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Nightmare in Ulaanbataar : Gobi or not Gobi ?

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Well, I’ll be straight forward and say that we had a horrible time in Ulaanbataar, quite like Nomadic Matt had in Vietnam.

Why is that ?

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Firstly, Ulaanbataar has been nominated “worst looking city in the entire World” by a notorious French guide book we found in the, somewhat, perfectly fine hostel we were staying at. We do recommend Golden Gobi Guesthouse by the way, as it was affordable & tidy, with an efficient staff and a good atmosphere.

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The main reason why we hated our stay so bad was that the country stepped into Capitalism quite recently without dealing with it very well. Mongolia relies almost only on tourism to sustain its growth. The legendary “hospitality” of Mongolians has become quite pricey, at least in Ulaanbataar, the capital city, where we felt like we were walking around with a big $ sign tattooed on our foreheads.

We didn’t plan a Gobi desert tour in advance, as it is usually cheaper to book one on site. We spent more than a week all day long looking for decent prices, on our laptops, walking in every tour agency/guest house we could find or asking fellow travelers. We couldn’t find anything reasonably affordable.

Like in most Asian countries, I am fine with having to bargain in order to end up paying 3 or 4 times what locals pay. This is the way it works and a dollar to those populations is worth a lot more than it is to us anyway.

But in Mongolia, prices have gotten out of decency : we saw 3 days desert tours for a $1000 per person ! “All included” formulas would always end up with you paying extras : gifts for the family whom you are renting a yurt from ; you payed for the car with a driver but you’d rather have a some more cash to fill up the tank ; if camels are included, the salary of the “camel guide” is not, etc.

We even met a couple of hikers that got lost in the Gobi desert and the only car that passed by wanted not more than a $100 (non negotiable) to take them to the next city, 30km away…

Those examples are actual anecdotes that happened to travelers we met and I could continue on and on. What mattered to us, and to the travelers we encountered, was that we didn’t feel respected as human beings nor wanted there.

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As for the food, well, we had a hard time. It might sounds very French of us, but food is a big deal. That’s one of the things we love the most about traveling. In Ulaanbaatar, we had to eat for about 3€/$5 a meal in restaurants everyday because supermarket food was more expensive than it is in Paris. Having to eat in restaurants for so cheap, pretty cool huh ? Except that it was the heaviest food we tasted our World Tour 2014… Local dishes are ALL about strong tasting sheep meat, with mashed potatoes or rice on the side, that you drink with Chai : tea, spices and… curdled milk. Definitely not the best culinary experience we had so far…

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On top of everything, we couldn’t go Couchsurfing because of scams : “hosts” will make you take the bus to some faraway suburb and make you pay for your stay. We were sad not to be able to interact with the locals on normal basis.

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Do you wonder why with this is the only post we don’t have DSLR pics to show you ? Simply because we felt insecure all the time we spent there (it was explicitly written on hostel’s “rules” that we shouldn’t go out by night). I even had to come to blows with a guy that couldn’t find the patience to wait for us to get our change back at the bus station.

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We only went to Ulaanbataar, so I can solely write for what I saw and felt there. The rest of Mongolia might be different. We would have experienced that if the “tour guide” we found were not constantly changing her prices & conditions (we didn’t take the first person we saw, we went through a heavy search process to find someone with not so indecent prices and good references).

We got sick of this mascaraed and managed to get our Chinese visa sorted on the very day so we could leave Mongolia as soon as possible.

Crossing the border to China was fun though !

Have you been to Ulaanbataar yet ? What did you think ?


Hello ! We don't blog on Life Explorateurs anymore. Follow our World Tour vlog series on our new website :
The Vlog Expedition
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  • Hello I’m writing from Mongolia and I’m a Mongolian. On behalf of Mongolia I would like to say sorry and that you had such a bad experience about Mongolia. First of all you might’ve chose the wrong guide it is negotiable on the price. And we can not be all bad people as you say. If you’re a traveler you are responsible to do some research about the places you are passing by from country to country. You had to look if that country is a place for you to travel or not. A real traveler would eat what he can find to eat. If you would’ve complain about the food of places you traveled why would you travel. You could maybe write how the food is as a hint (my opinion). So I wish you further on great travels and good luck.

