The change to visit Mongolia was the main reason for taking the Trans Mongolia Express rather than the original Trans Siberia route to Vladivostok. We only spend a couple of days in remote Mongolia but it left a lasting expression on us. Ulan Bator is probably one of the most remote capitals in the world and very much felt like a provincial Soviet town. The absolute highlight of our tour however was our stay in an original Ger somewhere deep in the Mongolian inner lands.
"Perhaps my children will live in stone houses and walled towns - Not I! "
We got our first impression from Mongolia early in the morning, when we woke up in the train. We had crossed the Russian - Mongolian border the evening before and woke up with the view of Nomad Sheppard’s on horseback, large herds of Goats, and traditional Mongolian Ger tents in the green steppes. Many Mongolians still live in their tents like Genghis Khan did, we even saw a lot of tents in the outskirts of Ulan Bator.
Irkutsk to Ulan Bator
The Trans Mongolian Express is probably the way of transportation that most tourists use to get in and out of Mongolia. We had both our Visa and our Train tickets arranged in advance as we did for the rest of our journey. Train nr 364 from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator departs at 16:50, crosses the border early next morning at Naushki and arrives in Ulan Bator the a day later. Border procedures between Russian and Mongolia take some time but this doesn’t really matter since you are comfortable in the train anyway. The only thing to take note of is that the train toilets close while the train is waiting on the station. Mongolian traders and smugglers use the Irkutsk - Ulan Bator route to transport all kind of goods from Russia to Mongolia. They will come in the compartments with tourist and stash their goods wherever they can, custom officers are usually bribed so not much will happen. The Mongolians do get very drunk and wont shy away from a fight with other passengers, so be careful with Genghis Khan’s ascendants!
Mongolia felt under the Soviet sphere of influence after World War II and became a communist state. The Trans Mongolian Railway connected Ulan Bator with Moscow and Beijing from 1956, resulting in the construction of cultural and tourist facilities. The Soviets financed city planning projects in the 1950s turning Ulan Bator in a typical Soviet city.
We only spend a day in Ulan Bator so were not able to see much of the city. We visited the national museum housed in a concrete Soviet building with a large collection dedicated to national hero Genghis Khan. We spend the rest of the day doing a walking tour exploring the communist period highlights of Ulan Bator. We were lucky to see the Mongolian government palace before its renovation in 2005 when ugly plastic panels in various colours are glued against the building. The Mausoleum of revolutionary leader Damdin Sukhbaatar, that resembles the Lenin Mausoleum was also destroyed in 2005 in an attempt to wipe our Mongolia’s communist past.
We also were lucky that Lenin was still standing in Ulan Bator during our visit, his statue was removed by the mayor on 14 October 2012, claiming that the communists were criminals. The four meter Lenin statue was erected in 1954 in front of the Ulan Bator Hotel, another Soviet era landmark of Ulan Bator near Sukhbaatar Square.
Elstei Ger camp on the steppes
Nomads have roamed the Mongolian steppes for thousands of years already and little has changed in their way of life during this period. Families follow their livestock (Cows, Goats, Sheep Horses) through the rough steppe land of Mongolia, sleeping in their warm Yurts called Ger in Mongolia. Today’s nomads do some shopping in the city once or twice a year but largely live from what their livestock produce. We had booked a stay in the Elstei Ger Camp, to sleep on the steppes in a real Ger. The camp organized all kind of Mongolian activities for tourist, including a wrestling match against real Mongolian wrestlers, riding Mongolian horses and listen to local music.
The highlight of the stay was a hike with a visit of a family in their Ger. The family were offered gifts by the tourists, most had bought flower or candy, our Heineken six packs were very much appreciated by the men of the family, we understood why after we offered some fermented Horse Milk. We also got some dried yogurt to eat, very authentic but not necessarily tasty. We were than invited to help milking the horses and catch a calf that was on the loose.
Where we didn’t go
Jeep safaris are popular tourist offerings for Mongolia, we did not have time for this but heard that a jeep safari trough the beautiful Mongolian steppes is a fantastic trip. We did experience the feeling of camping far away from civilization in the rough and beautiful nature of Kazakhstan and can highly recommend this to everybody.