SETTING THE SCENE
As a history geek, it’s mind blowing that Genghis Khan and his immediate successors controlled an empire that stretched from present-day Poland in the west to Korea in the east, and from parts of Siberia in the north to the Gulf of Oman and Vietnam in the south, covering some 33,000,000 square kilometers and about a quarter of Earth’s total population at the time! To think that a dynasty that powerful could end up now as a developing world nation with a population of just 3.3 million is crazy (it’s the least densely populated country in the world with 2 people per square km)! So I had to see it for myself.
FLIGHTS: There are a number of ways to get to Mongolia but truly it’s out there. I was in the UAE for work so I flew from Dubai to Ulaanbaatar (UB: the capital) via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. In terms of quality, consistency and connectability, few, if any, airlines can compete with Turkish Airlines. It was a pricey flight but everything went very smoothly. Other options out of Istanbul include MIAT, the national carrier of Mongolia. You can also get to Mongolia via South Korea and a few other destinations in Asia.
TRANSPORT: A few things to note. I was fortunate that a Mederva Health employee, Maga (NOT that kind of MAGA), took me everywhere and also organized a driver when he had to go back to work. So I am not sure about rental cars in the country. But if you want a driver, which I would recommend especially if heading down south since the roads get really bad, then you can for sure contact a huge number of tourist agencies in UB that can arrange a car and driver for you (but be prepared to pay for the driver’s gas and his meals).
ACCOMMODATIONS: I stayed in a friend’s airbnb. It was super central and quite new but it didn’t have hot water for the time I was there. That said I got it for a steal so it worked out. There are a number of solid mid-tier (Novotel, Holiday Inn) and top-tier hotels (Shangri-La).
METRO/TAXIS: This is hilarious, but there are virtually NO taxis in UB. You have to literally flag down random cars who will pick you up and drop you off at your desired destinations. That said, most don’t speak English so get ready for that challenge. They also have a similar Uber service app in Mongolia, but you need a local number to access that app. Otherwise you can also ask your hotel to get your cab if that’s possible.
CREDIT CARDS/ATMS: It’s nuts how easy payment systems are in UB. Almost everyone takes Apple Pay and of course credit cards. However, things may get more dicey outside UB. So make sure you have cash with you.
CONNECTIVITY: Internet penetration in UB is pretty solid and most places have wifi. I have the T-Mobile Global Plan which worked decently in UB (much less so outside the capital).
What I underestimated was the sheer beauty of the country. While I only had four days, I was still able to travel to the south to see parts of the Gobi steppes, two national parks, and of course the capital city. I’m so grateful for not only being able to see, experience, and enjoy so much in such a short period of time, but I also had a chance to meet some incredible people. This is because back in 2022 I invested in a silicon valley start-up, Mederva Health, whose main engineering and business development teams are based in Mongolia. So I met with the t
I had a pretty intense schedule since I wanted to see as much as I could in the 4 days I had. The three major areas I missed were the far north near the lake district, the mountains to the west, and the deep south in the Gobi desert. That said, I wanted to focus on as much nature as I could, but I also wanted to get a sense of the history, food, music, culture, and people. So I did spend some time in UB. Here is the breakdown of the trip, day by day for you.
DAY 1: Gobi Steppes
Maga scooped me up from the airport at 8AM and we took his SUV down south.
The drive was no joke. There was a stretch of about 100km of relatively well paved asphalt highway, about 100km of horrible, pot-hole ridden highway, and 100km+ of dirt roads. Maga is a crazy driver so the car definitely took a beating but the drive to the area of the White Stuppe took about 6 hours or so. The goal was to see the landscape, find a ger aka yurt (nomad dwellings), and explore the White Stuppe, which is a cliff with incredible shaped rocks that you would find in the grand canyon for example.
As we were driving there, we saw hundreds of domesticated but seemingly wild horses roaming the countryside as well as many of the double humped camels. In fact, at one point we stopped to see them up close. Maga for whatever reason wanted to ride one, so he got on its back and suddenly it got up, all the other camels panicked and as he tried to get off of it, he tripped up on its back hump and BAAAM he hit the desert floor, HARD! Poor guy, he suffered back pain for days after lol!
