Planning an independent trip to Mongolia is a challenging task. The tourist trail is not well developed and lack of information makes it hard to figure out a great Mongolia travel itinerary for first-time visitors.
Unlike a lot of other places in Asia, you can’t just rock up in the country, pop into a travel agency and hop on a tour.
Our attempts to get information from our guest house resulted in an invitation to join their prepackaged tour. The set up didn’t sound like our cup of tea so we continued our search.
We wanted to pick our own route, set our own schedule, and explore the country on our own.
It took us 3 days and many calls, messages and meetings to find a car and a driver (renting your own car in Mongolia is HIGHLY INADVISABLE) and with the help of an ex-guide and all-around wonderful local (who has now started her own company, Explore Mongolia), we finally managed to work out our own Mongolia itinerary that allowed us to see the most of the country.
To spare others the time and effort it took to pull together our Mongolia travel itinerary, we are sharing it below for others to enjoy!
3-Week Mongolia Itinerary
Ulaanbaatar: 2 days
Start your Mongolia travel adventure by flying into Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia’s capital is an enormous fume-filled city that will excite you and shock you all at once.
UB (as the locals refer to it), is a mixed bag of old and new, of traditional and modern, of hope and despair. It’s busy, it’s chaotic, and it’s not tourist-friendly, but it’s the first stop of anyone traveling to Mongolia.
Despite the obvious lack of appeal, UB is a great place to start your Mongolia travel. It’s where you’ll want to stock up on anything you might have forgotten back home, sort out your trip arrangement, find travel buddies, and have a few last delicious meals (there won’t be too many of those once you get out into the countryside).
Don’t Miss: A visit to Chinggis Khaan Square and a meal at Namaste (UB’s best vegan restaurant).
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park: 2 days
It’s hard to believe that you can find unspoiled nature with great opportunities for hiking, rock climbing, and horseback riding just an hour outside of UB, but that’s exactly what you’ll find in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.
The park is a favourite weekend getaway for many locals from UB and thus get very busy on weekends and during the holidays.
But plan your visit outside of the busy days and enjoy plenty of trails, side valleys and your first peek at the beauty of the Mongolian countryside. Ger camps are plentiful, so you can plan to spend a night or two inside the park or enjoy it on a day trip from UB.
Don’t Miss: The park’s biggest attraction, Turtle Rock, and a visit to the Aryapala Initiation and Meditation Centre set on a hill overlooking the park.
Baga Gazriin Chuluu: lunch stop
The road from UB to South Gobi is long and bumpy and Baga Gazriin Chuluu, a giant rock formation that seems to appear out of nowhere makes for a perfect stopover. There is a handy picnic site and plenty of space to explore this unique geological wonder.
Admire the prayer flags and views from the top of the rock formations and take a break from a bumpy ride at a convenient spot just a few hours south of UB.
Don’t Miss: Usan Bolortiin Agui Cave and a tiny fresh water spring, hidden beneath a rock. There is a ladle inside the rock to help you scoop up some water to splash on your face.
Tsagaan Suvraga (White Stupas): Sunset Spot
Located some 300 km south of Baga Gazriin Chuluu, along the highway to Dalanzadgad, Tsagaan Suvraga is another great unknown natural wonder found in the Gobi and well worth a stop on your Mongolia itinerary.
The site, also known as White Stupas, is a unique sand pinnacle formation and is another popular stop in Middle Gobi. There isn’t much to see other than the stupas themselves, but you could easily spend a few hours exploring the area.
Don’t Miss: Sunset at the White Stupas is especially beautiful. If you are traveling in your own vehicle and aren’t on someone else’s schedule, hang back and wait for the tour companies to leave (which they do shortly before sunset) so you can have the place all to yourself.
Yolin Am Valley (Ice Field): 2-3 days
Yolin Am Valley was probably one of our favourite destinations on our Mongolia travel itinerary, which is why we suggest spending a few extra days in the area. This spot is famous for its dramatic rocky cliffs and shade clad canyons that prevent ice from melting well into the summer.
