Updated: Jul 20
Every month Instagram tells you about a new and "undiscovered" destination tipped to be the next big thing. Often in Europe or South East Asia. To me, unusual adventures are less about the latest ‘travel trend’ and more about seeing another side of places. On that note, welcome to country number 77.
Have you ever thought about getting somewhere so far-flung and traveling differently? Mongolia is just the place to do that. I recently went on a solo trip, adventuring in one of the world’s least densely populated countries and it was exactly what I imagined it to be - the land of extremes.
Mongolia will push you.. it is as tough as it is special. Not many tourists make it here, but those who do cannot get enough of it, just like me. Follow along my road trip through the Gobi Desert.
Land in Ulaanbaatar. Drive straight to White Stupa. Ger Camp.
Drive to Yol Valley. Ger Camp.
Drive to Khongor Sand Dunes. Ger Camp.
Drive to Flaming Cliffs. Ger Camp.
Drive to Ongi Monastery. Ger Camp.
Drive back to Ulaanbaatar and rest for 2 nights
TABLE OF CONTENTS
FLIGHTS + VISA IF TRAVELING FROM DUBAI WITH AN INDIAN PASSPORT
For better or for worse, there are only few flights that go to Mongolia. For those of you in the Middle East, or Europe or US, Turkish Airlines is the best option. Be warned that the journey will be long.
Mongolia just recently opened on arrival visas for a lot of countries. I tried to dig up information from official websites but all I could find was that this does not apply to Indian passport holders. I decided not to risk it and applied at the local embassy in Abu Dhabi. I needed my confirmed travel dates, hotel bookings or tour booking. I submitted everything by email, after verifying documents, the embassy advised on when I can come down for a stamp, I got the visa stamped the same day. Smooth. The cost was $50 for single entry valid for 30 days (some embassies also offer it for free as India does have a good relationship with Mongolia).
No one in the city or outside speaks any English. Get used to it fast.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
There is a short window in which you can visit Mongolia and enjoy the beautiful landscapes without freezing your pants off. Ideal time to visit without massive local crowds is May. June, July and August is going to be much much warmer outside, so locals will be out and about. September is also a good time to visit as the temperature starts to cool off by October and then roads are inaccessible.
I used dollars, but you will need the Mongolian Tugrik to make small purchases.
Again, this is not Europe, where you can turn up and get somewhere. The distances are huge.
You will need local support to set you up in camps. I love supporting people in countries like this and always pick locals to take me around. I planned the entire trip and contacted Danista Nomads, who was more than happy to hook me up with a young local and an amazing driver for the week long trip. The cost for this Gobi Desert itinerary would be around $650 depending on travel season and number of people traveling together.
SOLO TRAVEL + SAFETY
I was with my local guide the entire time. Felt very safe. That being said, alcoholism is a real problem in Mongolia. I found people tipsy on more than one occasion. As in any place, just be aware of your surroundings. The people are generally very helpful and welcoming.
GER CAMPS - WHAT TO EXPECT?
Much like in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the ger camps here are basic. Comes with a single bed, blankets, pillow, drinking water. No wet toilets, of course there are dry ones. You can forget showers as well. It's all wild and rustic. I don't recommend this trip if your kids or family are not used to roughing it out.
VEGAN + VEGETARIAN FOOD. HOW HARD IS IT?
I was actually fortunate to find more than enough decent vegan food on this trip - partly due to the fact that my guide had a stove. He had basic veggies, some rice and noodles. I cooked myself a vegan Mongolian fried noodle dish. I also packed a couple packets of maggi, that came in handy. Once I got to the city, I found a lot of vegan restaurants - managed to try vegan version of local dishes. The LOVING HUT cafe in UB was great.
My epic road trip through Mongolia was mostly focused on the southern part, home to the iconic Gobi desert.
Contrary to what you would think, the gobi desert is not just about sand dunes. It is also home to a whole set of diverse landscapes from mountains to green valleys. My first stop was this otherworldly martian looking landscape shaped from thousands of years of wind and water erosion.
Though it looks like a red rock, as I hiked closer, I found so many vibrant colors on the rocks. This was one of my favorite places on the trip.
Of all the unique landscapes I saw in the Gobi, Yol Valley stands out because it's the least desert-like.
I hiked past grazing yaks and horses to a stream hidden deep in the valley. This valley is known for its shade clad canyons that prevent ice from melting well into the summer.
It’s astounding to find places like this, hard to believe all of this is smack in the middle of a desert. Still SO untouched by mass tourism. Will never get tired of exploring the world like this. My whole heart.
TRAVEL TIP: the best time to visit is August but May & June are best if you want to see the icy lake and don’t want any local crowds either.