  • Sorry to hear that you had an unpleasant stay in UB, Antoine! But I am glad that most people here had better if not great experiences in Mongolia. As a Mongolian, it is pretty shameful to read such bad reviews, but I personally read this with great attention and I do feel that businesses might try and overcharge tourists. But I really hope that this one not-so-great experience won’t put you and others off from coming back. I know it is not the tourists’ fault that the life is hard in Mongolia and everyone wants to earn an extra cash, but last two decades were like a transition period for the country and now we’ve learnt a great deal in terms of treating tourists with fairness. I think Mongolia is great for spontenous adventures and affordable tours, even more so if you have a local acquaintance. Have a great day and I wish you good fortune in your next travels! “Ayny altan shar zam tani ulziitei baig” – Mongolians tell this phrase to people embarking on a long journey 🙂

  • Writing from Japan,
    When it’s traveling Mongolia is the most beautiful country with affordable price. So much freedom and REAL people and REAL life. I ve been on the road for 18 years. Mongolia is the one of the most simplistic counties around the world where you don’t turn into ID number. Mind you also, it’s in the 10 most safest countries as well statistically.
    Supermarket food it extremely cheap. I loved it. I recommend Nomin chain supermarket.
    Just rent a car and pack your shit (tent and gas stove) and on the way to countryside stop by at Nomin supermarket and get your food supply. I ve done this 5 6 times in each summer. The thing is, it seemed that you guys stayed in the city. For the most part, you are coming from land of concrete walls and roads and buildings and with over populated area, why did you stay in the city?? Every cities have good and bad sides. You complain about food and the restaurant price.., you ill prepared for this journey financially. You shouldn’t expect 3 4 dollar food as the best food. That applies same to every country probably.,
    3 days Gobi Your is 1000dollar? You must had been drinking and pissed and your eyes and years turned blind., I m sure it was 100 dollars. 1000 dollar 3 days journey is almost never heard of.
    I suggest, next time when you travel., keep your negatives only to yourselve and try to be more flexible with locals and food and don’t be having mind set ..” ok, his country is shit” or plz don’t travel PERIOD. Others didn’t call you over and others will enjoy regardless of your pathetic blog bla bla bla

  • If you are complaining about local food, mon amie, how possibly are you going to travel the rest of the world?
    Just a friendly advice – if there are more people in your country who have the same taste of travelling or whatever as you do tell them to bring their food in plastic container. Plus learn to go out of your comfort zone when you backpack under budget.

  • I am writing from Ulaanbaatar. Pessimist! It sounds like you have been exploring the worst part of Ulaanbaatar on purpose. It is you and it is what you experienced! You made your holiday!!!

  • Perhaps you were rude to them or I don’t know. Most tourists have way better experiences. From the flipside there are unreasonable tourists as well. Sorry mate.

  • Well, Hello, first of all.

    I am From Mongolia but I have spent half of my life traveling and living aboard and I am only 23 years old. To me, traveling is a way of life which I can learn and grow from. I been to few around 10 countries now and Well most states. However, what I learned from these travels is that there is no place life home.

    Mongolian needs to change but reading your post just made me realize that tourists need more information before going into an undeveloped country blindly like a blind mouse.

    Mongolian food consist mainly of rice, wheat, meat and vegetables which sucks but it has it is merits. However, there are many fine dining choices if you want good tasting food, which costs around $7-$15 for one person which is considerable compared to most countries. Street food like Huushuur (kinda like friend flat dumpling) but tastes great depending on where you buy it.

    And most guest houses are overpriced because people don’t use it anymore. They use AirBnB and Couchsurfing but reads the reviews first Dughhh. Well, I am sorry, Even I know that price is total Bull-S… If you know what I mean.

    But I have to tell you, you aren’t doing your research if you wanna check out the city and the culture. Maybe on your next travel, it might be different wherever you might go to if you contact a local or an expat of theirs to chat and talk about your plans

    • Well Looking back to the food pictures, Even I can tell you that you got punked, I can make better tasting Food with those same items haha

      Sorry, man, Mongolia Don’t have Yelp yet haha

  • I am sure u must be one of those israilians, who are very rude and wants to travel for free. Israilians are the unwanted people in Mongolia, actually not only in Mongolia, lets say all over the world.

