Mongolia : The Round Up

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We spent June of 2018 in Mongolia traveling on our KLR650 motorcycles. Since cities and names can so easily escape me, here’s a round up of where we went, what we did, and the roads we traveled. I hope this can help with anyone planning a trip to Mongolia in terms of what to expect, how much it costs, and navigation.

Navigation

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We used maps.me, which was great on the phone. GPS signal was everywhere, and you can download very detailed maps with fairly decent directions. For some reason, maps.me worked better than our Garmin that had a roadmap downloaded. The red dots on the map indicate where we spent a night.

Visas

On arriving in Mongolia as an American, you automatically get a 30 day visa. In case of an emergency that might have caused us to extend the trip, we visited the immigration office to extend out visa to 90 days. It was very easy to obtain, just filled out a declaration of why we were visiting and that we promised to leave. The paperwork said the extension needed to be obtained within 7 days of arrival, but we =also heard that it is able to do later if need be.

Ulanbaatar

How long and where we stayed

One week, because we were waiting for our motorcycles to arrive. We booked an Airbnb, in the center of town near Sukhbaatar Square $30 USD/night

Approx spend per day

$70 USD per day for two people, without being too cost conscious or lavish.

Sights and things to do

Sukhbaatar square really livens up at night, with bicycle rentals for kids and little toy trucks. It’s very pleasant to walk around, with a carnival like atmosphere.

Mongolian National Modern Art Museum, just off the square was very inexpensive and contained an impressive range of Mongolian artists. Mediums ranged from acrylic, oil, sculpture, block print, and some digital media. It was air conditioned and almost empty, giving us the run of the place. The docents were very helpful and loved answering questions about the artists.

Naran Tuul Market, south east of the center, 10 minutes by taxi, was a sprawling combination of flea market, handicrafts, and home good store is a perfect place to sight see and pick up souvenirs. You can get everything from fake north face jackets, legitimate camping equipment, a fully complete ger, to fox fur hats.

The National Museum of Mongolia, kitty corner to the square, goes through the history of Mongolia, from ancient times to present. It was a great way to get familiar with the background of the country. Unique collection of clothing from all the different ethnic groups in Mongolia.

Choljin Lama Temple Museum, a couple blocks south of the square, was originally built in 1904. Andrew skipped out on the temple, but I really enjoyed it. The complex is a collection of five temple buildings, each containing different artifacts and used for different occasions. The collection of tsam masks, made of paper mache, were intricate and beautiful. I was  surprised and intrigued by the depictions of war, both in painting and sculpture, that depicted enemies being hung and sliced open. The temple is now surrounded by Ulanbaatar’s sky scrapers, making it feel like a little plot frozen in time.

Horseback riding in the countryside was arranged for us by a friend, you can easily find places in the city to hire one for you. It was great to be able to get out of the city a bit, about an hour’s drive, and see how quickly the scenery changes. Neither of us had ridden a horse before and we could have probably used some more instruction. Andrew was actually thrown off the horse, and hurt his back a bit. So caution to anyone with anyone who has no riding experience. But I really enjoyed seeing the countryside and getting a feel for the landscape.

What we ate

Ulanbaatar has a wide range of restaurants from small stalls serving Mongolian staples to sit down affairs with full bars serving international food. We enjoyed a bit of each, spending anywhere from $2 for a plate of Mongolian stir fry to $10 per dish at more upscale restaurants.

Ulanbaatar – Khokh Nuur – Omnodelger -- Baganuur

Where we stayed

Seven days, stay two nights in Kokh Nuur camping, one night camping on the steppe, two in Omnodelger (at the only hotel in town $8-10 per night), one in Baganuur (hotel in the center of town $18 per night).

Approx spend per day

While camping, we would pick up supplies at local minimarkets, averaging about $8 per day.

In the small city of Omnodelger we spent about $15-20 per day. Broken down, the only hotel in Omnodelger charged $8-10 per night, and the restaurant inside—which was delicious—was $2-4 per plate. Extra money for cookies.

