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Losing Our Minds on the Way to Mongolia

Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatar

overcast 15 °C

After four relatively sleepless nights on board, we were both looking forward to (a) a good shower, (b) a bed that was wider, and wasn’t moving or jolting every half a mile or so, and (c) a decent meal. Ulan Ude, about 900 miles from the Chinese border and about 200 miles from the Mongolian border, was simply meant to be our August 14 transfer point to Ulan Baatar in Mongolia from where we would pick up the Trans-Mongolian (which goes to Beijing) on August 19. However, we quickly discovered on arrival that there was no availability on any train to Ulan Baatar until August 18! Within an hour, we had experienced everything that Ulan Ude had to offer (world’s largest Lenin head; world’s worst burger restaurant; world’s weirdest internet café which blocked just about every site you could think about visiting including yahoo, google, hotmail etc) - we just HAD to find someway to escape before the 18th!!


But first, accommodation for the night! After four showerless days on the train, we were in desperate need of a clean and hot shower, so we checked into a ‘prestige’ room at the Baikal Hotel which of course never had a chance of living up to its name (and indeed it didn’t). But happily it was clean and stationary for which we were highly appreciative! We walked through town in search of ‘King Burger’ which was highly rated in our now-despised-for-having-SO-much-out-of-date-and-crap-information Lonely Planet guide book, but left after one mouthful revealed a home-burger of unknown meat content. We gave up looking for a decent dinner in Ulan Ude and instead raided a local supermarket and picnicked in our ‘prestigious’ hotel room - probably the best meal we've had in Russia!

But how to get to Ulan Baatar? Lloyd was somehow able to secure the last two tickets on a bus leaving the next morning that would go direct from Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatar – hurrah! The cost was a mere 900 rubles each (about $35 each) – hurrah! The duration was a mere 14 hours – ouch! Worse than that, the fact that we had the last two bus tickets out of town (and indeed, the next availability was four days later) meant that we had the worst possible seats: at the very back of the bus, in non-reclining seats directly above the engine. This was going to be a painful ride.


And indeed it was. It is officially the day I lost my sense of humour for the first time. We were thrown off the 7am bus into the morning rain (the one we got up at 5.45am to catch after about three hours of sleep) apparently so the driver could take a bribe to get three non-ticketed passengers on board. A Russian couple was apparently victim to the same scam, and they disappeared into a taxi to make their own way to the border, seemingly unwilling to take the chance with the next bus. When we got our seats on the 8.30am bus, there was no tricking us out of them a second time. Tired, damp, uncomfortable and miserable, when the bus pulled out, we were just happy to be on the bus. There were five seats in the last row of the bus: Lloyd sat in the middle, and I sat next to him. Of course, the lady next to me (in the window) was the most obese, smelly Russian that could be found to torture the tourist, and I spent much of the day fighting for my space (as well as my sanity).

On the plus side, the last two occupants of the Row From Hell was a young, Russian (ethnic Buryat, a Mongolian tribe) couple from Irkustsk, on their way to vacation in Ulan Baatar. Andre is a smart, highly motivated young man who spoke very impressive English, and who was determined to make the most of the opportunity to practice his language skills as well as network with us. He kept Lloyd occupied for most of the trip while I fought with sumo-neighbor and Andre’s delightful girlfriend Lena snoozed in the opposite window seat. Sitting above the engine, we cooked our internal organs while the other 40 passengers in their comfortable, reclining seats snored and continually frustrated our attempts to allow some cool air into the back. Lena and Andre aside (welcome guests in our home anytime!), we added Russians to our list of miserable people (right up there with the Greeks).

I think someone told the Russians how we felt about them, because they decided to torture us at the Mongolian border for not one, not two, but THREE hours. So, here is the process for leaving Russia and entering Mongolia:

- Bus sits in traffic just before border for 20 minutes. Three passengers board and pay 300 rubles to stand on the bus as it progresses the border (you can’t go through on foot)
- Russian official boards bus and checks all passports/visas
- Drive 20 meters - all passengers exit bus, carry all luggage into immigration
- Baggage goes through scanner
- Stand in line for 45 minutes. Visual interrogation by red-lipsticked Russian immigration official. No smiling allowed. Passport stamped.
- Re-board bus. Re-stow bags.
- Drive 20 meters.
- Russian official (a different one, this time even more scary/serious looking) boards bus, checks all passports/visas)
- Drive one mile.
- Mongolian official boards bus and checks all passports/visas
- Drive 20 meters.
- All passengers exit bus, retrieve luggage, stand in rain for half an hour, enter immigration
- (Goes without saying that rude Russian old ladies will inevitably cut in front of you at every opportunity)
- Stand in line for 30 minutes (hey, at least you’re out of the rain now….)
- Pass through immigration.
- Bags scanned.
- Re-board bus. Re-stow bags.
- Drive 20 meters.
- Mongolian official (this one looked like he was about 12, but he had perfected the ‘don’t-treat-me-like-a-12-yr-old’ scowl) boards bus and checks all passports/visas.