  • As mongolian , mongolians are so rude and terrible people. Dont come to here to tourist. I was in europe , there was all cool. But when i came back to mongolia. All atmosphore is down here. Fucking mongolians

  • I think the key to success in Mongolia is knowing a trusted local. I lived there for 4 years and I had many cheap trips guided for free by local friends. UB does not impress at first glance but there is some decent nightlife when you know it well. I understand how this can be hard for tourists.

    My last trip outside the city was amazing and dirt cheap. I want with my Mongolian girlfriend to Arkhangai province. We traveled by local bus and negotiated with nomads directly for car rides, horses and yurts. Well, she did. As a result, we got amazing deals. Probably less than $10 per day overall. I agree that the tour companies are a rip off and I’ve never used one in 4 years.

    Food is tricky. I’m a vegetarian so it’s extra challenging but with good communication and a local girlfriend, my food was pretty good in the countryside. In the city, it’s more diverse.

    I suggest tourists visit FB expats groups in Mongolia to avoid the ripoffs.

  • First of all i’m mongolian and forgive my bad grammar. I kinda self taught so..
    I have to disagree on some of your statements.
    “Mongolia relies almost only on tourism to sustain its growth” – well tourism sector only barely covers 3% GDP of Mongolia currently. Everything in mongolia is developing.
    About food: Mongolian people say “if you drink their water or eat their food you gotta abide their culture”. If your taste of mongolian local food is not appealing, there are many other choices here like Korean, Chinese, French, American, Mexican etc..
    About the prices: It’s clear that you acquired that information from others. (having to pay extras). Reviewing something without actually done yourself is not so informative to others.
    FYI it’s Ulaanbaatar not Ulaanbataar.
    Mongolia is small developing country with big and beautiful country. Country people have nice manner. There are lot of space for improvement in here.
    I feel sorry for your bad experience. I hope you were the unluckiest to come here.
    Maybe next time you come here things get better.

  • I think, the person, who has written this article, is the one who have understanding Mongolia is the place were is the most cheap in the world. Of course, there is some bad places and bad people in Ulaanbaatar. But, there is no problem to travel in safe and nice places in Mongolia if you register in tourist agency or company in Mongolia. Of course there are many godsend amazing places and amazing people in Mongolia. To travel in Mongolia is really cheap.

  • As a Mongolian, I would like to give you some comments on your blog. It is really obvious that you did not have enough information about Mongolia when you travelled there. 1. Summer is the only season for tourism but it lasts for only three months. Therefore, Mongolia does not (cannot even if they wanted to) “rely almost only on tourism to sustain its growth”, but its economy relies on the other sectors, including mining and agriculture. 2. Your photos show that you did not visit a restaurant. Restaurants and cheap cafes are essentially different from one another in Mongolia because cafes are popular places for local people and we really need to eat fatty food to survive in the cold weather. 3. Wild life and countryside are the common destinations for tourists in Mongolia, and I have never heard that one would travel to Mongolia to see the city only. Even local people usually go out the city during the weekends and holidays to see the beauty in Mongolia. 4. If you wanted to have a budget tour, you could have read more on the Internet or get some advice from local people. For instance, I helped many of my foreign friends travel to Mongolia on small budgets. Therefore, I feel sorry for your experience in Mongolia but I think that it is a common sense to do some research if people intend to travel to a developing country. It is your responsibility to make you trips wonderful or miserable, it is your point of view to understand a phenomenon positively or negatively, and it is your level of “global knowledge” for what to expect from a different culture and society. Finally, I would like to tell you that a lot of us are friendly and supportive to foreigners (hope you have heard of the hospitality in Mongolia) but if you showed such negative attitudes (for instance, taking a photo of a pile of garbage) in Mongolia, it is no wonder why you had a miserable trip in the city. 🙂

  • I’m sorry to hear that you had a bad travel experience in Mongolia. I may agree Mongolia, especially its capital city Ulaanbaatar, is not highly developed or has everything that travelers want to see like other developed counties’ cities. But I disagree with that safety thing. Mongolia does not have a terrorism, gun violence and any other big safety issues which occur in other countries. Mongolians are nomadic people. If you could go out of the city to somewhere in countryside, that would be awesome cause you can see far better things like livestock animals, traditional lifestyle, and also meet people who do not see you $ tattoo on you forehead. Travelers usually come to Mongolia to travel in real nature and experience traditional lifestyle and usually don’t stay in city that much. Last but not least, complaining for local food is weird. Every one has different tastes, giving a bad review on local food based on your taste to others Is Not accurate.

