Trans-Siberian Railway: Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
Day 1-2: Moscow to Ulaanbaatar
I had two options to get from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar and I opted for the fancier, more comfortable option. Instead of an overnight bus to the Mongolian border and then a train to the capital (this would come to around $60 or $70), I took a train all the way.
This is the most expensive portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, as there seems to be a dubious private-public partnership where the Chinese government outsources all these tickets sales to another company. These tickets aren’t sold at the train station and have to be bought at the Beijing International Hotel up the road. The cheapest ticket for this 27-hour, 965 mile journey is $200 for the cheapest class, making it the most expensive ticket during my entire journey. Other tour agencies add about 60 percent on top of this price.
Similar distances cost less than half that in Russia, but the level of comfort is just not the same. I was really impressed with this train. Part of that has to do with me being just one of several people on the entire carriage. There were almost as many staffers as passengers (3) on the carriage and I had the room all to myself. Awesome!
The staffers, all of whom were Mongolian, were incredibly friendly. I think they may have just been bored out of their mind with the lack of things to do due to having very few passengers. They would almost baby me by taking the garbage out of my hands as I made my way to the trashcan or filling up my mug with hot water as I made my way to the dispenser. Hats off to the train staff.
Also, there were showers and comfortable linens on board. The restaurant car served up Chinese food that wasn’t too bad, but they were inexplicably out of rice. I’ve never seen a restaurant in Asia run out of rice, but I guess it can happen. We got to the border at 10 pm and had to wait several hours to get across. The well-lit station was playing pleasant music as we got off the train and there was a decent convenience store open late to serve us. Sadly, the intriguing “VIP Room” was closed at that hour.
By about 2 a.m. we finally got on our way. In the morning, the Mongolian countryside looked like the Windows XP background, with rolling green hills and endless blue skies. The only difference was the abundance of horses and other domesticated animals throughout the landscape. It was exactly how I pictured Mongolia in my mind. As we got closer to Ulaanbaatar, more and more yurts/gers came into view. As I’d later find out, I’d become very acquainted with these tent-like homes.
Day 2-12 All Around Mongolia
Cruising the Capital
I read a lot of tourists complaining about Ulaanbaatar for being an ugly city. Maybe it’s the two years I spent in nightmarishly-designed Phnom Penh or being used to Communist-era architecture in Poland, but I kind of liked it. It’s a small-ish city of 1.3 million that’s very walkable and there’s a good mix of Western amenities (like chain coffee shops), yummy local food and distinctive landmarks. As small as it may seem for a country’s capital, half of the country’s population lives here.
There are some worthwhile attractions within the city, such as the Winter Palace and the National Museum. However, you need to leave the capital to really appreciate Mongolia’s beauty. I rented a motorbike from Motorbike Mongolia (just past the airport, so it’s a pain in the ass to get there) to go for a ride. I’m really out of practice with manual bikes and stalled way too many times, but once I got going I made decent time to the enormous Genghis Khan statue outside of town. This modern monument has an elevator where you can go up and get a good luck of the countryside. Oddly, you enter the viewing platform from Genghis Khan’s crotch. There are some fun touristy things around there, such as a museum, archery, a falconer providing photo ops and horseback rides.
I also made a detour to the area near Gorkhi-Terlej Park. I was too exhausted from getting up so early that I only drove around the area instead of going in the national park. It was still beautiful, with pristine streams surrounded by mountains. I’d like to spend some more time there. I’m glad, however, that I visited the country in August. The weather was close to perfect. In the winter time, the average low temperature is around minus 15 Fahrenheit, making Ulaanbaatar the coldest country capital in the world.
Into the Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert is the fourth largest in the world, so I just scratched the surface in a week-long tour through the region that involved about seven hours a day of hard driving in a rugged Russian van. I booked the tour with Manlai’s Budget Tours, which has a really convenient website if you’re aiming to embark on a specific date and find fellow tour goers to keep prices down.
For a week, our fun group saw some spectacular sights, such as the lush Gurvan Saikhan National Park that still had some ice in early August. Another highlight were the incredible sand dunes, which can be scaled in a very challenging 45 minutes or so. The views up there were awesome. We rode a camel to the sand dunes, but we were on our own when it came to climbing up. Each night we slept in a different ger, which is how the traditionally nomadic families live. These things can be assembled in 30 minutes with just a few people and they’re surprisingly comfortable. The beds we slept on, however, were of differing quality. For the most part they were terrible.
Although it’s called a desert, I had to brace myself for a place that defies what most people think deserts to be. There’s a fair amount of grass and greenery, while it’s only the sand dunes that look traditionally desert-like We passed through some small cities where we blessedly were able to shower for a $1. Showers are so rare in the Gobi Desert that there are businesses dedicated just to providing them for people who want to occasionally indulge. We did exactly that and took two showers during the week . Baby wipes were used to fill in the personal hygiene void.
The tour was worthwhile but exhausting, so I was glad to have one more night in Ulaanbaatar before embarking to Russia the next day. I booked a train to the city of Irkutsk scheduled to take a beastly 36 hours. I’ll post that portion of the journey soon.
I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?