Transport in Mongolia: How to Get Around Safely

Border crossings and road conditions can present challenges for any traveler to Mongolia. We look at how you can travel safely through this wild and diverse country.

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Mongolia is not always an easy place to travel around, especially if you're by yourself but the rewards are worth it. The beauty in the environments, both urban and rural are profound.

Road Safety in Mongolia

Firstly, patience goes a long way, as does a good dose of sense of humour while driving in Mongolia.

Make sure have a good driver driving for you and be aware that most of the roads in Mongolia are basically tracks. You will likely be traveling slowly on them and potentially doing the road version of slalom as you dodge potholes and other hazards. As a result, it's recommend to only travel during daylight hours.

The network of larger sealed roads around Mongolia is growing thanks to loans from the Asian Development Bank, with many of the major cities connected to Ulaanbaatar. However, most of the time you will be traveling on smaller, unsealed roads.

Like most parts of Asia, the drivers will pass when you are not necessarily comfortable with there being enough room. Don’t be afraid to say you are uncomfortable if your driver is a bit of a leadfoot or overtaking in dangerous situations. But even then, it won’t be to the standard you are used to back home, so it can feel reckless at times.

However if you decide to brave it and experience driving in Mongolia, there are things you need to take into consideration before deciding to take the plunge:

  • In Ulaanbaatar, the traffic can get heavy and the road manners (or lack there of) of some drivers can be an eye opening experience.

  • The cost of having a driver with a car can be cheaper than hiring one yourself.

  • You will need an International Driving Permit to drive in Mongolia.

  • Reception can be limited for GPS and cell phones, particularly outside major cities. Roads are also often unmarked and if there are signs around, they tend to be in Cyrillic.

  • There are limited facilities outside the capital for car repairs particularly modern vehicles.

  • Wandering animals will present a hazard for any driver in areas outside the major cities.

If, after all that you do decide to self drive or ride, it's recommended to use a tour provider which will provide you with support should you need it while driving in Mongolia. Because breaking down on a road on the Steppe, miles from help is no one's idea of fun.

Train Safety

Getting around by train is another way you can see and experience Mongolia, particuarly if you take the Trans-Mongolian railway (part of the Trans Siberian rail network) which connects with Moscow in Russia and Beijing in China.

The trains are generally safe to travel on but the comfort level can vary. Spend the extra togrogs on soft seat class especially if you are planning to travel overnight as they are in compartments. The cheap seats tend to be "first in best dressed" and easy pickings for pickpockets. 

While you are more likely to be targeted by criminals at the train station, keep your valuables out of sight while onboard especially while you sleep and keep them on you when heading to the dining car or toilet. Lock your compartment door at night when you sleep.

On a minor note, the toilets are closed off on the train when crossing from one country to another so don't go too crazy with the tea while onboard. 

Customs and Borders

There are only six border points in all of Mongolia open to tourists, meaning that most travel to and from the country is pushed through these points. This may make for a much longer wait than you're used to.

A wait of several hours is not uncommon if you want to travel from Mongolia into Russia or China. Plan on the crossing being an all-day process.

If you are planning to travel into China, you must have your China visa organized before you go as you can't obtain one on arrival into Beijing. The same also applies for Russia. The Russian embassy in Ulaanbaatar can issue tourist visas however it can take up to two weeks to be processed so best to organize it before you leave home.

Borders close during the festival period of Naadam in Mongolia, sometimes for up to five days.

If you're taking vehicles, extensive baggage or other big-ticket items to or from the country, you need to inform Mongolian border authorities before you travel. Contact your country's embassy in order to get more information about how to do that.

If you are traveling by train in from Russia, be aware that this is a very common route for criminals to take. Mongolian police have caught on to it, and customs officials tend to scrutinise documentation and ask pointed questions, especially if you have any dubious items listed on your customs declarations. It does you no good to withhold information from border crossings personnel. If you have something to hide, then you are not advised to enter the country.

There is also the possibility of encountering a scammer posing as a border police officer, learn more here.

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