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Mongolia

Curious what backpackers do in Mongolia? Discover travel destinations all over the world of travelers writing a travel blog on FindPenguins.
  • Another day, another train cabin. It is a view that we are becoming used to on our odyssey home.

    There was only one long stop this morning, where we would have the chance to get off the train, and stretch our legs. It was at Ulan Ude, and it was at something like 0615. We slept through the stop. And when we woke, the 20 carriage train that we were part of when we left Irkutsk the night before, was now a single carriage, being pulled by a rather large engine, seemingly more used to pulling 50 cargo wagons, than a single carriage of tourists.

    We shared breakfast with our Uzbek cabin mate, who had drawn the short straw, and found himself stuck on a train full off tourists, none of whom he could communicate with particularly well. He spoke Uzbek and Russian, and no one on train had a language in common with him, other than than the huffy carriage attendants.

    Without the ease of verbal communication, we were able to acertain, that our Uzbek friend was a dolphin trainer, of all things (he had many photos to prove it), and he was heading to Ulan Bataar to continue with his work. It feels quite strange that a man from a landlocked country, would travel to another landlocked country to work as a dolphin trainer, but it was all very real. He had travelled from Tashkent by plane to Irkutsk, landing at 1am, then waited until 2100 to get on the train to Ulan Bataar.

    Courtney had a long conversation with him, using a world map on her tablet, to try and explain where we were coming from, and where we were going to. We also exchanged passports to show him some more of the travelling we had done, and for him to likewise show us, where he had been.

    After breakfast, and a few hours spent chatting to others on the carriage, it was time for part one of the border crossing - leaving Russia. This process took five hours. It involved our carriage being dropped off at a switching yard, and repreatedly shunted along the a few sets of tracks, as more carriages were added to ours, and then the whole resulting train rearranged, just for good measure. When there was a break in the shunting, you could quickly jump off the carriage and make your way into the switching yard's main building, which provided very litttle, other than a toilet (16 R) and a small shop that sold dry goods, plus water.

    Courtney was left on the platform for 45 mins by herself, as the period to get on or off the train was so short, maybe 30 seconds at most. So unless you were stood ready to get on or get off, at any given moment, you were stuck where you were. There was only so much pacing up and down the platform to do, and only so much perusing of the tiny little shop that could be done. 45 minutes alone was about 40 minutes too long. Courtney was however, joined by two cattle on the platform who kept her company until she could be reunited with the train.

    The toilet situation was especailly bad, as while the train was at the yard, the on board toilets were locked. They don't vent to a septic tank under the train, but instead drop straight onto the track. At major stops, the toilets are locked to prevent human excrement building up uncontrollably. When you are stopped for hours at a time though, it can become an issue.

    As the train was being shunted around, the huffy carriage attendants were inside, furiously trying to conceal the many boxes of bananas they had on our carriage. Some people had them in there cabins, and some were piled on the floor. Before the customs inspection took place, they would be systematically concealed in underfloor compartments, ceiling compartments, and cupboards. Quite why someone would want to smuggle 100+kgs of bananas into Mongolia was beside us, which led us to think that perhaps there were other things concealed with the bananas.

    After three hours of being shunted around the switching yard, and another hour's wait on the train for Customs and Border Police to show up, it was finally time for some excitement. We were all confined to our cabins as first passport control, and then customs control took place. The Russian passport police were as humourless and abrasive as every stereotype would lead you to believe. The customs control wasn't much better, we were all asked to empty out our bags at the same time, in a tiny cabin, where there is absolutely no space to do so, and the customs control people got angry, that we couldn't do as they asked. What they asked was the equivalent of fitting 50 people into a mini.

    Six hours after arriving, it was now time to depart Russia, and head into Mongolia. Our first stop in Mongolia was short. It was to pick up a couple of soldiers, who would escort us to the passport/customs control point. And it wasn't long till we got there, during which time, the toilets were unlocked for a grand total of five minutes. Hardly sufficient to satisfy the needs of 30 something people.

    Processing through Mongolia customs was similar to that of leaving Russia. We were greeting by a man, whose first question of the cabin was "What drugs do you have? Cocaine? Heroin? Marujuana?" When the answer was none, he then gave us a big harumph, and as with the Russian customs people, demanded everyone empty their bags for him in unison. Something that is physically impossible in the space that we had available.

    Next was passport control: phase one of two. Our passports were reviewed by a border guard, and then returned to us. Then five minutes later, the same border guard came back and collected everyone's passport, to take off the train, and process. It is unconfortable when your passport is taken away from you like that. You are always more confortable when it is within sight. There was a long conversation with our Uzbek friend in Russian, and then our passports were gone for half an hour.

