Some photos of our trip from Ulaan Bataar to Irkutsk - a very enjoyable trip without any of the border worries that some people suggest can happen when entering Russia.
We had a few days in UB before leaving for Russia. We visited the local market, one of the biggest in Asia, checked out some good museums, celebrated National Childrens day with the locals and got caught in a vicious dust storm in the city centre, joining lots of locals sheltered behind cars as dust, rubbish and goodness knows what was hurled at us from across the main square.
Our night train to the border was very relaxing – we were on a Russian carriage and the two attendants were very friendly. The male attendant was particularly friendly, as soon as he checked our tickets he shouted out “welcome aboard” and when we cleared immigration in Russia ha added “welcome to Russia”! He spoke very little other English but he didn’t need to – his gesture of hospitality relaxed us a lot and we found the whole border crossing process to be very relaxed. It did take a full day to clear both border posts but that is standard – why I don’t know but that is how things work. We were a little worried about being locked in our cabin for 10 hours as some horror stories suggest can happen, but with a bucket of fruit ready to turn into a toilet, we weren’t even sweating that eventuality! We did wake up in Mongolia to find that we had lost the rest of our train – I got off for a walk around early in the morning, wondering when immigration would come to clear us out of Mongolia and found that we were all alone. Our lone carriage sat at the station and there appeared to be no real activity that was going to see us move on in the near future. So I sat in the sun, shivering, and read a book until we had to get locked in an hour later.
At Naushki, the Russian border town, we stopped for several hours and after passport formalities were complete we were able to get off and wander around. The town was small and I managed to find the second worst toilets I have encountered, ever. One very large pit, not deep, piled with poo, on top of which sat two sheds with two squat toilets in each. I don’t know if it was the piles of poo on the top side of the squats or the fact that the pit itself seemed to be growing outwards, ready to swallow the sheds that was most off putting………..
Late in the afternoon we stopped opposite a big Russian Air Force base with fighter jets doing take off and landing exercises, but otherwise the journey was almost entirely one of spectacular scenery.
Arriving in Irkutsk early in the morning, 36 hours after leaving UB, we found out how extreme Siberia can be. It was 4 degrees, raining, and people were dressed as an Australian would for a Melbourne winter. We didn’t have much in the way of reserves for keeping warm so grabbed a taxi and headed for the city centre. The taxi and hotel we chose were both very expensive and we started to wonder just how expensive Russia would be. However we also spent the morning wandering around town and realized that the greatest obstacle for us in Russia would be language. No English signs, no English speakers and no cheat sheets in restaurants and cafes to assist the accidental tourist (you know, the tourist who accidentally turns up 6000km from anywhere, in deepest, darkest Siberia and then discovers they speak another language!).
Before arriving in Mongolia we didn’t have any firm plans on how we would tackle our time here. Many people load up an old Russian jeep and head off on tours of main natural and historic attractions. The problem with this is the amount of money spent towards transport and the amount of time spent traveling. Mongolia is big and without any significant road infrastructure.
The regions could be simplified as the Gobi Desert to the South, Mountainous Alpine Lake region to the North West and forest and grassland Steppes to the North-East and East. We mainly wanted to experience the vastness of Mongolia and get a feeling for the solitude of a country with the lowest population density of any in the world. So with no other information or ideas, we booked into Gun Guluut Nature Reserve, 120 km East of Ulaan Bataar and reportedly home to several rare species of birds and animals. We figured rare animals don’t live near too much habitation and a 3 hour car ride seemed like an economical option.
As described, we arrived amid confusion as to what we were actually doing. When things were finally explained as much as we could expect, we discovered that we were doing the equivalent of a “homestay” with the local Ranger, a lady called Ariuna. Her husband Dunduuk and daughter Umyuna also lived with her. Her mother, father and two nieces from the Choibalsan region near Mongolia’s Eastern borders, were visiting before the busy tourist season. I think we were kind of unexpected as they went from 2 Gers with 7 beds to 1 Ger with 3 beds and an extra outside! For us, we would soon find out that having Ariuna’s family staying made our visit that little bit more special but it did also eventually sway us from staying on longer (which we really wanted to) as despite paying for our accommodation, it was hard not to feel like intruders.
Intruders, guests or otherwise, we were looking forward to plenty of activities. Dunudduk and Ariuna had two horses, Dinki (a Buryat Horse) and a local Pony, as well as a horse cart and Dundduk had a reasonably new Chinese agricultural motor bike that we soon established I could ride. Plus the neighbouring Ger camp had inflatable kayaks, mountain bikes, archery and other activities for a small fee.