  • I am writing from UB. I could not disagree more. Seems like your luck turned against you on this trip. From what you wrote i sensed that you are a bit of a snob and sensitive guy. There are numerous mongolian traditional restaurants in UB. It is a shame that you could not find them. pricing is always a big problem anywhere you go. Primarily Exploring the country you are going is the bast way to avoid conflicts. good luck on your next trip.

  • I think you’re just unlucky guy however i agree about tourist guest houses are bad in UB. I should tell in UB there have 15 vegetarian restaurants if you don’t like meat. You’re saying about pay extra money. It depends how dumb you are. 🙂 good luck for your next trip.

  • It sounds more like a personal revenge than an expression of an actual experience/advice. Quite one sided, quite unbelievable. Maybe you have some communication issues or maybe you did not have have a terrible guide who wanted to hustle you. Mongolia has many problems, but any trip Mongolia is and can be much better that what is written here. Perhaps, it is quite unfair to describe the whole community based on your few days experience.

  • ur post is reasonably interesting but too negative. so finally my conclusion is u have just met wrong ppl , chose wrong agent, the cafeteria u went actually cheap and wrong chose. u know what u r just too focusing on the price and everything comes to u is just cheap and not pleasant. next time if u go donewhere at least chose nice restaurant. not cheapest one. one thing i wanna tell u that If u likes to eat real natural beef, lamb or any meat they have the best. so finally, u r just cheap thats the only reason u deserve negativeness. gd luck

  • What you think between China and Russia is it no hard?
    Why Mongolia independent hundreds to hundreds years?
    That is why.
    Welcome to Mongolia.

  • Sorry for the inconvenience you felt in Mongolia.Generally speaking i understand how you felt and what you have experienced was not convenient. But not every country is perfect and one does not fit all. As for food, locals eat heavy food, because of the harsh climate . Do you know Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world?
    Just for your future reference, please check your facts before writing about a country. The capital city is Ulaanbaatar, not Ulaanbataar.
    I’m not trying to be mean, but its not good you do not even know the name of the city which you are complaining about.
    Secondly, as you mentioned mongolia depends on tourism? This is a big NO. So please check some of the facts you mentioned is really true!!!

  • Also writing from UB. I tend to believe that posts about a specific place tend to tell one more about the poster than about the place. UB is a rapidly developing city, certainly, but it has a number of very good restaurants (including French ones, if that is important to you), and while Mongolian food may be pretty heavy for your tastes, for me that has always been part of the experience of travelling. Complaining about the local food isn’t going to make you many friends! There are very affordable tours into the Gobi and other parts of the country, Golden Gobi organise the cheapest if this is what you are looking for, but it rather seems from your post that you decided in advance (or from hearsay) that you didn’t like the place without actually having a go yourself. Unfortunate, as you would most likely have found that, as in most countries, the good experiences outweigh the bad. I wish you good luck in your onward travels, and if Mongolia is not for you, so be it, but don’t put others off the trip of a lifetime!

    • Thank you Adam for your feedback.
      We had no preconceived ideas on UB as we just poped in on our way to China without knowing anything about Mongolia.
      As you might know by reading our blog, we love to try local food in places where actual locals are going (not French restaurants in other countries, we have enough of those home).
      Going to Gobi was on our bucket list (and still is, I think we’ll give it a new try from Inner Mongolia in China) but we seek authenticity and fair pricing we couldn’t find spending a few days doing so.
      This post is a feed back on what we experienced in UB and it doesn’t represent the full spectrum of possibilities one can find in the city. Some experience are simply nicer than others and we are not the kind of bloggers keeping the bad away from our diaries.
      We are not preventing anyone from going on any “lifetime journey” of their choosing, we are just narrating our travels and expressing how we felt.
      We consider that readers are responsible beings that will read multiple posts and articles from blogs and other media to prepare their travels.
      Blog posts have to reflect singular experiences because the travel blogger’s first duty is to be honest.
      We didn’t like our stay in Ulaan Bataar, this doesn’t mean that anyone else should.
      Happy travels and good luck to you too 🙂
      We might meet on the road and discuss that around a beer, who knows !

