7 things I learnt in Mongolia

When Sue and I were planning our Trans-Mongolian adventure, it was the ‘Mongolian’ part of the trip that excited me the most. Despite this, I didn’t really know what to expect. Here are a few Mongolian facts and tales of adventure that I learnt along the way (for Mongolian visa details and what to do when your passport is stolen, make sure you read Sue’s guest post). To book this for yourself, make sure you read my article about how to book the Trans-Siberian.

1. Genghis Khan (Chinnggis Khan) is not always considered a villain

Genghis Khan

While traditional historical accounts of Genghis Khan have portrayed him as a violent villain, to Mongolians he is a hero who united the nomadic Mongol tribes and founded the Mongolian empire (just ignore the estimated 40 million people, or 11% of the global population who he killed in the process).

While he wasn’t too tolerant of communities not succumbing to his rule, Mongolian history shows that he was however very tolerant of different religions. His newly conquered territory included people with diverse religious backgrounds including Christians, Muslims and Buddhists as well as the shamanistic belief system.

In order to communicate across his vast empire, Khan developed a mounted courier system, the Yam, which involved a series of post houses which provided a rest stop for riders every few miles. These riders carried an early form of the passport, paizi, which was a metal plaque worn around the neck providing details about the goods they could transport as well as providing tax exemptions for the riders.

2. You can put too much wood in a wood-fire heater

Mongolian Ger

A traditional Mongolian home, ger, is a portable, round tent made from wood with a felt or animal skin cover. At the centre of the ger is a hearth. This fire symbolises ties with family ancestors and should only burn wood and dung – anything else is an insult to the master of the house.

Mongolian winters are cold. With the fire burning, the ger is incredibly warm, however when the fire goes out around 4am, you will wake up shivering. On our last night we were sick of the cold so we decided to fill the hearth with most of our wood in the hope that it would burn longer.

Fail. It was so hot that we had to open the door while we stood in the snow outside sweating. The fire only got hotter and I was actually worried we would accidentally burn down the ger. That night I lost sleep worrying about the heat rather than from the cold! And we still woke up freezing at 4am.

3. Ox carts are hilarious and a beautiful way to see Mongolia

Ox Cart Mongolia

Our bus stopped somewhere in the Terelj National Park just after nightfall as the snow began to fall. Our host met us with an ox cart and we gladly hopped on, anticipating the magical and romantic ride through the forest.

Before we even moved, the ox pooped. Flapping his tail and spraying it everywhere. Great start to 4 days without showers… It was pitch black and snow was being blown into our eyes and despite our layers, the icy wind was managing to sneak in. As we got used to the bumps and holding on tightly so we didn’t bounce off, it actually became exciting and it was incredibly peaceful with the only sound being the ox snorting or his owner urging him forward.

Ox carts aren’t very fast and they need breaks quite regularly. The nomadic families who live in this area are very friendly and we were welcomed into two homes for tea on our journey to our first homestay. Despite not being able to communicate very well with each other, it wasn’t awkward and we loved the chance to meet lots of different families – some with children, some men working away from home, some couples – every family was different but on the whole they were friendly and welcoming.

4. A bear does shit in the woods

Icy Mongolia

We learned quickly to try to use the toilet before nightfall. I use the word ‘toilet’ loosely because you just pick a tree and settle down while the snow blows around.

There are lots of wild animals in the Terelj including endangered brown bears, boars, horses, birds and even a few rabbits and hares. These are all great to see during the daylight (we only saw horses, birds and rabbits), we didn’t want to risk getting caught by a bear in the middle of the night.

You also need to take a bag for your used toilet paper because there isn’t anywhere to dispose of it (especially not the fire in your ger), so you have to take it back to Ulaanbaatar. I recommend double zip-lock bagging it and then having a ‘scissor, paper, rock’ battle to determine who has to carry the bag for 5 days.

5. It’s great to get off the tourist trail

Shovelling hay

We liked going to a remote part of Terelj National Park far away from the tourist camps and experiencing what life is like for a modern day nomad. It is a life of contrasts. TV and solar power but no running water or toilets. You can ride a horse for hours without seeing another person and as the sun sets you will be treated to a blanket of thousands of stars brightening the nights sky.

6. The people are very friendly

Sue archery

Apart from one family, everyone we met in Mongolia was incredibly friendly and welcoming. We spent hours playing with the kids and going on walks and letting them show off their playground – the national park surrounding their ger.

We learnt to sew a phone cover using traditional methods. Well, we tried and then were making a mess of it so we watched as the Mum of the family made it look much more presentable. We shovelled hay into a pile… not sure what this achieved, but it was good exercise for a few hours. We practiced archery with very limited success – we won’t be a stand in for Katniss anytime soon. We ate traditional Mongolian food with each family including yaks milk, very milky tea, rice pudding, and stew. Yum!

Despite the language barrier, it was the people that we enjoyed most on our trip. My highlight was playing ankle bone with the old herder who picked us up from the bus stop on our first night while we ate delicious stew. He managed to explain the game to us and we had a great few hours playing and laughing together. Especially because Sue managed to lose every single time.

