A valid passport and entry/exit visa are required prior to travel. Visitors to Mongolia should carry their passports with them at all times. For information on Mongolian visas go to www.mongoliavisa.com or www.embassyofmongolia.co.uk. The first step is to check with the Mongolian Embassy/Consular Department if you need a Mongolian visa, which depends on your nationality and length of stay. It is highly advisable to obtain your visa in advance from Mongolian embassies or consulates abroad rather than at points of entry, train stations and airports, as this facility, once on offer, has been withdrawn. You will be required to submit your passport, one passport photograph and to complete a visa form. This may be done online, but if not, allow two weeks and be sure to attach your full return address for your passport.
A 30-day tourist visa for UK citizens (at the time of writing) costs £40 (£60 fast track) and takes two to five working days; a double entry and exit visa costs £55 (£75 fast track); a multiple-entry visa costs £70 (£90 fast track); and a transit visa costs £35 (£55 fast track). Check with the embassy for the current cost.
Getting there and away
The main connection to Mongolia from Europe is via Berlin with MIAT (Mongol Irgenii Agaaryn Teever – Mongolian Airlines). MIAT flies to international destinations such as Moscow, Beijing, Seoul, Irkutsk, Berlin, Huhhot (in Chinese Inner Mongolia) and Osaka. MIAT has branch offices in Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Germany, Italy, Holland, France, Russia, Canada and the United States. It no longer flies domestically.
Turkish Airlines launched its first flight to Ulaanbaatar (UB) in 2012. You may also fly from most European capitals directly to Beijing in China and change planes (if on another carrier) to Air China (www.airchina.com) in Beijing for the two-hour flight to Ulaanbaatar. There are direct flights from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar with Aeroflot (www.aeroflot.com). Costs vary, depending on when you travel – high or low season. Air fares normally increase by 4% to 5% annually.
Before departure remember the following three things:
• Reconfirm your return flight at least 24 hours prior to your departure.
• Check in two hours before your departure time for international flights.
• International departure tax of around T18,000 (US$12) is payable in local currency.
Buyant-Ukhaa (Chinggis Khaan International) Airport is situated 18km southwest of the capital. Facilities at the airport include a restaurant, a café, bureau de change and several duty-free shops selling souvenirs, spirits and perfumes.
One of the most exciting railways in the world – the Trans-Siberian Railway – runs from Moscow to Vladivostok. There are several branches on this line – one through Mongolia, another through Manchuria, while the main Siberian line continues to Vladivostok, the eastern terminus on the Pacific coast. The Trans-Mongolian (Ulaanbaatar) Railway is connected to the Trans-Siberian by a branch line from Ulan-Ude, providing a link between the Trans-Siberian and the Chinese railway system.
The total distance from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar is 6,304km, and from Moscow to Beijing is 7,865km. The Trans-Mongolian covers 1,000km from the Russian border to the Chinese border, passing through Ulaanbaatar and several other towns. The Trans-Mongolian railway line is of great economic importance to the country, since it handles most of Mongolia’s export and import goods. The main line and its various branch lines in Mongolia carry internal freight, especially coal. It is also a transit route for goods traded between Russia and China.
One of the most exciting railways in the world – the Trans-Siberian Railway – runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, and one route runs through Mongolia.
There are three services a week between Beijing and Moscow that run throughout the year on the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian routes. It takes six days from Moscow to Beijing (a day from UB to Beijing). Train #3 leaves Beijing weekly at 19.40 on Wednesday and arrives in Moscow at 19.00 on Monday. China Train #4 leaves Moscow weekly at 19.50 on Tuesday and arrives in Beijing at 15.30 on Monday.
The two most used borders into Mongolia are on the main road from Russia in the north at Altanbulag near Sükhbaatar and in the south at Zamyn-Üüd in Dornogobi on the Chinese–Mongolian border. However, note the restrictions on driving in China for foreigners. There is a further border open to foreigners in the west near Tsagaannuur in Bayan-Ölgii Aimag, complete with a brand new border post building. From Tashanta in Russia the paved road (M52) reaches the Mongolian border and this road continues to Tsagaannuur and Olgii. There are currently no border crossings for visitor traffic in the east.
Road border crossings are still limited to nationals of the border countries only on any of the other 40 bilateral crossing points into Russia or China – except with permission (for rallies and other) on the main crossings already mentioned – in the west, north and south.
The celebrities Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman have put motorbiking on the map – especially in Mongolia – on their epic motorbike ride around the world, described in their book (and film) Long Way Round. The Mongolian section of their journey was arranged by Panoramic Journeys.
Transport systems in Mongolia failed to develop in the same way as they have developed in the West for the simple reason that the horse and the camel are the most natural and effective means of travel in a land like Mongolia. This has resulted in an almost total lack of road and bridge building. Rivers were more easily forded on horseback and camels and horses could travel faster than any other means of transport in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But, with the arrival of the first American motor vehicles in the 1920s, followed by Soviet cars, jeeps and lorries from the 1930s and increasing numbers of Japanese motorbikes in the 1990s, things are beginning to change and motorised transport is threatening to replace the nomads’ four-legged friends.
The red lines marked on many maps of Mongolia suggest that there is an established network of main roads, but few Mongolian roads have a hard surface.That is starting to change – however, most highways or paved roads are in or between the main towns. Otherwise, what you drive on are simply sets of wheel ruts which criss-cross the countryside and following them can be hazardous, particularly after dark. Driving anywhere outside the towns takes a long time and is often rough and uncomfortable.
Most Mongolians leave the city by various modes of transport ranging from bus and train to minivan, shared jeep or taxi. Hitching rides is considered a normal occurrence in Mongolia, especially in the countryside, when often there is no public transport, but expect to pay a nominal sum for your ride. Travelling overland by jeep is the best option to reach the more remote areas, and a network of roads (mainly unpaved) connects the 21 aimags to the capital, and urban areas to smaller centres and remote settlements throughout the country. You may end up travelling with the help of a compass across virgin territory in the most remote regions – following no roads or tracks.
To experience the Mongolian spirit, take a journey by public transport (bus or jeep). You will be jostled and tossed together with your fellow passengers over many kilometres of bone-rattling roads and you’ll find yourself clinging on to one another for mutual comfort and survival. It is somewhat disconcerting to see abandoned or broken-down trucks in remote areas. Do not be alarmed; Mongolians are helpful, hospitable and resourceful and will always come to the rescue should your vehicle break down, although you may experience long hours of waiting by the roadside for a spare part to arrive.
To cheer yourself up on particularly monotonous sections of the journey, the tedium may be broken by singing traditional ‘long songs’, which provide great entertainment when everyone joins in. However, it can be unsettling to discover that your driver navigates according to his instinct and you may find that you are heading in the wrong direction, or about to strike a huge pot-hole. Somehow a sixth sense always seems to rescue Mongolian drivers, just in time to avert real disasters. In the summer months the rivers tend to flood and the search for a safe crossing point may divert you dozens of kilometres from your intended itinerary.
Lake Khövsgöl and some of Mongolia’s northern rivers are navigable during the summer but are rarely used as transport routes. You can hire a fishing boat on Lake Khövsgöl for between US$5–10 an hour.