Mongolia - Maps.

The Anglophone Silkroute group was in Mongolia from 2004-07-05 to 2004-07-24 and covered about 2400 kilometers over a wide variety of roads. See here for a general description of our trip.

Navigating in Mongolia even with a GPS is difficult. I do not recommend trying to do it without one!

In most countries you can get by with a combination of a good map, reading the road signs and asking the locals. This is possible in Mongolia but fraught with difficulty.

Whilst you can buy road maps of Mongolia they are very inaccurate (see below) and more importantly there are so few features on the ground to match up with the map that knowing where you are is often difficult. We passed less than ten road signs in the whole of Mongolia (excluding those in Ulaan Baatar).

The road sign above is by far the most detailed and informative one we saw. We had come from Khovd (spelt Hovd on this sign) and were heading for Altay (note that there are two Altays, one on each route). The most confusing thing about this sign is that there was no road junction marked on our maps near this point. The road to the left (the correct way) was very poor compared to the road straight on. It is also interesting to note that the sign claims to at N47.416° E92.216° in fact it is at 47.477343°N 92.204364°E (that is an error of about 7.7km)

Asking the locals can also be difficult. Only those who regularly drive the route you want are likely to be able to help you. Your mispronunciation of the town name may well not be recognised, and most people can not read the name in Latin script (most names in Mongolia are written in the Cyrillic alphabet). Most Mongolians seem to find maps confusing, particularly when pushed under their nose by a foreigner asking silly question in a language they do not understand.

Before we entered Mongolia we naturally tried to find suitable maps both digital and paper. Below you will find samples of two digital and three paper maps of the same part of Mongolia (east of Altay centered about N46.50° E96.90°). In all but the last sample the map covers a distance of about 150km East to West.

Digital Maps.

Rather surprisingly Microsoft® AutoRoute 2002 covers Mongolia and includes a fair number of small towns. Those that I have checked are in the correct place (give or take a kilometer or two). There are no roads marked. But AutoRoute 2002 running on a laptop with a GPS receiver would be a useful addition to a paper map. AutoRoute 2002 does not display nor allow you to record tracks. It does allow you to record waypoints (pushpins), but these are difficult to export to other programs.

Garmin MapSource™ World Map 2.0 is available both to download into a suitable Garmin GPS or to use on a laptop. It seems to mark fewer towns in Mongolia than AutoRoute 2002 (but does still have three Altays). It does show some "roads" (red above) but they are not in the "right" position. The yellow line is where we, and everybody else, drove. Both a Garmin GPS and/or MapSource running on a laptop will record tracks and will give you a heading to the next waypoint.

Paper Maps and GPS Software.

I used the Canadian GPS/Mapping program Fugawi on my laptop in Mongolia for navigation. Because good digital maps of Mongolia were not available I scanned in (or photographed with my digital camera) paper maps. Below are three samples.

The best general road map of Mongolia I found was the International Travel Maps (ITMB) Mongolia 1:2,500,000. This map was detailed enough for our purposes, easy to read and has a fair amount of tourist information. As you can see (above) the main road from Altay to Bayankhongor is shown as going thru Taygan. In 2004 it does not. Roads in Mongolia are fluid. Because the "roads" are really only tracks made by vehicles they can migrate over time. Because regularly used dirt roads degenerate very quickly alternative parallel tracks get created, these in turn degenerate and again new tracks are created.

In the end you take the most used track heading in roughly the right direction and keep a close eye on the GPS to see if you have strayed too far from the "correct" road or too close to a "wrong" road (we were 45km off the "main-road" at one point between Altay and Bayankhongor). Unless you have lots of time, fuel and water this sort of navigating can be quite stressful. We met people who had gone 100km down the wrong road before they realised their mistake and turned round.

The other reasonably common Mongolian road map (as far as I know obtainable only from the "Map Shop" in Ulaan Baatar) is produced by the Cartography Co. Ltd. and titled "Road Map of Mongolia". As you can see (above) the main road from Altay to Bayankhongor is shown as going thru Delger. I don't know if Delger is the same town as Taygan. I know that in 2004 the "main road" gets no closer than 10km to this town. Because this map shows more roads than the ITMB map it gives the illusion of more accuracy.

The "Map Shop" also sells a series of 1:500,000 maps that cover Mongolia in 36 sheets. Above is a section of our route (this area is shown shaded in the ITMB map) from sheet L-47-A. The brown rectangle is Delger (or Taygan). It is interesting to compare the position of the lake/marsh near the town on this map and the ITMB map. Whilst this series of maps may have accurate contours the roads are just as wrong and for the same reason.

In practice, where the terrain permits, there seem to be roads running in most directions!

Stephen Stewart.

Home - This page last changed on 2004-12-14.