In the medium sized city of Baganuur, we stayed in a hotel on the main road for $18 per night, and the restaurants typically charged $4-6 per plate.

Sights and things to do

Kokh Nuur was gorgeous and a great place to camp with little flies and mosquitoes sufficiently thwarted with some spray. To get there, GPS coordinates: N48◦01.150’, E 108◦56.450. Take the little dirt turn off heading north 6 miles West of Tsenkhermandal. This was our first time off roading in Mongolia and we got there on the first shot, you simply keep taking the tracks that are most well-traveled. It was intimidating for us, but doable for beginners. Once at the Lake, we traveled along the main dirt road that had ger camps until we saw a turn off south that headed up the forested pine area. It contains lots of trash, but some good camp sites that are the perfect amount of seclusion, but walking distance to the minimarket.

We intended to head to the monastery of Baldan Baraivun Khiid, but navigating north of the lake was too difficult for us. We kept taking wrong turns and we made the decision to head directly east and try to make to Omnodelger. The road was not well travelled and there is no direct route. You head north and then east, and the GPS could no longer calculate a route. It was slow going, with little river crossings, and lots of stops and gers asking for directions. The journey ended up taking us two days.

 Camping next to a friendly ger.

Camping next to a friendly ger.

Omnodelger is a tiny town with a gas station, a bank, one hotel, and no running water. But after two days of feeling lost it felt like heaven. The hotel was run by an incredibly friendly woman who is also an excellent cook. In the morning when we woke up and it was pouring rain, I wasn’t sad that we had an excuse to stay another day. There was not much to do—which sometimes is perfect.

Baganuur is a dusty coal mining city without much tourist infrastructure. But there was running water (not hot), some good karaoke pubs, and the hotel was clean. Great place to stay if you need a rest stop before going back in to Ulanbaatar. Note most of the restaurants seem to close at 8 pm on weekdays, so get dinner before then.

What we ate

Camping food available at minimarkets was noodles, pasta, water, and sodas. All other towns served typical Mongolian food of stir fry noodles, stir fry meat with rice, both usually with mutton.

Ulanbaatar – Lun – Erdenet – Moron

Where we stayed

We stopped back in Ulanbaatar for some errands and stayed in Saisan, the new flashy part of Ulanbaatar. It’s not as connected as being near the square, but amenities are clean and the grocery stores carry some things you can find elsewhere. Also, a large new movie complex is a nice respite for weary travelers.

We went to Lun relying on a map that said there was paved roads to Bulgan in the North. After several attempts and wrong turns, we realized that the map lied. Lun is a little pit stop of a town covered in flies. But it had a cheap bed and a gas station.

After staying in Lun for the night we back tracked 70 miles on paved road to Ulanbaatar and then headed north on actual pavement, toward Darkhan and the turn west to Erdenet.

In Erdenet we stayed at the Gem Hotel, located next to the gas station next to the roundabout in the middle of the town. The manager was incredibly nice, offering to let us park our motorcycles in a gated lot overnight. The chef was also incredible—serving the best Mongolian beef dish I’ve had. It was pricey, at $35 USD a night, but it was very clean, comfortable, and centrally located.

In Moron we stayed at the Genghis hotel, located kittycorner to the fancy and pricey 50◦100◦ Hotel. It was $20 USD per night. The first time we stayed there we had a great room with a working TV, hot water, view of the street, and quiet. The second time we stayed, the room was much dirtier, mattresses hard, and the other guests very loud until 4 am in the morning. So, it’s a hit or miss. If you can, get a room on a higher floor and test the mattress before agreeing.

Approx spend per day

On the road, we averaged about $50 per day for two people, including gasoline. We spent more in the larger cities like Moron, and less in the little rest stop towns like Lun.