    When the passports came back, our Uzbek friends was taken off the train for further questioning. It seemed that he didn't have the right visa for his travel to Ulan Bataar. After another hour waiting on the tracks (this was scheduled), our Uzbek friend returned to grab his things and dismbark the train. He was being held at the border. It was hard to communicate, but it was really sad, so we gave him some chocolates, some kiwifruit, and said our goodbyes, after helping him off the train.

    And then, it was time to leave the control station, and head into the real Mongolia, behind the border control. But it was pitch black, so we have no idea what it might have looked like. We sat in the cabin of some other travellers, and drank what remained of our collective booze supplies. A bit too much beer, wine, and vodka was consumed, but a good time was had by all, as we drank to the future fortune of our now departed Uzbek friend.
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  • This is a story of two New Zealanders who were awoken from their blissful sleep by an evil cabin lady at 4am to ensure they got off their train 1.5 hours later. As Courtney awoke she realised that the window had been left open all night and the cabin was now about -10 degrees. After a quick wiggle round, Courtney managed to find her jacket and jump out of bed to attempt to close the window which now appeared stuck. Jamie continued to be blissfully unaware and nice and warm under his blankets.

    After Courtney punched Jamie in the arm to wake him up, the evil cabin lady came back demanded our blankets off their beds. It quickly became apparent that she had awoken our cabin so early to ensure all her work was completed before the train stopped entirely.

    Jamie and Courtney finished everything they needed to do by 4.45am and spent the remainder of the time in a zombie like state cursing the world for their lack of sleep brought on by them drinking until 11pm with their cabin mates. As the train arrived in Ulan Bator just after 5.30am, Courtney awoke from the zombie trance and quickly put on her backpack to face the early morning air which was now around -11 degrees. Their hotel was a 5 minute walk from the train station but the locals tried to tell them it was in the middle of town and would take approximately 50 minutes to walk. Courtney thinking that the locals must be right and Jamie's map skills were not up to par became scared that they didn't know where they were going and wanted to get a taxi to ensure that they ended up in the right place. It turns out that the hotel was in fact a 5 minute walk away and the taxi driver made a handsome 10,000 (less than 5 pounds) from a journey which took 2 minutes.

    Courtney, feeling foolish for ever doubting her amazing Jamie, quickly apologised for her error and they wandered into the hotel praying for a miracle that would allow them to check in early. The hotel staff delivered and by 6.30am we were in our hotel room ready for a nap. An alarm was set for 8am to make sure we didn't miss breakfast.

    After breakfast, it was time to see the sights of Ulan Bator and we decided on local transport to take us to Chinggis square in the middle of town. The bus in itself was a bit of an attraction, which was jam packed with locals on their way to work. Courtney found herself being pushed around by a 7 year old girl and couldn't believe the strength of this child. Realising that the national Mongolian sport is wrestling, Courtney thought this child has probably being training since birth.

    After getting pushed around by a child, Courtney and Jamie got off the bus to explore the government building lined square on their way to pick up their train tickets for the Ulan Bator - Beijing leg of their journey. Their tour took them along kareoke bar and korean restaurant lined streets and across scary pedestrian crossings where the pedastrians needed to give way to cars on a green walking light. After grabbing their tickets they made a quick coffee stop and planned the remainder of their day which consisted of a visit to a cashmere shop, a bus journey to south Ulan Bator to visit the Zaisan Memorial Park and Buddha Park and a walk around the Gandantegchinlen Monastery. The view from the Zaisan Memorial Park was spectacular and was easily the highlight of their day.

    After the Monastery, Courtney and Jamie made their way back to the hotel and Courtney went and did a quick workout at the hotel gym (which consisted of a treadmill, a bike and some dumbbells) before ordering a taxi to take them back into town to a very good Indian restaurant named "Nameste". The taxi journey took about 45 minutes to travel 3km due to the heavy Ulan Bator traffic. One thing Courtney and Jamie noticed was the Mongols love of the Toyota Prius, with a Prius spotted every 5m or so. Your arm would fall off if you decided to play "spot a Prius" here. Once they arrived at their destination, the taxi driver tried to charge them 150,000 Mongolian Tughrik but Jamie wasn't having a bar of it and negotiated a much better price of 10,000 Mongoilan Tughrik.

    At the restaurant, Courtney and Jamie were hungry and were excited about the selection. They ordered a chat masala for an entree and a curry, a bread and a biryani for their main. When the chat masala arrived they realised they were in trouble and no amount of hunger was going to finish this meal, the Chat Masala was enough to feed the both of them without even having a main. They did their best and then when the mains arrived, they despaired. The Biryani was big enough to feed six people with rice piled at least 3 cups high, while the curry was about twice the size of what you would ordinarily get at a good UK or NZ curry house. Cue massive stomach bloating and a feeling of disgust. A walk was required to try and work off some of the food consumption, but no amount of walking in the crisp Ulan Bator air was going to save Courtney and Jamie from themselves.
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  • We were on a tour today, that took us into the Terelj National Park. This was our attempt to see the real Mongolia, not just Ulan Bataar, the capital. The day started at 9:00 when our guides picked us up at the hotel. Jamie was feeling more than a bit ill from the dining experience the night before, and threatened to ruin the day from the start. Fortunately, the upset stomach brought on by the copious consumption of spicy Indian food was brought to heel, in time for our departure.