      • It’s a huge lie I’m working in a Mongolian travel agency our price for 3days in Gobi Desert is 150$ /All included/. And i know that there are many places where you can find tour by this price and even cheaper. So maybe you didn’t search well. I’m not being rude ,but u can’t be so unfair to Mongolia only because you had bad trip

      • “the travel blogger’s first duty is to be honest.”

        But article that is half-assed is always cut, and well to me I am sorry it just seems half-assed

    • Good comment Adam.I didn’t say anything when all stuff were stolen by french guys in france . I thought that was my fault. Because I didn’t pay attention for my stuff. Every country has bad things and good things. If you organise your travel well , it’s amazing country

  • I’m writing this from UB and I could not disagree more! We’ve been treated fairly, felt really safe and have just returned from a very reasonably priced 20 day tour of the Country – $40 USD per day and genuinely all inclusive….The nomads actually gave us gifts. As for the food, yes, some of the traditional food is not great but there is so much choice in UB, Korean, Japanese, pizza etc. Please don’t be put off, Mongolia is stunning and the people are wonderful.

  • Wow! It sounds to me like there’s a real opportunity in Ulaanbaatar for some entrepreneur to open a tour company that caters to tourists in an open and transparent way. It wouldn’t even matter if it was on the expensive side; people would flock to them!

  • This is so sad. My mother went to Mongolia in 2008 and had a very good experience, met many locals and didn’t have any problem with being overcharged or harassed. It’s a shame that so much has changed in a few years. She did stay with a pastor and their family for part of the time that she was in Ulaanbataar, but she also did some touring with the university group she arrived with for an archeological dig in the desert. I think the most expensive part for her was the plane tickets! I hope the locals learn that fair prices and friendliness will earn them more return travelers.

      • Good idea. Good luck for next time bro. Hope you enjoy and see brighter side. I totally don’t agree your post. I’m sorry

      • Come back and i will show you. Do not ever forget this, email me if you are going to comeback someday so that i can change this thought and show you our wonders mate 😀

      • Hello, there. Writing also from Mongolia, but I’m not a traveler, I’m the native Mongolian. On one hand I agree with you, but on the other side I think you should make more planning and researches to travel any country, not only Mongolia. I agree with you that our supermarkets are expensive, but we all buy staff from there. About prices of the Gobi Tour, you searched not so well, because 1000$ it’s too high, you can find that kinds of tours by 350-400$ easily. The only problem of ours is the information about tours are not so find-able on internet. So, if you planning to visit Mongolia once more, it’s better to organize it by some local habitat, they will find you cheaper and good tours. About food and cuisine, you wrote it’s very heavy for you. But there are so much choice of the cuisines in every restaurant or cafe in Mongolia, who said you to choose exactly that “heavy one” when there is plenty of menus.
        P.S.:Sorry about my bad English. And good luck for the next time!

    • I can surely say that Mongolia hasn’t change. It’s not fair changing your thoughts because of one person. I’m working in a Mongolian travel agency . Our price for 3days in Gobi Desert is 150$ /All included/. And i know that there is many places where you can find tour by this price . So please dont make quick decisions

      • I hope you don’t go to mongolia again. Mongolia is a mind blowing wonderful place with great hospitality and even greater culture. If you didn’t feel that in your visit ( which is unfortunate) then no matter how many times you go there with this mind of yours you will bately enjoy anything ever.

        If you are actually willing to experience, mongolia offers the best organic food you will ever find in your life. Probably your processed food adapted taste buds are not for good stuffs, anyway.

        Oh by the way, mongolia’s main economy is not tourism, tourism doesn’t even crack the top 5 or so. Pls educate yourself first, you might find some peace and positivity in true facts.

        Hope you will enjoy something in your life someday. Best wishes

      • I am very sorry. I am really regret that you had so bad travel in Mongolia. But, I believe you can find good chance to travel in Mongolia next time and meet really calm local people. All the best.