Before I talk about the dunes, I must mention that the road leading up to it was one of my favorites during the trip. A whole myriad of colors from pink, to green to blue to browns.
Said to be one of the largest and most spectacular dunes in all of Mongolia, the grandeur of the scenery is quite spellbinding. This place is called the “singing dunes” because the sands make an eerie tune as the wind blows over shifting sand.
As I huffed and puffed my way up this humongous pile of sand, I can confirm that this is indeed true.
Something you need to know about Mongolia is the weather can change in a few minutes. I could hear the rattling windows in my ger camp as a sandstorm that raged on for 15 hours straight. It's not scary as the camps are sturdy but if you are a light sleeper, you are in for a long night.
As someone who was raised in the Middle-East, there was one other thing I found fascinating - the horses grazing on a green field in front of a barren Gobi dessert. Just Mongolia things!
This is a place that is now famous for being one of the first places in the world where Dinosaur remains were found. I certainly found that fascinating and could definitely imagine dinosaurs walking along these massive red structures 65 million years ago.
At first glance, the place is an intense evocation of the great emptiness of the Mongolian landscapes. The hardened soil, which has mostly remained unchanged since the Cretaceous period, is set ablaze any time of day. Starkly different to the White Stupa, these cliffs are made up of red clay soil.
The region is called Bayanzag meaning it is rich in Saxual buses, the only plant that can survive both the extreme heat and cold of the country. It's just incredible how we can find such marvels in hidden corners of the planet.
There is not much to do here but again, the drive up to the village with a backdrop of endless mountains and running gazelle is quite special.
This place is a historically significant. Once a monastery that housed over 1000 monks, the structures were destroyed in 1939 to the anti-religious purges of communism. Walking around the deserted village is a surreal experience. You can just imagine what once was - the crowds, perhaps the happy smiles, the prayers, the families, the monks.
Today the monastery is mostly empty, with a few local families taking care of the temples as a homage to people who lost their lives. As I hiked and explored the monastery, I find lots of connection to Dalai Lama in Tibet here. Monks still visit the village during the summer and the winter. The whole atmosphere, while a solemn reminder of the tragedy, is still extremely tranquil.
Ghandan Kiid Monastery
This is a Tibetan style Buddhist monastery in the middle of the city. Loosely translated as the "place of complete joy", this is one of the capitals' most important monument and place of worship. It was easily walkable from the Danista hostel I stayed in.
An iconic and historic spot in the city, this was the exact location where Mongolia declared it's independence from the Chinese in 1921. You will also find the parliament house here along with a huge statue of Gengis Khan.
The Gengis Khan Equestrian Statue
Less than 60 kms away from the capital, is one of the largest standing equestrian monument in the world.. and it was mounted by Gengis himself. The statue is said to face east, towards his birthplace. If you stretch your eyes farther to the east, you will see a smaller statue of his mother greeting him. There is a museum to visit, for you to understand the areas conquered by the Mongols back in the day. Highly recommended if you are history buff.
Winter Palace Museum
Yet another place that was destroyed and then restored after the communist riots. This later became the place where the eighth living Lama and the last Mongol king lived for over 20 years. On the inside you will find extravagant gifts of animals and jewels. I skipped the inside tour since that doesn't interest me.
Choijin Lama Monastery
I simply loved that all these places were so easy to get to - smack in the middle of a busy city. Much like Japan. Juxtaposition of old and new. This place is not a place of worship any more though. It has five different temples and a fantastic wall with intricate details depicting the various stages of Lama's life.
Zaisan Memorial Hill
My final stop on the capital tour was the Memorial hill. This largest communist-era monument serves as a token of appreciation from the Mongolian government to Russia. The circular monument has paintings on it that showcase the friendship between USSR and Mongolia over the years. The 600 odd stairs are worth climbing for some of the best panoramic views of the city at sunset. One a clear day you can even the Tuul river!
Mongolia, the land of the 'Eternal blue sky' and Gengis Khan. A place where nearly half the population still live a nomadic life.
As a traveler, my instinct is to always go against the flow. Irrespective of whether I am alone or with my husband. These aren't your average bucket list trips. By taking the time to do months of research, completing tedious paperwork, finding and speaking to the local guides, and staying somewhere as authentic as a Mongolian ger camp, I can see I am pushing my own boundaries, learning to let things go and adjusting in unfamiliar harsh conditions.
Planning an independent trip to Mongolia is not easy, unless you have unlimited time and resources. Add to it the general lack of information for certain passport holders, and you have yourself a mysterious adventure.
These one of a kind trips leaves me wanting more. I am not slowing down either. Happy to tread along the path less taken for as long as I can. All of it with a weak passport. Life is too fickle for anything but magical journeys into the virtually unknown.
Thanks for reading. Leave your questions and comments below.
Lots of love,