In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongolian Empire was incredibly vast. At its height it covered about 24 million square kilometres, making it the largest contiguous land empire in history. It stretched from the Sea of Japan in the east to parts of Central and Eastern Europe in the west.

Today, Mongolia is only about 1.5 million square kilometres. It is twice the size of Texas, or three times the size of France. It is certainly not tiny, but it feels bigger than it is. Perhaps it is this outsized influence on world history. Or the poor quality roads and sparse population that make travel times long. Maybe it is the vast sweeping landscapes of the steppe. Whatever it is, planning a visit of only four days seemed ambitious. Here’s what we did to see as much as we could in that time.

Planning the trip

It is impossible to see everything in only four days in Mongolia, so we decided to focus on the central area of the country near the capital, Ulaanbaatar. We considered trying to visit the Gobi desert but it would not have left time for anything else and would have required some expensive internal flights.

One great thing about Ulaanbaatar is that there are lots of hostels and hotels that double as tour agencies and they can arrange trips to anywhere in the country. After comparing lots of tours online, we found one offered by Danista Nomads that would take three days and encompass a lot of what we wanted to see. This would leave us with one day to explore Ulaanbaatar before we left.

Arriving in Ulaanbaatar

Danista Nomads included an airport pick-up when we arrived at Chinggis Khan International Airport. This was perfect as we arrived late at night and it made things a lot easier. Driving into the city we were struck by the amount of traffic. Even though Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on earth, almost half of the country’s 3.2 million people live in crowded Ulaanbaatar.

Another thing that struck us was the Russian influence evident in the use of the Cyrillic alphabet. The Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet was adopted in the 1940s when there was a heavy Soviet influence on the then Mongolian People’s Republic. It contains 2 additional characters compared to the Russian alphabet. The traditional Mongolian script, which dates back to around the time of the Mongolian Empire, can still be seen in some places, but mainly in a historical context. Latin characters are also used sometimes, including on the street signs in Ulaanbaatar, but learning to read the Cyrillic script when travelling in Mongolia is a good idea.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar from above.

Danista Nomads hostel

The hostel that we stayed in was clean, comfortable, and most importantly, warm. We were there in April and some nights got down to -7°C. In winter, temperatures in Ulaanbaatar can drop below -40°C! This makes it the coldest capital city in the world.

Day 1

I looked out the window on our first morning in Mongolia and it was snowing! Two days previously we had been in tropical Palau, where it was 35°C, so the contrast was striking. After having our breakfast we met our tour guide Khandaa (pronounced Han-dah) and our driver. We got into the sturdy Russian four-wheel-drive van that we would be spending the next few days in and we started our tour.

Before leaving Ulaanbaatar we visited the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan. It’s a museum complex consisting of one of the four former residences of Mongolia’s eighth “Living Buddha”, and last king, Jebtzun Damba Hutagt VIII. This was the only one of his palaces to be spared destruction by the Russians. It has 6 Buddhist temples on the grounds as well as the palace. The palace contains thrones, clothing and other artifacts that belonged to the king and his wife. It also houses his collection of stuffed exotic animals. Seeing various stuffed penguins and birds of paradise in Mongolia definitely wasn’t something I had expected.

Bogd Khan Winter Palace gate
One of the gates of the Bogd Khan Winter Palace.

Next we visited the Soviet war memorial known as the Zaisan Memorial. It is on the top a hill and has great views over the city. The actual memorial itself is interesting too, with the socialist realist style mosaic on the inside depicting the Soviet soldiers defeating the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese. During the war Mongolian soldiers fought alongside the Soviet Union’s Red Army and the Soviet Union also promised to “defend the frontiers of the Mongolian People’s Republic just as resolutely as our own border.”¹

After leaving Ulaanbaatar we drove east and stopped in a town called Nalaikh for lunch. We ate at a local cafeteria-style restaurant and the food was surprisingly good considering what I had read. Mongolia gets a lot of negative reviews when it comes to its food. I thought the food was very tasty for the most part. 

A Mongolian set meal

Then we went to visit the massive statue of Genghis Khan on horseback at Tsojin Boldog. The statue is 40 metres tall and was built completed in 2008. This site was chosen because there is a legend about Genghis Khan finding a horse whip in the area. The statue is the tallest equestrian statue in the world.