Sights and things to do

We spent most of the days riding the motorcycles as our thing to do. Stopping in Lun, there was not much of a town to explore. We really enjoyed walking around the shops in Erdenet, and I think if we had more time I would have enjoyed some shopping or trying to check out the local copper mine. Both of these are described more in the Lonely Planet Book. Moron is a traveler’s city, without much to do by itself.

What we ate

In Lun we discovered a local habit of putting French fries in the noodle stir fry. That elevated a dish that was okay to a dish that Andrew ordered every time.

On the road, we became better at spotting little restaurants along the side of the road. Great pit stops in the shade to grab some noodles.  They are usually small brick buildings with pictures of food on the outside, and plastic tables and chairs inside.

We did realize how spoiled we were in Ulaan Batar to get menus with pictures. In the middle of no where, with just Mongolian script, it can be very difficult to order food. We did find it helpful to take a picture of the noodle dish and then show it to the chefs so they understand what you want. Most of the menus are only in Mongolian and impossible to decipher on your own. We eventually learned about three words. Maybe this will help someone:

This picture, the fourth word down was the most common word we saw on menus, and was the noodle dish that we got everywhere. Usually thick, udon type noodes, with little bits on meat, sometimes with potatoes, sometimes French fries, usually with onions or some other root vegetable.

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 Typical noodle dish.

Typical noodle dish.

In the below picture, the top word, for 700T, is the word for the fried pancakes with ground meat inside. Sometimes very greasy, but usually hot and relatively “safe” it was a good snack.

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The second from the top, for 400T, pronounced “buuz” are small dumplings with ground meat inside. The quality obviously varied from place to place. We found that the price was usually per dumpling. Three to four dumplings was a snack.

The word I’m pointing to in the picture is the word for the dumpling soup in the picture with potatoes. Served very hot and sometimes with chili sauce, we only saw this once we got closer to Russia.

In Moron there was a little kebab place across the street from the Genghis restaurant. It’s up some rickety orange stairs, but served some of the best shesh kabob we’ve had in Mongolia. It was probably just some mutton in a hot pita, but to us, it was great.

Khovsgol Nuur

There is a newly paved beautiful road from Moron to Lake Khovsgol. It’s only about 50 miles, and a fun little drive through valleys.

Where we stayed

While going through the little town of Khatgal, there are many dirt roads turning left up into the pine covered hill that overlooks the lake. We took one, stayed right past a little stupa, and found a perfect spot to camp. A great feature of Mongolia is the ability to camp anywhere, for free. We took full advantage of this, setting up our hammock in the pines, pitching a tent, and digging a little pit for our stove. Note, we heard several people say open camp fires are not allowed, and we saw some park ranger types around in town.

Approx spend per day

Camping is incredibly cheap, with the only expense being supplies at mini markets, totaling maybe $10-15 per day.

Sights and things to do

Sit. Watch the herds pass by. Observe changing weather. Magnificent sunrises and sunsets. Relax.

What we ate

Camp food of coffee, oatmeal, pasta and sausage. Lunch one day in town of noodles at the little stall near the super market.

Khovsgal – Moron – Tsagaan uul – Numrug

Where we stayed

We headed back to Moron for a day to resupply, then headed out, intending to get to Numrug in a day. This marks the real start of our riding West in Mongolia, without pavement in any direction for days on end. After the river that borders Moron, we should have taken a hard right but missed it, resulting in a two-hour wrong turn. We fueled up in Tsagaan uul around 3 pm and realized that we wouldn’t make it to Numrug and so spent a night there. Tsagaan uul don’t have a hotel, more a room behind a mini market. No running water, but it was clean and cheap.

 Picture of a good section of dirt road on the way to Numrug.

Picture of a good section of dirt road on the way to Numrug.

The next morning, we headed out early to Numrug. The ride was a bit of everything, valleys, nice packed road, single track, and then some sand. Numrug is a one street town, and stayed in the only hotel. No running water again, but the hotel manager was incredibly friendly and willing to go out of her way to help us with anything.

Approx spend per day

On the road, we continued to average about $50 for two for hotel, food, and gas.