Starting slowly, we wandered around our immediate area checking out amenities, the Kherlen River and the views from the mountain behind our Ger. This was what we wanted, miles of uninterrupted solitude with a beautiful river, spectacular mountains and a sky that like in Australia, went forever.
Whilst on our local wander I noticed some fairly dirty, big clouds approaching from the South. The day was pretty cold and windy as it was but it looked like some sort of storm. And then we all realized what it was, baring down on us from the Gobi desert – a dust storm. We ran like crazy, jumped a fence, dodged some horses and ignored some crazy dog in a mad rush for the safety of our ger. We made it a little late, brushing dust from our jackets and hair whilst appreciating just how weather proof the ger was, although there was some flapping and minor adjustments required.
The dust storm passed and was followed by a spectacular dry storm to our East with a lot of lightning but almost no rain.
The next day we decided to head up the nearest big mountain and see if we could see any rare birds. Reportedly on offer were Siberian Cranes, Hooded Cranes, Duck Geese and White Cranes (?). We are not into bird watching but the mountain looked like both a good challenge and a good vantage point for both bird watching and taking in the view so off we went. The day was perfect less a very strong wind, although we at least had it at our back heading up the long spur line to the top of the mountain.
Once on top we hid over the lip of the ridge, out of the wind and could hear but not see some sort of water birds. That didn’t matter – the views were amazing and the serenity unbeatable.
We headed down to the wet land area, plodded around on the boggy, marshy grass mounds and found what we think was a vulture feather, talked to a couple of cows and a horse and then headed back.
For those into more “substantial” rare species, Gun Guluut has on offer a resident wild heard of Agalia Sheep, an endangered species best described as wild mountain goats. Big horns, tall, gazelle like bodies and living in a very rocky and inhospitable mountain range. To get to them, the next day we decided on a 2 pronged approach – horse for Julia, mountain bike for Molly and I. Ariuna accompanied us as a guide and off we went.
About 6km down river the track we were on was blocked to vehicles to assist park management. A further 3 km on we left the track and headed south up a long, broad spur. On the initial part Molly and I made good time, despite now being into the wind, and we were able to stop and enjoy the view as we wished. We joined Ariuna and Julia to view some of the rare birds – Ariuna had binoculars so today it was easy!
Then a little further on we stopped to let the horses drink from a stream whilst we explored and relaxed. Here we discovered that Julia and Ariuna had detoured down to the river to do a bit of Yak herding with a neighbour, somehow picking up the Yak hereders dog along the way. Molly and I liked the dog, a girl, and as she tagged along with us we decided to name her Yakkie.
As the track got worse the horses made much better time than the bikes (the rider has nothing to do with the speed of these things!) so by the time we were approaching Agali territory Molly and I were dodging huge rocks in the grasslands whilst Julia and Ariuna did the scouting. Then they found the Agali – at least 30 or 40 that we could see but Ariuna suggested that the mountain here was home to a herd of over 130. Julia learnt that Ariuna had been to Japan as part of her work with the Agali and we would later find that she had a degree in Enviro-Studies and was completing a Masters in the same, doing a thesis on the Agali in Gun Guluut. All this from a humble little ger in the Mongolian Steppe’s.
We decreed the next day a rest day but as the weather was so nice decided to go against our own decision and head onto the river. Molly and Julia took a double kayak and I went in a single and down to the river we went. The thing about some inflatable kayaks, even the good ones, is that they assist themselves in remaining upright by creating water ballast in the cockpit – they have holes along the floor to let water in. Jumping into a fast flowing river in your jeans is probably not the time to find out. Julia was suitably unimpressed although had at least had the sense to put shorts on for our aqua adventure. We went downstream about 300 metres and then pulled alongside the bank to sort out our soggy mess. For met there was no choice, noting that we weren’t sure if we would be walking back from 6 km down stream or not – my jeans had to come off and start drying out. Fortunately I had bright red bike shorts on underneath – lock up your yak herder’s daughters!
Thye day went well, I looked silly and the girls loved teasin me for it - almost as much as they loved scaring me as we continually approached wild horses drinking in the river, not too keen on us paddling past. At least the Yaks seemed more scared of us.........
Having emailed several times to book us into a Ger Camp in a National Park East of UB, we were sat in UB 3 days later with no idea of what we were doing. Ringing the provided numbers didn’t seem to help so we looked at other options and to be honest there was plenty on offer for a family like us. Not all options were cheap – in fact none were cheap by South East Asian standards but there was still a varied price list. And then someone decided to answer the phone…..
