Yeaah we’re leaving Russia! It’s not that we don’t like Russia, but we’re craving a new adventure! And we’re really curious about Mongolia. After a night not-sleeping at the train station we step on the train. It is a ride of 23,5 hour – covering 657 kilometers. We can’t find our wagon number, but when we ask someone ‘Mongolia’ they point out the one different looking wagon. There’s only one wagon that goes to Mongolia. We step on the train and say to each other ‘Mongolia here we come’! This is our travel journal of Mongolia.
We are still very tired so we decide to sleep a bit more on the train. When I wake up I hear someone speaking Dutch! Excited I leave my bed. Besides each other we haven’t seen Dutch people in a month. So I wake up Maartje and tell her that we have some Dutch people on our train. Curiously I open the coupé door to take a look at the Dutch people, three guys! I decide to say ‘goedemorgen’ and their reaction is: ‘Ooh, again Dutch people’. So my excitement floats away, yes Dutch people are everywhere. Back in our coupé I find a whole roasted chicken on our table! Hmmm yummy, our Mongolian coupe-mate is very friendly so we can have some as well!
Then we arrive at the last stop in Russia. We leave the train and find a nice bench to enjoy the sun. But then suddenly our train starts to move and goes away! HELP, PANIC! We are not on the train yet and all of our stuff is still in there. But luckily it comes back, and leaves again, and this continues for about an hour. We lost our Russian wagons and we only have one Mongolian car left, together with the locomotive.
We enter the train again, wondering why nobody told us about the train changing thing. Our coupe mate left us to go and stay with his (new?) Mongolian friend, and we have the coupe to ourselves. Party time! But, we’re not done with the Russians yet, our passports, bags and coupé still need to be checked, so a bunch of Russians enter our wagon to conduct a search for hidden people/drugs/liquor? Everything seems to be fine, we’re leaving Russia and enter the Mongolian border. Entering Mongolia is even stricter than Russia. We are not allowed to leave the train, luckily we don’t need to go to the toilet anymore and we wait for a couple of hours.
After all the waiting it’s almost Maartje’s birthday, so we need cold beers (of course). But that’s hard on a train with sauna temperatures. I try to cool them a little bit in the hallway between train cars. We are a bit confused with the time difference. Nonetheless, I transform the coupé into a birthday coupé and surprise Maartje with burning candles on the birthday cake. Yeaah Maartje is 22 now, so it’s champagne, presents and cake eating time!
When we wake up we prepare ourselves to leave the train. Suddenly we notice that we are the only one awake, even the conductor’s still asleep (we are still confused with the time difference apparently). So we decide to sleep again for a while. 45 minutes later we wake up and see a beautiful sunrise and know we are in Mongolia. The land of the Blue skies!
Mongolia’s capital city immediately steals our hearts. During the 40-min walk to the fancy-because-birthday-present-hotel we see as many cars with the steering wheel on the right side as on the left, just like Russia (where we learn it’s because they drive both Russian and Japanese cars). We also see many, many people on the streets; this city is definitely more alive than any of the Russian cities we visited. We also feel a lot safer, for no apparent reason. In short: we love it!
We take it easy during the first days, we relax in the amazing hotel Roxanne booked, we see a movie and have caramel popcorn for only €6 in total, and enjoy amazing Indian food (which was an explosion of taste after all the Russian food LINK). After staying in the hotel we couchsurf at Togi’s for a couple of nights. She is living with her husband and two daughters (a 5-year-old and a half a year old) and she is the sweetest. She loves to meet people and she offers free tours in Ulaanbaatar! We have the pleasure of walking the city with her. She also takes us to a meat market, and confronts us with the Mongolian cuisine: soup with sheep organs, salty milk tea and dried curd snacks made of camel milk.
The rest of Mongolia
The contrast between Ulaanbaatar and the rest of the country cannot be bigger. Where Ulaanbaatar is known for its busy, modern city life, the rest of the country is known for its widespread, close-to-nature Nomadic life and breathtaking scenery. The entire population of Mongolia is about 5 million people (that is almost 6 times less than the Netherlands and Mongolia is a 45 times bigger country!) and almost HALF of the population lives in Ulaanbaatar. So it’s no mystery why the rest of Mongolia feels ‘empty’.
We decide to travel a bit adventurous… which entails 5000 kilometers of driving within 17 days, covering the South and the West-part of Mongolia. Togi’s cousin, Ishee, makes us a perfect fit tour (since driving yourself is absolutely impossible, there aren’t even roads where we go), and provides us with an English-speaking driver (his brother), camping gear, and sends us off to the most marvelous places where we can stay with real nomadic people.
We think staying with nomadic families is the thing everyone does in Mongolia, but our driver tells us we travel more close to the people than most tourists. Most tourists just visit nomadic families for only 20 minutes and then stay in their own Ger in a tourist camp. Well, we think ‘couchsurfing’ at the nomadic family is the best (getting served all the Mongolian meat dishes is a bit tough though, but thanks to instant noodles we survive).
On the road (trip)
In total we drive about 92 hours over 5000 kilometers in 17 days, which results in an average of 54 km/h. It’s incredible that driving more off-road than on-road is already ‘modern’, since they only have some paved roads for 10 years now in Mongolia. We have to take lots of detours due to all the muddy roads in spring (which means our driver constantly has to ask for the best road and we sometimes have to drive the double distance since the shortcut he chooses turns out to not be the best road).
So, we actually drive dangerous roads. On the road we see a motor driver driving off road that gets launched in the air (I guess the speed + road full of stones was a bad combination). After ten minutes he stands up again and wants to drive further, but somebody called an ambulance. No idea how fast Mongolian ambulances can get to remote places like this one though… Other than that, we see breathtaking scenery, but also see lots of trash on the side of the road near cities and get confronted with dead animals on the side of the road, which shows nature in its more cruel form.
During our 16-nights road trip we have planned to spend as little money as possible on sleeping places. So naturally, we want to camp as much as possible. Nevertheless, Mongolia knows harsh weather in spring so camping is not always an option. We do camp for five beautiful nights, but have two nights with -10 degrees Celsius (even with two sleeping bags and thermo clothing it is pretty cold).
Another thing on our wish list (maybe even number one) is to stay with actual nomadic/Mongolian families. Our very awesome tour organizer Ishee makes sure we visit the absolute best people. We stay in gers of the champion herder and help her with all her chores of getting the baby goats back to their momma’s, of the lovely father of the Eagle Huntress (from the Oscar nominated movie) who makes us drink 5 shots of vodka each, CHIC (cheers in Kazakh)!
We also stay in an actual house with a lovely family in Altai city, the oldest girl shows us around the small city and she tells us her dream to study abroad (Europe or America, she isn’t sure yet). In addition, we also stay in four guesthouses/tourist camps during our trip, allowing us to sleep in a ger, meet nomadic families, but still have our own spot (this is apparently how all tourists experience ‘staying with nomadic families’).
And lastly, we have the pleasure to stay with our driver’s family. His mum is the cutest and she can even speak a little English! She makes us special Buryat dumplings (Buuzy). And after climbing the mountain for nearly the entire afternoon, the mum proudly tells she had watched us all day through her binoculars.
See more? Take a look at our Mongolia Gallery.
Are you thinking about travelling to Mongolia? Do it, it’s amazing! If you have any questions about our trip, feel free to ask anything!