Thursday 5th September: Trans-Mongolian – Mongolia
The second morning started with views of the Gobi desert. The Gobi is the world’s most northern desert and is about the size of western Europe spread across China and Mongolia.
The sense of space is incredible, there is really nothing for miles and miles. In the distance the horizon meeting the big blue sky with clouds casting moving shadows across the land.
After a view hours the landscape changes gradually becoming more green and grassy with little Ger’s popping up in the distance. They are normally surrounded by horses and in a nod to modern times have a 4X4 or motorbike parked next to them. Horses are still very important in Mongolia, apparently there a 14 horses for every human here. This is on top of the 44 livestock they have per person, all the grass is put to good use.
At 12:55 we first caught glimpse of Ulaanbaatar which just pops up out of the grasslands. It’s a very colourful city with buildings and roofs often brightly painted. It also seems to be the done thing to build your house, but keep the Ger set up in the garden.
As we slowly drew closer to the city centre, the buildings got taller, the amount of cranes and construction increased, the big piles of litter got more common and the traffic looked absolutely gridlocked. After all the space and great views of the morning Ulaanbaatar didn’t look like a pretty place to stay.
Once at the station, I said good-bye to my compartment mate Hinke. It looked like a lot of the other tourists also got off there as well. We picked up a few Mongolians but now I had not just the compartment to myself but the whole carriage.
I had time for a quick wander up and down the platform. If you want to make some money in Ulaanbaatar sell black leather coats, everyone is wearing them.
After 20 minutes travel we had cleared the suburbs and were back into the rolling grasslands and hills which continued for the afternoon. The highlight of the afternoon was travelling down a valley next to the Kharaa River.
We continued to stop every couple of hours at major towns or cities, normally for about 20 minutes giving the opportunity to get off the train and have a stroll. I took a photo of a pig at one stop.
After a day of instant noodles, I fancied something more substantial and a beer. I made my way down the train to the Mongolian Restaurant Car which had been exchanged for the Chinese one at the border. It was very ornate, with a lot of carved wood. The food was good enough and there were a couple of other people to have a chat with after a solitary afternoon
The sunset wasn’t quite as colourful as the previous evening, but still good as we happened to be passing a lake as the sun dipped behind the hills.
Just before 21:00 we arrived at Sukhbaatar the Mongolian border town where we were subject to a lengthy process to leave Mongolia. First up someone collected my passport, then another immigration officer came in and told me to draw the curtains and not look outside or take photos. Then a man in jeans came in flashed a badge and shouted to someone else. This was followed by a man in army fatigues coming in and doing a cursory search under the seats before a bouffant haired customs lady arrived also doing quick search. Up next was a sniffer dog and his handler, then a man in a suit who asked what I was reading and what I was doing in Mongolia. It’s a lot more difficult to get out of Mongolia that it is get in!
Finally an unhappy looking man bought my freshly stamped passport back and stood in the doorway to my compartment until the train was ready to leave. He wasn’t very chatty so I gave him a mint, this didn’t cheer him up as I hoped.
At 10:25 we left and travelled for 5 minutes to Nauski, the Russian border town to repeat the process. The immigration officials again came onto the train but had hand-held computers to complete the necessary, so didn’t disappear with the passports. The blonde haired, blue-eyed customs lady reminded me of how far I’d travelled so far.
Although the formalities only took 45 minutes the train was scheduled to stop for 4 hours. Nothing was open apart from a bathhouse offering showers for 90 roubles. Myself and a few other travellers took this opportunity and went to bed feeling nice and clean.