Travelling as a vegan in Mongolia is not recommended for weak stomachs. I thought mine could handle it, but it didn’t.
Although I was always very well prepared, I had a lot of difficulty coping with the local eating habits.
I didn’t want my diet to get in the way of experiencing the local culture, so I stubbornly took on the nomad way of living on the countryside. Marvellous idea, Marie. Bravo.
I entered Mongolia in the West, with my first stop being Olgii. To my great surprise, there were loads of fruits and vegetables to be found, so I felt pretty stupid with my big bag of provisions that I carried all the way from Russia with me.
Food is heavy, but better safe than sorry; because if there is anything I really dislike it is being hungry.
In general, vegans can expect to be a bit discriminated against. That’s because most of the hotels and tours offer packages with food included, but it is impossible for them to make a vegan dish and they will not lower the price for vegans, so you end up paying for food you need to buy yourself anyway. Sigh…
They just have no idea what veganism is, and they believe that the whole world survives from killing cattle to avoid animals taking over the globe and ruling over humanity. The first day I was there, someone even asked me if flour was vegan. So never mind to trying to explain to them how to cook a vegan meal.
Before the bus- and ‘squeezed-with-three-people-on-a-motor’-ride through the Steppe, I filled up my backpack with home-made mushroom pasta, oats, nuts and fruit.
The supermarkets offer products imported from Russia and China, though they are a bit more expensive. You will pay 1 to 2 Euro for jarred vegetables and the fresh ones are not so tasty and even more pricey. Make sure to check produce carefully, because the demand is so low that they tend to turn bad before being sold.
West-Mongolia is populated with Kazachs, so in every small nomad family you will find yourself at a table filled with biscuits, cheese, chocolate, bread and hot tea. The tea is made with yak-milk, so I drank hot water instead. The good news is that the Kazakh bread is vegan, since the lands are so scarce and the people are so poor that there is no way that they can afford eggs.
Mongolia smells like meat and cheese–it is literally everywhere and they will keep on encouraging you to taste ‘just one piece’ even though you have explained several times that you don’t want to.
What struck me is that the people look very old. My guide was 24, but looked thirty, and the teenagers of my host family already had wrinkles. For me, it just shows that red meat is aging us faster than we normally would. They don’t eat fruits and vegetables at all. When I was preparing my oats in the morning, the whole family stared at me during the whole process, because they had never seen such a strange food in their lives. When I made them taste some of it, their faces were hilarious and with repulsion they turned back to their big pile of meat and noodles.
These people were amazing and incredibly hospitable, so sometimes it felt uncomfortable to constantly refuse what they offered to me. Also, I felt quite asocial being the only one not eating the same dish as everyone else.
I would love to be able to say that I conquered the harsh Mongolian countryside. I would love to have proven that, as a vegan, you can travel without limitations. But I needed to surrender.
During meals I stressed out trying to avoid any pieces of boiled corpses splashing into my self-brought food, and then I saw my host family doing the dishes in meat-bouillon…
I understand it’s in their culture and this is survival, I respect that; but I could see from a very close distance that this is just not for me at all. I could not see the advantage of putting my health at stake and not having a good time for the sake of the ‘experience’.
I took a two-day school bus ride directly to the capital. My linen bag was filled up with goodies in order to arm myself against the freezing cold. I made a container of buckwheat and jarred vegetables with spices and one with oatmeal and fresh fruit. Next to that I snacked on nuts and even granted myself an Oreo (accidentally vegan :D) to compensate for the suffering of being in this moving box of frozen sardines.
I had booked myself an apartment in Ulaanbaator, because I felt like I needed some time to rejuvenate. I was craving a kitchen for creating my own healthy meals again and eating out of real clean plates.
The selection in the supermarkets is even bigger than in Russia, since they also import a whole bunch from China, France, Germany and Poland. This makes it easier to figure out what everything actually contains, because the labels were translated in English, German and French.
Normally I try to buy only local products, but in Mongolia they have to live from imported products since the only thing they “grow” is livestock.
I visited two restaurants in Ulaanbaator: ‘Loving Hut’ and ‘Bosco Verde’.
There are about eight Loving Huts in this meat-loving city and I was lucky to have one just around the corner from my apartment. During my three weeks in UB, I only visited them twice, because my budget did not allow me to splurge in the city. I would have gone every day if I could have, but the reward is even bigger if you only go occasionally. The food was delicious and freshly made, the staff friendly and my tummy filled up with joy. All hail vegenaise!
There was also another vegan restaurant that didn’t really capture me like Loving Hut did. It was an Italian place named ‘Bosco Verde’ and my feelings about the food were mixed. The starters were delicious and fresh, but the main dishes were tasteless and heated up in the microwave.
You can read my full review on the HappyCow website.
For the record, they will put tofu and soy in almost every dish. Since this country has always been based on meat, they will always try to find a way to imitate the missing meat. I think this is not necessary at all, since I did not stop eating meat to have the feeling that I am eating meat. You know?
In ‘normal’ restaurants, there is always salad to be found on the menu, but ask them to skip the oil, because this is usually horse oil. Ew. Knowing this, I carried a small bottle of vegetable oil and some spices with me during my visits to the city. This way, I could enjoy a tasty emergency salad anywhere.
I don’t want to discourage you from visiting this unique country, but just keep in mind that this is how it is. Be prepared and take these tips into account. I am happy that I can scratch Mongolia off my list, and I might even go back in the summer.
Since I arrived in Mongolia without knowing much about it, it was quite a challenge. But now I feel confident that I can travel there again with more ease in the future.