 December 2015 passport holders of 42 countries additional countries (including the United Kingdom, Norway and Brazil) will be able to enter visa-free for up to 30 days.
For up to 21 days: Philippines
For up to 14 days: Hong Kong SAR, Singapore
For other foreign nationals, the process for obtaining a thirty day visa or tourist visa is relatively painless, requiring a visa application form, a small fee at your local Mongolian embassy and an invitation letter that is arranged through tour companies. Licensed tour companies can issue the invitation letter for you. However, the citizens of Indonesia, Russia, China and Taiwan and some other countries needs to get an official invitation letter that is issued by the Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after confirmation by the tour company or firm or individual who is inviting you. Longer visas are available; it requires an invitation letter from a Mongolian company or individual.
Citizens of countries where a Mongolian Embassy or Honorary consulate of Mongolia doesn’t exist, can apply for a Mongolian visa at the Mongolian borders – Chinggis Khaan Airport, Zamyn – Uud and Altanbulag. It requires your official permission letter that is issued by Immigration Office in Ulaanbaatar according to your invited person or entity’s request, exact arrival date and time, flight or train number. Once you got the permission, you have to bring the copy of permission, passport sized photo and visa fee of c. US$105 per applicant and then you can get the visa at the airport. For most cases, it is easy to seek a help from licensed travel company that can get permission for you from Immigration Office in Ulaanbaatar.
Also, it is possible to acquire an expedited visa in a matter of hours at the Mongolian consulate in Erlian, though there is a steep $50 US fee for this service. A similar service is available in the Mongolian consulate in the Russian city of Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude. Indian nationals are required to apply for a visa, although the visa fee is waived.
You won’t get more than 30 days on a tourist visa. In Mongolia you can extend your visa for another 30 days maximum.
The Embassy of Mongolia in the UK website is useful for updates.
The Embassy of Mongolia in China website allows you to print off the application form you will need if you are applying for your Mongolian visa in China, although the consulate does have them too. If you going to stay more than 30 days you have to get registered at Mongolia Immigration.
As of September 2013, the consulate in Irkutsk does not require an invitation letter any more and will issue even one year multiple entry visas without a fuss.
There are a few places with flights into the capital, Ulaanbaatar. National air carrier MIAT Mongolian airlines operates daily flights (during some peak season – twice a day) from Beijing and Seoul, twice a week flights from Hong Kong, Berlin, Moscow and Tokyo (during some peak season – from Narita). During peak summer season it increases flight frequencies and operates direct flights from Berlin. There are branch offices in Berlin, Moscow, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. North American branch office is in Denver, CO and can be reached via Air Bridge
There are almost daily flights from Seoul on Korean Air as well as other flights through Beijing. It is also possible to fly to Ulaanbaatar through Tokyo’s Narita Airport. There are also direct flights from Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. Don’t buy a non-refundable or unchangeable ticket if you are going to Mongolia, because flights don’t always actually happen. You can also fly in from Beijing, with MIAT Mongolian airlines being the cheapest, then Air China after that. You may find the cheapest air ticket to Mongolia from travel agents.
Hunnu Air, a Mongolian Airline, offers flights from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bankok to Ulaanbaatar.
Once you are in the country you can also fly to all the provincial capitals. Plane flights between the capitals may be hard to find though. But air travel agents, guest houses, and hotels can help you to obtain your domestic air ticket in Mongolia.
As of 24th September 2014 MIAT has started cheap (relatively) flights from Singapore to Ulan Bator twice a week (Wednesdays and Saturday).
The Trans-Mongolian Line of the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway links Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar with Moscow and Vladivostok, Russia and Beijing, China.
The Trans-Mongolian train crosses the Russia/Mongolia border at the town of Naushki, Russia.
