Five days in the Land of Genghis Khan and I’m already planning of visiting it again. Its capital, Ulaan Baatar, is the coldest city in the world so our winter travel itinerary is actually a box of insanity. We bravely embraced the negative 30C temperature (swings to -50 at night) with thermal suits and layered coats. Still, what’s better time than the winter time. Imagine white snow draped over endless landscapes of green or brown ridges with cloudless blue sky or moonless starry night. Picture wild horses and camels traversing along the Gobi sands. Think of a city full of solitude with friendly smiles and tomato cheeks! A country rich with history. Freezing but fascinating.
From Beijing, we took the cheapest but the hardest route of land border travel. We hopped on a sleeper’s bus in Muxiyuan Bus Station (180CNY) and arrived in Erlian (inner Mongolia) the next day. We then took a pick up to Zamyn Udd (75CNY) and crossed over the border (1hr). Here we got on the famous Trans-Mongolian train (22,850 MNT) to the capital for 14 hours. It looks simple but actually not.
Some tips for your future travel:
- I recommend asking the local passengers if you can tag along. They’ll look after you until the end.
- Use booking.com for your hotels (pay on arrival only). Check every once in a while if there’s a cheaper hostel and cancel/rebook your stay. Be smart. We stayed in a 3-star hotel for only 5$ per person. Yes, it’s good with a perfect view!
- In the train, linens/beddings are part of your train fee. Don’t let them bully you to pay for it.
- Don’t just accept anything they serve! Everything has a price. Once you use/drink/eat it, that’s the time they will ask for payment.
- Look for a driver who can speak English or tag with someone who can.
It was in this journey that we met some interesting people with overwhelming kindness to strangers – Tsuyoshi from Japan and the locals Tsengel, Altaa, Ugna (+boyfriend) and Gaya. Mongolia has one of the biggest black markets in the world so one has to be extra careful. Tsuyoshi who goes by his last name Abe never left us from Beijing to Mongolia and back to China even though we are 3 crazy girls with imposing attitudes. Tsengel, a Mongolian postgraduate student in Beijing, went home to his family only after he walked us to our hotel, exchange currency and settled to a local buffet. All through the night aboard the Trans-Mongolian train, he only slept after looking over us. Altaa, Ugna and boyfriend also helped us crossed the border and mind you, it’s not a friendly place for female travellers. This border is identified as a human trafficking hotspot. Many women disappeared and never resurfaced. So, I was really relieved and thankful that we made it smoothly.
From Ulaan Baatar, we moved to the 13th century capital of the Great Mongol Empire, Karakorum/Kharkhorin, to experience living in a traditional ger camp. The temperature was supposed to be a bit friendlier because it’s down south but we ended in a blistering cold (I was swearing at some point during the night even after chugging on some vodka). Still, the ger experience is one of kind. It offers a slice of the traditional lives of the Mongols. If you plan to visit it, pls contact Gaya and she will arrange everything for you. She has a magic wand to whip whatever you need! Her website is http://gayas-guesthouse.strikingly.com/ or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. She opened the Erdene Zuu Monastery for us!
On our last day, we had an unfortunate event. My friend’s wallet was stolen by a pickpocket in the bus station. Fortunately, her passport, phones and other valuables were not taken. Nevertheless, this incident can never eclipsed our amazing Mongolian experience. It was too short but fun – trekking the old silk road in Karakorum, seeing the Gobi desert, appreciating their culture and cuisine, walking on the paths previously walked on by the Great Mongol Empire and being at the receiving end of the local’s hospitality. It was actually an epic adventure, one for the books.
I think you’ll appreciate Mongolia if you have knowledge of its rich history (Genghis and Kublai Khans, Marco Polo, Manchurias, Yuan dynasty, Silk road etc.). Else, you’ll find it as just one exotic country. By far, this is my coldest travel experience.
[Unedited version] Written aboard the plane yesterday from Taipei to Bangkok. My 1st journal for 2017.
Every person has its own story. Every story has its own ending. Every ending leads to a new beginning. Cheers to 2017.