By Marissa J. Smith
This past week I have spoken with several people, and participated in several conversations on social media, where an announcement by Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene has been quoted as “borders are open.”
I am sharing here a breakdown of my process for assessing if I’m ready to plan or not. Again, this is my process, and it reflects my citizenship and point of departure. Additionally, please note that this in no way reflects the opinions or approaches of others writing for the Mongolia Focus blog.
For now, no, I’m not ready, but I am keeping tabs on the situation.
Overall Situation in Mongolia
When I dug around for primary and more direct secondary sources on the announcement, I quickly found MNB World’s English language coverage. This coverage actually made no mention of changes to entry procedures, rather highlighting how the lifting of domestic restrictions will hopefully help Mongolia’s stricken economy (“economic growth reached -5 percent and the state’s revenue also decreased by 23 percent”). The piece also relayed that border crossings are still “following heightened disaster preparedness measures” and that the administrations of border aimags (i.e., 8 of 21 aimags) were given instructions on outbreak prevention.
Before travelling to Mongolia, I have to consider carefully not only whether or not I might be able to meet my own needs while there, but also what demands my presence might place on Mongolians. It seems that these would at present be not inconsiderable.
U.S. Embassy and U.S. State Department
For American citizens, Oyun-Erdene’s announcement this week did not represent any major changes in terms of quarantine, vaccination, or testing requirements.
The U.S. Embassy website currently includes this warning, specifically about lifting of institutional quarantine requirements (which only happened in January 2022) — “regulations remain in flux and could change with little notice.”
The U.S. State Department’s Mongolia Travel Advisory remains at Red: Do Not Travel. The advisory notes, “It may be difficult to enter or leave Mongolia and travelers should expect delays entering Mongolia and/or returning to the United States.”
As the U.S. State Department advisory continues to warn: “commercial transportation to/from Mongolia is not available or only sporadically available.”
There has recently been considerable movement on this front in the last month or so, however major concerns remain. In short, routes that were once available daily are only running flights one or two times a week. (And still zero via Beijing.) Below, I give more details by route.
For how things were prior to the pandemic, I have checked my memory against the 2014 edition of the Lonely Planet guide. My firsthand experience of these routes includes flights via Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, and Istanbul.
Prior to the pandemic, flights between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing flew daily. Currently, there are zero flights.
Aeroflot resumed flights between Ulaanbaatar and Moscow only on January 13, 2022. Previously a daily flight, these are now only weekly. Some secondary websites show biweekly flights in March.
Those in my circles who have travelled to Ulaanbaatar from North America in the past few weeks have gone through Seoul. This was an important hub prior to the pandemic as well; but it has always been a more expensive option. I would also note that this route has ebbed and flowed over the course of the pandemic. It is unclear from my online searches how often flights are running currently.
The frequency of Turkish Airlines flights through Istanbul have also ebbed and flowed. Prior to the pandemic, passengers reported issues with checking luggage, and the uncomfortable pit stop in Bishkek (which I have myself experienced). Complaints along these lines have crossed my social media feeds in recent months.
There are also flights going through Tokyo, but Japanese borders are almost completely closed to international travelers, adding additional hurdles to international transit, especially if one is checking baggage.
The Ulaanbaatar-Frankfurt flights seem to have resumed — but these were always in high demand and difficult to book.
Toby Philpott, a resident of Ulaanbaatar, has brought these “summer schedules” (beginning end of March) to my attention. The Civil Aviation Authority of Mongolia writes (translation from Mongolian): “Airlines will schedule and plan their flights according to this schedule.”
For now, I regard this as a highly tentative preview of what schedules in the coming months may look like.