We left Irkutsk on-time at 05:18 (ouch) on Saturday morning on a Chinese run train. The previous afternoon we had looked around Irkutsk with the Swiss and Dutch guys and had a couple of beers so we only got a few hours sleep. So after saying hello to our cabin mate, Arnt from the Netherlands who was two weeks into a two year trip, we soon got into our bunks and slept until midday 🙂
As we woke we made a stop at Ulan Ude, on the east shore of Lake Baikal and I hopped off for some supplies on the platform. From here we left the Trans-Siberian line and headed south on the Trans-Mongolian line, already the scenery had changed to brown desolate landscapes. We soon got to know our fellow passengers, all of whom in our carriage were Western tourists. Most were fed up with being on the train as they had been onboard since leaving Moscow 5 days earlier, this train was much scruffier than the Russian one we took to Irkutsk and not as comfortable so we felt for them.
710km from Irkutsk we reached the Russian border post station of Naushki. There stern looking Russian border officials (furry hats) came and took our passports and searched the train with a tiny sniffer dog that looked like a poodle (very amusing), the local passengers got a lot more attention than us – they just looked under the seats at our bags but not inside them and the poodle wasn’t interested either. Lots of waiting around and we finally got our passports back (with exit stamps) and the train crossed the border three and a half hours later. We then had the same procedure on the Mongolian side, although friendlier officials (with wide hats) and no poodles, but lots of forms to fill in. They took our passports and a little scarily the carriages were shunted back and forth as the electric locomotive was replaced with a diesel one. Our stamped passports were returned and we were on our way again about one and a half hours later. Only five hours to cross the border, not bad – we were told it could take up to eight hours.
It was now about midnight so we went to bed and slept until 6am to find the dark red sun rising over dusty Mongolian plains. It sunk in that we were in Mongolia – somewhere I never thought I would go – and we had come here by train!
We arrived in the busy and dusty Mongolian capital, Ulanbaatar (or simply UB), at 06:30 – 1119 Km / 25 hours after leaving Irkutsk. It had felt quite European in Russia but now we were definitely in Asia. The hostel we had booked offered free pickup so there was a guy on the platform with a sign with my name on – what a luxury 🙂
The UB hostel is run by the friendly Kim and Bobby and run tours across Mongolia. On check-in we discussed these with them and decided to join a Belgian couple (Jan and Lieve) on a 3 day tour. We had a shower and then set out for the Terelji national park about 125km from UB. As we drove out of the city we saw modern and old buildings and often Ger tents (traditionally used by nomads) in gaps between buildings – often with a car parked outside! Once outside the city suburbs we entered a picturesque mountainous area and upon entering the national park we left the tarmac road behind and drove down some dusty tracks into the valley between some mountains where we arrived at the horse farm Ger camp where we would spend the day and night.
We met our host family who seemed very used to tourists and checked out our Ger tent, which was like a Tardis with a surprising amount of space inside – 4 beds surrounding a small stove. Amusingly the family had a widescreen TV and stereo system in theirs powered off a nearby pylon. After a lunch of Mutton with noodles we went out for a couple of hours riding horses in the valley with the family’s 16 year old son as a guide. I’m not a big fan of horses but these were slow and steady (we did trot sometimes which is not nice on the arse!) so in the scenic surroundings it was very peaceful. Later in the afternoon, with the still sun high in the sky, we climbed the nearby mountain for a great view back down to the camp and surrounding valleys. Dinner was mutton with potato (seems standard fodder in Mongolia!) and we sat and watched the sun go down, and even better a massive and bright moon rise. The temperature dropped quickly to -3 or so and the stove was lit in the Ger, which made it nice and cosy (too hot whilst the fire raged) and we went to bed – we were knackered after the train so welcomed an early night and slept really well.
Next morning we were picked up around 9 and driven back to the hostel in UB where we had a refreshing shower. We then got into a 4WD with our driver for the next 3 days, Jay, for the journey to the ancient Mongolian capital – Karakoram. Driving out of UB was tricky as it seemed there were few rules of the road, we weaved in and out of the traffic sometimes using the pavement! The journey was about 5 hours through desolate brown plains with sporadic Ger settlements and lots of goats, sheep, horses, cows, and the occasional two humped camel – this was the Mongolia I had expected and it was great just watching it pass by as we drove. The roads weren’t brilliant, lots of potholes and slow moving vehicles to negotiate, so we were probably went not much faster than 40mph. It was a lovely sunny day with the temperature around 24 degrees. About halfway we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch of (no surprise) Mutton stew which was nice but the Mongolian tea – milk with salt was not so!
We pulled into our camp on the outskirts of Karakoram around 7pm and food we were staying with a really nice and welcoming family. The Ger was slightly bigger than the night before and had electricity – luxury! They also sold some great souvenirs that they had crafted themselves and gave us dinner of dumplings filled with potato, onion, and carrot – no mutton – nice. Again the moon was big and bright, and it was warmer than the previous day but the stove was lit and we sat playing cards with the Belgians before heading to bed and again really sleeping well.
Next morning we had a tour of the ancient city and it’s temple – Erdene Zuu. Unfortunately it was cloudy and windy which made things quite chilly. Nevertheless it was interesting seeing the monks perform their buddist rituals and chanting – I hadn’t realised that they fellow similar practises to that used in Tibet and that two (of the 14) Dalai Lamas have come from Mongolia. The temple has 9 large golden Buddhas and lots of prayer drums, which are spun by pilgrims as they mutter prayers. Afterwards we had lunch of Mutton dumpling soup, which was lovely and warming after the cold!
We then drove to a surprise spiritual site on a hill above the town – a big penis! It is the site couples come to when they are having problems conceiving. It made quite a sight!
From there we drove back towards UB a few hours to a desert which the guide referred to as the ‘mini Gobi’. We stayed with a farming family in one of their Gers, we went for a ride on their two humped camels which was fun and much more comfortable than the horses! The Mongolian farmer was also a really cool guy!
Afterwards we went into the family Ger to drink Mongolian tea with them, whilst the tea wasn’t great it was a really nice experience and they were lovely people – real Mongolians no widescreen TVs here. We couldn’t communicate too well (Jay spoke limited English) but we thanked them for their hospitality in Mongolian many times – Bayar-lalaar.
We then climbed to the top of the nearby sand dune for a panoramic view, which made us realise we really were in the middle of nowhere – see this video. It was pretty cold so we were well wrapped up and were thankful the farmer had the stove going in the Ger! Dinner of mutton and noodles washed down with some Mongolian beers we had picked up on the way and then it was time for bed – it is so cosy and quiet in these Gers sleeping is easy 🙂
Today after breakfast and some photos with our Mongolian host we drove about 3 hours back through the plains to UB where we had a much needed shower – being in the desert without running water makes things grimy! We had a quick walk to the main square where the government building is.
Mongolia has been great and we could spend more time here easily, maybe another time. Tonight we will go for a meal with the Swiss guys who are also staying in our hostel and then tomorrow we take the train early to China 🙂
Some photos from Mongolia here.