Take your time. Mongolia is vast, the steppe can be bumpy and boggy, and paved roads are limited. So unless you’re willing to fly on regional airlines, getting from UB to any other towns can be time consuming. Hostel owners and tour operators are used to setting people up to trek out into the countryside for weeks at a time rather than mere days. The steppe experience is worth it and affordable, especially since it’s legal to free-camp almost anywhere in the country and most folks you come across in the hinterland are friendly enough. But it definitely falls beyond the purview of a UB-focused guide.
Ask about the Death Worm. Every nation has its myths and magical creatures. But few are so amusing, so worthy of a SyFy Original Movie, as the olgoi-kharkhoi—the Mongolian Death Worm. A longstanding belief amongst Mongols first revealed to the West in a 1922 account by the paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, the Death Worm is by reputation a rare creature that lives deep in the sands of the Gobi. The few who claim to have seen it describe it as a three-foot-long fat worm, dark red, with spikes sticking out of both of its ends. Although sluggish, many fear it for its ability to spit corrosive acidic venom and to discharge a lethal electrical shock at humans and livestock from a great distance. There is no evidence it exists, and some speculate that it might have been a misidentified snake or worm lizard turned mythic over generations of tall tales, but the Death Worm is a fun topic of conversation nonetheless. If you’re at a bar, bring it up and see what ensues—hopefully it’ll be a joyful crypto-zoological free-for-all.

Naraan Tuul is your one-stop shop for yak needs. These shaggy giants still hold a special place in the nation’s mind and material culture. Yes, you can search out yak meat (and it is delicious). There are also yak socks, yak bone jewelry, and yak bone chess pieces on a foldable board made of dyed yak felt. Low-grade yak wool can be a bit rough. But proper yak craftsmanship is beautiful, cuddly, and warm. Tourist shops will gouge you, but you can find yak everything (and some very stylish nomadic leather goods) and eminently affordable prices in the massive Naraan Tuul, UB’s quasi-black market, and there are artisans aplenty well worth supporting with shops on most major and side streets of the city—so stock up.
DO NOT GO IN WINTER. UB is pleasant in the spring and summer, but in the winter it gets bitterly cold. In January 2015 temperatures hit -41.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Within recorded history it’s gone as far as -86.8 Fahrenheit. The bitter cold, biting winds, and heavy snows last for months on end, making UB one of the coldest capitals in the world. It’s also one of the most polluted cities in the world for a few months out of the year, thanks to the impoverished gerdistricts’ reliance on cheap but inefficient coal fires for warmth and light, and the heavy use of coal in the rest of the nation. Step outside, and the air will choke and stab at you. Mongolia is an amazing place, and UB is a bizarre mélange of a city, but summer is good and winter is bad in the city.


Mark Hay
Mark Hay is a freelance writer based out of Brooklyn, N.Y. An incessant carnivore with a special love for organ meat, he jumps at the chance to go on any and every culinary adventure possible. You can find his writings on food and everything else regularly in GOOD, Modern Notion, and VICE—and irregularly all over the place.