The Genghis Khan Equestrian StatueThe Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue

When we finally reached the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, we stopped for a quick look at the Turtle Rock, a giant rock that resembles a turtle. Then we went to the Ariyabal Meditation Centre, a temple that overlooks a beautiful valley. We were told the valley is a lot more beautiful in the summer though, when it becomes very green. Everything was a brown colour when we visited. To reach the temple you need to walk up a hill and a lot of steps.

Turtle Rock, Mongolia
Turtle Rock
Ariyabal Meditation Temple
The view from the Ariyabal Meditation Temple.
Prayer wheels at the Ariyabal Meditation Temple.
Prayer wheels at the Ariyabal Meditation Temple.

For the night it had been arranged that we would stay with a nomadic family in one of their gers (sometimes called yurts in English). To get to their camp we had to ford a river that had huge chunks of ice in it and then drive on a rough track through the national park. When we reached the camp it was in a beautiful setting with nothing else nearby. We met the family and were given Mongolian milk tea and biscuits. Mongolian milk tea tastes nothing like the tea that we are used to. It’s a lot more milky and has a distinctive taste. It is, however, quite similar to the butter tea that we had regularly when we were in Bhutan. This and other cultural similarities are presumably because of the Tibetan influence on both countries.

The nomadic family that we stayed with were very friendly and welcoming. They didn’t speak any English but our guide translated what they were saying. They had some extra gers that we could stay in but the place was not a “tourist camp” like the place we would stay the next night. This was the real deal. It was very interesting to see how the three generations of the family lived. Although they are nomadic, I was surprised to learn that they only really move to a different location with the changing of the seasons. They were currently in their winter camp. They also generally don’t move very far, which makes sense but is very different to how I had imagined it working.

While our dinner was being prepared we went horse riding around the local area. When we got back it was getting dark and there was a beautiful sunset. Then we went back inside the family’s ger for dinner. The dinner was a delicious mountain of mutton, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and other vegetables. It was the perfect hearty food to keep you warm in the Mongolian cold.  

At night, inside the ger it was very warm and cozy until the fire went out some time in the night. It got quite cold after that but we had plenty of extra blankets so it was ok.

Mongolian barbeque dinner
Our Mongolian barbeque dinner in the ger.
A ger in Mongolia
The ger that we stayed in on the first night of our tour.

Day 2

The next morning we left quite early as we had a long drive ahead of us. After a few hours we were now to the west of Ulaanbaatar. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant that was very popular. Apparently its known to be the best one along that road. We ate a meaty stew with some dumplings and beef.

A Mongolian stew
A Mongolian stew at a roadside cafe.

After lunch we drove off-road through the desert to another set of gers where a local family lived. Goats, horses, sheep and cows ran across the desert track in front of us. The local family invited us into their ger and gave us milk tea, biscuits and some more hearty Mongolian food. Afterwards the father of the family took us on a camel ride. The camels in Mongolia are Bactrian camels with two humps. Sitting between the two humps is quite comfortable but they don’t go very fast. I imagined previous eras where this was the main form of transport across the vast deserts of Central Asia.

Van in desertGers and camelsCamel riding

Next we went to the incredible Elsen Tasarkhai sand dunes. Elsen Tasarkhai is sometimes known as the mini Gobi. Considering we couldn’t make it to the Gobi it was great to see and climb these perfect looking sand dunes. The wind whistled over the top of the dunes gently sculpting the sand. We climbed over them and walked around them for a while as we tried to take the incredible landscape in. Of everything we saw in our four days in Mongolia, this area was definitely the most photogenic. 

We arrived in Kharkhorin in the evening and went to tourist camp that we were going to stay in for the night. It consisted of 2 rows of gers and was a bit fancier than where we had stayed the night before. There was a proper toilet block, rather than the pit toilet in the middle of a field full of curious cows. In the ger there was also a special kind of stove that would keep burning all night. It kept us very warm even when the snow and biting wind swirled around outside.

We had our dinner in the one communal ger before some local musicians came to do a demonstration of some of the traditional Mongolian music. They played wooden instruments that they had made themselves and also did some throat singing. The throat singing sounded very unique and very strange.

Mongolian traditional music
These two guys played traditional Mongolian instruments and did some throat singing.


1. Jan F. Triska and Robert M. Slusser (1962), The Theory, Law, and Policy of Soviet Treaties (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 234–35.