With Irkutsk done and dusted, bed bugs collected and insomnia in full force it was time to say a hasty goodbye to Russia and set forth to Mongolia!
Not before spending five hours at the Russian border, of course. Rocking up to the border, we noticed that… we were the only carriage there! What started as a big, long, multiple carriage train in Irkutsk had shriveled down to the one, measly carriage full of foreigners.
Still, this made for quite a cosy atmosphere and we made some good friends on the train. Including our roommate Allix, who arrived from Ulan Ude a few hours into the night after setting off from Irkutsk, to hear me sleep talking and telling him I was supposed to be in this bed, not him. A sure-fire way to start a conversation that’s for sure.
Anyway, a few hours of sharing stories later, we arrived at the border. We were aware, thanks to the timetable in the hallway of the carriage, that the crossing would take 5 hours. This meant some carefully planned toilet trips before getting to the border, as the on board toilets would be closed throughout the duration of the stop. Once we had pulled up, the Russian border force started doing their thing. Exceptionally slowly. Passports were inspected about 800 times and Ed even had to turn, to the SIDE, just to check his face matched his passport picture. They were collected up and taken off for the next however many hours, and we were shunted back and forth, up and down. About 40 minutes prior to departure we got our passports back from the grumpy and trying-to-be-intimidating officials, followed by a quick inspection which included opening our bags about 2 inches for another grumpy to look in the very top of our bag, plus a quick sniff from a nice little dog. All in all, the whole thing was drawn out but went quickly as we were in good company!
Driving into the Mongolian side, their were some young soldiers saluting the train and some much more cheerful looking Mongolian staff.
After 20 or so minutes we pulled up into their border and we were able to get off our little lonesome carriage. This stop was for three hours, so not quite as bad as the Russian stop. We headed into the restaurant at the station and had some beers. Not the wisest move when you get back on the train and the toilets are still locked, for another half an hour.
Still, all formalities had been undergone and we were now in… Mongolia! We arrived into the ever-so polluted, ever-so busy capital of Ulan Bator at around 6.30 am and were glad to see our pick up waiting for us at the station. 5 of us bundled into the car and off we went to UB guesthouse. (Which, is average at best but did the job.) Allix had only 2 nights in Mongolia, and did not want to miss the opportunity to get out to the Terelji National Park so the 3 of us signed up to a tour that very morning and by 10 am, we had set off with another couple from the UK and 2 young German’s.
The park is enormous, and after an hour or so driving out of the capital through some filthy, littered streets we rocked up to our home for the night. The yurt.
There were 2 yurts for us all and they were rather cosy, and surprisingly roomy. After a few hours exploring the national park (note: the word ‘tour’ means ‘I drop you off, you do what you want, and I take you home the next day’) and climbing some rocks we had our authentic Mongolian dinner of… pasta. 7 pm arrived and the family who were hosting us told us it was bed time, we had to go and entertain ourselves in our yurt, so off we went. There was a fire roaring and it was well needed, by this point we were into October and it was bloody chilly.
After a few hours talking and more story-sharing we all hit the hay, or attempted too. Unfortunately in our warmth-loving way we had hastily added every single log to the fire and had started cooking ourselves inside our yurt. It was honestly the hottest experience of my life. I thought I was going to be the first to get up and run around outside but luckily nature called and Allix needed to get up. This led to a chain of every single one of us, in our underwear and pyjamas, to pelt it out of the yurt and flap around like raving loons outside. Drastic times. A jug of water over the fire later and we were ready to return to the sauna.
After morning and a breakfast of bread and jam we headed back to UB, via the giant Genghis Khan on a horse statue. The downstairs below the statue housed a rather interesting museum, alongside the largest Mongolian boot. (No joke). It was interesting to see how proud the Mongolian’s were of this odd get-up. The statue was actually quite tacky and the whole place a little odd, but the Mongol’s loved it and were brimming with pride.
After crawling through the jungle of cars that make up UB city centre, we arrived back to the guesthouse late afternoon. The group of us from the tour alongside some new found friends, who became a highlight of our trip; Marc and Janet from Tasmania, headed out for some Mongolian grub. For a vegetarian this means french fries, rice and mixed vegetables.
UB is an interesting and bizarre place, it is gloomy and the buildings are reflective of Stalin-esque era. It is certainly not easy on the eye and boy it is polluted. A few days in the city is by far enough. There is also not a great deal to do; we visited the National Museum which proved to be a great way to spend a few hours, but aside from that the majority of our time was spent eating and drinking with Marc and Janet. (Which is never bad).
With the Mongolian stint coming to an end, we prepared for the final leg of the epic journey from Moscow to Beijing, and yet more bloody border crossings…