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Why Mongolia is One of the Best Drives in the World

The ultimate guide to driving, route planning for each season, and where to rent a car in Mongolia.

 

Visiting Mongolia might seem overwhelming. It’s far. It’s remote. It’s a culture full of legendary warriors and people you’ve only learned about in books. It’s a lot to take in. I get it.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on your radar, especially if you’re big into road-tripping. Because simply put, Mongolia offers some of the best drives in the world.

From the western part of the country, teeming with eagle hunters and the Altai Mountains as your backdrop, to the camel herders and singing dunes in the south, there are plenty of roads to drive and places to explore – all reachable by car in Mongolia.

Here are four ways to rent a car in Mongolia, as well as our five top recommended routes (and the season to travel them) to experience some of the best drives in the world.

How to Rent a Car in Mongolia: 4 Options from Self-Driving to Hiring A Driver

Renting a car in Mongolia can be done a few different ways. Your options including renting a car through:

  • Sixt Mongolia
  • Follow the Tracks
  • Escape to Mongolia
  • Liqui Moly Extreme

The first and most straightforward option is to rent directly through Sixt Mongolia. Their main office is inside the Blue Sky Hotel lobby in the city's main square, Suukhbaatar Square. Their agents are helpful and friendly, speak English, and they have plenty of options when it comes to car types to rent.

Your second option is to go with a company like Follow the Tracks, whose self-driving tours include a ready-for-anything overland-equipped 4x4 rental that’s already outfitted with everything you need to hit the road running (or maybe I should say, driving) in Mongolia. Spacious iKamper rooftop tent and all. A Heimplanet tent and Petromax cooking gear are included in this setup as well, so you can go off-grid as soon as you get the keys to this rental car in Ulaanbaatar.

Follow the Tracks Rent a Car Mongolia

Follow the Tracks Rent a Car Mongolia (White Stupa and ovoo)

A few things to note about Follow the Tracks as a car rental option. Follow the Tracks car rentals and bookings work like this – they have three set self-driving routes: a Camel Route, an Eagle Route, and a Horse Route.

Once you decide on your route, next, you pick a date. Each route can only be traveled by one car during pre-scheduled dates. So, when that date is booked, it won’t be available to you. Be sure to follow their Instagram page at @followthetracks for updated information on route dates and availability.

One more important thing to mention about Follow the Tracks itineraries is that they all come with access to a Photography Masterclass from professional photographer extraordinaire Max Muench. A very nice touch if you’re an aspiring photographer, videographer, or drone videographer!

Read why Mongolia is one of the best destinations for landscape and drone videography.

Next, another option is to book the rental car package from Escape to Mongolia for self-drivers. Booking through Escape to Mongolia means that your itinerary is your own, with open dates and the ability to explore at will. It also means that you can add a Heimplanet Camping Set for $25 that includes a tent for 2-3 persons, two sleeping mats, a gas stove (including two 500ml gas bottles), plus a pot, pan, bowls, and dining utensils for four people.

Additional camping and overlanding equipment can be rented from Escape to Mongolia, including chairs and tables, cube showers, and toilet tents (which is also good to know in the instance you already have access to a 4x4 vehicle in Mongolia but need a few things to make your adventure a bit more comfortable).

When you rent from Escape to Mongolia, a new UAZ Patriot or Toyota Landcruiser 76 are two of the available cars for rent in Ulaanbaatar, and a guide or driver can be added to any Escape to Mongolia booking.

Take a look inside the UAZ Patriot available for rent below. (Spoiler alert: it’s a manual!)

UAZ Patriot Car Rental Mongolia

UAZ Patriot Car Rental Mongolia

UAZ Patriot Car Rental Mongolia

UAZ Patriot Car Rental Mongolia

Finally, when it comes to renting a car in Mongolia and the best option if you’re just getting into off-roading and overlanding and you’re not exceptionally comfortable driving this remote terrain (or up for changing a tire) on your own, you can book a guided off-roading tour with Liqui Moly Extreme.

