One of the first things you’ve got to do in Mongolia is find a good tour group and operator, and the second is plan your itinerary. A great Mongolia travel itinerary should involve a lot of time in the incredible countryside, ideally intervoven with gers, mutton, culture and history. This detailed 1 week itinerary will help you plan an epic Mongolia tour.
The One Teabag Rating
A little background. When we got to Mongolia, we quickly signed up with an overnight tour from our guesthouse to head to Hustai National park. It was my birthday and I wanted to spend it under the stars. Unfortunately this tour was not great. We had no English speaking guide, there was very little food, a lot of waiting around with nothing to do, and it was way too expensive.
To illustrate, we had tea one evening and got one teabag to share between the two of us. We joked about it and said we should save it for the next day. The next day we got hot water but no teabag. We regretted tossing the teabag. We give that tour a one tea bag rating 🙂
Anyway, so for our second tour, we were intent on having a good experience with a well reviewed company as opposed to winging it. After contacting a bunch of places, we went with Danista Nomads as they have great reviews and had a tour that matched our dates and desired travel itinerary. If you haven’t read my other post on finding a good tour, it’s best to read before this one.
We were really happy with the tour we picked and felt well cared for and fed the whole time. There were, of course, some things that could be better but overall it was very good value for money and a really memorable and enjoyable experience.
So we actually spent 10 days in Mongolia but we wasted a lot of time which is why I suggest doing this planning ahead of time. Also two days after arriving in Mongolia, I felt the dreaded tickle of a sore throat one morning and had to give myself a few days to recover before heading out.
So assuming you won’t want to waste the time we did, this itinerary builds on everything we saw and learned. We actually spent 6 days in Ulaan Baatar and 4 days on the road. But this 1 week itinerary will give you modifications to spend more time in the countryside.
1 Week Mongolia Itinerary
This travel itinerary has plenty of history, culture and nature, includes a camel and horse ride, but no hiking other than some shorter walks in parks. This was good for me – not only am I not a big hiker but I was also recovering from a cough. We actually just did 4 day but if I did it again I would have added in some extra days at some of the beautiful parks, so this itinerary includes those additions.
The true Gobi desert is quite far from Ulaan Baatar, so expect very long drives if you try to do it in a 1 week itinerary.
There are also a ton of tours going to the Gobi desert but that wasn’t something that excited me a lot. I grew up near the desert-iest desert you can imagine. In Dubai, the dunes are pure sand and sun, no scrub, no shrubs, nothing. Also, the true Gobi desert is quite far from Ulaan Baatar, so expect very long drives if you try to do it in a 1 week itinerary.
Mongolia Travel Itinerary
This travel itinerary spends a day on your own steam in Ulaan Baatar and then in a group tour the rest of the time. It covers Gorkhi-Terelj park in the east and then heads west to central Mongolia.
See the full map with pins and daily routes.
So without further ado, let’s get into the details of this travel itinerary:
Day 1: The first day you can explore Ulaan Baatar on your own without a tour group. Head to Sukhbaatar square to see your first grand statue of Genghis Khan. Mongolia is pretty obsessed with the Genghis, understandably. You’ll be seeing a lot of statues of him as you travel around the country.
This square used to be a monastery and temple complex that was razed by the communists during the Stalinist purges. Today it is often the site of events in Ulaan Baatar, for example a folk music and dance festival was taking place while we were there.
Naraan Tul Market
Naraan Tul (Black Market) is a massive market that used to be well, the black market during Soviet times. While that sounds illicit, it is today just a bustling market for locals with everything you might ever need. Especially beautiful is the fabric area with thousands of bolts of fabric for making deels and other clothing.
I didn’t find much in the way of handicrafts so don’t go there expecting to find souvenirs. Be more wary of your purse and belongings at Naraan Tul, there are incidents of pickpocketing.
It’s also further out from the center of the city so you’ll need to get a ride there and back. There’s a strange trick of how to get around in UB. You basically hold your hand out in the street, at waist level and face down, and you can hail a “taxi” which are usually unmarked Priuses.
