Thumper…

March 29, 2013

Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Continuing my St Petersburg – Beijing journey that I completed last year, mostly on the Trans Siberian/Mongolian Railway, my last post was in Ulan Ude, and today we leave Russia, heading for Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.

We stayed at the Ulan Ude hostel, a stones throw from Lenin Square, where the celebrations for the end of the car rally had gone on well into the night. We had an early departure time, and were departing by private bus to Mongolia, a journey of around about 12 hours, depending on time spent at the border. We made pretty good time, had a couple of stops along the way and thanks to an honest lady one of our fellow travelers still had is camera. Somehow, the guy who never put his camera down had put it down and left it in the toilet/shop at one place. Just as we were about to drive off, she comes running out and one very very grateful passenger who didn’t know it was missing, was reunited with his camera!

I’m not sure why, but many of the service stations down this way were barricaded up, with wire mesh on the windows and doors, like they were abandoned. In fact, if you didn’t know the area, you would presume they were. You could also see much more of a similarity between the cities of Asia and here, and in fact some places were even similar to some of the places in Africa.

Where do you pay?  Can I buy a drink?  Guess not!

Where do you pay? Can I buy a drink? Guess not!

At the border crossing from Russia into Mongolia: Kyakhta, Russia into Altanbulag Mongolia, we had nothing much to do except fill-in time. They had a restaurant there and all I can say is I’m glad I’d gone shopping the night before for some lunch because that looked much more appealing… However we still frequented the shop and the sales lady was quite fascinated with our love of Mars Bars. While you’re waiting at border crossings, you’ll do weird things… we gathered all our remaining Russian coins and bought as many mars bars as we could. But we went back about 4 or 5 times though as we kept finding more coins. Seems even some places don’t want the half rouble coins and we were given them back. She didn’t ask for any more money, probably realising we didn’t have it! That was a bit more entertaining than the music videos playing on the bus – somebody described them as “soft porn”. DHZAM singing “I’m from Russia” is one of the better ones. The line “I’m from Russia and all the girls love me” was the hook that got stuck in your head…

While the crossing wasn’t busy, it still took time – about 4.5 hrs for us to get through and out the other side. Our bus driver was on the ball though, and when a couple of buses tried to push in front of us (3 lanes into 1), he actually went and had a chat with the Russian guards. Next thing we know these other buses are backing up and in we go. The toilets outside the border are definitely not recommended, wait til you get to the Mongolian side, there’s some just inside the building, just before you actually get your passport checked and cross into Mongolia.

Toilets at Kyakhta, Russia - Mongolia border crossing

Toilets at Kyakhta, Russia – Mongolia border crossing

On the way out on the Mongolian side, you’ll be greeted by many money changers who’ll force themselves in to your vehicle. I changed my money inside the building at the Mongolian side and the rates were about the same. Just saves being hassled and harassed – and at least you won’t get (unknowingly) ripped off.

We stopped briefly in Sukhbaatar, the northernmost town in Mongolia with a Railway station in this area, then continued through the amazing rolling hills to Ulaanbaatar. It’s actually quite a contrast between Russia and Mongolia here, in Mongolia there seems to be a lot more productive use of the land. There were herds of different animals, the odd crop and at least people looking industrious. Coming through some areas of Russia, it looked like a lot of land was sitting there idle – guess they have so much of it in contrast to the Mongolians. This area of Mongolia definitely impressed me – rolling green hills wherever you looked, as far as the eye could see. Also, remarkably few houses (or gers) and people once you actually left the cities. I guess that bit is not so surprising given that is the least densely populated country in the world. I’m sure I could’ve find a place somewhere and spent ages just sitting there soaking up the amazing scenery. Definitely one of the highlights of my 7 odd weeks away.

Mongolian Hills outside Darkhan

Mongolian Hills outside Darkhan

We passed the Metal Man near Darkhan, placed there because there’s a metal factory nearby where many people work. (Apologies for the photo of metal man taken through the window.) We stopped at a roadhouse, and to the amusement of the locals, proceeded to order based on the pictures of the food. Seems it’s not only in Australia where the pictures on the menu look far better than the food in real life…

Metal Man, Darkhan Mongolia

Metal Man, Darkhan Mongolia

There were opportunities to buy some fermented mare’s milk from some roadside stalls, but we decided we’d have plenty more opportunities and continued our journey as it was getting late. Incidentally, we never did get another opportunity!

We finally got to Ulaanbaatar fairly late in the day, it must have taken us around 15 hours, including the border crossing. Coming into Ulaanbaatar reminded me of what it was like coming into Kampala. So much dust, so much traffic and noise and so little vehicle movement. They were re-doing one of the major roads into the city, hence the dust, bumps and traffic jams. Only difference was it was white dust instead of red.

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