Mongolia Expat Country Guide
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
Mongolia is a rugged adventure destination; land bequeathed with vast steppes, towering mountains and crystal clear lakes, and it is this true wilderness that many find so appealing.
For the majority of the 20th century, Mongolia was sealed off from the world; seemingly so distant that many considered it to be a mystic land that was lost years ago. The 21st century has been the polar opposite, with Mongolia opening up to the world, and both its own citizens leaving and outsiders arriving for business and travel opportunities.
Visas are relatively easy to acquire; a handful of nationals won’t even require one. Authorities see tourism as a key growth sector of the Mongolian economy and an important revenue earner for local communities. Despite the warm welcome you will receive, Mongolia is not a pleasure cruise. This is still a developing country with rudimentary infrastructure and mostly basic facilities outside the capital.
For those wishing to envelop themselves in a rich tapestry of nomadic traditions and remote wilderness, there can be no place as tempting….
Mongolia is also known as ‘Land of Eternal Blue Sky’ due to the country having over 250 sunny days a year, but don’t let this lull you into a false sense of security. Most of Mongolia is hot in the summer, with the Gobi Desert in the south boasting temperatures of over 50°C.
However, when winter comes, Mongolia comes under the influence of the Siberian Anticyclone. Extreme cold, of around -30°C, is delivered from neighbouring Siberia and collects in the valleys and low basins of Mongolia; causing deadly freezing temperatures.
It is actually warmer to reside on the side of a mountain during the Mongolia winter as they benefit from temperature inversion; temperature increasing with altitude.
Regrettably, Mongolia is often subject to harsh climatic conditions known as “zud”. Zud is a Mongolian word, used to describe particularly severe winters in which large numbers of livestock perish due to starvation and the cold. With the economy of Mongolia being heavily dependent on pastoral farming, harsh zuds can cause economic crisis and food security issues in the country.
There are five different types of zud:
- Tsagaan (white) zud occurs after heavy snowfall that prevents livestock from reaching grass and this is a serious disaster that causes numerous deaths.
- Khar (black) is synonymous with the Gobi Desert region of Mongolia. The result of this zud is suffering in both humans and animals due to lack of snowfall, and thus lack of water, leading to no grazing areas germinating.
- Tumer (iron) results from a short wintertime warming, followed by a return to sub-freezing temperatures. Thesnow melts and then freezes again, creating an impenetrable ice-cover that prevents livestock from grazing.
- Khuiten (cold) zud occurs when temperature drops to very low levels for several days. The cold temperature and the strong winds prevent livestock from grazing; the animals have to use most of their energy to keep warm.
- Khavsarsan (combined) zud is a combination of any of the above.
The culture of Mongolia is heavily influenced by the Mongol way of life. The nomadic life is still practised in the rural areas of the country. Nomads follow a seasonal routine, raising and breeding the 5 main types of stock – goat, sheep, cattle, camel, horse – and migrating from place to place following paths of old.
Many nomads live in a portable dwelling called a ger, which is a tent-like structure, made from a wooden frame, and covered in felt and canvas to retain heat and prevent leakage during rain.
Mongolians have followed Buddhism since the 16th century, when the Mongolian King, Altan Khan, was converted by Tibetan lamas. Mongolians follow Tibetan Buddhist teachings; the body of religious Buddhist doctrine and institutions characteristic of Tibet and the Himalayan region. Today, Mongolia still embraces its Buddhist heritage. Monasteries are being restored, and are once again crowded with worshippers. The Dalai Lama is an enormously popular figure and has visited the country several times. For many Mongolians, the practice of Buddhism is flavoured with traces of Shamanism, an even more ancient spirituality.
Shamanism goes back in Mongolian history long before Genghis Khan’s time, but it was Ghengis Khan that made it into such a fundamental part of the Mongolian tradition. At that time the Mongolians were worshipping ‘Hoh Tenger’ (blue skies).
According to this belief the skies are the father, and the earth is the mother of all beings in the universe. As a civilization totally dependent on the forces of nature, the Mongolians worshipped the various elements of nature, praying to their ancestors who they believed had transformed into mythical spiritual animals to provide them with good weather, health and success. Though oppressed during communist times, Shamanism is still practiced in Mongolia. People requiring help will approach a Shaman for a blessing or cure, and even to get hints about their future.