To be honest, I mostly walked but I met another woman who’d been living in UB and she said that’s basically how everyone gets around. The drivers probably won’t speak English though, so have a landmark on your phone that you can show them.
Option: The National History Museum is also one of the best things to do in Ulaan Baatar, especially if you want to learn about the history of Mongolia. Since we had a number of museums planned for our group tour, we skipped it.
You could also download this excellent audiobook for those long drives and downtime.
Genghis Khan is imagined to be this ruthless, mindless pillager looting the world, but there’s a lot more to the story of how he connected the Asian world to Europe.
Museum of Bogd Khan
Day 2: We start our group tour at 9am from Danista Nomads, and head out to the museum of Bogd Khan. While this is a museum now, it used to be a temple complex adjoining the Winter Palace of Bogd Khan.
It’s one of the few temple complexes that were not destroyed and it’s a much appreciated attempt to preserve and display what remains.
The temples are beautiful with glazed green roofs, and intricate carvings. It’s a warm day with a brilliant sky which just brings out the colors in the temples.
You can take photos of the grounds and outsides of the temples, but not the insides. I find out later you can pay a fee of US$9 to shoot the insides but I’m not sure I would have. The photography ban/fee turns out to be common in many temples in Mongolia.
On the one hand, I’m bummed because photography is a big part of why I travel. On the other, it’s quite nice not to find hordes of selfie shoots in quiet and sacred places. Also, this was a museum, and I don’t usually like to shoot collections in museums anyway.
The collection is quite a variety. We see Mongolian applique, which is detailed yet bold and interesting. There’s also a lot of bronze statues.
The Bogd Khan lived quite the Game of Thrones’y life – we eye a grand fur coat sewn together from 18 foxes. His wife sported an elaborate Queen Amidala headdress.
The guide tells us about Zanabazar – a Mongolian artist who was a bit of a rennaissance man and is sometimes called the Michelangelo of Asia. A lot of these status are his work.
Finally, we visit the actual palace, which is a rather simple European looking building. Inside there’s a lot of items that belonged to Bogd Khan.
Turns out the Bogd Khan lived quite the Game of Thrones’y life – we eye a grand fur coat sewn together from 18 foxes. His wife sported an elaborate Queen Amidala headdress.
In the basement though, it gets a bit grim. There’s a massive taxidermy collection of animals from all over – including sloths, a lion, jaguar, many monkeys, an aardvark, etc…
Our guide leads us and talks us through the interesting aspects of the museum, which is great because there’s not a lot of written information in English.
Expect to spend: 1-1.5 hours here.
Next, we head to the Zaisan Memorial. This is a high point near Ulan Baatar where you can check out the 360 degree view of the city. It’s a steady walk uphill but with well-maintained steps – just a few hundred.
It’s not too tough of a walk but I’m still fighting the end of a cough so I pause for a breath about half way up.
The style is very reminiscent of communist posters – bold lines, strong forms – but strangely billowy and soft too.
To be honest, as far as the view goes, UB is sort of an ugly city and I can’t find a way to get a nice shot of the city here.
Instead, I’m captivated by the gorgeous mosaics on the circular panel surrounding us. The guide tells us it’s a memorial to Soviet soldiers who died in Mongolia.
The imagery is very interesting though – uniformed Soviet soldiers doing a bunch of benevolent and grand things and grateful Mongolians thanking them. Feels a bit biased?
The style is very reminiscent of communist posters – bold lines, strong forms – but strangely billowy and soft too. I love it.
I learn later, this memorial was actually built by the Soviets themselves. The communist takeover of Mongolia was actually brutal, with possibly 100,000 Mongolian lamas killed. But the panels depicted only very positive optimistic scenes.
Turns out this grandiose optimistic art style has a name – Socialist Realism! Read more about Socialist Realism.
Expect to spend: 30 mins.