The place we wanted to stay at was called Steppe Nomads Ger Camp. I expected we could get a Ger with Breakfast for about $30 a day – each. But the initial quote was for $45 a day with all meals. Actually pretty standard as we have since discovered but I enquired as to cheaper options and was told about the eco-ger. Well, we are very ecologically minded – by not using aircraft we have single-handedly reduced carbon emissions in Asia by a factor of 3 ( a very small factor of 3 I expect but land travel is better than flying so we are making a difference!). Anyway, the eco option was all about no electricity vs electricity so we went with it. At only $25 each a day, it somehow included all meals……….
Picked up in a boy racer Nissan Skyline complete with loud exhaust, we left UB on a 3 hour journey to somewhere East. We only broke down once and most of the drive was on half decent tarred road so all pretty straightforward. As we approached the national park, there was only one last hill between us and the ger camp. Of course to our rear was one of Mongolia’s largest mines, a gigantic coal mine that is obvious due mostly to the fact that what used to be in the earth is now out of it – kilometers and kilometers of slag piles that made me wonder just how pristine and special our Mongolian National Park experience was going to be.
But we cleared that hill and low and behold – the promised land. And there by the river was our little Ger camp, home for the next 6 days. As we pulled up at the front gates, the driver took a last minute detour and stopped in front of two gers next to the camp. Out came an assortment of Mongolians, young and old, and the driver opened the boot of the car and pointed to one of the gers. So without any English spoken, we unloaded our gear into one of the gers and then entered the other – our host family for our eco-ger stay! Not really that much more eco than the main camp we would soon find as there were no powered gers and the main restaurant / amenities building was on solar power. In our case eco meant traditional and for us it was a huge bonus – we were about to have the best 6 days of our trip so far!!
Wow, 2 weeks in Mongolia and off to Russia tonight. Would we like to stay longer – yes please! The good thing about leaving Mongolia is that I really think that it is the one place we have been so far that I would really work hard to get back to.
Firstly, it is beautiful countryside. Secondly, the people have a fairly free state of mind. Lastly, the land ownership laws are basically none existent – it is the worlds biggest camping ground! In fact it is an adventure camping ground with so much to do.
Sure there are still typically Asian (or is it developing country) characteristics. We arrived at the train station, secured a taxi, complete with meter, and then proceeded to be ripped off at 10x the going rate……but the meter worked well, just a little more rapidly than it was supposed to.
Arriving at hotels is interesting in Mongolia as well. As usual, I wandered around quite a few whilst the girls looked after our bags and had morning tea. I tried my luck at about 6 hotels ranging from 2 star to 5 star (apparently). We settled on the 3 star for US$120 a night! But the Asian part was the welcome I got at each reception – indifference, rudeness, silence and quite a bit of “please come back when I finish my shift”! That doesn’t mean Mongolians are rude – just not finessed at receiving guests in hotels.
Yet when you arrive at a Ger in the country, you can walk straight in, grab a seat, take some tea and warm yourself by the fire without any question.
So based on taxi rides and hotel prices and receptions, our first impressions of Ulaan Bataar were mixed. It is surrounded by mountains, many covered in Alpine forest, and has a great central square with an impressive statue or five, demonstrating the strength of Chinggis Khaan and the Mongols in general.
To add to the charm of UB, the overnight temperatures were 3 degrees with upcoming forecasts of minus 3………….Julia was not impressed with the itinerary of her “follow the summer season tour”…….and this was her Birthday!
So before booking a tour, organizing future accommodation or worrying about where to get our washing done cheaply, we headed out to find a suitable establishment for birthday celebrations. Lesson 18 in UB – don’t bother with addresses. We couldn’t find anything by street sign (are there any?) and businesses don’t seem to bother much with advertising where they are – after all, once you find them, you know where they are!! Right?
So we found a place called Silk Road Bar & Grill – good wine list, good menu, pretty waitresses (uh, wait, not relevant!) and great service. We wined, dined, wined a little more and then Molly produced a hand made birthday card for her Mum. No tears (despite what Take 5 would have you believe) but a big grin and Julia rather deliberately left the card on the table. One free bottle of Champagne later, the gesture appeared to have paid off.
So UB was a mixed experience but mostly positive and a good introduction to Mongolia.
Just some photos to start off with - Mongolia is amazing!