Welcome to Mongolia! Again, this was one miserable experience that we were fortunate to share with the only other friendly person in Russia: the male half of the couple thrown off the 7am bus that morning and one of the three passengers who paid our driver to cross the border! He recognized us from the bus-stop and went out of his way to acknowledge us, so Lloyd and he struck up a conversation. Turns out that Petya is a citizen of Kazakhstan, working in Mongolia on a long term mining contract that meant he was only home for 40 days a year. After his vacation at home, he was on his way back to work for the next several months. We really enjoyed chatting with him, and when the bus dropped him off on the Mongolian side of the border, he came all the way to the back of the bus to shake our hands and say good-bye. That brings the total number of nice Russians to 4. Out of a population of about 150 million.

So, the bus-ride wasn’t the most comfortable way to get from Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatar, but it certainly offered some beautiful views of Mongolia (and we had time to enjoy it when the bus – almost inevitably – broke down for an hour).


By the time we arrived in Ulan Baatar (commonly called UB), it was late and dark, making it difficult to orient ourselves. As I said, I had lost my sense of humor and carrying my backpack through the dark streets of UB, with little confirmation that we were going in anything like the right direction to our Guest House (map in English, street signs in Mongolian – gotta love those Lonely Planet maps!). We walked past an Irish Pub and that was it, I decided a glass of (warm, vinergary) wine was necessary.

It was after 11pm by the time we made it to the hotel, and immediately wished that I’d had the whole bottle. Gana’s Guest House offered a dirty room, with a shower generously decorated with unpleasant components of a previous occupant (or perhaps many), and a bed that was almost unspeakable. Put it this way, Lloyd had to have me look away while he made up the beds (with our silk liners) or I simply wouldn’t have been able to attempt sleep there at all. Not that we slept. Flies patrolled the room and made it impossible for me to sleep. It’s not the buzzing. It’s when they buzz near you, and then it stops. We had a sleepless night, with me using my liner-sheet as a shield from the flies. I couldn’t wait to get up.

In the morning, we checked email, and I had to laugh at an email from my Mum, who was pleased we were off the train and able to ‘pamper’ ourselves and have a nice long bath now we were in a hotel. Gana’s Guest House wasn’t the kind of place I’d be getting undressed in, never mind bathing in.


The day just got better and better with the realization that the transportation availability from UB to Beijing made the Ulan Ude to UB options absolutely prolific. There was no availability on the Trans-Mongolian until the middle of September. There were, in fact, no trains to Beijing during August at all. And there were no flights from UB to Beijing until August 23rd. All this, and we were supposed to be in Shanghai on the 20th! Still tired from the TSR, and from having crossed five time zones, it was a lot to take in. Lloyd made the executive decision to find a better hotel from which to base ourselves as we figured things out. And so we moved from Gana’s Guest House to the Corporate Hotel, where – after our 14 hour bus ride and long night fighting off the flies – we were probably lucky to be accepted for a room!

Having secured the Beijing flights on 23rd August as a back-up, we looked for alternatives to get out of UB sooner. Turns out there is a train that doesn’t go all the way to Beijing, but that will take us across the Chinese border to a place called Erlian. There are no trains from Erlian to Beijing, but there is a sleeper bus (that’s right – there are beds on the bus!) that will pick us up at Erlian and drive the remaining 842 kms to the Chinese capital. Through an agent, the cost was about $70 each, and we can leave on Sunday, 19th August. It’s one night on the train, and one night on the sleeper bus (there’s a LOT of time allowed for the border crossing on the first night) so that should put us in Beijing early on 21st August. From there, we will pick up a flight to Hong Kong, skipping out the planned Shanghai stop to make up the lost time. Travel lesson #986 – advance planning IS GOOD. I was teased relentlessly by people who thought I was overplanning our trip. Turns out I didn’t plan enough, having completely underestimated the popularity of the UB to Beijing route.

Posted by jacquiedro 19:42 Archived in Russia Tagged round_the_world

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