The Trans-Mongolian

What is it?

The Trans-Mongolian is a line on the Trans-Siberian railway that follows an old caravan route from China to Russia across Mongolia. Passing through Ulaanbaatar and the Gobi desert, it connects the city of Ulan Ude, Russia, to Jining, China, where it connects to the Chinese railway system, continuing south to Beijing.

It was built relatively late, between 1947 and 1961, and played a crucial role in the transport development of Mongolia, which, until then, could only count about 43 km of railway lines.

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How to buy your ticket

There are several options for you to buy your tickets.

Assuming you want to stop in Mongolia on the way, what you want to do is book a train from Ulan Ude (Russia) to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), and later one that will take you from there to Beijing.

The train from Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar leaves every saturday morning and arrives in Ulaanbaator the next morning (duration about 15 hours, depending on how long the train stops at the border), and every wednesday morning (departure 1:36 Moscow Time, duration around 25 hours).

You cannot buy tickets to Mongolia online, so the easiest (and cheapest) way is to buy them directly at the station. Keep in mind that trains may get booked up, so you should not wait till you are in UU to do this, you can buy it at any station in Russia. In this case, the RZD website can still be useful for you to check the trains’ schedules and their seat availability.

Another option is to use one of the following websites: RealRussia, or RussianRailways, which will either send you the ticket home or arrange for you to pick it up at the station in UU.

Also, note you can only book a “kupe” (2nd class berth). In fact the “platskartny” wagons will get detached from the train at the border and continue on eastward, while new (Mongolian) wagons will get attached to the train and head south to UB. The price for the ticket will be around 70-90 Euros, depending on which website you use (rzd does not apply any fees).

Another option which may actually be better than the train, while keeping you on the road, is to take the bus, which is much cheaper (around 1,100 Roubles = 15 EUR max) and way faster than the train (approximately 10 hours). These buses leave daily from the Selenga (or Yuzhny) bus station (Korabelnaya ulitsa 32, about 1.5 km from the train station), at 7:30 AM. You can buy your ticket at the local ticket offices.

If you want to save an extra buck, you can take the elektrichka (regional train) from Irkutsk or Ulan Ude to Naushki and spend the night in the komnati otdikha (resting rooms) in Naushki for about 0.50 EUR/hour. From there you can take a marshrutka to the land border crossing town of Kyakhta and ask a car to take you across (crossing on foot is not allowed). Once on the other side you may easily hitchhike, grab a taxi or a bus to Sukhbaatar or directly to UB.

The train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing leaves every Sunday morning and arrives in Beijing the day after at around noon (duration about 29 hours). You cannot use the rzd.ru website, so you either rely on RealRussia, or RussianRailways. The price will be around 200 euros for a 2nd class ticket.

What happens at the border

The railroad border crossing between Russia and Mongolia is the Naushki-Sukhbaatar one. Prepare yourself, cause you’ll be spending some time there. Let’s say between 5 and 10 hours, so arm yourself with patience!

The train will stop twice (first in Naushki and then in Sukhbaatar) and your passports will be checked thousands of times by officers with different uniforms and, apparently, different functions, especially at the Russian border.

Keep in mind that normally you will not be allowed to step out of the train, the bathrooms will be locked and you’ll basically have to remain in your seat and endure the furnace that the train will have turned into (the train from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar usually leaves in the morning, gets at the border at around 1PM, stays stuck till about 9PM and finally gets to Ulaanbaatar at 4-5AM). During the whole procedure you may be asked to open your luggage, you will have to sign the Mongolian immigration card and finally your passports will be collected and handed back to you with the relative stamps.

A few words about Mongolia

Mongolia is a landlocked country with large empty steppes and one of the few places on Earth where nomadic life is still a living practice. With barely 1.7M people per square kilometre, Mongolia has the lowest population density among all sovereign countries in the world.

Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar, which literally means “red hero”, is the capital and the largest city of Mongolia. One of the most curious aspects about it is that it was founded in 1639 as a nomadic Buddhist monastic center but it settled permanently where it is today only in 1778. Before that, it was moved 28 times! Much of its architecture started to take shape in the 20th century during the socialist period, when most of the ger (=yurts) districts were replaced by Soviet-style blocks of flats, often funded by the USSR. UB is hence today a mix of Soviet architecture, ger settlements, Buddhist monasteries and 21st century high rises.

Getting in and Getting Out

Trains run  from Irkutsk/Ulan Ude (Russia) to UB and the journey takes about 25 hours, depending on the length of the border crossing. Trains also run from UB to the Chinese border city of Erlian/Erenhot and to Jining (Inner Mongolia) 3-4 days a week, from where you can continue down to Beijing.