After that mishap, we started to look for camps and after being told at two camps that they were full, we started to low key panic. But there were a ton of these ger camps throughout the area. Thankfully we finally found one that was ideal. We got a ger and then decided to walk around the area, which was just so quiet and serene. Eventually we made our way to the White Stuppe at sunset, which was nice but we knew at sunrise it would be even better and less crowded. We left the Stuppe area and headed to Gobi Caravanserai, an upscale glamp.
We saw the actual sunset there and treated ourselves to a nice, but pricey, buffet dinner. If you don’t want to rough it in a ger, then this is a nice alternative. Not cheap but for those not price sensitive it can be a good option.
The stars that night were out in full effect, and we got to star-gaze for a while before calling it a night. I can tell you I was blown out since I had minimal sleep coming in from Dubai, so I slept like a rockstar that night in the ger!
DAY 2: Terelj National Park
The next day we woke up at dawn to make it to the White Stuppe at sunrise and it was worth it. We were the first people on the top of the cliff and got a hell of a view of the entire plains below us.
Given how long the drive is, we decided to leave after sunrise and slowly make our way back to the capital but first make a few stops along the route.
About 10-15 years ago the former president’s construction company (or so I was told) built this magnificent Genghis Khan Monument about 50km outside UB. Even though Genghis Khan was ruthless and his successors even more so, the man is revered by modern-day Mongolians of all ages. What’s interesting is that for decades his name was essentially erased from the history books because the Russians/Soviets greatly influenced the Mongolian governments from the 1930s to 1990, and the Soviets disliked him since his successors wreaked havoc in Russia from the 1200s-1300s. I have to say as an Iraqi-American, his successors decimated Baghdad, but you still have to acknowledge the power of the Mongols.
After visiting the monument, we went to the Terelj National Park, which is a frequent escape for those living in UB. To be honest, the landscape of the country is mind-blowing. For some reason, I LOVED the rolling green hills in and around the UB and in the national parks. Terelj is something out of a calendar, just beautiful.
I hiked around for a few hours and we also had a great meal at a nearby camp. What a way to end a great day!
We made it back to UB and I got into my Airbnb. I have to say not having hot water drove me nuts because it was like 38 degrees outside (3c) and I was freezing and wanted to shower after going three days without a shower 🙁 But all good the next morning I went to the Mederva office in UB and just showered there, so it worked out.
DAY 3: Khustai National Park & Mongol Nomad Camp
So UB has some awesome western style coffee shops. I like TomnToms, which I think is Korean. There were a number of great coffee shops where I was located in the city center, so you will have plenty of options. After grabbing a coffee, I embarked on my next adventure to the Khustai National Park.
What’s famous about this park, which is about 70km outside UB, is that it’s the only place where you can find the Przewalski’s horses, aka “Takhi” in Mongolian. These are truly the only wild horses in the world. As we drove through the mountains, we came across a ranger who had a field telescope and through it, I saw the Takhis in the distance!
We drove around and saw many marmots as well as more Takhis in the distance!
Truly magical! It was such a memorable experience and I truly was in awe of the incredible surroundings. It was likely one of the top highlights of the entire trip. I could have stayed there for days on those grassland mountains but we had to leave to make it to the Mongol Nomadica camp so we could catch the nomadic life demonstration at the camp.
We made it in time to enjoy an incredible demonstration. They showed us yacks, camels, and Mongolian horses (faster, smaller, and more agile than typical horses, hence why they were able to occupy half the known world). We listened to their beautiful instruments and the truly unique Mongolian throat singing, drank the cow milk fermented vodka (don’t ask), and saw how they move as a nomadic caravan. Don’t forget, 30% of the Mongolian population are still semi-nomadic so the traditions are still practiced today. I would HIGHLY recommend checking out this venue to get a great insight into the culture and practices.
After the camp, I returned to UB and met with a really cool podcaster, and political strategist, Bill (short for a name that has 26 letters!). We talked about Mongolian youth, politics, innovation and the future of the country. We ended the day eating Mexican chicken tacos at Rosa (yes I said tacos. Honestly I was mutton’ed out).
DAY 4: Ulaanbaatar
On the last day I wanted to really explore the history of the country, get to know more about the fast-growing innovation of the capital city, and enjoy time with the Mederva Health team.
So I started the day doing my usual run in every new country. I needed to do the run since I was severely slacking from my IronMan training. So I ran through the main Sükhbaatar Square then to the Soviet monument on Zaisan hill.
