Winter on the steppe: visiting Mongolia in low season

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While most people opt to visit Mongolia in warmer seasons, the winter months are an exceptionally beautiful time to see the steppe and Siberian borderlands covered in frost and snow. To boot, the country is also surprisingly accessible at this time of year and worth a visit as a unique experience of its own.

Mongolia has notoriously frigid winters – temperatures can fall as low as -40°C in January and Ulaanbaatar holds the record as the world’s coldest capital city. Tourism typically sees its low season between November and late March, but visitors that venture to Mongolia at this frosty time of year will find there is still in fact plenty to see and do.

A yurt tent with a red door is covered in snow with a motorcycle iced over outside © Chantal de Bruijne / ShutterstockA snowy yurt on the Mongolian steppe © Chantal de Bruijne / Shutterstock

The cold drives away crowds, lending better rates for hotels and tours, and making it a perfect time for shopping the local cashmere sales or bundling up for a dazzling hike across a snow-covered grassland or an invigorating dog-sled ride with a local nomad.

Don’t let the extreme cold stand in your way; whether you have plans to dig up a woolly bargain in the city or aim to bundle out into the nearby wilderness, a spectacular world of winter wonders await in Mongolia.

Woolly winter shopping

For those who are willing to brave outside temperatures, Naran Tuul Market (what3words: itself.reckoned.wildfires) in Ulaanbaatar is a cheap place to find everything from traditional felt boots, vests and mittens to housewares and furniture, an assortment of hats and stoles and even 1980s-style, one-piece ski suits. Do note that this market requires awareness and street smarts: prices are never listed, it’s up to visitors to do their due diligence when bargaining, and beware of pickpockets and scams.

Naran Tuul Market: an outdoor market with rows of tables filled with products for sale and packed with shoppers in big coats, under a blue sky © Crystal Tai / Lonely PlanetNaran Tuul Market is a great place to get felt goods and wool clothing, if you can brave the temperatures © Crystal Tai / Lonely Planet

Mongolia produces over a third of the world’s cashmere: it has around 20 million goats and produces about 9000 tons of cashmere per year, according to one industry insider. Given its affordability, many Mongolians wear the fabric as part of their everyday ensembles.

Before heading out to the countryside, stock up on warm clothing at the State Department Store. Cashmere socks, sweaters and long underwear, winter parkas, leather and fur boots are available year-round, but tend to go on sale near the end of the winter season.

Located not far from here is Bodio’s Yak House (what3words: overtime.highlighted.trail), which offers yak-wool products ranging from thickly woven cardigans and jumpers to highly breathable yak-hair socks, made of ‘yak down’, a fabric similar to wool.

Elegant yak-wool clothing at Bodio's Yak House in Ulaanbaatar © Crystal Tai / Lonely PlanetElegant yak-wool clothing at Bodio’s Yak House in Ulaanbaatar © Crystal Tai / Lonely Planet

The Gobi Cashmere Factory Store (what3words: bibs.sized.mergers) at the northwest end of Ulaanbaatar has a huge range of cashmere goods (particularly jumpers and cardigans), and there’s often an end-of-season bargain to be had. Be aware some sizes may be limited here. Goyo Cashmere (what3words: sapping.beams.dice), located in the recently opened Shangri-la Hotel mall, has a more affordable selection of local cashmere turtlenecks, jumpers, wide-leg trousers, hats, gloves and scarves.

Snowy excursions on the steppe

To see the best of Mongolia’s frosty landscapes, you’ll want to head outside of Ulaanbaatar. Surrounding Töv province is easy to reach via local tour companies. Not far outside Ulaanbaatar is the Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex (what3words: regions.technician.freshens), a 40m-high monument of the leader’s likeliness in stainless steel.

Approaching the statue is a sight to behold, as the bright winter sun (Mongolia is sunny about 250 days a year) shines upon the former emperor’s fierce gaze. The statue was erected in 2008, as a joint effort between teams of Mongolian, Russian and South Korean engineers. If there’s time, ask your tour company about also arranging a visit with a local shaman to receive a blessing on the way.

The giant Chinggis Khaan statue looking out over a wintry steppe © Crystal Tai / Lonely PlanetThe giant Chinggis Khaan statue looking out over a wintry steppe © Crystal Tai / Lonely Planet

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park (what3words: upland.florists.nuance) is quiet and incredibly scenic during the wintertime. Located 15-20 minutes’ drive from the Chinggis Khaan statue and roughly two hours from Ulaanbaatar, the park includes several natural sights, such as Turtle Rock, a turtle-shaped rock formation that stands out against the brilliant blue sky and rocky mountain ranges beyond.

