Thursday 21 May 2015
At 1:30am, I was woken by my cabin mate with a customs declaration form to complete. I must have fallen asleep in my bunk and not realised I had now reached the Mongolian checkpoint. Same routine as the Chinese border control last night, my passport was examined in detail and then disappeared with the official as he made his way along the train. I couldn’t keep my eyes open as I fell straight back to sleep, only to wake up briefly when the lights came back on and my passport was returned to me.
I actually slept very well in my cabin as the train gently swayed. It was certainly gentler than my journey to Sapa on the overnight train. I woke up at around 10am Mongolia time. Despite travelling north then west, I had to put my watch an hour forward. The view out of the train was of empty land with the occasional herd of cows or horses.
Our first stop in Mongolia was Choyr. For a brief 15 minute stop at the station, I got the chance to get off the train and stretch my legs. Jumping down onto the platform, there were ladies waiting to sell refreshments from their shopping trolleys in the early 26C sunshine. With blue skies, Mongolia had a sense of openness, calm and tranquillity as I admired the view of a small lake in the distance surrounded by Mongolian Gers and horses.
Back on the train at 11am, I caught up briefly with my fellow train travellers before relaxing in my cabin with a cup of Jasmine tea. My stomach was beginning to growl so I rummaged for a meal. After my breakfast/lunch of a Chinese pot noodle, we drew into Ulaanbaatar Railway Station. I had a preconceived image that the worlds remotest capital city would be lined with wooden shacks, wild horses running free and Mongolian campsites. Far from it! With a population of 1.2 million people (nearly half the people in Mongolia), the city was actually filled with cars, skyscrapers and office blocks. And of course, not forgetting the compulsory Irish Bar….
As part of the Trans-Mongolian Express trip, my two night accommodation in Ulaanbaatar was at the Platinum Hotel. I was given a couple of hours to shower and freshen up after my long train journey before meeting the group for a brief orientation walk and then dinner at the Modern Nomads Mongolian Restaurant.
During the orientation walk, I was shown one of the main squares with a huge seated statue of Chinggis Khan. A short walk around the corner then lead us all to the restaurant where we were offered 50% of all drinks. My eyes duly lit up as I ordered a litre of Pilsen which came out in a stein glass.
Straight away the food on the menu looked very inviting as I struggled to narrow my choice down to one dish. In the end, I opted for “The Great Mongolian Empire” which consisted of a medley of dumplings and pastries filled with vegetables, mutton and beef. It was a amazing introduction to Mongolian cuisine.
The night was still young (literally since it doesn’t get dark until around 10pm) so a small breakaway group decided to go for some more beers, whilst the rest went to the supermarket and then back to the Platinum Hotel. First venue was the 23rd floor in the Blue Sky building overlooking the city. A pint of Chinggis beer in hand, the city began to slowly light up as it reminded me of how far off the mark my impression of what Ulaanbaatar would look like.
After settling my beer bill of 5000 Tugrik (£1.67), I headed over to the Revolution Bar. What I thought was a homage to The Beatles, it was more of an expat bar ran by a Mongolian named Nassa who had lived in the UK for about 7 years. The best gadget in this place was the call button for beer. I didn’t abuse this one bit!!
After showing him how the group had found his drinking hole in the Lonely Planet guide, we instantly made friends. So much so, he organised free entry into a 24/7 karaoke lounge for our breakaway group and some local Mongolians. With vodka on the table in VIP room 2, we all sang until the early hours of the morning…
Friday 22 May 2015
Ogie, one of the local Mongolian girls from the Karaoke party got out breakaway group back the hotel at around 4:30am. Since I was due to meet the whole tour group at 8am for a city tour, I decided to stay up (in typical “24 hour party people” fashion) and walk over to the square to see sunrise at around 6:30am.
It certainly was the coldest I have been in my 55 days of travel so far as the high buildings shielded me from the warmth of the rising sun. As soon as the sun had risen, I went back to my hotel room to freshen up. 8am came and I was on the minibus as our driver Nemo drove us all to our first stop being Gandan Monastery.
