Mongolia Selfdrive Adventure: The Ultimate Road Trip Experience

Setting out on a Mongolia selfdrive? Gear up for a memorable journey with this hands-on guide. Navigate the practicalities: from picking a sturdy vehicle suited for challenging terrains to charting your course across Mongolia’s vast wilderness, and packing for all eventualities. Get the lowdown on all you need to hit the road and immerse yourself…

Key Takeaways

  • Careful preparation for your Mongolia self-drive includes selecting the right route, securing a reliable vehicle, and packing essential gear for both comfort and navigation.

  • Immerse in Mongolian nomadic culture by staying in traditional ger camps, participating in local festivals, and observing daily practices such as herding and crafting.

  • Explore Mongolia’s stunning natural beauty, from the Gobi Desert’s dramatic landscapes and paleontological sites to the serene Lake Khovsgol and the rugged Altai Mountains.

Planning Your Mongolia Self-Drive Adventure

Mongolian landscape with vast open spaces and distant mountains

Independent couples, groups of friends, or families seeking an unforgettable journey might find a self-drive adventure in Mongolia particularly suitable. However, a smooth trip demands careful planning. From the route selection, vehicle rental, and packing essentials, every aspect demands your attention. Fortunately, trip planning assistance is available for booking domestic flights, hotels, and camps necessary for a self-drive adventure in Mongolia.

Selecting an optimal route and securing the right vehicle are central to planning the trip when you decide to visit Mongolia. The ‘Classic Mongolia Loop’, the journey to Khövsgöl Nuur, and the exploration of the Altai Mountains are among the popular routes each offering unique landscapes and attractions. Renting a reliable vehicle is also essential, with options ranging from Toyota Land Cruiser to a Customized Russian 4x4s available for rent.

Finally, packing essentials like a sleeping bag, water bottles, thermal layers, warm clothes, navigation tools, and personal health items is necessary to stay comfortable and prepared during your adventure.

Choosing the Right Route

In planning your Mongolia self-drive adventure, the selection of an appropriate route is paramount. For instance, the ‘Classic Mongolia Loop’ commences from Ulaanbaatar, spans approximately 1700km (1050 miles), and requires a minimum of 5 days to complete. Key attractions on this route encompass:

  • The Erdene Zuu Monastery

  • The flaming cliffs of Bayanzag

  • The Khongoryn Els sand dunes

  • The wildlife-rich Yol Valley

Alternatively, you could consider the route to Khövsgöl Nuur that extends over 900km (560 miles) and passes through Mongolia’s taiga and rugged peaks. Notable stops include Amarbayasgalant Khiid, Uran-Togoo Tulga Uul Nature Reserve, and the Uushigiin Uver archaeological site.

For a shorter journey, explore the 250km (155 miles) journey through the Altai Mountains. This route offers a glimpse into Kazakh culture and the chance to explore Altai Tavan Bogd National Park’s dramatic landscapes.

Renting a Suitable Vehicle

Securing an appropriate vehicle is a key element in planning your Mongolia self-drive tour. Reliable vehicles such as:

  • Toyota Land Cruiser 200 and 70 series

  • Nissan Patrol

  • Ford Ranger

  • Customized Russian 4x4s

are available for rent. You should plan for a minimum rental period of 3 days, with a suggestion to rent for 1 to 3 weeks to fully explore Mongolia. Expect to pay starting prices around $150 per day for a 4×4 vehicle like a Toyota Land Cruiser.

A valid driving license and credit card are necessary for the vehicle deposit, which is usually refundable two weeks post-rental. You will need a passport or Mongolian ID for vehicle pickup. Considering Mongolia’s challenging driving conditions, a rental car with roadside assistance is essential, and companies like SIXT provide comprehensive services. SIXT Mongolia, for instance, offer customer support such as delivery to different locations, route recommendations, and potentially an English-speaking driver, while advising renters to become familiar with the vehicle’s specifications before departure.

