Mongolia is a bit different than the other countries we have visited thus far. There is only one real city, UB, and there is very little infrastructure to support public transport around the country. As we mentioned in Off We Ger if you want to get out into the countryside, which is really THE reason to come to Mongolia, then you need to a) join a tour; b) hire a jeep; or c) be completely raving madand take the local long distance buses. You could also fly, but since that wasn’t remotely within our budget (boohoo), I’ve left it out.
Tours run the gamut from budget backpackers piled into Russian vans that look like VW buses to the Golden Circle gang who get flown into luxury ger camps and driven around in shiny Landcruisers. (Yes, I’m a little envious.) Many travelers join together a group of 3-4 people and hire a jeep and driver. This can work out to be a pretty good deal since you choose your route and have freedom to stop whenever and wherever you choose. Since there were only two of us and we were not organized enough to find other people to share the costs of a jeep, we skipped option b. Our disorganization and adversity to tour groups ruled out option a as well.
So as you may have read, we went with Ger to Ger, an organization that supports sustainable tourism among nomadic herders. Good organization, good philosophy, a little loose on some details, but still a very good, authentic and low cost experience. That said, taking the bus to and fro was pure, sheer, total hell like no other. And yes, I had the bruises to prove it.
In terms of lodging, outside of UB, the main choices are basic hotels, ger camps (both luxury and budget) and camping. Mongolia is excellent for camping and it’s free. Just pitch your tent and snooze. Many ger camps seem to cater to foreigners offering less authentic experiences at tourist prices. And from what I’ve heard hotels range from grotty to decent. Not a lot of luxury in this category. Lucky for us, we stayed at what may be one of the nicest guesthouses outside of UB. This was mighty welcome after a week of no showers. AND they had a cafe with a vegetarian menu. Sadly we missed the veggie burger, but did have some tasty bakery treats for the bus ride.
Within UB, pretty much the same lodging choices exist except that there are loads of guesthouses and some nicer hotels. Our guesthouse was bare bones at best, but to be honest we didn’t mind since we were the only ones there most of the time. Plus the owner was a really great guy. As always, dorms are cheaper and most places have shared baths. We paid a pretty average $16 per night for a room with a double bed (and literally nothing else!).
Food is relatively inexpensive in UB and even cheaper in the countryside, though choices are more limited there. UB has a surprising plethora of western restaurants thanks to the number of NGOs and foreign aid agencies. Though the food was inexpensive by western standards, it was a little bit more than we had been paying in China and India. Still a bargain. If you visit UB, don’t miss the weird mix of flavors at Los Bandidos – Mongolia’s only Indian-Mexican restaurant. We went three times for the nachos.
Overall, Mongolia is pretty good for budget travel. The lack of infrastructure outside of the city prohibits it from being super cheap, but we managed pretty well on an average of about $50 a day including the trek, transport, food, lodging, etc.