By the way, 1.5 million people live in UB (half the country’s population) many of whom still live in gers in the suburbs which creates insane fine-particle pollution (second worst in the world). This and the crazy traffic made the run challenging but I’m glad I did it (make sure to check out @globalfitnesshz to see all my runs across the world). Also the capital is experiencing a ridiculous boom in development. This is attributed to all the mining operations in the country including the recently found, largest untapped coal deposit in the south, which is providing Mongolia with a lot more funds for construction. While the capital looks very modern, the cost of living is soaring, traffic is a nightmare, and inequities in wealth are increasing at a rapid rate.
After cleaning up, I met with Bayadolgor, the director of the Mederva Mongolian office, who was going to show me around. We first checked out the Choijin Temple smack in the middle of the city. It’s important to note that Mongolia has a stored history of Buddhism that traces its roots to the Chinese occupation of Mongolia starting in the late 1400s. At one point a third of Mongolian men were monks (over 100,000 in the 1920s with 750 temples and monasteries across the country). But by 1990 there were only a handful of temples left and around 100 monks. This is because the Soviet influenced Mongolian government eradicated religion of any kind for 60 years. Now it’s slowly coming back with other faiths growing strong in the country including Christians and Muslims.
After a nice Italian lunch (Verenda) overlooking the temple (yes Italian, again I needed my chicken and veggies), we made our way to an important meeting with one of Mederva’s partner hospitals in UB. I was representing the company as their Business Development lead and was tasked to help push forward their latest app Nourish, which aims to work with the hospital in supporting the health habits and weight loss of patients and locals. The meeting was a success and I’m glad to have done my part!
We then made our way to the Genghis Khan museum. Now what’s fascinating about the man, was that 17 million people can trace their DNA to him! How insane is that! The museum was opened in 2023 and is truly world class. 7 floors dedicated to him, his successors and his influence across the world (remember his empire was divided into sections overseen by his 4 main sons: Eastern Europe/Russia; the Middle East; Mongolia/Central Asia; and China/South East Asia).
Before heading to a culture show in the city, we stopped at Gobi, the world’s largest cashmere store. And while I don’t usually buy major items on my trips, this time I made an exception. Given the quality, the prices were reasonable and I got some nice cashmere items.
We then headed to a culture show at Tumen Ekh in the city center which was simply AWESOME! We got to see traditional dances from across the country, musical instruments and singing styles including throat singing and long song, contortion acts, and Buddist ritual dancing. A bonanza of Mongolian entertainment!
We wrapped up the evening eating Mongolian BBQ with the entire Mederva Mongolia Team. What a nice way to end an unforgettable trip to Mongolia!
For so many years I had wanted to visit Mongolia, but never managed to find the time. Given my contacts in Mongolia through Mederva Health, they made it possible and unbelievably memorable. I am so fortunate to have had them help me plan and carry out this trip, to see so much of nature, taste the food, experience the culture and centuries old nomadic traditions, while also learning so much about the future of the country.
I have a feeling this is not the last time I will visit Mongolia. I hope this too has inspired you to see why this country is so magical and made you eager to explore the beauty and hospitality of the Magnificent Mongolia.
MAP OUT DAY TRIP: On the third day I headed out the Khustai National Park but for some reason the driver kept getting lost. So what I would recommend is to download the locations of where you plan to visit that day via Google Maps and make sure you show the driver so s/he knows where and HOW to get there without wasting time. Do that before you lose reception especially in the countryside where there is little internet.
CURRENCY EXCHANGE: So one evening of the second night I needed to get some cash but it was getting late and there were no more exchange offices open. In this case, the best thing to do is go to a nice hotel and exchange it there. If they say you have to be a guest, tell them you are checking in tomorrow and just need to get the money now.
WARM SHOWERS: In my case, the hot water in the airbnb was not working. So my options were a cold shower in cold UB (not happening), or going to a day spa if they are available. If not, another option is to get a day pass at the gym of a nice hotel and use their facilities. I was lucky to shower at the office, but if I didn’t have that option then a day pass is always an option.
If you are still reading this blog, then thank you for your support and I hope you found it useful for your trip to Mongolia. It also hopefully means you are interested to read more! In this case, may I recommend the Kyrgyzstan Blog since there is so much similarity with their nomadic traditions!
~ Stay Curious. And I look forward to seeing you on my next Final50 Journey! ~