Packing Essentials

Understanding what to pack for your Mongolia self-drive adventure can mean the difference between comfort and discomfort on your journey. Here are some essential items to consider:

  • A sleeping bag rated for minus 10°C and a sleeping pad for overnight stays to ensure comfort and warmth.

  • Staying hydrated is vital, so pack a 1L wide mouth water bottle and a 3L water bladder with an insulated tube and cap.

  • For navigation, a compass can be handy in remote areas where roads are unmarked and not shown on online maps.

Consider bringing the following items for your trip to Mongolia:

  • Digital map services like Google Maps, Maps.me, Komoot, or Gaia GPS for navigating the vast landscapes

  • A mobile phone with a local SIM card and an extra power bank or solar charger for communication and emergencies

  • Essential personal health items such as a headlamp with spare batteries, polarized sunglasses, a portable battery charger, and a personalized first aid kit

  • Practical items like reusable shopping bags, quick-dry towels, wet wipes, and a luggage lock for convenience

Make sure to pack these items to ensure a smooth and enjoyable trip.

Experiencing Nomadic Life

Traditional Mongolian ger camp with surrounding nature

With your journey planned and essentials packed, you’re ready to explore the unique facets of Mongolia’s nomadic lifestyle. Nearly half the population of Mongolia continues to live in gers, reflecting the ongoing vitality of nomadic traditions.

Your self-drive adventure offers firsthand experiences of this traditional way of life. Whether it’s staying in ger camps, attending local festivals, or learning about daily activities like herding and traditional crafts, you’ll find a wealth of enriching experiences.

Ger Camps

A stay in a nearby ger camp offers a distinctive immersion into Mongolian culture. Traditional ger accommodations in Mongolia are designed to withstand harsh climates and are decorated with colorful, culturally significant adornments. These camps range from basic, offering essential amenities for a traditional experience, to luxurious options including modern comforts like en-suite bathrooms and fine dining.

Furnishings in a traditional ger are typically simple, accommodating guests with limited electricity to enhance the authentic and modest living experience. These camps often include communal dining with meals prepared using local ingredients. By staying in these camps, you’ll get to taste dishes like buuz and khuushuur and immerse yourself in traditional Mongolian food.

Local Festivals

Mongolia is celebrated for the vibrant local festivals that constitute the core of its cultural heritage. The Naadam festival is a significant event in Mongolia, celebrating the three manly sports: wrestling, archery, and horse racing. This festival is an extravaganza of color, energy, and local traditions that you won’t want to miss.

Another highlight is the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii province, which celebrates the traditional Kazakh practice of eagle hunting. Moreover, Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian Lunar New Year, is marked by various cultural events, a special greeting ceremony that honors elders, and family feasts and gatherings. By attending these festivals, you’ll get to celebrate Mongolia’s rich cultural heritage.

Daily Activities

Your journey also provides insights into the daily activities of Mongolian nomads. Herding is a central part of daily life for Mongolian nomads, requiring the care and movement of animals such as:

  • sheep

  • goats

  • cattle

  • yaks

  • camels

  • horses

Across the extensive landscapes of the Mongolian steppe in central Mongolia, this herding culture is a testament to the nomadic traditions that thrive in Mongolia, including northern Mongolia.

Traditional crafts also play a vital role in the daily life of Mongolian nomads, with unique skills handed down through generations. These include:

  • Blacksmithing

  • Wood carving

  • Embroidery

  • Leather crafting

The construction of the Morin Khuur, a significant folk handicraft known as the horsehead fiddle, holds a revered status in Mongolian culture. Moreover, making felt for ger insulation and clothing is a traditional Mongolian craft that involves matting, condensing, and pressing animal fibers, reflecting the practical and artistic ingenuity of the nomadic lifestyle.

Discovering Mongolia’s Natural Wonders

Gobi Desert sand dunes with distant mountains

From the sweeping sand dunes of the Gobi Desert to the crystal clear waters of Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia showcases a diverse array of stunning landscapes. Your self-drive adventure will take you through a captivating journey starting at Ulaanbaatar, traveling south to discover the vast expanses of the Gobi Desert, and then heading north towards the serene beauty of Lake Khovsgol.

Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert is a must-visit on your Mongolia self-drive adventure. This vast desert boasts a variety of landscapes, including:

  • Enchanting white granite formations

  • Velvet smooth sand dunes like the Khongoryn Els sand dunes, which reach up to 200 meters in height and cover an area of 965 square kilometers

  • Natural formations such as Tsagaan Suvarga, which create striking appearances resembling ancient city ruins and can seem like a vast waterfall during heavy rains, adding to the Gobi’s diverse terrain.

But it’s not just about the beautiful landscapes. The Gobi Desert is also home to important paleontological sites such as Nemegt Mountain, the ‘Dragon’s Grave,’ and Algui Ulaan Tsav, where visitors can observe dinosaur remains as they were left in nature. The region’s human history can be appreciated through the Khavtsgait Petroglyphs and the striking Ikh and Baga Gazriin Chuluu rock formations.

Lake Khovsgol

Lake Khovsgol, known as the ‘Blue Pearl of Mongolia’, is an essential part of northern road trip itineraries. This ancient lake, estimated to be between 2 and 5 million years old, stretches 136 km in length and between 20-40 km in width, having depths reaching up to 260 m and containing nearly 70% of Mongolia’s fresh water. Visitors are captivated by Lake Khovsgol’s crystal clear waters and the picturesque surroundings of the Siberian Taiga forest.

Lake Khovsgol National Park protects a unique ecosystem where the Central Asian Steppe merges with the Siberian Taiga, featuring a rich diversity of approximately 800 species of trees and plants. The park is a hub for a range of outdoor activities, such as:

  • Sightseeing nature excursions

  • Camping

  • Hiking

  • Climbing

  • Horse riding

  • Biking

  • Boating

  • Kayaking

Here, you can also enjoy guided horse treks, scenic boat tours, and personal exploration of the lake.

Altai Mountains

The Altai Mountains are another must-visit destination on your Mongolia self-drive adventure. The Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, located in the Mongolian Altai Mountains, is famous for its surrounding mountains, which include:

  • Its five highest peaks

  • The extensive Potanin glacier

  • Numerous beautiful lakes, such as Khoton, Khurgan, and Dayan, all nestled amidst the snow-capped mountains.

The park is an assembly of natural splendors and historical sites, including:

  • Ancient rock carvings that are listed as UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites

  • Enigmatic stone men

  • A collection of about 10,000 ancient petroglyphs

  • Stone human statues that trace back thousands of years of tribal history within the Mongolian Altai.

The area is ethnically diverse and is home to Kazakh, Tuva, and Uriankhai people, who preserve their rich nomadic heritage and lifestyle.

Navigating Mongolia’s Road Conditions

Off-road track in Mongolia with rugged terrain

While navigating Mongolia’s roads may present a challenge, thorough preparation and proficient driving skills can make it a thrilling experience. The most accessible driving conditions in Mongolia are during the shoulder seasons of May-June and September, or in the winter when less waterlogging occurs due to ground freezing.

It’s crucial to have a reliable GPS device and a backup physical map or offline map, in case of technology failure.

Highways and Paved Roads

Given the variable quality of Mongolia’s main highways, drivers may need to recalibrate their expectations compared to Western European road standards. Due to the variable conditions of highways, drivers are advised to drive cautiously and be prepared for stretches of roads that may be in poor condition.

Off-Road Tracks

For those with a taste for adventure, off-road driving can be an exciting part of the journey. However, it does require certain skills and equipment. Ensure you have the following items for off-road challenges:

  • Comprehensive tool kit

  • Spare tire

  • Tow rope

  • Sand anchor

  • Mud and sand mats

  • Car jack

  • Other vehicle recovery items

Also, include essential maintenance items like motor oil, windscreen cleaner, torch or flashlight, spade, compressor or pump, tire repair kit, and a pressure gauge for tires.

