From Ulan Ude we decided to take the coach to cross the border into Ulaanbataar. We had read on several travel blogs that this route was cheaper and quicker than taking the train which was double the price and took up to 30 hours whereas the coach only took 12. There was also the benefit of a coach leaving daily at 7:30am so there was no need to plan ahead. It was easy enough to buy a bus ticket from office 102 (travel agency) located within Baikal Plaza just off the main square, or we could have bought one when boarding the bus but only if it wasn’t already full.
To be honest I was dreading the journey, having to sit on a coach for such a long time but actually we had regular breaks so it wasn’t so bad. Plus most of the time we were sleeping or observing the world going by, watching the scenery changing as the vast open planes replaced signs of urban life. It was nice to travel during the day, to be able to see more of the country we were in. The actual border crossing was very straightforward, once we arrived at the Russian border we waited to have our bags scanned and our passports and visas checked before piling back on the coach to go up the road a few metres to the Mongolian check point. Again, lugging our bags off the coach to have them scanned and our passports and visas checked. With all the waiting this part of the journey took about 3 hours. There was plenty of time for another toilet break, funnily enough it was then that we met Heather and Dan, a lovely English couple from Coventry!
“Yay! We made it to Mongolia! Now we need to fight through the traffic!”
After stopping for lunch we still had about 5 hours on the coach to Ulanbaatar, the roads were noticeably more bumpy so it was more difficult to sleep with our heads bobbing about. But it was fine, regular toilet stops meant the opportunity to walk about and stretch. By the time we arrived in Ulaanbataar it was gone 7pm, however the traffic in the city was so bad we didn’t actually get to the drop off point till 9pm! Upon arriving in Ulaanbataar, we could clearly see it was a city on the cusp of modernisation, alongside the dusty streets new skyscrapers and high rise buildings sprang out of nowhere. Lots of faces spied us through the bus windows, lots of smiles full of curiosity. Although we hadn’t yet set foot in the city, I could tell it was going to be interesting.
We decided against doing any tours in the national parks and the Gobi desert. Many tourists seek these kinds of prepackaged trips as for some reason it’s seen as ‘the thing to do here’ – but not us. The tourist services here were saturated with foreign companies organising tours for tourists at rip-off prices, promising ‘traditional nomadic experiences’ and whatnot…all for £80 a day or so! There were some local-run hotels and hostels which arranged trips for cheaper but again, it didn’t interest us and seemed somewhat like a ‘fake’ experience. Mongolia was extremely cheap, our hostel only cost us £6 each a night, beer no more than £1.70 a pint, plate of noodles for £3 and a single bus journey was 60p – so agencies charging £80 to stay in a Ger and eat boiled sheep for a few nights was not worth it. We also suspected that the agencies didn’t pay the local Mongolians who provided the tour services as much as they deserved. We didn’t see the point of funding foreign purses so we spent all of our time exploring the city and surrounding areas, going to a couple of the main museums and temples and eating only local food and of course, drinking plenty of local beer.
The National Museum was really well set out, we learnt all about the history of Ghengis / Chinggis Khan and how Mongolia had evolved over the past 20 years to the present. We didn’t realise it was only around 20 years ago that the Mongolian people got their independence and communism was abolished. It seems like an exciting time for Mongolia. With so many foreign investors flooding in and new wealth entering the country, hopefully it will mean a better life for many people. It would be worth revisiting Ulanbaatar in 10 years time to see how things have developed further. We met up with a Heather and Dan and French guy, Mehdi, who we met in Irkutsk for dinner. I found a place that did Mongolian hot pot (crossover from Chinese hot pot so pretty much the same thing), where each person gets a pot of hot soup base heated on a gas stove. We shared platters of meat, noodles, tofu and veg which we cooked in our broth. So delicious! With about five different types of dipping sauces and different flavours of broth it was a huge feast! It was also the first time we tried horse meat. In Mongolia, horses are bred the same as cattle for meat as well as working animals. It was really yummy, tasted and looked like lean steak – would highly recommend it. Mongolia isn’t really known for it’s culinary delights though, the staple foods were pretty basic and pretty stodgy but it was good to try everything! Hot pot was the only truly ‘healthy’ meal we could find. We had tried ‘Buuza’ before, Mongolian version of Chinese dumplings but found them too big and too stodgy (the size of buns almost! And too thick and chewy).
Compared to Russia, we decided out of the places were had visited so far, Ulanbaatar was the most interesting and the people the friendliest – though I wonder if it’s because I looked Mongolian! I got accosted by two Mongolian girls when we were drinking in the Irish pub after dinner, asking if I was Mongolian with their broken English! They said I looked Mongolian but my eyes were too big! Haha. And they wanted us to go sing karaoke with them but we had a super early start the next day so had to turn them down. We only stayed in Ulanbaatar for 3 days which was enough to get a small taste of the city. Our very last Trans Mongolian train was from Ulaanbataar to Beijing. We boarded the train early in the morning as the sun was rising and funnily enough bumped into our Danish friends Pia and Rikke again! We had the pleasure of sharing the same carriage so plenty of time to catch up. This time we didn’t want to be drunken fools! Even if we had each bought a bottle of Mongolian vodka! For the good stuff it only cost £6.50 a bottle! The cheap nasty stuff only cost £1! Quite shocking that there weren’t more drunks lining the streets – in fact, I don’t recall seeing any drunks.
