Think there is nothing to do in winter? Think again. If you’re living in Ulaanbaatar and can’t bear the thought of being holed up at home or work for another day, fear not – The UB Post has a list of 10 cool things to do in Mongolia this winter.
While traveling in Mongolia during winter may seem like a ludicrous idea, an increasing number of expats, locals and tourists are bucking the trend and heading to the countryside for a winter break.
Winter tourism is growing every year and local tourism operators are seeing an uptake in winter travel.
“There’s a huge potential in terms of activities because there are many expats, visitors from embassies and organizations who want to get out of smoky Ulaanbaatar and go on a trip,’’ Expat Mongolia owner Bold Purevdelger said.
Expat Mongolia is one of a number of tourism operators that runs winter tourism activities. One of the most popular activities is dog sledding but Bold also runs paragliding, ice skating and guided visits to winter festivals including the Ice Festival in Lake Khuvsgul and the camel festival in the Gobi desert in March.
Even though many ger camps and tourist attractions shut down over winter, a number of accommodation spots remain open and rooms start at low as six USD per night with some hotels even slashing up to 50 percent off the usual price.
Remarkably, the drives are not much longer than trips in summer, and tracks to many destinations are still accessible even while covered in snow. However, flights to many destinations are not available.
“There’s a bit of a misconception that people can’t travel in winter in Mongolia due to the cold but that’s changing,’’ he said. “There also needs to be more flights available and preparation from the Mongolian Tourism Board to make it happen,” he added.
Tim Spring, an expat from Australia who works in Ulaanbaatar, recently spent a week with friends at Khuvsgul Lake over the New Year’s and said it was a wonderful experience. “I think more people should support winter tourism,” he said. “It felt like the whole town was out to help us enjoy it and not just for the money, they really enjoyed having us there.”
For those thinking of taking a trip to the countryside, the most important tip is to take the plunge and do it! And of course, if you rug up well with plenty of warm clothes, you won’t feel the cold too much. Mongolia is beautiful in winter – you won’t regret it.
- Dog sledding
Sledding with dogs through forests and over frozen rivers at 50 km an hour is an exhilarating experience. Initially, it feels out of control as the sled skids to the command of a pack of trotting paws, but it is safe and sturdy. The dog-sled base in Terelj National Park is run by local Mongolians who train the dogs all year round. Expat Mongolia runs dog sledding trips in Terelj every weekend during winter. A day trip includes dog sledding, campfire lunch, horse riding, a hike, a visit to the nearby monastery and some exciting bum-luging down a giant hill (yes, you read that right!). The huskies are treated well and are gentle enough to pose with you for some photos afterward! Speeding through the snowy landscape driving your own team of eager huskies is a memorable experience you won’t forget anytime soon.
- Frozen waterfall in the Orkhon Valley
During summer tourists flock to the Orkhon Khurkee waterfall in the Orkhon Valley, but many might not realize how beautiful the waterfall is in winter! The waterfall freezes and the sky-blue and turquoise colors set against the gorge is a stunning sight. The bumpy four-hour drive from Kharkorin is a little long but if you’re willing to bear it, you’re in for a unique experience with a guarantee of no other tourist in sight. Most ger camps in this region are closed over winter but Family Guesthouse in Kharkorin will put you up and can also organize a driver to the waterfall and lunch at a nearby family’s ger. The hot springs on the way to Tariat are closed during winter.
- Skiing and snowboarding
One of the most popular winter activities for Mongolians, expats and visitors alike are winter sports. Sky Resort is great for skiing, snowboarding and luging. The best thing is it’s only a 25-minute drive from Ulaanbaatar but far away to be in the fresh air with no stinking pollution in your face! Sky Resort is good for beginners right through to the experienced skiers and snowboarders. For those more die-hard adventure seekers, Sanzai is a top-notch location. The cool guys from the Mongolia Extreme or Die Facebook page often visit Sanzai. It’s a one-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar to the top of a small mountain, which usually has a foot and a half of fresh powder. Worth visiting!
Monasteries stay open during winter and provide visitors with a genuine insight into Mongolian Buddhists’ way of life. Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkorin is one of the most beautiful monasteries in the country. Founded in 1586, it was the first monastery in Mongolia and set in a picturesque location surrounded by hills. During winter there are no tourists and it’s a perfect time to stroll around the serene grounds. Amarbayasgalant Monastery is also open during winter although nearby accommodation is a little trickier to organize.
- Horse riding
Just as it is in summer, horse riding is Mongolia’s most iconic activity. Most ger camps can organize horse riding even if you’re only an hour from Ulaanbaatar or in the wilderness of northern Mongolia. It’s also a better time for beginners to try it out as the soft snow makes the horses go slow and steady. Horse-sledding on frozen lakes and rivers is also popular during winter.
- Khuvsgul Lake
The stunning Lake Khuvsgul is one of the best longer trips to do in winter. More and more visitors are taking advantage of the unique experience of being at the lake when it’s frozen over. Activities include horse riding, sleigh riding across the ice, snowboarding and sledding, hiking, polar bear challenge (skinny dipping for those brave enough), walking on water, building ice statues, casual ice hockey, ice sumo and going on driving tours across the lake. MS Guesthouse in Khatgal is the only ger camp open during winter. Khuvsgul Lake is also home to the ice festival held in March every year.
Terelj remains one of the best places to escape the city and enjoy time in the countryside. Saraa’s ger camp in Terelj is an affordable spot with a frozen river at its doorstep. It is one of the few ger camps in Terelj that remains open during winter. Visitors can stay warm in the ger and go out on horse rides and hikes during the middle of the day.
8. Tariat and the frozen Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake
If you’re in for a rough-and-ready trip to the countryside, a visit to the frozen Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake outside of Tariat in central Mongolia is possible. From Tariat, the 20-minute drive to the lake will leave you breathless (and pretty chilly). Underneath your feet, you can see air bubbles, flowers, and vines trapped underneath the surface of the lake, which is covered in cascading colors of turquoise and sea-green. The deep ice blocks running meters below your feet will have you in awe of the absolute beauty of the elements of the earth. Going for sunset at the nearby volcano is also a wonderful experience.
9. Weekend getaway to Shatan
The small town of Shatan is an easy place to escape to from Ulaanbaatar. Located about three hours by train toward Darkhan, the train ride is relaxing and comfortable. Shatan itself is a sleepy little town set in a narrow valley surrounded by hills. Ulaanbaatar expat Katie Scar heads there with her partner regularly. “We stay in a railway worker’s cottage that’s warm and cozy. It’s a nice spot to sit and read books and cook up a pot of mulled wine,” Katie said. “We usually go for a hike through the town and along the valley. After two hours, the toes get pretty cold though so it’s nice to head back to the warmth of the cottage. It would be a great spot for cross-country skiers too.”
- City life: ballet, opera, spas and saunas
Spas and saunas are especially popular in winter as people try to escape the outdoor chills. The Japanese spa at Sky Resort is popular for a day of indulging yourself in fresh, soothing water bubbling straight from underground Bogd Khan Mountain. Ballet, opera, concert and comedy nights are also held at various locations.