Chinggis Khan Statue
This giant, shiny statue of Chinggis Khan is on every itinerary. I expect it will be boring, based on reviews I’ve seen online, but as we drive up, it does seem rather grand gleaming in the sun.
As we walk up to the center beneath the status, the Genghis stares down at us, quite fearsome on his massive steed.
I find the sights insde – a giant whip and a giant mongolian boot – rather cheesy, but we’re all excited to hear we can go up inside the statue. A little elevator takes us up onto the horse’s head which makes for a great close-up view of Mr. Khan.
Expect to spend: 1 hour here.
Terelj National Park (LONG)
Terelj National Park is just 2 hours out of the city and it’s a nice introduction to the Mongolian landscape.
When we get there, we head to visit Turtle Rock. Turns out it’s actually a rock that looks like a turtle. I’m not sure what I expected but I see the rock and think, “Ohhhh. It looks like a turtle.
Then we drive straight into a field full of cows and goats, and it’s our nomad family, where we’re going to spend the night! It’s kind of funny, in Mongolia the shortest distance between A and B is literally the line between A and B. I’m excited by the peaceful field and gers, I see horses by the treeline and realize we’re going to go for a horse ride too!.
If you can arrange this, it’s probably the best possible way to enjoy the park, to actually stay inside with a family. A Mongolia travel itinerary isn’t really complete without a nomad family stay.
On our previous tour, the driver just showed up at camps and honked his horn without much luck. So we’re super happy to see that Danista has clearly already made arrangements for our stay.
It’s kind of funny, in Mongolia the shortest distance between A and B is literally the line between A and B.
Side note. Throughout our tour, Danista Nomads were on point with organization and we didn’t have any snafus with each leg of the tour. We left on time and arrived as expected and meals and accomodation were sorted with no issues.
The guides were not exactly rivers of information but I’m not expecting that at this price point. They talked us through museums but less so on the drives and at other sites. They were always happy to answer questions if asked.
For a budget tour, this is mostly what I’m looking for. The convenience of not having to seek out food and transport ourselves, the safety and security of not getting lost or stuck, coupled with guides that are friendly and approachable.
After we relax for a bit, we head off on a horse ride. The horses are super peaceful and we’re all roped together in threes so there’s no chance of a runaway horse. A horse ride is definitely one of the best things to do in Mongolia. Historically the Mongolians are considered some of the best horsemen in the world, but the Mongol horses are also very unique.
To be honest, I like more excitement on my horse rides but it’s a large group and surprisingly at least 2 of the Dutch crew are actually a bit scared of being on a horse, so it’s probably for the best.
Once I realize how peaceful the ride is, I wish I’d brought my camera. The sun is setting across fields of goats and yaks and the low light and long shadows are intensely beautiful.
I remind myself that I can remember this moment without the picture. It’s been an excellent day outside of UB.
Day 2 Essential Information
Meals: Lunch was at a roadside restaurant – a Mongolian combo meal. Which is basically mutton served 4 ways. But, it’s tasty and filling, mutton in a soup, mutton in a curry, mutton in fried bread (khushuur, I did like this a lot) and a small coleslaw salad.
Dinner is an awesome pile of barbecued mutton cooked at the nomad camp, which we share with the drivers and guides. We also share a lot of vodka, which leads to the drivers singing folk songs – really well too. It’s a warm and friendly start to the 4 day tour, and a great icebreaker for our group.
Lodging: We stay in a nomad families’ guest gers inside the national park, where it’s just beautiful. The gers have real beds in them, so they’re very comfortable.
We get excited about heating cow dung patties in the little stove but the ger is warm enough at night. I realize that if the insulation is enough for Mongolia’s harsh winters, it’s definitely enough for the warm summers. We each get a bed and the beds are big enough that couples can share a bed. (Not altogether, of course… unless that’s your jam?)
