Our journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaator (UB), the capitals’ of neighboring China and Mongolia, took us two days.
There were faster ways of traveling, but the two hour direct flight cost a ridiculous $500 each and we just missed the weekly international train. After some research, we found a way to complete the trip for one-tenth the cost provided we took a bus to the China-Mongolia border, crossed it on our own, and continued to UB via train.
Our bus took off as it was getting dark, and we fell asleep in a city of 15 million to wake up in the middle of nowhere, alone on a highway in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia.
We pulled into the border town of Erlian, and after some negotiation found a taxi driver to take us to the border. We weren’t permitted to cross it on foot so we paid a merchant to squeeze us into the back of his car.
He disappeared after we were stamped out of China and into Mongolia, but after hanging around for an hour again in the middle of nowhere we were given a ride by a passing motorist to the train station at Zamyn-Uud.
The train to UB wouldn’t leave until evening, but we passed the time chatting with a friendly Mongolian businessman returning home and having our first experience eating buuz, Mongolian’s fatty and delicious mutton dumplings.
We eventually boarded the train – the only backpackers among Mongolians returning from China with cartfuls of merchandise – and it pulled away, traveling north through the barren Gobi desert.
The train wasn’t as smooth or modern as the one we had taken from Hong Kong to Beijing, it was still relaxing and we were offered food and drink by the Mongolians in our compartment. We read for a bit, the attendant came by with tea, and we watched the sun set over the unchanging scenery.
The following morning, the sprawling city of Ulaabaator, home to nearly half of Mongolia’s population, emerged out of the desert. We stepped off the train onto the platform to find that fall had arrived – after months of wearing t-shirts and sandals we had to dig deep into our bags for our jackets in the chilly weather.
Ulaanbaator was a very modern and happening city, with restaurants and pubs and karaoke bars lining its streets and impeccably dressed locals out and about. We were warned about rampant street crime and pickpockets, but left our valuables at our guesthouse and had no problems.
Sukhbaatar Square in the center of town was the location for Mongolia’s declaration of independence from the Chinese in 1921 and protests leading to the end of communism in 1990. At the north end of the square sits Mongolia’s most famous citizen ever, Chinggis Khan, who’s image appears everywhere – from vodka and beer bottles to the city’s main airport.
The Zaisan memorial was constructed on a hill outside of downtown, but more impressive than the site was the panoramic view of the city.
On the walk up, I had a chance to hold an eagle, not traditionally trained for hunting, but a domesticated one on a leash that was resigned to his fate posing for pictures with tourists. While he didn’t sink his talons too deep into my arm, I was told to shake my arm (it was quite a bit of effort given his weight) to get his wings to flutter.
The main draw to Mongolia is not Ulaanbaator, but the countryside, where nomads live as they have for the past thousand years. Sarah and I decided on a 9 day, 8 night tour of the Gobi Desert and Central Mongolia with a Canadian couple we met. After a day of running around town gathering the last of our supplies we met our tour guide and driver, lumbered into a Russian 4×4 van and were on our way.