Roughly 90% of Mongolian people are Buddhist, with Christianity, Shamanism and Islam making up the remaining 10%.
Traditional music is a much cherished jewel of Mongolian life. Mongolia throat singing is rarely found anywhere else in the world and is one of the most ancient genres of Mongolian music art; also known as Urtiin duu.
Another popular art form of Mongolia is the playing of the Morin Khuur, the Horse Headed Fiddle. It is used in many forms of traditional music and is played by people of all ages.
For Mongolian people, wrestling, archery and horseracing are rooted in the mists of antiquity and continue to be very popular sports today; often referred to as the Three Games of Men. The Nadaam Festival is an annual event (around mid-July) and is a celebration of these country-loved sports. With little limitation on age or gender when it comes to competing, the festivities are characteristically accompanied by dancing and singing.
The ‘white moon’ celebrations (Tsagaan Sar) are celebrated at the Lunar New Year. It is a tradition to climb a sacred mountain on the first day of the New Year, to welcome the first morning of the year on the mountain peak. On the three following days, Mongolians visit their relatives and friends, and enjoy traditional food and drink.
The Mongolian language is the official language of Mongolia. It belongs to the Ural-Altaic language family, which includes Kazakh, Turkish, Korean and Finnish. Today more than 10 million people speak Mongolian.
In Mongolia, the Khalkha dialect, written in Cyrillic, is predominant. The classical Mongolian script, also known as Uyghurjin, was the first writing system created specifically for the Mongolian language, and was the most successful until the introduction of Cyrillic in 1946.
Camels and yaks are traditional and environmentally-friendly ways of getting around Mongolia. Camels are strong beasts, able to carry the weight of an average-sized sumo wrestler. At Ongin Khiid and Khongory Els, camel and yak treks can be arranged – although many travel agencies have this included in their packages. Furthermore, horses are also a popular option for travel, particularly in the Gobi Desert region.
The Trans-Mongolian Railway follows an ancient portion of the 2,215 kilometre route from China to Russia by way of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. The majority of transportation via rail is mostly freight, but passenger services do run.
Motorcycles are one of the most popular modes of transport in Mongolia and are often adopted by herdsmen (instead of a horse) to roundup livestock. Many travellers revel in the vast empty steppe and endless dirt roads of Mongolia, and claim it to be one of the last heavens for off-road motorcycling. However, the roads can often be demanding for a vehicle with two wheels and there are no direction signs or luxuries such as bridges over rivers.
Jeeps are another popular option favoured by Mongolian citizens. However, it is best to abolish images of Land Rovers and modern vehicles; the Jeeps in Mongolia are Russian, heavy and tank-like. Despite jeep journeys often being long, hard, bumpy and hot – travellers and Mongolians alike favour them for long-distance driving. They represent a respite from the blistering summer sun which is not an indulgence found with a yak, camel, horse or motorcycle.
Aside from a brief paved infrastructure around capital city Ulaanbaatar, the roads are nothing but dirt tracks. Buses are used by Mongolians, who are aren’t phased by cramped conditions and hours of uncomfortable travel from and to different areas of the country.
For long distance journeys, tickets for bus services can be purchased 2 days in advance. If a ticket is available on the day of travel, it will often attract a higher fare – travellers beware. Try to arrive at least 1 hour early for your scheduled journey as buses depart when they are full, not at the allotted departure time. It is extremely unlikely that anybody at the bus station will speak any English whatsoever. Because of this, it will sometimes be necessary to employ a translator, or to buy tickets from a guesthouse or hostel.
The waterways of Mongolia are frozen for much of the year, generally thawing in May and freezing again during September. Including these ‘touch and go’ months, the waterways are only accessible for 5 months of the year, which is perhaps the reason they are seldom used.
Lake Khuvsgol is the only real exception, and is presently the most commonly used waterway in the whole of Mongolia. Charter boats are available for hire if you wish to sail upon its crystal clear waters. Little traffic passes on the other rivers and lakes of Mongolia, for either freight or passenger.