 Great little rest stop with food between Moron and Tsagaan uul.

Great little rest stop with food between Moron and Tsagaan uul.

Sights and things to do

Most of our days were spent riding. Tsagaan uul has a little network of dirt roads that are mostly ramshackle houses, two gas stations, and two restaurants. There is a small park square with some statutes. The statutes give the impression that a couple years ago they held a contest for local people to make statutes and then they all put them in the square. They were concrete and mostly disintegrating. Numrug is a small little town that doesn’t have any walking paths, just a main dirt road. It has a great little square, a wrestling arena, and a small lake nearby. It was very pleasant and the people friendly.

What we ate

As before, Mongolian food stall sell noodles and rice stir fry dishes as a staple.  Also little minimarkets everywhere sold lots of pasta, bread, and candy.

Numrug – Ulaangom -- Olgii

Where we stayed

The morning ride leaving Numrug was more dirt and sand. There was one little town called Songino in a valley we stopped in to have an apple that was pleasant, although I didn’t spot a hotel. About one hundred miles from Numrug we hit beautiful flat, new pavement. It was glorious. We intended to stay near Khyargas Lake at the little town Naranbulag. But, excited by the pavement, and not spotting any shade, we decided to push on to Ulaangom. Ulaangom is a province capital, with a good handful of hotels, restaurants, and amenities. We stopped at the hotel Ih Nayad Tsogtsolbor right on the main drag near the square. It had wifi, washing services, and a TV with some English channels.

 Sweet beautiful pavement.

Sweet beautiful pavement.

After spending a day in Ulaangom, we made the final push to Olgii. We ran out of pavement about 40 miles in, then back to navigating rivers and dirt roads. It was hard. But we got help along the way. When my throttle got stuck and we were tinkering with it, one couple on a motorcycle stopped and helped, and then a tourist van stopped and helped. The tourist van even gave us the very lucky advice to go south of Achit Nuur to avoid some terrible river crossings. Based on stories we heard from other travelers, those river crossings were brutal, so we were very grateful for the tip. The day was still long and we hit some sand, but eventually made it to Olgii.

Olgii is another province capital that many people use as their last or first stop in Mongolia after or before Russia. So there are many options for staying. People told us that “everyone” stays at this Blue Wolf hotel or ger, but after getting quoted $40 for a hotel room that wasn’t impressive, we searched elsewhere. We found Bastau Hotel, right next to the town square for $12. It was, ok. The first night was good, but the second night the toilets clogged and the neighbors were ridiculously loud. So, maybe Blue Wolf is worth it. We heard later from some people who said there are many other motorcyclists, which can be good to exchange information. We also learned later that the Blue Wolf ger camp is only $10 per person and has good showers and bathrooms.

Approx spend per day

On the road, we continued to average about $50 a day for two for hotel, food, and gas.

Sights and things to do

Similar to other city capitals, each Ulaangom and Olgii had a little park with toys and things for rent that was pleasant to walk around at night. I didn't find much shopping in Ulaangom, although there was a tourist store in the square it was closed everytime we went. The square was really a lot of fun in the evening, the kids loved to play!

Olgii has much more tourist options, and many little tourist shops. We ended up making one of the best purchases of the trip: Mongolian yak and camel socks. If you want to get spendy you can get cashmere socks. But we were really impressed with the quality of the yak and camel socks. There are also very touristy shops with local handicrafts. Some of the same stuff you see in Ulaan batar, but a couple unique paintings and carvings. We picked up a game of the ankle bones here.

What we ate

Ulaangom had a couple nice restaurants. Including some that had some frozen chicken that they would fry with potatoes that was well appreciated.

Olgii finally had some diversity of food! Being so close to the Russian border, we found some fried meat pancakes and some soup with potatoes in the little restaurant that is in the same building as the Bastau hotel. Walking around the square, we saw a fancy looking foreigner restaurant. We had already eaten, but if not, may have stopped there to see if anyone wanted to exchange stories.