When I left New Zealand, I didn’t know many people that have travelled to Mongolia. In fact, only a very close friend of mine had been there and she spoke very highly of the place, so it’s fair to say I was looking forward to visiting the most desolate country in the world.
The train from Beijing to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, is kind of a part of the Trans-Siberian railway, although it’s classified as the Trans-Mongolian line. Many who take the Trans-Siberian eastward from Moscow split off on to this line at Ulan-Ude in Russia and finish up their journey in Beijing.
There’s a lot of misleading information about where to buy the ticket to Ulaanbaatar from Beijing. Most of this information is supplied with the intent of getting you to book through an agency, who add a heinous surcharge on to the original ticket cost. The place to buy the ticket in Beijing is CITS Hotel, which set me back 1,222 RMB for a spot in a hard sleeper (4 beds in a cabin).
The train left Beijing at 11am on the start of what would be a solid 27 hour journey. To my surprise I wasn’t just the only person in my cabin but the entire carriage. Clean toilets and a quiet night’s sleep without a group of Chinese people arguing at 2am whilst cracking open sunflower seeds was on the cards. Most excellent.
We reached the border at around 9.45pm. Here we had to stop for around 3 hours whilst the train was lifted off the tracks and the wheels changed. This is necessary because the Chinese run a different width of track than Mongolia / Russia. I wanted to be on the train for that, but I jumped off for a breath of fresh air and some chips and by the time I returned, the train was already taken around the corner for the switch. Fuck it. Hopefully I get the chance to experience that again one day; maybe when I enter Europe from Russia. The China – Mongolia line was, and still is, an infamous drug trafficking route so this is the first time I’ve had dogs come on to the train having a sniff around. After that, they search the carriages and take your passport away for stamping and when that’s concluded, it’s finally time to get some sleep.
The tracks with both widths at the changeover point.
I woke up the next day and looked out the window at a spectacular view of… nothing. Aside from a couple of gers and the odd building and power line, the Gobi desert was setting a great example for how desolate this country really is.
They switched the Chinese dining car for a Mongolian equivalent when the wheels were swapped. I didn’t trust the breakfast I had so I elected to neutralise any bugs with my first of many bottles of Mongolian vodka. When in Rome, right?
The owner of my guest house, Sunpath Hostel and Tours, picked me up for free from the train station which was nice. I got my first view of Ulaanbaatar as we made our way there. My first impression of the place was that it was chilled out, which was probably partly due to having just come from China, which is busier than a cucumber in a woman’s prison. It has a community vibe to it. The other thing I noticed of this city is the Soviet influence in all the buildings and how the place made me think of Russia even though I’m yet to go there (all the Mongolian writing, which is quite similar to Russian probably has something to do with it). It’s also quite dusty, which is to be expected when you’re in the middle of a desert.
Before I left town to begin trekking through the country side, I dropped my passport off to Legend Tours, who would organise my Russian visa for me. I could attempt to apply through the Russian embassy but from all things I’ve been told that can be a bit of a ‘mare and involves mounds of paperwork; something any backpacker tries to avoid. For the slight extra cost I elected to go with Legend for peace of mind as I’d have to cancel my plans for the rest of the Trans-Siberian if my visa were to be denied. All I had to do was give them some basic information, a passport photo and some cash.
I ate my fair share of dumplings in China but Mongolian dumplings are on a whole new level. They cost around 50 cents for one but they’re the size of about 4 Chinese ones. Oh, yea; The Mongolians aren’t really too familiar with the word ‘vegetable.’
Had a good laugh at this one.
I walked around the city a bit and checked out the place. It’s not very big at all. Only 1.3 million people live here (although that’s almost half the population of the entire country, which isn’t lacking in square meterage). I did price checks on a few things as I walked around town and found that a bottle of good vodka costs about $9. Fabulous.
One thing I’ll note is that UB is the first place I’ve been (other than some parts of South Auckland) where I felt a little sketched out when walking around at night. There were more than a couple shady looking people hanging around in the shadows, and I was definitely followed at least once. After speaking to a couple of locals, they did say they don’t recommend hanging around on the streets at night or withdrawing cash if you’re by yourself. Forgoing midnight excursions, however, my initial impression of the locals is that they’re among some of the friendliest people I’ve come across. Everyone offers you tea, coffee, soup or homemade savouries when you pop round and it’s not uncommon for any given person to drop what they’re doing in order to help a lost-looking tourist find their destination.
Ulaanbaatar isn’t a bad place at all. It’s not somewhere you’d come and hang out for a week, mind you, but there’s enough to keep you occupied while you sort out the rest of your trip to Mongolia. I’ve got a couple more posts on my visit to this untinkered land coming in the near future which will cover off my excursions out of Ulaanbaatar into the desert to experience the nomad life. Thanks for reading!
– Be prepared for dust and wind. Balaclavas and wind breakers are your friend.
– There are different times and time zones on the train schedule; China time, Mongolia time and Moscow time.
– Some of the currency in Mongolia looks similar. Be careful which note you hand over.