We recently went on an 8-day, self-guided road trip in the Mongolian countryside. It was a unique and unforgettable travel experience that we highly recommend to travelers who are up for an adventure. After much research into guided tours — the primary way in which most tourists explore Mongolia — we decided that we would prefer the independence of a self-guided tour. Because we had difficulty finding information on the internet on how to plan a self-guided road trip (and many online sources even discouraged this mode of travel) this post will contain more logistical information and advice than our posts usually do. We hope these details might help out other travelers looking to plan a similar trip. If you aren’t so interested in Mongolian road trip logistics, don’t feel bad about scrolling down to the “Highlights” section.
Step 1: Choosing the Car Rental Service
Of course, the first thing you need for a road trip is a car. We researched two car rental services that cater to independent tourists traveling in Mongolia: Sixt and Drive Mongolia. Sixt is a typical global car rental company and is German-owned. Sixt has a wide range of cars to choose from but are limited in the number of kilometers you can drive for free, after which a hefty per kilometer fee is applied. Even so, a Russian 4WD SUV (UAZ Patriot), with 1200 free kilometers included, was less than $80 per day. Drive Mongolia is more specialized for self-guided off-road adventures. Along with the car they provide camping gear, cooking equipment, two spare tires, and tools. Drive Mongolia quoted us $190 per day for a Toyota Land Cruiser with unlimited mileage. We are cheapskates, so we went with Sixt.
Overall our experience dealing with Sixt was adequate: not too terrible, not too amazing. The local Sixt representative was responsive over the phone, which we found reassuring in case something went wrong with the car. Worth noting if you choose to go with Sixt, is that they can give you a much lower per/km rate if you request the extra kilometers in advance. We only found out about this when we went to pick up the car. They offered us the extra kilometers at roughly $0.40/km, a significantly lower rate than the $0.95/km in our original contract. Had we known this earlier, we might have decided on a more ambitious route, but driving in Mongolia is tiring so perhaps it was all for the best.
Step 2: Choosing the Car
Our group size was three people, and we also carried some camping gear and equipment. We wanted the cheapest option that could comfortably fit all of us and had decent off-road capabilities. We ended up choosing a Russian UAZ Patriot, left-hand drive, manual transmission. When we picked up the car, it was basically brand new — the engine only had 10,000 km on it. The car was factory-standard, so it didn’t have any bells and whistles (or a sound system… or a functional lock on the trunk), but mechanically it worked fine, and it never broke down. However, the parts on the interior of the car were incredibly fragile and poor quality. The back door needed to be slammed with your shoulder to even open, the shifter knob continuously popped off, the weather stripping fell out of its groove with the lightest touch. However, the engine was reliable, the 4WD was strong, and the suspension was decent. We had no issues with the car traversing the rough terrain. As with all things, you get what you pay for, and we thought the car was more than sufficient considering we were trying to save money.
Step 3: Supplies and Equipment
We planned to stay in tourist gers most nights, but we needed to have a full set of camping equipment to last us several days if the car broke down in the middle of nowhere. We ended up renting sleeping bags and ground pads for $1/day each from a local hostel (Lotus Guesthouse). Before arriving in Mongolia, we inquired with several guesthouses about renting us a tent, and most of them were charging $10/day. After some searching, we discovered that the State Department Store in Ulaanbaatar (UB) sells brand new tents for $60-70, so we ended up just buying one and donating it to our hostel (UB Guesthouse) when we left, rather than paying more for a rental.
Thanks to Reid, who flew from California to meet us, we already had a camp stove and all our cooking gear. We bought fuel from one of the outdoor stores in town (Seven Summits). The day before we left, we went to the big grocery store on the ground floor of the State Department Store and bought enough food for breakfast, lunch, and the occasional dinner. We planned on paying for meals at the tourist ger camps roughly 50% of the time.
Other than that, we bought a map and some miscellaneous quality of life stuff like a Bluetooth speaker to compensate for the lack of music in the car. But, at some point that broke too, so we made do with our metal cooking pot to amplify the speakers on our phones.
Step 4: Choosing our Route
We initially intended to go to the Gobi Desert. However, once we calculated out our route and factored in the charge for extra kilometers, we thought it would have cost us another $500! We later learned that it actually would have cost us much less for the extra kilometers but by that point we had already decided on a different route. We choose a loop around central Mongolia, which is dominated by green steppe landscape instead of desert. The difference in distance was 1300 km going to central Mongolia versus 1700 km going to the Gobi. In the end, we went over the Sixt kilometer limit by about 100 km, which we ended up paying $40 for. (Or so we think, the dashboard display actually broke on our fourth day, so we couldn’t track our mileage after that point.)