This means you’ll be behind the wheel, but following a support car, just in case the sh*t hits the fan. (Which, if you’ve read anything about traveling in Mongolia, you know that it, at some point, will.)

The great thing about this car rental option in Mongolia is that you can also hire a driver for your car if that’s more comfortable for you. These adventures also include fuel, a cook, and because you’re following a guide (and English-speaking support crew), your trip route will be all planned out so you really can just focus on the adventure – and the driving – at hand.

The Liqui Moly Extreme’s driving tours only go to the Gobi Desert (for now), where you’ll cover more than 2,000 kilometers over six days. You can join one of the already planned expedition dates (maximum of five cars) or book privately on your own dates. I recommend the latter so you can really make this adventure your own. Plus, any excuse to grab a group of friends and family and visit Mongolia together sounds like a great plan to me.

Read our other Mongolia travel guides and learn more about driving in Mongolia:

Driving in Mongolia: What to Know About International Driving Licenses and More

Getting Around Mongolia: Currency Exchange Information, Taxis, Health Insurance, and More

Essential Tourist Information: Visa Information and More

Why Mongolia Makes for one of the Best Drives in the World and Where to Go Once you Get the Keys

Landscape for days. A traditional nomadic and shamanistic culture that still practices and honors ancient traditions. A history of Khaans, tales from the Silk Road, and dinosaur bones. Mongolia has it all. Especially for those adventurous enough to get behind the wheel and take it all on by four wheels.

There’s something special about choosing to explore Mongolia by way of a 4x4 vehicle. A country known for its remoteness, it’s just you and old Mother Mongolia (as I like to call her) on an adventure like this.

Show her the respect she deserves, and she’ll open your eyes to some of the most beautiful and magical places in the world. Whether you’re a history buff, an adrenaline addict, or just looking for something off the beaten path, Mongolia is a place that delivers on so many different levels. The hardest part is choosing your adventure.

This leads me to road trip planning. Where to start? Well, our Interactive Travel Map is an excellent resource for traveling within Mongolia.

Whether you’re looking for the best day trips from Ulaanbaatar, if you have a few extra days to spare on your itinerary, or you’re looking to drive to each corner of the country yourself, here are some of the routes that prove why Mongolia makes for one of the best drives in the world.

The 3 Best Day Trips in Driving Distance from Ulaanbaatar

You don’t need to go far to experience some of Mongolia’s best national parks and historic hideaways.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

As one of the closest National Parks to Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj National Park isn’t just popular with tourists. It’s a local favorite as well. As weekends warm, escaping to this peaceful part of the Mongolian countryside is easy enough – just two hours by car and you’re there. Whether you head there for a day trip or an overnight getaway, don’t miss out on the opportunity to ride horses and visit a local family for lunch. Even in the winter, there are plenty of things to do here – including riding a Bactrian two-hump camel and dog sledding down the frozen-over river that runs through the park. In fact, with fewer crowds and tourists, winter is my favorite time to visit this sprawling national park.

Things to do in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park:

  • Climb the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue, the Largest Equestrian Statue in the World
  • Visit Turtle Rock and Aryabal Meditation Temple
  • Ride camels and horses and visit a nomadic family for a meal
  • Overnight at Terelj Hotel or one of the park’s other great lodges
  • Try your hand at dog sledding in the winter

Husky Sledging in Terelj National ParkGorkhi-Terelj National Park (Bre with dog sledding dogs)

Khustain National Park

More remote, more untouched, and more wild than Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Khustain National Park is one of the few places to go out in search of wild Takhi (Przewalski horses), the last species of wild horse in the world. Worth the 2.5 hour drive by car, search for the Shaman statue on the side of the road just before the park as your welcoming party. Hike the two trails within the park and discover even more wildlife – Red deer, Siberian marmot, and plenty of incredible species of raptor call this protected area home.