7. Mongolian scenery is spectacular

Mongolian landscape

I loved the wild, peaceful scenery. Travelling by horse or ox cart is a slow mode of transport and it lets you really take in your surroundings. A lot of the other tours drive you around the park in a 4×4 – yes you cover more ground, but how much do you actually see and experience?

We spent hours quietly riding through this giant countryside, watching birds fly and trying desperately to spot a bear. The size of the park means there is a huge variety of landcapes and the weather in Mongolia seems to vary a lot over relatively short distances. We went from barren snow plains on the first day, to riding through forests, before getting to our next homestay in a forest by a small stream in the bright sunshine. This park has it all.

I would love to see more of the landscapes in Mongolia. After watching this video about Western Mongolia from my friend Natasha at Artist Explores the World, I am already planning my next trip back to Mongolia to see the eagles. Take a look and I’m sure you will feel the same!

Mongolian lamb

My Mongolian lamb buddy

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30 Comments
Grassroots Nomad

Hi Amanda, carrying the used toilet paper was not the highlight of the trip, that’s for sure, but we did have lots of very scenic toilet breaks! I hope you are able to visit Mongolia soon! 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

It is worth it!! I would love to go back again for the Eagle Festival and Nadan 🙂

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highheelsandabackpack

Awesome post! Thanks for sharing 🙂 When I told people I was going to Mongolia, most people, even seasoned travelers looked at me blankly ha, so it’s so reassuring to hear how friendly the people are and how much you enjoyed the trip 🙂 !

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Grassroots Nomad

We even had locals calling our hostel for directions when we couldn’t find it! Are you combining it with the Trans-Siberian?

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Bailey K.

Wow, so interesting about Genghis Khan! And LOL, I love #5! I regularly go backcountry camping for weeks straight, so I can understand about all of that. 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

:S It is definitely something that you have to get used to, Bailey! Thanks for reading 🙂

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Live Learn Venture

So many animals — I love seeing local wildlife on my travels 🙂

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Patricia

What an amazing experience!! (okay, maybe not the carrying the toilet paper part). I love reading about your interaction with the locals. Also, your lamb buddy is adorable.

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Grassroots Nomad

He was so cute. I still haven’t eaten lamb either! It really was amazing (apart from the toilet paper) and I’m so glad i went

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Suma Jain

Lovely post!! Mongolia might not top on my travel list but would certainly love to visit it someday. The country overall is very fascinating. The ox cart experience sounds fun 🙂

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Hung Thai [Up Up and a Bear]

OMG Mongolia has been on my WANT list for approximately 1.45 millions years. I just love the vastness of the landscape there. I watched your friend’s video by the way and now I’m itching to go even more than ever! Staying in yurts in the middle of vast fields, living the simple life, and all of that – me want!

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Grassroots Nomad

Do it!!! If I went back I would definitely spend more time exploring the more remote parts of the country so make sure you give yourself enough time. I would also try to time it with the Eagle Hunting Festival. You will love it!

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Shayan Naveed

7 great reasons to go to Mangolia indeed. Ok, except for number 4 because I don’t know how I can manage going outdoor to do my business. I’d probably hold it in for the time I’m there hahah
Would love to see more pictures of the scenery though!

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Grassroots Nomad

Hi Shayan, yes the toilet situation was not my favourite! Your wish is my command! I will prepare a photo series of Mongolian scenery just for you 😀

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Grassroots Nomad

It really is great and not too many tourists at all. If you can, try to combine it with the Trans-Mongolian for the ultimate adventure!

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Amandas_Wanderlust

There is so much interesting info in this post. It sounds like you had an awesome time in Mongolia. I would so like to visit, especially after reading this. How cool to be collected on the ox cart. A great introduction to Mongolia. Thanks.

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Grassroots Nomad

Glad you liked it, Amanda! It was a great experience, particularly in the snow!

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Pinay Flying High

This is such a magnificent experience, definitely something different from the usual travel experiences I’ve ever read! So good that you didn’t burn the ger when you’ve put so many wood in the fire and may I ask who lost the rock, paper, scissors game for the ziplock of used toilet papers?:p

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Grassroots Nomad

Haha, we ended up sharing the burden! I really was terrified about burning down the ger – what an impression to leave behind about Australians! :S

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nycgingeronthego

History is an interesting thing. Many versions of the same story. I’m glad you got to experience this. It looks amazing! My friend has competed in the Mongol Derby and I am always amazed at the things I learn and see from his stories, and now yours. You are quite an adventurer! I’m not quite ready for my first toilettes vacation. Maybe one day.

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Grassroots Nomad

So true! I have read about the Mongol Derby and I would love to do that someday…. I just have to talk three other people into doing it with me!

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Grassroots Nomad

Luckily, on the Trans-Mongolian you have a lot of time to think about things! There isn’t internet or phone reception (most of the time), so you have time to just sit there and reflect and ponder the world 🙂

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G

Great post about Mongolia. It is is an incredible place, however that photo is not of Chinggis, it is Sukhbaatar.

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