Other sights here include Gandan Khiid (what3words: upstarts.gangs.shuffle), sometimes called Aryaval Meditation Centre, a Buddhist monastery home to a community of monks during the summer seasons. In winter it is splendidly empty, visited only by a few local families, with breathtaking scenery from top.

Snowy view down steps and out across the snowy landscape to mountains in the distance, from atop Gandan Khiid monastery © Crystal Tai / Lonely PlanetSnowy view from atop Gandan Khiid monastery © Crystal Tai / Lonely Planet

Mongolian wildlife

Wildlife is a draw for many visitors to Mongolia, and in the wintertime, a number of animals can still be spotted, including black vultures, red foxes and jackals, grey wolves, rabbits, reindeer, wild horses and goats.

Dog-sledding is another winter pastime that provides an exciting vantage for seeing the winter landscapes up close. Dogs have always been an integral part of nomadic Mongolian life. A number of local nomad camps offer dog-sledding excursions; sleds include a nine-dog team managed by a trainer who uses verbal commands to guide the dogs through the countryside. Dog-sledding is exhilarating and requires a good sense of balance, as well as the willingness to spend time with a (friendly) pack of barking dogs.

View of a team of sled dogs from the sled, traversing across a snowy countryside with blue skies © Crystal Tai / Lonely PlanetBundle up: dog sledding is a great way to immerse yourself in the wintry Mongolian countryside © Crystal Tai / Lonely Planet

After an afternoon racing across glimmering frozen rivers and over paths of snow and rock, returning to the camp is a welcome respite, with warm ger tents to cosy into over cups of hot Mongolian suutei tsai(salty tea made from milk, tea leaves and salt), and heaps of buuz(steamed dumplings filled with fatty mutton, beef or both).

Winter eats

There may not be a whole lot of variety to Mongolian cuisine, but its hearty specialties hit the spot, especially in the wintertime. Mongolians eat a lot of meat and fat in the winter to stay warm, and buuz dumplings are especially great for heating the bones in sub-zero temperatures. On top of the nation’s well-known barbecue dishes – which include herb-roasted mutton and simple cuts of beef – cold, dark evenings can be warmed up by sampling the array of local spirits, including Chinggis Khan-brand beer, local varieties of vodka and fermented camel milk, called airag.

For a taste of true local cuisine, visit Zochin Cafe (what3words: lend.trending.possible) on Ulaanbaatar’s Peace Ave. This colourful eatery serves a number of barbecue dishes, along with mutton broth, cabbage soups, fried and soup dumplings, and fusion dishes like stir-fried noodles with vegetables and teriyaki beef rice. Note that Mongolian food is often on the salty side.

Make it happen

Ulaanbaatar is a good wintertime base, and offers a wide variety of toasty-warm accommodation. For a high-floor view of immense Sukhbataar Sq in frosty winter light, Khuvsgal Lake Hotel(what3words: summit.palettes.mostly) offers great value for its proximity to everything. In the countryside, Resort World Terelj (what3words: takers.single.imitating) is a large, rustic four-star hotel located inside Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. The rooms are comfortably-heated (no sleeping bags or hot water bottles needed!), and the hotel restaurant, which serves both western and Mongolian fare, is open until about 11pm in the wintertime.

Before arrival, make sure to stock up on certain winter essentials, as some of these may not not be widely available in Ulaanbaatar. Ski masks, or insulated partial face masks are crucial for keeping warm in the great outdoors, while disposable hand warmers, sock warmers and adhesive heat packs are always good to have on hand. Thermal gloves to protect against strong winds (especially while dog-sledding), and breathable synthetic or merino long underwear (never cotton!) to wear next to your skin are all very important.

View of frigid Sukhbataar Sq from Khuvsgal Lake Hotel © Crystal Tai / Lonely PlanetView of frigid Sukhbataar Sq from Khuvsgal Lake Hotel © Crystal Tai / Lonely

While roads may be slippery, wintertime transport in Mongolia is fine for the most part, as there is little snowfall. Walking outside for more than 20 minutes at a time can become difficult due to the cold, but it’s easy to hail a taxi within Ulaanbaatar. If travelling further into the countryside, utilising a travel agency, like Nomadic Trails, which specialises in outdoor excursions and can arrange winter tours across the steppe.

You may have noticed we’ve included what3words coordinates for the points of interest mentioned in this article. In 2016, the Mongolian postal service adopted this 21st-century digital address system in place of its old postal system. To try it out, download the app and use the three-word coordinates to search for each location. Find out more.

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