Things to do in Khustain National Park:

  • Go out in search of Takhi (Przewalski horses) and other wildlife
  • Bird watch and look for the park’s 217 species of birds 

Khustain National Park MongoliaKhustain National Park Mongolia (girl with Przewalski horses in the background)

Manzushir Monastery

The drive to Manzushir Monastery is an easy one if you’re looking for a less-than-daunting expedition out of the city and a way to start to acclimate to Mongolian drivers, roads, and elevations. The approximately 52 kilometer drive from the city center should take about one hour thirty minutes and is easily navigable.

Stop in Zuunmod for water and snacks or lunch (if you don’t want to bring your own) and spend the day exploring this 18th century monastery where 500 monks and 21 temples used to stand. Today, only one of the buildings remains as a museum.

Beyond the monastery there are hiking trails up the backside of Bogd Khan Uul Protected Area, and if you dare to take the trails far – and high – enough you will eventually find yourself atop Tsetseegun Uul Peak. Plan accordingly if you plan to hike to the summit of this 2,261 meter (7,418 ft) peak, it can be grueling.

What makes hiking and exploring here is that Bodg Khan Mountain has a (relatively) unknown history as the first (and oldest) legally protected natural area in the world, thanks to the local Mongolian government of the Qing Dynasty declaring the Bogd Khan mountain range a protected site for its beauty back in 1783.

Things to do at Manzushir Monastery:

  • Visit the oldest legally protected natural area in the world
  • Hike the trails up Bogd Khan Mountain and summit Tsetseegun Peak
  • Explore the ruins of an 18th century monastery

The 5 Best Driving Routes for Visiting Mongolia – and the Best Seasons to Travel Them

When visiting Mongolia, there are a few ‘must experience’ things. Many – if not all of them – can not only be experienced from the road but they can be experienced year-round as well.

From pulling up to a ger (yurt) in the middle of nowhere and experiencing Mongolian hospitality firsthand to seeing some of the country’s most beautiful natural wonders and unique cultural festivals, visiting Mongolia, and taking on some of the best drives in the world, go hand and hand.

Here are my five favorite routes, including what to expect on each and the best time of year to travel them.

North to Lake Khovsgol

  • When to go: Summer

The trip from Ulaanbaatar to Lake Khovsgol is worth it for nature lovers and true adventurers. As the largest freshwater lake in Mongolia and the second-largest freshwater lake globally, Lake Khovsgol sits near the Russian border and is inhabited by nine species of fish, including the Siberian grayling, sturgeon, and lenok. It’s a fishing and wildlife paradise, with the surrounding area surrounding the lake being home to various wildlife such as ibex, argali, elk, wolf, wolverine, musk deer, brown bear, Siberian moose, and sable.

At 2 million years old, the lake is one of the country’s most remarkable natural wonders and a place where peace and tranquility are front and center. If you’re looking for a place to immerse yourself in while experiencing and surrounding yourself with ancient traditions and rituals, Lake Khovsgol is your place.

Things to do along this route to Lake Khovsgol:

  • Thrift your way through the Black Market in Murun on your way to Lake Khovsgol
  • Car camp on the shores of Lake Khovsgol and spend your days hiking, trekking, swimming, bird watching, fishing, horseback riding, and kayaking

South to the Gobi Desert

  • When to go: Winter

The Gobi Desert may be the thing that draws you to Mongolia, but the camel herders, White Stupas, Flaming Cliffs, and singing dunes will be what keep you returning here. (Seriously.)

As the sixth-largest desert in the world (the second largest in Asia), the Gobi Desert’s size isn’t its only impressive feature – so is its climate. Sitting roughly 910–1,520 m (2,990–4,990 ft) above sea level, it’s one of the rare deserts in the world that accumulates snow on its dunes in wintertime, where temperatures can drop to -40.

So, while most people plan on visiting Mongolia in the summertime to experience the Gobi Desert in all of its magnificent glory (White Stupas, Flaming Cliffs, and Singing Dunes… oh my!), I recommend visiting in the fall (September and October) or winter months.

Yes, you heard me right. The coolest time to visit the Gobi Desert is fall or winter. Hear me out.