Getting around

Taxis are cheap, although foreigners usually get overcharged. Besides the official ones, it is a fairly established practice for  non-marked private cars to pull over to pick up passengers. So don’t be surprised if a car just stops and offers a ride, it is often the fastest way for you to get where you need to go. Just remember to negotiate the fare in advance (should be around 800 Tenge per km).

Walking is also an option since the city center is quite compact. Most attractions are located close to Peace Avenue, the city’s main horizontal avenue.

Keep in mind that finding specific locations by address can be challenging because locals usually identify places by their nearest landmark instead of by their street name. Sometimes they don’t even know the names of the streets, so try to ask them about places rather than only showing them written addresses.

See&Do

  • Chinggis Khan Square (also known as Sukhbaatar Square) is one of the largest squares in Asia and has an equestrian statue of the 1921 revolution hero Sükhbaatar, and a  statue of Chinggis Khaan and his sons.
  • Zaisan Memorial. It’s a small hill located in the southern part of the city with a huge communist-era monument on its top. It represents the Russian and Mongolian heroes who fought together during WWI and WWII. Today it’s a popular spot where you can get a view over the whole city. There’s also a huge golden Buddhist statue at the bottom.
  • The State Department Store. Locally known as Ike Delguur (= “mega shop”) is one of the largest outlets for imported goods, grocery store and souvenir shops.
  • Gandan Monastery. It’s an ancient Tibetan complex that hosts a 26 meter tall golden statue of Avalokitesvara.  
  • Bogd Khaan Palace Museum. This Khan Estate, consisting of seven Summer Prayer temples and the winter palace, became an historical museum, whose collections include unique objects related to Mongolia’s history from the 17th to the early 20-th centuries: silk paintings, paper icons, royal clothing and equipment, gifts from domestic and foreign guests, etc.
  • The National Park of Mongolia. This park was opened in 2009, becoming a popular summer park for the UB goers. 
  • Attend a Dance and Music Performance. There are many places where you can enjoy such shows, for instance at the National Recreation Center located in the National Amusement Park on Chingis Ave (a few blocks south of Peace Ave), another theatre is located on the corner of Chinggis Khan square with Peace Ave.
  • Attend Naadam Festival: it’s a huge 3-day event from July 11-13, which is a must-see if you happen to be in UB at that time. Ceremonies and games take place all over the city, including archery, wrestling and horse racing. It is believed that Naadam celebrations started indeed with the rise of the Great Mongolian Empire as Chinggis Khan’s strategy to keep his warriors strictly fit.
  • Nightlife. Nightlife in UB is surprisingly wild but is best not experienced alone, so try to get a local to join you. A cool pub is “Ikh Mongol” located south of the State Department Store (during the weekends they also host concerts from Mongolian acts). A nice club is “Mint” offering mostly electro dance and featuring three interconnected rooms.

How to move around in Mongolia

Mongolia is a big country with very bad transportation means. So, whichever method of long-distance travel is you may decide to use, remember to carry a GPS and, even better, maps. Also, keep in mind that everything in Mongolia has a tendency to break down, so don’t freak out if part of the suspension breaks and the driver jimmy-rigs a carved wooden block in the place of a mount. For more serious breakdowns, it can easily take an entire day or longer for somebody to come along and help, so leave plenty of slack in itineraries. Finally, Mongolians are famous for being late (a bus that is scheduled to leave at 08:00 will probably not be out of the city till almost 11:00).

By car. If you have your own car, note that outside UB, there are very few paved roads and accidents are quite frequent, so the bigger the vehicle is, the safer it is.

My motorbike. Mongolia is probably one of the best motorbike riding destinations, with its open steps and culture of hospitality. If you haven’t brought your own motorcycle, you can rent one for as little as 15 EUR/day in UB. Another option is to arrange a buy-sell back agreement with motorbike sellers at the Black Market (Narantuul Market), which can end up being cheaper than renting (especially if you’re gonna stay for more than two weeks). New Chinese Mustang bikes sell for about 700 USD and can be sold back for about 2/3 the price, depending on your negotiating skills. Keep in mind that registration of the motorbike is obligatory and must be done by a Mongolian or a person holding a visa of 90 days or longer.

By bus. Travelling by bus is also an option, however most buses only tend to connect the provincial capitals with UB, and it is quite hard to find any public transportation linking one provincial capital with another. Most buses have their destination written on a card in the front window, but if you can’t read Mongolian Cyrillic, just ask the drivers and they will get you on the right bus.