- Those interested in saving money can book one way elektrichka (regional train) tickets from Irkutsk or Ulan Ude to Naushki. In Naushki, one can spend the night in the recently (June 2009) renovated train resting rooms (komnati otdiha) for US$.50 per hour. From there, it is possible to take a marshrutka to the land border crossing town of Kyakhta, Russia. Walking across the border is prohibited, but travelers have no problems arranging for Mongolia bound cars to take them across the border, either for a small fee or for free. Upon crossing into Mongolia it is relatively easy to hitchhike, taxi, or bus to Sukhbaator or UB, as all southbound traffic is headed towards those cities.
- From the West, from Russia, it is possible to cross at the land border in Tsagaannuur. There are daily petrol and wheat-carrying Russian Kamaz trucks headed to Olgii and it is possible to hitchhike to Tsagaannuur or even Olgii. Regular buses and marshrutkas also operate from the border, though service is unpredictable due to the lack of a schedule.
Trans Mongolian Railway
2nd class (hard sleeper) costs about US$200 (Mar 2011) from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. The ride takes almost 30 hours, but you are given a berth in a sleeper-car. The train leaves twice per week from Beijing. Currently, as of Mar 2011, tickets cannot be purchased from the Beijing station. Instead you will be directed to the China International Tour Service (CITS) office at 2nd floor of the Beijing International Hotel (10 min. walk north of the station, large, white building).
Beijing to the border: If the Beijing – Ulaanbaatar train is sold out, as seems to be common, or you need a more frequent option, you can make your way from Beijing to the border at Erlian by local train as described below, and then on to Ulaanbaatar by bus and train. You may also try looking on eLong.com for flights from Beijing to Erlian (Elianhaote on eLong). As of March 2011, there are morning flights from Beijing to Erlian out of Capital Airport Terminal 1 that only cost 160Y, which is cheaper than the bus.
Trains run daily from Beijing to Jining (Inner Mongolia) or Hohhot. You can change there for a train to the border town of Erlian near the Mongolian-Chinese border. The K89 leaves Beijing in the morning and arrives at Jining in the evening. Jining has many hotels near the train station and has karaoke bars to keep you entertained while you wait. From Jining to Erlian there is a slow train that leaves in the morning, passes the great wall multiple times, and arrives in the early evening. For up to date train times and costs see China Guide. Note that this will take a night longer than getting the sleeper bus as described in “By Bus”.
Crossing the border
Be wary of scams at the border where people in uniform will attempt to sell you “required travel insurance.” There is no such thing and you can safely ignore them.
You should then cross the border from Erlian in China to Zamiin-Uud in Mongolia as described in Erlian to and from Mongolia.
In Erlian you can cross the border in a Jeep or by Bus. The bus goes everyday. In the bus station look for the international ticket window.
Once in Zamin-Uud, the only option is the train.
From the border to Ulaanbaatar
Once you have crossed the border, you will need to get from Zamiin-Uud to Ulaanbaatar as described in Zamiin-Uud get in.
Apart from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is generally a safe place to travel. However, incidences of pick pocketing and bag slashing have been on the rise in recent years, so always keep your personal belongings in a safe place (money belts are highly recommended), especially in crowded areas or in places where your attention is diverted, such as internet cafes . Notorious places for theft are the Black Market (bazaar), the railway station and crowded bus stops.
Violent crime is uncommon outside the capital city, but still caution is required at night, and dark or deserted alleys and streets, in particular, should be avoided.
Unfortunately, Xenophobia is rampant, and violence towards foreigners is not uncommon. This problem usually affects males. Mongolian men will generally pick out the largest foreign men and attack them, mostly with their fists. This is known to happen at all hours of the day and in any part of the city. Of course, at night the problem becomes much worse. Be very, very wary of clubs that have a majority of Mongolians. Do not under any circumstances fight back if a Mongolian man assaults you. Many foreigners have been hospitalized and it will never be a fair fight. Ignore completely any drunk Mongolian man; NO EXCEPTIONS. If you are on the street keep walking. If you are in a club and Mongolian men become aggressive, leave immediately. Also be aware that if you are a male, in a group with Asian women (Mongolian or not), this is perceived incredibly negatively by Mongolian men, and it is very likely that you will get assaulted.