Petrol Stations and Vehicle Maintenance

In Mongolia, travelers should:

  • Fill up their fuel tank regularly, preferably when it is two-thirds full, to prevent running out of fuel in remote areas.

  • Every small village typically has at least one petrol station; diesel is available at all gas stations, including those that cater to foreigners.

  • It’s crucial to purchase diesel when available, as it is not present at all locations in the countryside, and the next station may be up to 200 kilometers away.

Fuel payment is made before pumping, akin to the Russian system for fuel payment. Travelers are advised to carry cash for fuel purchases, as card transactions may not be possible due to electricity outages. After driving off-road, it’s essential to check the vehicle for damages, clean it properly, and adjust tire pressure for returning to paved roads.

Staying Safe and Responsible

Waste disposal area in a remote Mongolian location

While traveling in Mongolia is a thrilling experience, prioritizing personal safety and health is paramount. Renters are responsible for their own health and any costs related to treatments or injuries incurred during the trip and are required to sign a liability waiver.

Travel demands common sense and patience, a positive mindset, and communication of your planned itinerary and expected arrival times to someone.

Waste Disposal

To keep Mongolia clean, travelers should:

  • Carry enough trash bags to collect their waste

  • Dispose of it responsibly in towns or cities, rather than in the wilderness

  • Use reusable and biodegradable bags to help reduce plastic pollution during the self-drive adventure.

When making camp fire, ensure they are kept small, fully extinguished after use, and be mindful of local regulations, especially in national parks or during forest fire seasons.

Respecting Local Customs

When visiting Mongolia, honoring local customs is vital. When visiting Mongolian neighbors or invited into a ger, bring small gifts or some money to show appreciation for their hospitality. Visitors should always accept and pretend to taste the tea, food, or dairy products offered, as refusing can be considered rude.

In a Mongolian ger, crossing legs (for women), whistling inside, standing on the threshold, and sleeping with feet toward the door are to be avoided as a sign of respect.

Wildlife Encounters

Mongolia is home to a variety of mammals, including the Gobi Bear in the Gobi Desert and species like argali sheep and brown bears near Lake Khovsgol. To prevent attracting wildlife, campers should pack food securely, make noise to deter predators like bears and wolves, and know how to remain calm during encounters.

Maintaining safe distances from wildlife is crucial in Mongolia, particularly in rural areas where medical services are sparse.

Summary

As we wrap up this guide, we hope you now have a greater understanding of what a Mongolia self-drive adventure entails. From planning your journey, immersing yourself in the nomadic lifestyle, discovering natural wonders, navigating challenging road conditions, to staying safe and responsible, each aspect contributes to a unique and enriching experience. Mongolia invites you to explore its vast landscapes, experience its rich culture, and discover its natural wonders.

Your Mongolia self-drive adventure awaits. With the right preparation and mindset, you’re set to embark on a journey that promises unforgettable experiences and awe-inspiring sights. Let the journey of a lifetime begin!

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • Can tourists drive in Mongolia?

    Yes, tourists can drive in Mongolia by obtaining an International Driving License or International Driver’s Permit. Enjoy the beautiful Mongolian landscape!

  • Can you travel alone in Mongolia?

    Yes, you can definitely travel alone in Mongolia. The country is known for its immense beauty and hospitable culture, making it a great destination for solo travelers.

  • Is Mongolia left hand drive?

    Yes, Mongolia is left-hand drive, as drivers sit on the left-hand side of the car when driving on the right side of the road due to the import of second-hand cars from Japan.

  • How do you get around in Mongolia?

    The best ways to get around in Mongolia are renting a 4WD, self-driving for experienced adventurers, traveling by horse, camel, or yak, taking buses for a slow travel experience, and considering flying if heading out west. All these options offer unique ways to explore the country.

  • Can I camp anywhere in Mongolia?

    Yes, wild camping is allowed almost everywhere in Mongolia due to the everyman’s right, but it’s important to avoid placing your tent under trees to ensure safety during storms.

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