“Onwards to Beijing on a luxury train!… Or maybe not…”
We were on train number 4, a Chinese train, and being a low number in theory was meant to be one of the newer and more luxurious trains like the number 2. Unfortunately we were sorely disappointed. The train was worse than the 340 train we took between Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk. The floors were carpeted but caked in dust and crumbs and it was clear that nothing had been cleaned for a long time. I had the top bunk, and there was a ceiling fan above my head caked in grease and dirt, it was rather revolting as were the toilets. However we were only on this train overnight so it was something we could put up with.
Originally we were meant to be in one cabin near one end of the carriage, but an idiotic German couple with a young 14 month old baby decided to take over our whole cabin and tried to boot us out! (Can I just stress I have noting against Germans, it just so happened that this couple were German). Anyway, normally if you want privacy you pay for first class or for all 4 beds in a cabin in second class. The German couple did neither, they just assumed they could have the whole cabin because they had a baby and tonnes of luggage – I’m not going to lie, the thought or sharing a cabin with a screaming baby and an inconsiderate couple was frustrating to say the least! Luckily the attendant found myself and Neil somewhere else to go, sharing with a single Chinese guy who ended up leaving at the border, so it was a blessing in disguise. We had the whole cabin to ourselves in the end and were at the far end of the carriage away from the screaming baby. Pia and Rikke shared their cabin with a couple of English guys from London – Andrew and Marco. We had dinner together in the restaurant car, very tasty steak, rice and salad and decided to settle down for an early night.
We hit the border around 8pm when guards from the Mongolian and Chinese border came on board to check our passports and visas. Then each train carriage had to have their bogies changed, so without leaving the train, each carriage was separated and raised onto huge jacks so that the train bogies could be swapped for ones that were the right size for the Chinese tracks. The process was a long one, so we fell asleep around midnight getting tired from the waiting. We were also given a free breakfast and lunch meal ticket (we didn’t get up early enough for breakfast!). Lunch was simple but tasty, a bowl of plain rice with a plate of stir fried cabbage and some giant meatballs (we think they were pork…).
We arrived in Beijing at around 9am. I was really looking forward to visiting Beijing, to see how the place had changed since I was last there about 10 years ago and we were also looking forward to couchsurfing with a lovely Chinese family. Peter and Xin Xin were amazingly accommodating, Peter came to meet us at the metro station closest to their home and drove us back to their house. They live in a beautiful large house within a privatised housing estate, with a games room in the basement, a grand piano in the lounge, a garden with a hot tub (that hadn’t been used or cleaned for a long time it seemed!). We stayed in one of their three spare bedrooms and another room was occupied by Hande, a sweet Turkish girl who was staying with them for a month whilst she did a placement for her Masters. That evening, we were invited to eat dinner with Peter, Xin Xin and Hande. Peter made pork and chive dumplings (baoxi) from scratch – he marinated and seasoned the filling and made the dumpling dough. Xin Xin showed us the correct way to wrap the dumplings (I kind of already knew as can make them myself) but it was Neil’s first time and well…we all had a little chuckle as they didn’t look anything like the ones Xin Xin made and were spewing filling out the sides! Luckily they wouldn’t affect the taste! More practice Neil! Hehe!
Beijing was great fun. We visited the great wall at Mutianyu, speeded down the mountain side on a scary toboggan (i.e. a plastic tray with wheels and brake handle) after we had climbed the great wall. We visited the Summer Palace, Forbidden City and National Museum (which was stunning). We’ve eaten famous Beijing Peking duck and loads of yummy street food and avoided the scorpions on sticks! We sang karaoke all night with Peter and Xin Xin’s friends! All in all the city was fantastic! So much cheap food everywhere (and cheap beer too). The Olympics obviously had a positive influence on the city of Beijing. It’s a lot cleaner than I remember, the metro is supremely efficient and I loved the fact there was mobile signal underground. The people were really accommodating and friendly, understanding my random use of Mandarin, Cantonese and English! We’re getting by ok! 🙂
We now look forward to exploring more of China and sampling more of the local cuisine 🙂 with only a month in total in China we’ve decided we want to visit Xi’an for the Terracotta Warriors, Chengdu for the panda sanctuary, Shanghai as it’s another bustling metropolis, and Suzhou and Hangzhou (because they were highly recommended by Peter, Xin Xin and Hande). Watch this space for more adventures in China!