There are two types of buses, micro vans and large buses. The last ones “follow” a schedule, but the micro-buses usually leave once their full. There are two bus stations in UB, one near the Dragon Shopping Center and one near the Botanical Gardens. As for the tickets, you buy them at the bus station, and not directly on the bus (also, bring your passport and don’t expect to be able to pay by credit card and it’s very rare to find a cashier that speaks English, but if you know some Russian you may be able to communicate).

By train. The Mongolian railway system is quite limited and its trains are incredibly slow (it basically consists in the Irkutsk-UB-Beijing trans-mongolian line, with a few extensions). Still, there are some local trains stopping in small countryside stations and are super cheap. Here is the website to check the train routes and schedules, however it is only in Mongolian (if you can read cyrillic it’s not impossible to extract useful info though).

By minivan/shared taxi. There are public countryside taxis and minivans that can take you virtually anywhere in Mongolia, however beware that the drivers do not respect traffic rules and may drive recklessly. You may end up racing over very bumpy dirty trails for the whole day. They usually leave when full and can find them parked at UB’s bus stations.

By rental jeep/van. You can also rent a jeep and driver for private use and the price is usually negotiated by the km. Get the help of a local to negotiate or you’ll end up paying way more than you’re supposed to (with the help of a Mongolian friend, we paid bout 50,000 Tugrik/person for a round-trip ride from UB to Sainshaand in the Gobi desert – we were 4 people. Hopefully that can be helpful for you to get an idea for your negotiation base). You’ll also find these type of vehicles parked in UB’s bus stations.

Must see locations in Mongolia

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. It’s a beautiful mountainous area with a stunning river, forests and weirdly shaped rocks. Reachable by bus from UB Dragon Bus Station (south side of Peace Ave), the ride takes about 2-3 hours. The last bus from Terelj to UB is at around 7 PM. You can do trekking and horse riding, and if you need a place to sleep there are ger camps that host tourists.

Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. Located on the western end of Mongolia is is a huge mountain park that borders both Russia and China and hosts the highest peak in Mongolia. To get there, there is a bus 3 times a week from UB Dragon Station to Ölgii (it takes more than 48 hours on the most unpaved roads) and costs about 80,000 Tugriks.  You can then hire a jeep or minibus and driver from Ölgii (you’ll usually find them gathered at the Bazaar) to reach the national park. More info here.

Kharakoroum. It’s the ancient Mongol capital established by Genghis Khan. It is reachable by bus from the Dragon Bus station in Ulaanbaatar.

Sainshaand. It’s the capital of Dornogovi Province and is located in the eastern Gobi desert. There are to daily trains to Sainshaand from UB. Not to miss in this area are the North Shambala (an energy center, one of the holiest places in Mongolia), Khama Monastery (45 km south of the city, and important center of the Buddhist “red sect”, reachable by private car or minibus); Khar Uul mountain (locals call it the “wish-fullfilling mountain”, 2-3 hour hike) and the while sands dunes. To spend the night: Tavan Dohoi ger camp, about 20 km from town. 

Dalanzadgad. It’s the capital of Ömnögovi Province, located some 500 km south of UB, in the south Gobi desert. Reachable by bus from UB (about 7 hours). Visit the Yollin Am (Volture’s Mouth), a canyon about an hour drive from DZ, wear warm clothes.

Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue complex. A 40-metre tall statue of Chinggis Khan on horseback, located on the bank of the Tuul River, some 50 km east of UB.

Eat, Drink & Sleep

Eat&Drink. Prepare yourself, cause you’ll be eating mutton and sheep A LOT, occasionally horse too. Try khuushuur (a fried pastry stuffed with mutton), Buzzi (big steamed dumplings stuffed with mutton), boodog (goat barbecue with vegetables).

About Airag. It is the national drink made from fermented mare milk. It is slightly alcoholic and it’s taste is, well, how can I say.. a mixture of something like bile and sour cream? Anyway you’ll be offered Airag in any traditional mongolian ger tent, in which case, you cannot refuse to drink it (it would be considered incredibly rude). Don’t worry, we had to do it too. We survived. Good luck.

Another drink that you’ll be offered when you visit a ger is milk tea, which is salted!

Oh, one last thing: the first day of every month is no-alcohol day in Mongolia. So don’t try to order or buy a beer or something cause they will not serve/sell it to you!

Sleep. While there are some western-style accommodations in UB, they are very expensive and the best thing is to find a guest house (less than 10 EUR/night), there are tons of them and that’s were travellers usually stay in UB. In the countryside, you can stay in ger (yurt camps), which usually include breakfast and dinner (around 500 MNT/night per person). The locals will also usually organize a horsehide for you if you want. If you have a tent, you can pitch it literally anywhere you want, since the land is all publicly owned in Mongolia.

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