So, with that cleared up, we stuck to our original plans: to bus from Beijing to Erlian at the Chinese-Mongolian border. We arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare and I sat there absolutely dreading the impending journey. I imagined the worst possible bus, a complete rust-bucket with virtually no leg room and short seats with no head rests. I just kept telling myself 'it's only 12 hours, you've done worse sure, it'll be grand!' When it was time to go and get on said rust bucket I was delighted to discover it was actually a real sleeper bus, beds and all! Delighted! The lack of a toilet onboard didn't phase me in the slightest, until that was, we stopped at about 9pm to go to a public toilet which I can't even begin to explain (and I've seen and used some pretty horrendous toilets in the past!). Had we not stopped in the pitch dark and lashing rain, down some dark lane, I wouldn't have hesitated at all to find somewhere else 'more natural' to go but wandering off wasn't high on my list of priorities. Using this 'toilet' wasn't an option though so I just got back on the bus and hoped to god we weren't delayed for any reason or that at least we might stop again somewhere slightly nicer! We didn't.
Despite that toilet issue, the bus journey was a success. I woke up to the sun rising across the Gobi desert and herds of doubled humped camels everywhere. Bactrian camels. I'd never seen them before. So much cooler than 'normal' camels! The bus arrived at 6am and we knew the border, which was 10 or so kilometers away, didn't open until 9 so we went off in search of some grub (and a much needed toilet!), but not before numerous taxis tried to take us to the border.
There were two other foreigners floating about, one who looked like he'd been on the road for a while, and another who looked so nervous I'm pretty sure he couldn't have been enjoying himself. He was suspicious of everyone and everything, while at the same time he was horrendously gullible...a pretty awful combination for a solo traveler! The others reckoned a taxi would be a good idea, why not get to the border as early as possible etc etc but I'd read in countless places that you can't cross the border on foot and Chinese taxis can't take you across either, you need a Mongolian registered vehicle. What would've happened had we taken one of these eager-to-make-a-buck-Chinese-taximen is we'd have gotten to the border, found no way across it and, much to the joy of said taxi driver, we'd have had to taxi back to town and start again....no cheers, you're grand, I'll wait for a Mongolian jeep, thanks a million anyway!
There are direct trains connecting Beijing and Ulan Batar (which was our destination), which cut out the border hassle but they cost upwards of four times as much as we reckoned we'd do it for ourselves. On top of that we'd also have had hours hanging around the border while everyone on the train was cleared by both Chinese and Mongolian immigration, and while they changed the boogies on the train! Yep, the railway lines are different gauges in China and Mongolia so all the carriages have to be hoisted up and changed over...I think you can be there as long as 10 hours! Why pay four times the amount for that, I ask you?! From Erlian to the border, through passport control on both sides, and onwards to Zamyn-Uud (the Mongolian town on the far side of the border) only took us an hour total...but then we'd to wait until 5:30pm that day for an onwards train! Still though, we'd saved enough by doing it our way that we had plenty of money to justify waiting for the train in the nearest pub, drinking cheap beer, playing cards and watching Tom&Jerry on TV!
|Zaymn-Uud Train Station|
The train journey from Zamyn-Uud to Ulan Batar was stunning. Just big wide open spaces as far as the eye could see. The scenery initially was that of the Gobi, so it was scrubby and fairly flat. The only buildings we saw along the way were at passing train stations. Otherwise, just open space. Lots of it. When we woke the next morning, the scenery had changed from scrub land to rolling green hills. Still, unpopulated and uninhabited, still stunning, until we arrived in Ulan Batar. At first glance, from the train windows as we approached, it didn't look too bad...colourful buildings, or roof tops at least, and not too big or sprawling. Off the train though, was another story. The city was in bits. Crumbling and dilapidated at every corner. It felt and looked like a mix of an Eastern European ex-communist city, with high rise, uniform concrete buildings everywhere, and a ruined, impoverished African city. People seemed to fit into one of two categories. They were wealthy and drove big SUV's, probably involved in the mining industry, or else they were poor, rough-looking, down and outs. There seemed to be a huge drinking problem in the city which is home to half the country's population. People are flocking to UB, as it's locally known, in search of work, wanting to leave their rural nomadic lifestyle behind, but the city just can't cope, there aren't the jobs and there isn't the infrastructure and for some, once they are there, there's no going back. It was sad to see, and unnerving to be in, all at the same time.
|Nick delighted with his plentiful supply of Togrogs, and our first glimpse of Ulan Batar from the train windows.|
|Statues of Genghis Khan and General Sukhbaatar in Sukhbaatar Square, Ulan Batar.|
We were only in UB long enough to go to find a cafe, eat and check our emails before we went to meet someone from the company who we'd booked out horse trek with. A girl called Daagii, who was to become our guide, met us and we waited for Mindi, the owner of the company, to come and collect us and drive us out the the Ger Camp, where out trek would start from the next morning. SteppeRiders base camp is a mere 40 minute drive from the centre of UB but it felt a million miles away, more even. At the Ger camp, you could see nothing else only rolling green hills in all directions and the 200 strong herd of horses that were free to roam where they pleased. This is going to be a good seven days, I remember thinking to myself!
|SteppeRiders Ger Camp and our trusty steeds for the 7 days (who we named S Dot and Tossie)|
And it was. Hard to put it into words to be honest, but by morning number two, waking up at dawn to the sound of horses grazing nearby and un-zipping our tent to a view of endless rolling green hills, not only was it hard to imagine being anywhere else, or doing anything else, it was hard to imagine we'd ever been anywhere else, doing anything else! The sense of freedom (or maybe isolation from all the trappings of the modern world), as well as the feeling of total relaxation, was overwhelming. There were 5 others in our group, and not being much of a one for tours or groups, I'd been dreading what kind of eejits we might get lumped with. I shouldn't have been. We all bonded immediately and got on like a house on fire which made the evenings around the campfire, eating boiled horse meat and drinking fermented mare's milk, just as much fun as the days on horseback.
|The Gang. The view. The saddles. And the best guide you could ask for.|
|Swiss performance of Roll 'n' Roll acrobatics sur Le Steppe (or whatever it'd be in German!)|
Leaving the Stepperiders Ger Camp at the end of the seven days, and heading back to UB was difficult. The horse trek had been so relaxing, and so easy. We'd been able to totally switch off and just take it all in. Leaving meant we were back on the road, and for me, back into organisational mode to get us going on the next leg of the trip! We didn't have any desire to stick around UB so we booked a night train out of there, heading for the border town of Sukhbaatar before crossing into Russia and starting that leg of our trip. I can't say what exactly it was about Mongolia that made it so appealing but I'm quite sure that had we not had flights booked from St Petersburg to Dublin for only a few weeks later, and hadn't been pushed onwards as a result, that we would've stayed an awful lot longer. It's a very big country with plenty to explore and it's inhabited by some of the nicest, friendliest, most hospitably people you're ever likely to meet, but you'd be a fool to take my word for it...start planning a trip there now!
|Bye bye Mongolia: At the Mongolian-Russian Border|