Gobi Desert CamelGobi Desert Camel

In the winter, you have snow on the dunes. You have Bactrian camels in their full wooly winter coats. And you have unique winter festivals, such as the Gobi Desert Thousand Camel Festival.

The beginning of March is even the time to experience the Gobi Desert Thousand Camel Festival, where camel-herding nomads come together to participate in camel polo, camel races, sell their sheep, wool, and camel dairy products, have a camel beauty competition, and have a camel parade. As these two-humped camels (the largest species of camel in the world) show off their long, wooly winter coats and bat their beautifully long eyelashes, you can’t help but appreciate – and fall in love – with these gentle giants.

The road to the Gobi Desert in the wintertime is well-maintained, and the route to Omnogovi Aimag (South Gobi Province) is direct. This ‘Four Season Road Trip’ in the South of Mongolia itinerary explains the route well.

Consider combining this south to north road trip itinerary for a unique +40 to -40 road trip adventure. This Ultimate Mongolian Road Trip itinerary explains the route well.

Things to do along this route to the Gobi Desert:

  • Walk the cliffs of the White Stupa and Flaming Cliffs in the summer
  • Eat with Camel Herders and explore snow-covered dunes in the winter
  • Watch camel polo, racing, and more at the Thousand Camel Festival in winter

West to Bayan Ulgii

  • When to go: Fall

If you haven’t noticed by now, every province has something more unique and more different than the next to offer. Which brings us to, Bayan Ulgii.

With mountain peaks sitting above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) and eagle hunters carrying on thousands of years of traditions, this region of Mongolia truly is unlike any other. The population is 90% Kazakh, offering a whole different cultural experience from the rest of the country and a whole different side of hospitality to experience.

The best time to visit Bayan Ulgii is September and October, when the eagle hunters are most active and when the annual Golden Eagle Festivals occur across the province. This is also the best time to meet the local families and try your hand at eagle hunting – if given the opportunity.

Learn to Hunt with EaglesLearn to Hunt with Eagles

Visiting this western Mongolian province during this time of year means crisp temperatures, but warm hospitality and a few extra purchases of Mongolian cashmere will help remedy that.

There’s not much more to say than the road trip to Bayan Ulgii can be a long one, so plan to break it up into a few days and don’t cut any time out of your visit to this region rich in history and hospitality. Trust me on this one.

This Altai Mountains Road Trip itinerary explains the route well.

Things to do along this route to Bayan Ulgii:

  • Meet Eagle Hunters and attend the annual Golden Eagle Festivals
  • Learn the nuances of traditional Kazakh hospitality
  • Take in the breathtaking views

Southwest to Central Mongolia and Karakorum

  • When to go: Spring

As things start to thaw from the winter freeze, heading west into Central Mongolia is a real treat, especially for history buffs and those interested in learning more about (and traveling on) the Silk Road and Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan).

This route takes you through Karakorum, the capital city of Mongolia, during Chinggis Khaan’s rule in 1220 and past the Erdene Zuu Monastery, Mongolia’s largest, historically most significant, and oldest Buddhist monastery turned museum.

Karakorum, Follow the TracksKarakorum Credit Follow the Tracks (ritual photo)

With more monasteries nearby – Shank’s, Tuvkhun – and Ugii Lake as a peaceful place for birdwatching and fishing, this route provides a mix of history and nature, best enjoyed at a slow pace.

Stop at Khustain National Park on your way back to Ulaanbaatar on this road trip adventure if you didn’t have a chance to make it here beforehand.

This One Week Central Mongolia Road Trip itinerary, Central Mongolia Road Trip, and Karakorum Road Trip itinerary explain the route well.

Things to do along this route to Central Mongolia:

  • Discover Chinggis Khaan’s old capital city, Karakorum
  • Find inner peace in the country’s most important monasteries
  • Watch for rare birds at Ugii Lake
  • Search for Przewalski Horses in Khustain National Park

The 4-Week Grand Tour: Visiting the Best of Mongolia on One Route

If you have the time, why not just visit all of Mongolia? In four weeks, you can comfortably go from south to central Mongolia before heading west, then north and back to Ulaanbaatar. It’s a trip that covers everything above – and so much more.