Healthcare is readily available in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, whereas health services in rural areas are either poor or non-existent, so it is best to go prepared or with a tour guide who will know what to do in crisis situations and to take out a travel insurance policy. Mongolian citizens are unlikely to know the best place to go for any medical enquiries, so it is a best to seek advice from a reputable travel agency, top-end hotel or, ideally, your embassy.
Consultations with doctors usually cost around £3.50, although SOS Medica (a safe clinic in Ulaanbaatar with Wester doctors) charge around £134. The majority of basic drugs are available without prescription, but be warned that Western medicine is lacking, and the majority of medicines are imported from China or Russia, and thus packaging will not be in English.
Before travelling to Mongolia, it is advisable to retrieve an International Certificate of Vaccination; this will list all the jabs you receive before you go abroad and The World Health Organisation recommend the following:
- Adult diphtheria and tetanus
- Hepatitis A and B
- Measles, Mumps & Rubella
The Mongolian unit of currency is the tögrög (T) and comes in notes from T1 to T20,000, which is the most valuable note and worth around £8.
Banks and exchange offices in Ulaanbataar and banks in provincial centres will change money with ease into tögrög. For those wishing to cash travellers cheques in Mongolia, this can only be achieved at the Trade & Developments Bank and Golomt Banks in the capital, and there is usually a 2% fee attached. Getting cheques cashed outside of Ulaanbataar cannot be guaranteed.
When paying out large sums of money (to hotels, tour operators and sometimes airlines), its fine to use either US dollars or tögrög; the merchant will act as a moneychanger, though the rate will not generally be very good. Other forms of currency aren’t usually accepted, although the euro is probably the next best. Cash offers the best exchange rates and you won’t be paying any commission charge, but for security purposes you can also use debit cards.
Massive reforms have taken place in Mongolia through the development of its education system. Under the communist regime, the education system echoed the Soviet system and included a transition from Mongolian script to the Cyrillic alphabet.
Mongolia provides state-financed education (which is mandatory) for ages 8 to 15. After completing these compulsory levels, students have the option to study for a further 2 to 3 years in the pursuit of higher education. This is difficult for children living in rural areas; upper schools are sparse and many often leave home and stay in hostels whilst finishing their education.
For expat students, international schools can be the perfect solution in Mongolia. International schools provide similar standards of schooling around the globe, providing for an easy transition between schools whether they are in Dubai or Japan.
International schools tend to follow a curriculum model from the US, UK or France and most primary education is taught in English. For those seeking success, schools also provide internationally accepted accreditation such as the International Baccalaureate.
Admission and enrolment procedures vary from school to school and space is often limited; preference is often questionably given to students based on nationality. Tuition tends to have a hefty price-tag but offers high standards of learning, smaller class sizes, first-rate facilities and extracurricular activities. Boarding facilities are available at some international schools, but most just provide day classes.
Food & Drink
Due to the extreme continental climate in Mongolia, food primarily comprises of meat, dairy products and animal fats. Spices and vegetables are served, but in limitation, and because of the country’s history with China and Russia, many traditional meals are influenced by the culture of these countries.
Mongolian food is derived from nomadic traditions and raising cattle, sheep, horses and yaks to slaughter for meat is commonplace. Meat is usually cooked as part of a soup with dumplings and this, teamed with a large percentage of animal fat in Mongolian diets, helps the natives to withstand the cold and also provide the calories needed for outdoor work.
Milk and cream is derived from these animals too, and used to make a plethora of beverages and cheeses. Milk, in Mongolian culture, is a symbol of purity, kindness and unselfishness, which is why suutei tasai (milk tea) is a traditional Mongolian beverage.
Milk tea is made by pouring cold water into a kettle, together with a pinch of salt, crushed green tea and milk. Once the tea is boiled, the mixture is put through a tea strainer to remove the crushed tea. Milk tea has many different tastes, depending on the province you visit. Some people prefer to drink it with a bit more salt and others prefer to drink it with less.
Another popular beverage, and the national drink of Mongolia is airag; with some Mongolian people rumoured to drink 3 litres in just one go! With alcoholic content of 7%, it is enjoyed mostly in the summer months and is served at weddings, festivals, and other special events. The tastiest versions of this drink originates from the Arkhangai, Bulgan and Ovorkhangai provinces. It reputedly improves pathogenic microbes in your body and ensures good health if consumed in moderation.