The valley remains lush and green despite being located in the heart of the Gobi Desert. Hikers and outdoor lovers from all over the world travel to Mongolia for this unique destination.
It’s possible to explore the gorge in a few hours but to walk the full length of the gorge (some 8-10kms), you’ll need to start at one end and get your driver to pick you up on the other side.
Don’t Miss: Keep your eyes peeled for ibexes that roam the gorge in the warmer months. They are tricky to spot and even harder to photograph!
Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes: 1-2 days
When you think of the Gobi Desert, you probably thinking of spectacular sand dunes and as you travel from UB to the Gobi, you’ll find yourself surprised to discover that the majority of the Gobi looks nothing like a sandy desert you have pictured.
Khongoryn Els, the largest and most well-known sand dunes in Mongolia, is the exception. At 300m high, 12 km wide and about 100km long, the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els are a force not to be reckoned with.
Climbing to the top of the dunes is possible, but the walk is not easy. The climb takes 45 minutes to 1 hour of an exhausting uphill battle.
Don’t Miss: Spectacular views of the desert from the sandy summit. Plan to start climbing the dunes 1.5-2 hours before sunset to give yourself plenty of time to reach the top before the sun kisses the horizon.
Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs): Stopover
After a night in the Khongoryn Els, the most logical route will take you through Bayangzag, an area of flaming orange sand dunes famous for dinosaur bones and eggs. It’s worth adding a stop to your Mongolia itinerary even if you are not a dinosaur fan.
There is not much to do here other than explore the sand dunes on foot or hire a camel to take you around. A few souvenir shops and drink stands are set up on the edges of the cliff, but that’s about the extent of civilization in this part of the Gobi.
Don’t Miss: A chance to help out the local community by purchasing a few handmade souvenirs.
Ongiin Khiid Buddhist Monastery: Stopover
A few centuries ago, Ongiin Khiid was one of the largest monasteries in Mongolia, but the complex was destroyed back in 1937, leaving behind a set of ruins that can be seen in the area today.
The ruins aren’t very impressive, but the area around the monastery is nice and has a number of ger camps which makes it for a nice stopover en route from the Gobi to Central Mongolia.
Don’t Miss: A chance to stay in a nice tourist ger camp! Since there aren’t too many of them in the Gobi, make sure to enjoy a hot shower (you don’t know when you might get your next one).
Kharkhorin: 2-3 days
Once the capital of the Chinggis Khaan empire, Kharkhorin was completely destroyed in 1388 and rebuilt a few centuries later into what now is known Erdene Zuu Khiid (Monastery). Today, the town itself is nothing exciting, but the monastery itself is impressive and definitely worth a visit.
Don’t Miss: Kharkhorin also has a great selection of ger camps and a big supermarket which is an ideal place to restock for the next leg. If you are lucky, your ger camp might also have wifi.
Tsenkher Hot Springs: 2-3 days
Located less than 30 kms from the town of Tsetseleg, Tesnkher Hot Springs is an up and coming Mongolia travel destination for both local and international tourists.
These natural hot springs are set between rolling hills clad with pine forests and green pastures, creating a beautiful natural setting for a few relaxing days.
And while the natural springs aren’t really set up for public enjoyment, there are four tourist ger camps surrounding the springs that pump water into their own hot spring pools allowing you to enjoy the health benefits of the springs just steps away from your ger.
Don’t Miss: The forested hills of the surrounding area offer lots of opportunities for hikes and nature walks, so make sure you warm up your muscles with a hike before jumping in those hot springs.
Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake (White Lake): 2 days
This freshwater lake spans 16 km and offers beautiful views from the numerous ger camps dotted along its shores.
There isn’t much to do at the lake other than exploring on foot, enjoying the peaceful beauty of the lake and sharing some yak milk with the families running the ger camps, but that’s part of the appeal.
Don’t Miss: A chance to climb to the top of Khorgo Uul, a 200m tall extinct volcano located just outside the town of Tariat en route to the lake.
Shine-Ider: 1 day
This tiny town has no reason to be a Mongolia travel highlight, but for us, the unmissable destination was a tourist ger camp, located some 5-10km outside of town.
