The train from Irkutsk in Siberia to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, was a completely different experience to the Trans-Siberian train we rode from Moscow to Irkutsk. The first was a Russian train and the second Chinese, and it ended up being the oldest of the four long distance trains we travelled on across Russia and Mongolia.
But the biggest difference was that this time we weren’t mixed in with the locals. Each carriage was segregated according to whether the occupants were Russian, Chinese, Mongolian or “tourist”. Apparently this was done in order to reduce theft (hmmm) but that wasn’t particularly successful as an iPhone was stolen from an American couple by someone that had ducked into the carriage. (Miraculously, they got it back! There isn’t really anywhere to hide on a train and the staff took the reported theft very seriously. By the time the train had reached the next station the phone had been recovered, although the thief’s fate was never very clear…) Personally I never felt unsafe on the previous train where we’d been mixed in with locals, but after all, we did have Svetlana acting as our unofficial grandmotherly protector then.
Either way, it ended up being a nice contrast as we met lots of lovely people (such as Carolyn, Sam, Stuart and Casey) who we could actually communicate and swap travel stories with. We only spent a total of one full day with these guys but by the end of it it felt like we’d known each other for a lot longer.
The day ended with lengthy passport and customs checks first at the Russian and then the Mongolian border. There was about one hour in between the two checkpoints and it wasn’t 100% clear from the customs forms whether we were allowed to take any alcohol or fruit across the border. We all decided it would be best to consume any potentially questionable food and drink before we got there, just to be on the safe side. In order to accomplish this, 15 of us crammed into one single compartment and held a one hour micro party: small space, short time, many drinks, lots of food.
The party ended abruptly when we arrived at the Mongolian checkpoint. The uniformed woman who collected our passports and forms was serious and businesslike but we thought we caught the hint of a smile on her face before she ordered us back to our assigned compartments.
We reached Ulaanbaatar at 6:30am and were able to steal a couple of extra hours sleep at a hotel we were checked into just to shower and breakfast. We met our delightful guide and enigmatic driver in the hotel lobby at 10am to begin our sightseeing in Mongolia in earnest.
We had four full days in Mongolia (7-11 October). The first two, spent out in the grand and sweeping Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, were particularly magical. We spent the night in a ger (you mustn’t call a Mongolian house a yurt!) and our days meeting enormous vultures, shaggy yaks, friendly dogs and possibly a not-so-friendly wolf; hiking mountains; visiting a Buddhist meditation centre; and eating a lot of food (soups, mutton, beef stews, dumplings and endless cups of the best ceylon tea I’ve ever tasted). We also visited a nomadic family who served us salty milk tea, thick clotted cow’s cream, dried pellets of yak’s milk yoghurt, and a bowl of fermented horse’s milk (an alcoholic beverage that tastes a bit like sour beer). The weather was perfect and the landscape like nothing we’d ever seen before. Those two days really stand out as a significant highlight of all our travels.
Back in Ulaanbaatar it took us a while to adjust to the insanely congested traffic. Our skilled driver successfully (and/or miraculously) negotiated the chaos without so much as a bump from any nearby vehicles, aided by a not insignificant amount of horn usage. Ulaanbaatar has experienced a population explosion in the last 10 years and the city is expanding at a rapid rate but the infrastructure can’t quite keep up. The city is full of skyscrapers but the streets are dusty, the air polluted and the predominant colour is a browny grey: a stark contrast with the natural beauty of the relatively nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.
Sightseeing in Ulaanbaatar included visiting a Buddhist temple and school complex, the National Museum of Mongolia, the Soviet-esque Zaisan Memorial (which also offers an excellent panoramic view of the city), a wonderful performance of Mongolian song and dance, and the impressive Sükhbaatar Square. I would have loved to have visited the Natural History Museum too but unfortunately it was closed while we were there. I’ve heard Ulaanbaatar’s Modern Art Museum is also very good.
As with Irkutsk I felt that Real Russia’s prearranged itinerary really helped us to get the most out of our time in Mongolia. If we’d been doing things by ourselves it would have been harder to get out to the national park (I don’t think there’s any public transport outside of the city) and I think if Ulaanbaatar was your only stopover in Mongolia the experience might not be quite as enjoyable. The city on its own might become a bit tiresome and exhausting, whereas breaking it up with some time outside felt quite inspiring and invigorating. After all, the true spirit of Mongolia is all about being out in the open and close to nature. While I highly recommend Real Russia for assistance with visas, booking trains or arranging a complete tour, if you wanted to do the Russian section independently, or are perhaps only visiting Mongolia, the local company that was contracted to look after us in Mongolia was Great Genghis. Our guide and driver were both excellent: very skilled and knowledgable. And really nice people!
Enough plugs. Our Real Russia tour would end with our final train leg: Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. From our arrival in Beijing (12 October) we were back on our own as independent travellers. But more about that and our time in China another time!