And since you’re doing it at your own pace, if you’re more of a mountain person than a desert person (or vice versa), you can adapt the itinerary however you like. With your 4x4, iKamper rooftop tent, camp kitchen, and more making this adventure your own is half the fun.

Visiting Mongolia Gobi DesertVisiting Mongolia Gobi Desert

This Four Week Ultimate Mongolian Road Trip itinerary explains the route well.

Things to Know Before you Rent a Car and Drive in Mongolia

While driving in Mongolia is one of the absolute best ways to experience the country, it isn’t always the easiest. Keep these things in mind before deciding which car to rent in Mongolia, and which adventure is best for your travel style.

Navigating: Maps.me vs Google Maps

When it comes to navigating your way across Mongolia, Maps.me will be your best friend and all-around most reliable resource. More accurate than Google Maps, with more dirt road routes mapped across the country and an offline feature that you’ll quickly realize, makes it an invaluable resource. Maps.me is the way to go when it comes to route planning and navigating here.

Don’t forget your car charger and put your phone on low battery mode to save on energy during your trip. The worst thing that can happen is that you run out of battery right when you need it most.

There are Paved Roads and then there are Mongolian “Paved Roads”

Often in Mongolia, you find yourself on a road that isn’t even a road at all. Even the “paved roads,” as herders will call their countryside routes, are dirt paths worn by years of travel from the locals.

And, even when you are lucky enough to find yourself on an actual paved road, harsh winters and weather conditions will leave these roads in states that will make travel slow going.

It’s important to remember during your travels here that it’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey. (A motto that will save you a lot of heartache and frustration in this country.)

Driving in MongoliaDriving in Mongolia (Follow the Tracks car on a paved road)

Fines and Getting Pulled Over

It’s not uncommon for checkpoints and toll roads to come up along your journey. Most of the time, guards will wave you through. However, in the instance they don’t, you’ll have to show a few things: your International Driver’s License (or Vienna Conventions on Road Traffic country-compliant driver’s license) and the car’s registration.

As long as you show both, you should have no problems with the guards. In the instance that you do, call the company that you’ve rented your car from immediately to advise you on what to do in the situation. Due to a language or other barrier, whatever issue you’re encountering may be resolved with the help of a local Mongolian speaker.

Finding Gas

Once you leave the city limits of Ulaanbaatar, keep this in mind: always get gas when you can, especially if you’re driving a vehicle that takes diesel fuel. Fuel consumption should stay at a reasonable level in your car – as I mentioned before, your trip may be slower than you anticipate, which will at least help you not burn through fuel.

Keep in mind that the farther you go from Ulaanbaatar, the more unreliable the fuel sources are going to be. This means old or low-grade fuel is going to be all that’s available. In this instance, Liqui Moly booster will be a great thing to have on hand to keep your car running smoothly during your road trip. Ask the company you rent your vehicle from about this. When you reserve your rental car, they’ll know exactly what you need.

Cash

Always have cash on you. Always. Always. Always.

Most ATMs in Ulaanbaatar will disperse a maximum of 500,000 to 800,000 Mongolian tugrik (MNT) at a time, which is roughly $175 to $280 USD. Bring USD or euros with you, if possible, to avoid costly bank and ATM fees, and exchange at places like the ground floor of the State Department or your hotel or hostel before leaving the city.

Most gas stations, convenience stores, ger camps, and tourist attractions won’t accept cards, so the importance of carrying enough cash on you is vital.

Now that you know why Mongolia has some of the best driving routes in the world, how to rent a car in Mongolia when you land in Ulaanbaatar, and the best seasons for taking on each route, you’re ready to – as they say – hit the road!

Article by Breanna Wilson

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  • terelj
  • karakorum
  • gobi
  • hiking
  • roadtrip
  • culture
  • adventure
  • horse-riding
  • camel-riding
  • festivals
  • attractions