Our route exceeded expectations in every way and although we missed out on the Gobi Desert, we can always come back for another road trip. Mongolia is so unique and beautiful that you can’t go wrong no matter which direction you choose.
Below is our route and where we stayed each night…
Accommodation and Food
Once we were on the road, we quickly realized that good quality accommodation was plentiful and affordable. Even though most ger camps didn’t speak any English (or Russian) they understood we wanted a ger for the night and were able to give us a price. Almost all offered meals, but we preferred to cook, because it was cheaper and we had packed a lot of food. Most gers came with a wood stove and firewood that not only kept the ger warm at night, but provided an excellent cooking surface. Wi-Fi and reliable electricity are rare, so we would recommend bring a battery pack to keep your phone charged.
Due to the availability of tourist gers, we only camped one night. We had fun, but it was also pretty cold. In Mongolia, you are free to camp anywhere you want, except for National Parks, so this is a good option if you are well-equipped for it and want to save money.
Driving in UB
Hands down, the worst driving experience of the entire trip was getting in/out of Ulaanbaatar. Traffic in UB is a nightmare, and drivers are all over the road. Also, driving a jeep with a manual transmission when you are stop/starting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is no fun. Once you clear the urban sprawl, which can take more than one hour from the downtown center, the Mongolian countryside opens up and it is smooth sailing. It’s a feeling of true freedom to know that you can drive in any direction you desire for as long as your desire, even if you realistically stick to the dirt roads most of the time.
Mongolia SIM Card
We definitely recommend getting a Mongolian SIM card in UB before you set out on your road trip. We were surprised how often we had good service and internet, even in the middle of nowhere.
Navigation (what3words + maps.me)
Our system of navigation worked very smoothly, and we will describe it in detail here. First, Mongolia uses a very interesting “address” system called what3words. You can read more about it here. Essentially, every 3 meter x 3 meter square in the world has a unique string of three words associated with it, for example thorny.blackened.distasteful might be the unique address of a gas station in Kharkhorin. The latest edition of Lonely Planet Mongolia has the what3words addresses for each major tourist site and ger camp. There is an app you need to download to get what3words on your phone. You should also have maps.me on your phone, as most travelers will tell you it is the best offline map available for exploring off-the-beaten-path destinations. Here is how we set up GPS navigation on our phones each day to get to our destination without the need for any cell service.
Step 1 – Decide where you are going that day, and look up the what3words address.
Step 2 – Type in the what3words address in the what3words app, then select “Navigate here”.
Step 3 – Select “Open with…” maps.me.
Step 4 – A bookmark should appear with your destination in maps.me. Use the navigate to feature in maps.me to pull up real time driving directions to the pin.
Using this system, we were able to get around without any problems in the countryside, and the navigation can be done completely offline once you have the apps installed. Just make sure to download the Mongolia maps.me layer before you leave service or Wi-Fi. At times the “road” may not be clear because there are 5 or 6 different sets of tire tracks going in the same direction, but if you stick generally to the directions on maps.me you should be fine. The good news is that if you take a wrong turn you can just off-road back to where you were supposed to be.
Fortunately, the weather was dry the whole time, so we had no issues getting stuck in the mud. However, the roads were very bumpy and rocky at times. We didn’t get any flat tires, but one had a slow leak which thankfully didn’t cause us any real problems. Some of the roads in the countryside were precariously sloped along the hillside, and at times it felt like the car would be on the verge of tipping. We developed a system of shouting YAK! if we needed everybody to lean to the left, or GOAT! If we needed everyone to lean to the right. Most likely the car was in no danger of rolling, but it made us feel safer.
On our route, river crossings were numerous. Looking back, none of the crossings were too dangerous, but it can be nerve wracking driving the rental car through a river of unknown depth when you don’t have any local experience. We recommend having someone walk across to check the depth or asking the locals for advice.
One thing you will definitely see on your road trip, much more often than human beings, is animals. Flocks of sheep, goats, cows, horses, camels, and yaks roam the countryside freely. Be careful when driving around the animals because sometimes they can jump across the road unexpectedly or be sleeping in the middle of the road. Also, a general rule of thumb for safety is to get to your destination before dark and don’t drive at night.