Set in a small valley, the camp had the nicest gers and facilities we had come across on our Mongolia itinerary and the hospitality of the local family running the camp was unlike any other.
Don’t Miss: An opportunity to join the nomad family herding nearby for some early morning yak milking.
Khovsgol Nuur (Lake): 2-3 days
Khovsgol Lake will be the most Northern stop on the Mongolian itinerary. This beautiful area is known for thick forests, rivers, mountains and a beautiful lake with crystal clear waters. While the lake never really gets warm enough for Khovsgol to become a beach destination, the area is perfect for hiking and horseback riding.
Most gers are located on the Western side of the lake, where hiking trails are limited and the only way to get around the beautiful forests is by horse, but travelers also report opportunities for a more off the beaten path hiking/horseback riding experience in the East.
Don’t Miss: A chance to explore the forest by horse, as the opportunities to hike on foot are limited.
Have More Time to Spare?
Adventurous travelers and those with lots of time on their hands may wish to continue their Mongolia travel by venturing further north, where pockets of remote ethnic communities still exist to this day.
The reindeer herders (the Tsaantan people) are gaining particular interest among those traveling to Mongolia , but an authentic low-impact trip to their region requires both time (at least 10 days), money ($1,000+/pp),and many days on horseback (there are simply no roads to get up there).
The rest may choose to end their trip in Khovsgol, returning to UB via Bulgan or Erdenet in the North. These towns have no sights or attractions and serve as mere stopping points on your Mongolia itinerary to break up the long drive back to UB, although they do offer an insight into the life of smaller towns outside of the capital.
Short on Time?
It is possible to check out all the destinations on this Mongolia itinerary in just 2 weeks, by cutting out additional days and moving to a new destination every 1-2 days.
Unfortunately, this will make for a VERY exhausting trip as roads in the Mongolian countryside are bad (and in many cases, nonexistent) and distances are much longer than they appear to be on the map.
Essential Mongolia Travel Info
Traveling to Mongolia
Fly into Ulanbataar to start your trip and organize transport and provisions for the rest of your time in Mongolia. Direct flights to UB are available from Beijing, Seoul and Moscow and start at $150-200 each way.
Alternatively, you may consider taking a train from Beijing, which runs as a part of the Trans Mongolian Railway system. Tickets are $270USD per person and the journey from Beijing takes 36 hours.
Getting Around Mongolia
Assuming that you are looking to experience the above itinerary independently, we recommend hiring a driver to take you around the country and get you safely to all the stops on your Mongolia travel itinerary. Driving in Mongolia is tough. Very tough. The roads are bad and drives are exhausting, and even experienced drivers (like ours) can easily get lost in the vast steppe of Mongolian countryside.
A comfortable car and a driver that’s familiar with the route will make a huge difference in your Mongolia travel experience. Expect to pay anywhere between $50-75 per car, plus drivers allowance for meals/accommodation,and gas. Less experienced drivers or those that don’t speak any English will be willing to accept a lower rate and will save their accommodation allowance by sleeping in their cars.
Where to Stay
Unless you book your trip with a tour company (prepare to pay a LOT more for the convenience), you won’t be able to pre-book accommodation along the way. Most of the ger camps do not have websites or emails, and they don’t take reservations. It’s another reason why a local driver (who also speaks a bit of English) is essential for this type of trip. They’ll need to know where the ger camps are and be able to call ahead to reserve you a bed/ger on the day of your arrival.
What to Pack/Bring for your Mongolia Travel
Aside from the usual clothing, camera equipment and other travel accessories, it is advised to bring a sleeping bag (as some gers do not provide any bedding or blankets), a gas stove (which you can buy at a supermarket in UB along with propane canisters), a solar charger (electricity isn’t always available), and to always carry a supply of food to last you a few days (canned food, bread, peanut butter/jam, muesli and fruits/veggies work great and can be easily restocked in any small town along the way). Food will be available for sale at ger camps, but if you plan on staying at any family gers, it’s best not to rely on their provisions for meals.