Facilities: The toilet is an outhouse with, surprisingly a flushing sit down toilet. While there are a lot of flies, it’s actually pretty clean – not like a toilet back home naturally, but I have to admit, I’ve seen worse at some dive bars! We use our own toilet paper.
Day 3:We headed out immediately the next morning onwards, as our tour was only 4 days. But if I had to do it again, I would spend another day here at Gorkhi-Terelj Park. It’s a great way to decompress from your travel and city life in a beautiful environment.
In addition to Turtle Rock, and a monastery you can visit, you can hike around the park. While there are no trails, you will wander past cool rocky outcrops, herds of sheep, cows, horses and yaks. Climb up to the ridges for grand sweeping views.
Day 4: We head back west, past Ulaan Baatar to a strip of desert called Elsen Tasarkhai. This is a long drive as we’re heading from east of UB to west of UB. We stop repeatedly for lunch and bathroom breaks.
I wonder each time how long the next leg is and when we get there. So I keep asking, how long are we going for and what’s the next break? Simple but super valuable information that I wish they’d offer without asking.
My cough is acting up in the dusty drive, so I’m glad to have packed an N95 mask I bought in Hanoi. It really helps and plus it makes me look like a badass dusty rebel from a dystopian future. Echoes of my Burning Man experience.
Except it’s a mask I got for our actual present day terrible air pollution, so I guess, the future is now?
The Elsen Tasarkhai is a weirdly skinny strip of desert that is 80km long from North to South and only 5-10km wide. With my experience growing up near never-ending dunes in Dubai, this is definitely weird to me. Can the desert exist in such a skinny form?
Apparently, it IS a natural phenomenon and is sometimes called the mini Gobi. If you are really intrigued to see the desert though, you should probably go to the real Gobi.
For me, I’m most interested in riding the giant two-humped camels, because we’d never had those in Dubai. We climb on and do a short walk up the dune. Soon we get off shoot some photos and head back.
This is a really short ride, but the camels are slow and smelly so I’m not too unhappy about that. Plus we had a stunning sky so I manage to get some great photos here
At night, we stay at another ger camp, this time a tourist camp. After dinner a local band stops by and we hear we’re going to get to see a performance of throat singing and folk music. We gather in a ger and meet the band who are two older gentlemen. A young lady demonstrates some folk dance, which is very unique.
Throat singing is so crazy! When the throat singer first starts doing it, I look around wondering who’s whistling. It’s such an unusual sound. Quite the cool experience to hear throat singing in person!
Day 4 Essential Information
Meals: Breakfast is eggs and sausages, bread with nutella, coffee and tea. Lunch again was at a roadside restaurant – a similar combo meal to the previous afternoon. Dinner was spaghetti with meat and veggies, simple but good and plenty in each serving. I couldn’t even finish mine.
Lodging: We spend this night in a tourist ger camp with four bed gers. We have the same roommates again, a sweet newly wed couple from Lisbon, who are interesting and fun. The guides pair us with them throughout the trip as we’re the only ‘couples’ and it works out because we all get on quite well.
Facilities: There was a small building at the end of the ger camp with proper toilets, showers, and sinks. Pretty clean with some toilet paper, although it ran out so we were glad to have our own. We didn’t shower then, as others in our group said the water had zero pressure, almost a trickle.
Erdene Zuu Monastery and Museum
Day 5: In the morning we head to Erdene Zuu which is a large monastery complex. We visit some temples and a local guide at the temple talks us through the sights, with the help of translation of our own guide.
There’s some sort of event happening so we see a lot of Mongolians in traditional deels. Quite a few monks are praying in one of the temples. It’s interesting to see what religious life and ceremonies in Mongolia are like.
Erdene Zuu is located in Karakhorum which used to be the ancient capital of the Mongol empire. We visit the museum which is a great introduction to the history of the Khans.
Erdene Zuu monastery is interesting because of the history of buddhism in Mongolia, check out these photos of this historical place.