Additionally there are ultra nationalist Neo Nazis operating freely in Ulaanbaatar, and they have multiple times shown up at clubs and assaulted foreigners. Some of these assaults end up with hospitalizations. In one particular instance these Neo Nazis showed up at around 2 AM at the gay club (Hanzo or ‘H’) and threatened to ‘kill all gay people’.
Most foreigners visit Ulaanbaatar without incident, but remember to be extremely cautious.
Corruption is a huge problem in Mongolia, and locals are convinced that the police are not to be trusted.
There are small bands of Mongolian ultra nationalists that style themselves as neo-Nazis who assault foreigners including white, black and particularly Chinese. They are especially provoked by foreigner interaction with Mongolian women.
Lone or female travellers, especially blondes, obviously need to exercise a higher degree of awareness of their surroundings as getting groped in the chest or buttocks is not uncommon.
Be careful when travelling by horse as it is not unknown for groups to follow tourists and then steal their goods, including the horses, while they sleep at night.
Many tourists are injured from falling off of horses. Mongolian herders are expert riders, thus their idea of a horse suitable for riding is quite different from most casual riders. Also, the horses are trained differently than in the west. If you are injured in Mongolia, you may be hundreds of kilometres from medical aid and ambulance service may be hard to obtain and consist of a Russian minivan. Medical evacuation insurance is advisable.
Dogs in Mongolia can be aggressive and may run in packs. It is a good idea to be wary of them since they are not likely to be as tame as domestic dogs elsewhere.
Nomads’ dogs may have rabies. As a precaution, consider having a rabies shots before coming.
Marmots should not be eaten at certain times of the year because they can carry pnemonia. That said, the disease is carried by the marmot’s fleas so the afflicted tend to be fur traders, and marmot is not a mainstream dish even in Mongolia.
Hepatitis and tuberculosis are common throughout Mongolia.
- The USA Center for Disease Control. Country by country warnings and advice
Mongols traditionally live on the steppes, breeding horses, just like their ancestor Genghis Khan. Not surprisingly, following Western pleasantries will not have the intended effect in Mongolia. That being said, there are still a few rules to follow. Always receive items with the right hand, palm facing up. Drink from the right hand with the palm up as well. It is very rude to refuse a gift. If offered a plate of hospitality munchies, take at least a small nibble from something. You should never point anyone with your index finger since it implies disrespect.
Whenever you approach a nomadic family, or enter a ger, you will, without knowing, break one or several of the many traditional, religious and superstitious customs. If you do become confused, don’t panic, minor indiscretions will be tolerated and forgiven. The following do’s and don’ts will help minimize cultural differences.
- Say hello (sain bainuu) when you arrive (but repeating it again when you see the same person is considered strange to Mongolians)
- Take at least a sip, or a nibble, of the delicacies offered
- Pick up everything with an open hand, with your palm facing upwards
- Hold a cup by the bottom, and not by the top rim
- If by accident you tap someones foot with yours, immediately shake hands with them (failing to do so will be seen as an insult).
- Lean against a support column
- Whistle inside a ger
- Stand on, or lean over, the threshold
- Stamp out a fire, or put water or any rubbish on it (fire is sacred to Mongolians)
- Walk in front of an older person; or turn your back to the altar, or religious objects (except when leaving)
- Take food from a communal plate with your left hand
- Touch other people’s hats
- Have a long conversation in your own language in front of your hosts
There are plenty of Internet cafés in the capital. The postal service is slow and most people have a PO Box if they want to get anything. It is possible to buy phone cards that can be used to call abroad very cheaply from domestic phones, but not all phones can do this. (You can ask for MiCom or MobiCom cards). In the countryside, don’t expect to be staying in contact with anyone. Most Aimag Centers (Province Capitals) have an Internet Café in the post office.
To make local calls in Ulaanbaatar use a phone of one of the many entrepreneurs with cellular telephones on the street corners.
Hostels in Mongolia
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