It was beginning to get slightly confused in the morning heat of the sun as Nemo began talking about the monastery and leading us around. I thought he was simply our minibus driver when in fact, he was our local guide. Definitely a brief head scratching moment.
We then all moved onto Bogd Khaan Palace which was quite dry. Nonetheless, I managed to stick with it despite the lack of sleep catching up with me.
I managed to bank 4 hours sleep before meeting the group to go see the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble “Tumen Ekh” (cultural show). It was fascinating to watch acts such as khuumii (throat) singing, traditional folk music using weird and wonderful instruments, folk/shaman/religious mask dances and a contortion act. Unfortunately, for me to take pictures of the actual show, I would have had to pay extra.
After the show which lasted 1 hour 10 minutes, we all went for dinner at a restaurant called California. Amhara, the “in the wings” tour leader reserved us all table which sold a lot of western style food. It was disappointing to see pizzas, pasta, Mexican food and burgers on the menu. I choose what looked like the only Mongolian food on the menu of Traditional Noodle Soup followed by Khuushuur (mutton pasties).
Saturday 23 May 2015
I was up and out of bed at 6:30am to make the most out of the buffet breakfast on offer before meeting the tour group at 9am. Today, I was going to stay in a traditional Mongolian Ger camp in Terelj National Park. With Nemo at the helm, the first stop was by a roadside where there were birds of prey on display, camels, donkeys and fake antiques to purchase. For 4000 Tugrik (£1.33), I got to hold a Black Vulture and make it do a cheekystarfish pose. An amazing bird, it weighed between 10-15kg but can be as much as 20kg.
I then got spat at by a chewing camel when I got a little too close to it whilst trying to get a picture.
Back on the minibus, we made our way to the 250 ton stainless steel monument of Chinggis Khan on horseback. A shiny statue to witness, I climbed up it to get some lovely pictures of the landscape as well as a direct view of Chinggis Khans face.
Moving on, we arrived at the camp at around midday. The landscape was beautiful. The camp itself was surrounded by rocks and hills covered with trees and rhododendrons. I did spot a phallic shaped rock directly behind my ger which I had to get a picture of.
I then went for lunch in the restaurant on site. For starters, I had ham, tomato and cucumber which was actually quite refreshing, followed by a meat soup. For main, I had some mutton dumplings which were really tasty. To finish, I had Swiss roll which I found odd.
To burn off lunch, the whole group set off on a trek through the hillside. It started off with some gentle inclines to give me views of the landscape. Reaching the midway point, some of the group went back to camp whilst I carried on with another breakaway group on a steeper trek.
Getting back just before the arrange 7pm dinner time slot, I settled into my seat to have a mixed vegetable stir fry, followed by rice and beef then homemade yoghurt.
Sunday 24 May 2015
A few of us had convinced out tour guide, Svetlana, to hike us to her favourite viewing spot near our camp for sunrise. I don’t think she was that keen to get up for 5:45am as she rocketed up the hill. Panting and breathing very heavily, we managed to reach the peak at 6:15am after some very steep inclines and a little bit of rock climbing. The hard work paid off. Even Svetlana admitted to never being at her spot for sunrise.
The climb down back to camp was just as tough as I tried to avoid fallen on my backside. By 8:30am, I was starving as I demolished my fried egg on bread, sausage and pancakes.
The post breakfast activity was archery. I found this so exciting and the only one in our travel group to hit the leather hyde target. 1,000 man points in the bank!
After everyone having at least a go, we set off back to the Platinum Hotel to freshen up. This is where I rejoined the train journey. I was going to spend 40 hours on the train journey to Irkutsk. With my food and beverage purchased from the supermarket, I said goodbye to Nemo our driver as he dropped me off at Ulaanbaatar Railway Station. Settling into 4 berth cabin, I passed the evening admiring the sunset and drinking Mongolia Vodka whilst on my way to the next destination….