When I got to Mongolia, I realized how little I knew abuot the Mongol Empire. I kind of wished I’d read some of the great books out there on Mongolian history. But it was too late, so I was pretty happy to get some background on Genghis Khan and his shockingly large empire.
There’s a special exhibition of items that were found super recently during an archaeological dig in 2011. A nobleman’s tomb was unearthed and archaeologists uncovered gold coins, jewelry and many clay statues. We watch a short movie on the dig which tells us a bit about how and where the items were found.
Again, in this museum, photography require an additional permit.
Ovoo Monument of the Mongol States
Along the way, I’ve been seeing these piles of rocks with a stick and fabric flags flapping in the wind. They’re all over on the side of the road. Sometimes, there’s a horse skull on top of the pile. The guide tells me it’s called an ovoo.
This Ovoo is much grander than all the ones I’ve seen on the road. It’s huge and beautiful with a nice view into the valley. It’s surrounded by huge mosaic panels.
The ovoo is a temple to Mongolian shamanism. Mongolians walk around them clockwise 3 times and then add some stones to the pile. Not everyone believes in it I’m sure, but I did notice our driver Tumror doing it while we were busy on one of our stops.
Expect to spend 20mins here.
Day 6: We headed straight to Lake Ogii the next day but I would add the Orkhon valley and waterfall here. It’s quite close to Kharakhorum and will give everyone an opportunity to enjoy some great hikes in a beautiful area.
Then the next day you can head North for Lake Ogii and spend a relaxing last day at the lake.
Day 6: Finally, we head to Lake Ogii for our last evening. It’s a little lake with a ger camp right near the water, there’s actually teepees at this camp too! But we all stay in the gers. We get some overcast weather so the lake is less exciting than I hoped.
On the plains, are lots of little mice, which means it’s a popular area for Golden Eagles to hunt for them.
The one lovely thing is the bonfire area at the ger camp. I’m determined we should have a bonfire so we ask the ger camp and they say we can use the wood in our gers. So we bring over our wood and have an awesome bonfire, which is a great way to spend our last evening.
Day 6 Essential Information
Meals: Breakfast was ham and cheese sandwiches, with coffee and tea. Lunch was at a Korean restaurant so I got spicy chicken which was quite yummy and a nice change from mutton.
Lodging: As mentioned, we stay in the Ogii Lake ger camp right on the side of the lake. We have a room to ourselves this time, which was cozy. There’s a restaurant and bar at the camp. We ate dinner cooked by the guides so I can’t comment on the restaurant, but we bought beers from the restaurant for our bonfire time.
Facilities: The camp was quite nice with good toilets and showers, which we took advantage of.
Hustai National Park
Day 7: Sadly it’s the last day, and we head back to town, stopping at Hustai National Park.
Hustai is one of the few places you can see the Takhi or Przewalski horse. The takhi are the last true wild horses and they were almost extinct once. They were reintroduced to Hustai national park and their numbers are growing now!
I had already been to this park and we’d not had luck seeing the takhi in the afternoon, so I’m not optimistic. But when we get there, we immediately see a group of takhi down by the water. It’s lovely and the whole group is happy we got to see them .
Back to UlaanBaatar
Finally we head back to UB. It feels weird getting back to normalcy. We’ve just been gone a short time and I feel like I have plains and sky and horses burned into my brain. I can’t imagine how 15 days would have felt.
It’s weird but Mongolia kind of grows on you. Just being out there and staying in the gers, watching the horses, sheep and cows as we drove on dirt roads. That’s one part of the trip that’s hard to put on a list. It’s not a sight but it is a sight, it’s just everywhere around you. It’s the hours in between the sights.
It’s also one aspect that’s best experienced with a good group. We had a really nice time with the crew we ended up with and we just got lucky. It’s a lot better to square away your group ahead of time, hopefully with good people you get along with.
Finding a great tour in Mongolia was harder than we expected. Check out this article with all our lessons learned.
Hope this Mongolia travel itinerary helps you find some great things to do while planning your own trip!