Okay, so I was thinking about this for a while. After having spent some time in Mongolia as an ex-pat and done a fair bit of travelling now around the country I want to talk a little about Mongolian roads, and this post may surprise you with what I am about to say. If you are planning a trip in Mongolia, whether driving yourself or going on a planned tour with a guide, stick around so you know what to expect!
To begin I need to dispel some misconceptions; Mongolians don’t actually just travel on horses and camels from place to place but actually use cars (Toyota Pruis are the modern horse). I know it sounds funny saying that but I have actually met more than one person who has asked me this which always makes me laugh and realise how little many people actually know about Mongolia.
As I said, what I’m about to say may surprise some but Mongolian roads aren’t all that bad, some are actually quite good. Let’s go through them in a kind of tier system from the great to the…well… not so great. I will say this however, if any analogy comes to mind when thinking of Mongolian roads, I would say that no matter the road, all roads lead to Rome. Hopefully, by the end of this post, you will get what I mean.
Tier 1: Modren Roads
In the first tier, we have of course are paved roads. These are normally your highway roads which connect to your city centres of different provinces. They are normally two-way, single-lane road that is raised slightly off the ground. Mongolia recently has been improving paved roads and creating new ones, especially between tourist destinations/hubs. Newer roads are smooth but don’t always expect to see road markings as they generally don’t always last long, so stick to your side of the road.
A point to note here. Just because you are driving between city centres, don’t expect to have a fully paved road. At the time of writing this, between Ulaanbaatar and Darkan roughly 200kms is a rough unpaved road even though Darkhan is the 3rd largest city in Mongolia. The government has been working on a new highway for about 5 years now but is a very long way from finishing it. Between Arvaikheer, another major city and Ulaanbaatar there are sizable periods where the road is rough and unpaved too.
Tier 2: The okayish roads
This can be any paved road that is an old or paved road that isn’t well maintained. There are many of them and you can expect them to be bumpy, filled with large potholes and narrow. These are normally between smaller city centres and even some larger towns. Also, don’t be surprised to see them between larger cities as well.
Tier 3: The gravel rocky roads
I learned something recently. When you ask Mongolians does an area have a paved road often or not they will say yes. What they really mean by paved road is just a road that is gravelled with loose rocks and dirt that has little maintenance (not a paved road). These roads are very common, especially in the countryside and will be found where the government hasn’t yet built an actual paved road to an attraction but want to make it easier for tourists to travel there.
They are normally wide enough for two lanes but expect them to be rough, quite rough at times, enough to make your car shake apart and with guaranteed potholes. However, because they have some maintenance and there are actually some road signs along them you will know you are still on the main road which you are following with Google maps.
Tier 4: Countryside roads
These are roads but they are normally just a single lane with very little effort made to call them a road but they will normally have some road signs along them every once in a while with small bridges to cross between average size towns. They will be bumpy dirt roads so don’t expect any paved roads here. In the countryside normally towns only have a paved road in their town centre or main street.
On these roads, you are more likely to get lost as it’s not uncommon for the road to disappear or have more than one direction to follow without a sign telling you which way to go. One bit of relief is to look out for the road picket which will appear every couple of kilometres (if your lucky) that tell you you are still on the main road.
Tier 5: Technically you can call it a road?
These roads are everywhere in the countryside between soums or small towns and most are little more than dirt tracks made by cars continuously passing over them. If the road is too bumpy, don’t worry you can make your own brand new road! Can you think of any other country where you can make your own new state-of-the-art highway between your favourite towns???
Joking aside, commonly you will see multiple tracks where vehicles have decided to make a new route when the old route is too bumpy or muddly. Expect this kind of road to be bad, muddy no bridges and no road signs at all. You will probably also need to ask for directions, but don’t worry there you can always find a ger to ask a local herder.
Have we missed anything? Regardless of the road, Mongolia is a place worth exploring and the trip to the destination is part of the fun of the journey, so embrace your adventurous side!
Safe travels everyone!