Adventure travellers seeking a glimpse into the past will find everything they want – and more in Mongolia, a region filled with a lot of emptiness. The vast deserts and steppes are home to rugged nomads living much as they always have for generations. Canadian backpackers are well-received with the culture of hospitality makes everyone feel at home. Tourism is new here and the prepared traveller will keep a few things in mind as they traverse the country.
Be Friendly. Basic advice, but it means even more here. Westerners are still unusual to see and people are curious. They may also think you’re crazy for leaving home on purpose just to see something else. Be pleasant and patient as you answer (the same) questions over and over and remember that for some, you symbolize all westerners. Leave a good impression for the rest of us.
Learn the Language. The chances of a traveller becoming conversant in Mongolian or Russian are pretty small, but a few words of politeness and some basics such as “toilet” and train station” will make getting around and finding what you need much easier.
Don’t Take Space. Public buses (if you can find one), taxis and vans are filled to beyond capacity before they start. Put your pack between your legs or on your lap if lucky enough to get a seat. If out with only your day pack, leave the seats for someone with more baggage.
Prepare for Cyrillic. Expect signposts, maps and menus to be written in Cyrillic. If your map is in English you’ll want to be able to transliterate on the fly to find what you’re looking for.
Bring a Tent. There are very few guesthouses in the countryside, but lots of open space for camping. Don’t pitch your tent too close to someone’s home yurt and don’t be afraid to offer up a friendly wave when heads peek out of doorways at you.
Travel With Gifts. The culture is extremely guest-centric and often a stranger will be invited into someone’s home simply because they are a guest in the town. Money isn’t considered appropriate to offer but vodka, rice or some dried meat are all excellent gifts.
Ask Before Taking a Photo. The children here are adorable and so photogenic, but it is polite to ask the parents before snapping a picture. You wouldn’t appreciate someone coming into your yard and photographing your kids – and neither do they.
Put the Watch Away. Virtually nothing will start when it’s supposed to and everything will take longer than it should. Toss the rigid schedule and plan to pack some patience and entertainment in your bag. Even better, have a bit of hard candy to share with the kids that are also waiting and you’ll have a van full of instant friends when you finally do leave.
Try the Airag. It’s fermented mare’s milk and a bit of an acquired taste, but where else will you find alcoholic horse’s milk? Drink it.
Carry Water. And expect to be a bit grimy. Water is precious in the desert climate and wasting it on your body isn’t necessarily a good plan. Bathe in the city or near a river, but be respectful of trickling streams that may provide water for people downstream. Toilet facilities are minimal if present at all, and none will have paper or anything to wash with. Add damp, disposable cloths to your pack.
Carry Wood. Or a portable stove. Much of the countryside is grassland and you’ll need to provide your own fuel if planning on cooking.
Ride a Camel. It’s just fun, although your legs may ache for a few days afterwards. You may want to consider travelling by horse, also. Animals tend to be more available than automobiles once you are away from the city.
Keep Food in Your Pack. Especially in the countryside it can be difficult to find somewhere to eat. Cheese and yogurt might be made from yak, sheep, goat or mare’s milk and horse meat is as common as mutton. Be adventurous when eating but honestly, there’s a lot of food in Mongolia that you may not want to taste twice.
Visit the Gobi Desert. Only do this with a guide as once landmarks are out of sight, the desert is just one vast, golden sea. It’s easy to become disoriented and following your footsteps backwards only works in the movies; dry sand doesn’t maintain prints well.
Check on a Visa. Canadians can stay in the country for up to 30 days without a visa. If you plan to stay longer either get a visa or make sure you are near a border that you can cross to get yourself an additional 30 days. Mongolia is bordered by China and Russia – neither easy to enter without their own visas.
Have you been to Mongolia? What advice would offer to Canadian travellers?