Backpacking In Mongolia Solo
Of all my solo backpacking travels, Mongolia ranks almost on the top of the list for being the most difficult place to travel through as a single female. Kyrgyzstan comes a close second.
In Mongolia, vehicle breakdowns and getting stuck in the mud is a daily occurrence. Baths are non-existent in the typical Mongolian household. Nothing leaves or starts on time. The list goes on.
Having said that, entering these vast lands of only 3 million people over 1.566 million km² rewards you with an inexplicable feeling of space. Where the eye can see the horizon in all directions in some places, and the moon rising and sunsets are never obscured.
I don’t know of anywhere in the world just like Mongolia.
Crossing the border into Mongolia
There are multiple entry points into Mongolia. None of them are easy.
For Singaporeans, it makes the most sense to transit through China as we can visit the country for up to 15 days without a visa. And unless your pockets are lined with wads of cash, you can throw the romantic Trans-Siberian Railway idea out the window, and take the local train instead from Inner to Outer Mongolia.
Crossing the China-Mongolia border involves getting to the city of Erlian, where there is an overnight train operating daily to Ulaanbaatar. I travelled via plane from Beijing, which also has overnight bus connections to Erlian.
2 nights in the border city of Erlian
A random dinosaur statue in Erlian
Inner Mongolia’s landscape was a huge contrast to the bustling metropolis of Beijing. A small cluster of mid-rise buildings represented the city centre, which was interspersed with parks and large squares that hosted little night markets.
I arrived at the ticket counter only to discover that the train services were non-existent for the next 2 days due to the Naadam (the biggest festival in Mongolia) celebrations. Two Israelis and a Serbian American apparently met with the same kink. We banded together, found accommodation and amused ourselves in the strange border city of Erlian for 2 nights.
Time passed a lot quicker with my newfound friends as we shared skewers, played carnival games and explored the city’s quaint parks together.
The best part? When we finally got to board the sleeper train, we shared a 4-person cabin and had a great night’s sleep since we all knew each other beforehand.
Oh, and the train service was great. It had hot water, and we were offered hot tea and coffee both in the night and morning. There was a slightly longer stop at the actual border, where immigration took our passports to stamp and returned them to us about an hour or two later.
Erlian to Ulaanbaatar train ticket cost: ~¥160 (~S$30)
Accommodation in Erlian: ¥40 to ¥60 (~S$10)
First taste of Naadam in Ulaanbaatar
With my host family in Ulaanbaatar
The train passed some very idyllic Mongolian grassland before arriving in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. After checking in to my Couchsurfing host’s place, we set out to explore the festivities in the big city.
We made it in time to the main Sukhbaatar Square to catch the parade.
It was a colourful display of traditional costumes from different regions, athletes in wrestling, archery or horse-riding attire, a military band and even a band of soldiers emulating the Genghis Khan era. Their floats were definitely unconventional—a gladiator horse carriage bearing a few ancient warriors rolled past, followed by baton-juggling men on stilts, acrobats and yoyo wielders. Many locals were decked out in traditional costumes themselves, and they marched in at the tail end of the parade.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is not bad
I would recommend spending minimal time in Ulaanbaatar, especially if you are short of time. Though the pretty decent Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is just a short drive away, everything is bigger, better and less crowded once you’re out of the main city. Change your money at a big shopping mall, grab your supplies (sleeping bags, first aid kit and snacks) and get out to the real countryside.
The journey to remote East Mongolia
Before arriving in the wild, wild east, be prepared for some long, bumpy travels. Rivers, sand, huge rocks, mud, grass—that’s the terrain you will be travelling. The tarmac road ends about 100km out of the main city. Thereafter, there are no signs, no lamps, and villages are few and far between. When I asked our guide, Ono, how people in the villages receive their mail, he said, “Oh, they just write that their yurt is in between this and that mountain and river as the address.”
Jon, a lanky American who was also solo backpacking in Mongolia, had the misfortune of agreeing to tour East Mongolia with me. The visitor-scarce eastern plateau, which is also famous for its racehorses, intrigued us.
We were soon about to find out why there were no other visitors.
We had absolutely no idea where we were at any given point for almost the entire week-long excursion. The land was flat as far as the eye can see as we bumped almost 15 hours along in Ono’s Russian van, feeling like the world was just left with us three. There were virtually no settlements along the extremely long stretches of grassland. The odd isolated yurt camps we passed were just so our guide could ask for directions. Yes, even the locals get lost very, very often.
Arriving at Eastern Mongolia
Long story short, the tour wasn’t exactly well planned. We were dropped off at Ono’s relatives’ houses and yurts, which were scattered in the eastern countryside. After which, he left to run his errands.
We were left to our own devices. In a remote, sprawling countryside with no transport but our own two feet. We could literally walk five hours in one direction and still see the same scenery. Rolling grasslands, occasional horse herds and goats. You will probably never make it back if you don’t have a compass and an extremely good sense of direction.
All was not lost though.
We caught a glorious sunset, a moon rising, a goat slaughter and wrestlers up close and personal during the village’s Nadaam festival. The slaughter was pretty gory. The village men took a hammer to the goat’s head, and the goat let out a long shriek before collapsing. The village women then drained the goat’s blood into its stomach and steamed the blood bag as a delicacy. Safe to say, I don’t think I want to witness another such killing in my life.
Revenge of the goat
Speaking of goats, one exacted its revenge on us on the one night we camped out to see the stars. Dusk had settled a few hours ago. We were just about to turn in when it started drizzling. We had some clothes lying across the tent to dry, and debated on getting out of our warm sleeping bags to take it in. Motivated by the thought of getting dressed in wet clothes the next day, Jon crawled out of his sleeping bag to unzip the tent.
The vindictive beast must have been lying in wait outside our tent. The moment Jon unzipped the tent to reach for the clothes, the goat rammed right in. Its huge curved horns pierced through the tent flaps. Amidst the yelling, we managed to shove it back out and zip the tent up in a jiffy.
Goat – 1, Humans – 0. We wore damp clothes the next day.
Guided trip to the East: US$300 (~S$417)/week (includes transport, accommodation and food)
Solo Backpacking in Mongolia: Erlian, Ulaanbaatar & East Mongolia
Stay tuned for part 2 of my solo backpacking adventure in Mongolia, featuring me getting thrown off a horse and getting evacuated by a plane.
All photography by Jolyn Chua