Meat-based offerings from traditional Mongolian cooking include horhog, baking the meat of sheep and serving with vegetables and a little seasoning. Another favourite is boodog, often enjoyed by groups of people and is a very popular staple for outdoor activities or camping. It is essentially Mongolia’s answer to barbequing, except the meat is cooked from the inside to the outside of the animal (usually a goat or marmot) using scalding hot stones.
Mongolia, on the surface, seems like a spiritual destination, but it has its fair share of foes too.
Crime in Ulaanbaatar, and throughout Mongolia, has sharply increased in recent years. Cases of serious crimes such as vehicle thefts have a sky-rocketed, and crimes against foreigners have increased in in line with visitor numbers.
There are no regions recognized as especially dangerous or restricted in Mongolia. However, due to extreme weather and the absence of roads in most of rural Mongolia, travellers are urged to use GPS systems and to avoid traveling outside of Ulaanbaatar or other city centres after dark. Driving at night is extremely dangerous outside of Ulaanbaatar; due to poor road conditions, reduced visibility, drunk drivers, harsh winter weather, and limited emergency response services.
Driving in Ulaanbaatar is hectic and dangerous. The annual increase in the number of motor vehicles far exceeds the pace at which new, improved roads are brought into service, a situation that has given Ulaanbaatar some of the worst traffic jams in the world. Mongolia may be the only country in the world that has a high proportion of right-hand-drive motor vehicles navigating uniformly right-lane-drive roadways, which leads to a very high occurrence of head-on collisions on high-speed, two-lane roadways outside congested Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolian drivers often disregard traffic laws and drive wherever there is an opening in traffic, even if that means jeopardising the safety of other drivers. This haphazard style of urban driving leads to very frequent, but often minor, accidents.
Furthermore, despite a zero-tolerance law for drinking and driving, drunk drivers are a serious threat with alcohol-related accidents sharply increasing during holiday periods, especially during end of year celebrations.
Places to Visit
Despite the increasing growth of international travel to Mongolia, some of the best places to visit are mostly untouched by hordes of travellers. The destination is perfect for those in search of a distinctive combination of nomadic culture and primordial landscapes, which are not found anywhere else in the world.
Chinggis Square, in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar, is a great place to visit. The city is a sunny, open and peaceful place, where you can see the contrast of modern Mongolian life against traditional Mongolian routines. Hence, while the wide streets contain modern cars, it is common to see cattle and horsemen sharing the streets with you as well.
Terelj National Park
The national park is a popular destination for travellers to Mongolia, mainly because of its rich natural beauty, remarkable rock formations and forested mountains. Some of the key highlights in this place include the Aryabal meditation temple and Turtle Rock. In the summer months, visitors can take part in bird watching, rock climbing, hiking and horseback riding.
Lake Khövsgöl is known for being one of the clearest lakes in the whole world. It is 36 kilometres wide, 136 kilometers long, and 262 meters deep. The lake is bordered by magnificent mountains covered in larch forests and thick pine, where some unique wildlife flourishes. This is where you will see some reindeer breeders living in the forests near the lake, living in traditional ger.
Orkhon Valley is a real-life interpretation of what your mind pictures when you envisage Mongolia. This cultural landscape has a rich history and it represents the traditions of nomadic pastoral communities spanning over two millennia. If you want to learn about the culture of the local people and understand their traditions, this is definitely the place to visit.
Also referred to as the ‘Monastery of Tranquil Felicity’, Amarbayasgalant Monastery is one of the three largest Buddhist monastic centres in Mongolia and represents the great craftsmanship and creative work of the 17th century. With most of the old monasteries of Mongolia having been destroyed, restoration of this particular monastery was important to help preserve the history of this area.
Coined as the most beautiful but least travelled place, Western Mongolia is a rich tapestry of rare wild animals, ethnic communities and snow-capped majestic mountains. The local Kazakh people are known for their generosity and hospitality. Climbing to the peak of Mount Khulten is a must when visiting, along with watching the nomadic eagle hunters.