A note on average driving speed when planning your route. We found that we averaged about 20 km/h in the countryside, and 60 km/h on the highway. While it’s true that you can drive faster much of the time, realistically, if you include stopping for herds of animals, getting lost, etc. you will average a little bit slower. For example, if the map says the distance between point A and B is 100 km in the remote countryside, factor in 5 hours of driving to get there.
Fortunately, we had very little car trouble. Gas stations were plentiful on the main roads, just make sure you tell them which grade of fuel you need. The attendants don’t speak English, but you can get by with the usual gesture-and-point method. We did have a slow leak in one of our tires so whenever we came to a relatively large town, we would go to a tire shop to have it topped off. Again, they don’t speak English but if you point at the deflated tire, they will know what to do.
Khogno Khan Uul Nature Reserve
Khogno Khan Uul Nature Reserve was our first stop out of UB. Here you can see a variety of different terrains such as sand dunes, steppe, mountains and rivers. The reserve is famous for Mongol Els, the only sand dunes in central Mongolia, and the ruins of a Buddhist monastery called Ovgon Khiid. We liked this spot so much we spent our last night here too!
Those who have visited sand dunes in the Gobi may not be impressed by the Mongol Els dunes, but given that we had no comparison to make, we thought they were awesome! Plus, you can ride a camel! The rocky, mountainous terrain is great for rock scrambling and sunset views. There is no shortage of good accommodation in the park and access is easy to all the popular sights.
A surprisingly highlight for us was Ovgon Khiid, the ruins of a 17th century monastery. The remains of the buildings are intact enough to picture what it was once like, and it’s only a 2-kilometer hike from the “road” to reach it.
Road from Kharkhorin to Orkhon Falls
This was probably our favorite driving experience of the trip. You get to experience beautiful steppe scenery with mountains and rivers. On the way we hardly saw anyone else. We even randomly stumbled upon a polo match going on in the middle of the steppe. The road was clear and relatively smooth.
Orkhon Falls is a spectacular waterfall, which seems to appear out of nowhere on the relatively flat terrain. Fortunately, we got to see it when the water level was high.
One of our favorite activities was pulling off the main road and driving to a scenic spot on a hillside or by a river to have a picnic lunch. One of the great things about road tripping in Mongolia is that if you see a cool looking place off in the distance, you can just drive straight there! Every day we’d be on the lookout for a remote and scenic spot to have lunch and take a little nap.
Sleeping in Gers
We had no issue adjusting to the ger lifestyle in Mongolia! Each night we warmed up by the stove, enjoyed a beer or some Chinggis Khan vodka, played cards, listened to music, and read our books before bed. It was a very comfortable way to “camp-out” in the countryside. The three of us were always able to share the same ger, which was a lot of fun.
Tsenkher Hot Springs
Tsenkher Hot Springs was quite enjoyable, despite the many complaints on the internet we found. We stayed at Khangai Resort and paid $20/person for a ger and full access to the springs. The bathing pools were hot and perched up on a hill so they overlooked the valley.
Family Guesthouse Ger Camp in Kharkhorin
Mongolian towns are not a major tourist draw, which made us all the more surprised to find Family Guesthouse, a fabulous ger camp in Kharkhorin. The accommodations were a great value, a few of the staff spoke English, and it was a nice place to rest. The camp has electricity, Wi-Fi, and hot showers. The nightly rate of $10/person includes dinner and breakfast which was simple but tasty. It is close to the Erdene Zuu Khiid, the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, and a food market.
Rosewood and Luna Blanca in UB
Two good restaurants to celebrate your safe return to UB are Luna Blanca and Rosewood. Luna Blanca has delicious vegan food and is good for lunch. Rosewood is a very popular, more upscale Italian restaurant in UB. The food is delicious, the prices are affordable, and it is a nice place to experience fine dining at an affordable price. We hadn’t eaten any cheese in months, so eating at Rosewood was a dream come true for us.
Including every expense from start to finish, our trip cost $60/person/day for an 8-day trip. This was over our typical daily budget limit of $50/person/day, but totally worth it. We aim to make it up by living cheaply over the next few months. Despite going into it thinking we could plan a trip that was cheaper than the guided tours, what we ultimately paid turned out to be similar to the cost of a guided all-inclusive tour with a guesthouse. However, the adventure and freedom of planning our own off-road adventure was exactly what we wanted and looking back we wouldn’t change a thing. We are already thinking about returning to do a similar trip in the Gobi Desert one day.