    Travelling in the car through Ulan Bataar rush hour, it took about 45 mins to clear the city proper, during which time, we passed three separate car crashes. We also passed the aquarium of our Uzbek dolphin trainer. Once out in the wilderness, we made our way to the statue of Chinggis Khan, in all its 30 metres of stainless steel glory. Like the Statue of Liberty, we were able to walk up the statue, only to emerge in the head of the great Khan's horse. And who would we find there, but five of our fellow travellers from Russia.

    After the statue, our next stop was for lunch with a local family. The drive there took us deeper into the national park, where the sights became more and more beautiful, though we couldn't help but notice the enormous number of fences, partitiioning what was once open and communal grass land, and the large number of ger camps set up, for the flood of tourists in the summer time. There was still a great deal of beauty, but as tourism continues to grow, and the many new tousists camps we saw being built, come online, the beauty, of that bit of Monglia anyway, may be lost very soon.

    Lunch at the locals camp was quite delicious. We had milky tea, and curd treats to begin. The curd treats were not sweeteded like they might be in the west, and so they were very sour. Too sour for Courtney to manage more than the one - eaten out of politeness. Next we had soup, which was made with beef stock. Courtney ate the vegetables out of the soup, again so she was polite, and then gave up. The main dish was a local delicacy, which was a savoury pastry filled with meat and finely chopped vegetables - think cornish pasty, with a thinner pastry skin. Courtney got a vege version, which was similarly pretty tasty.

    Following lunch, we jumped on some Mongolian ponies, and rode them up a nearby hill. The Mongolian riding style is different to that in America and Europe, and seems much more akin to the way a jockey of a race horse would ride, with knees bent at 90 degrees. Courtney was chuffed with her horse riding experience, having been thrown from her horse the last time she rode, many years ago. In the spirit of honesty however, we rarely got above a slow walk, and the fastest Courtney got was a fast trot, just short of breaking into a canter. The view from the top of the hill, across the valley was pretty amazing.

    Our final stop, was a Buddhist monastery, deeper into the mountains. After driving along a metal road for about 1km, the road became a dirt tracked, and we followed that for a further 1km. We were only in a sedan car, but this is Mongolia, and taking road cars offroad, is entirely normal. In fact, when we got to the monastry, down the rather rutted and potholed dirt track, we found a school group was there too, and had arrived in a three axle luxury bus.

    After climbing the many steps to the top of the Buddhist monastery, we turned around, to find another beautiful view, back down the valley, with rocky mountains on three sides, and a green treelined stream flowing through the middle. It wasn't hard to understand how the area could become a Buddhist retreat.

    We then headed back into Ulan Bataar, arriving in the crush of rush hour, at 1830. It was then time to find something light for dinner, to make up for the disaster th night before. There was no issue with the quality of th food, only the rather large quantity that we managed to order for ourselves. After a bit of research, we settled on a vegetarian restaurant close to the hotel, only to find that its location was not as advertised. Searching around for somewhere else to get some dinner we settled on a Korean reastarant, of which there are a great many in Ulan Bataar.

    Heading to the 14th floor of a tower block, we found our Korean restaurant, and proceded to place our order. There were a few issues, with items that we wanted on the menu, not being available, but eventually we managed to settle on some food, and waited for it to arrive. And when it arrived, were we shocked. For the second night in a row, we had ordered an obscene amount of food for a pitance. Between the two of us, we had enough food to feed a family of ten. Remembering the lessons of our childhoods, we ate the meat/main vegetables, and then worried about what we could eat of the remainder. We left feeling pretty full - yet again - and headed straight to bed.

    Another day completed - it was good fun.
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  • Crossed a lot of rivers, the last one with some difficulty, water up to my hips and strong current. But happily at the other end on my way to Chandiman-Ondor. Too tired to make it today. Tomorrow will be another day.

  • Only 8kms today, 7 under heavy rain. Arrived at Chandimar-Ondor where I found a new canteen opened 2 months ago where I managed to order off the menu: eggs with rice and French fries. Delicious. They even had a TV and watched how the Ethiopian athlete beat the 10000m women world record. To complete the day, I discovered a "hotel" in this tiny village and they burnt few logs for me so I could dry all my things 💗Read more

  • Being here in October is cold, but we are able to see some dramatic changes in landscapes and scenaries. We woke up on the last day of the tour in the snow, but about 6 hours later we were in the semi-Gobi desert. Hard to believe these pictures were taken in the same day.

You might also know this place by the following names:

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