Amarbaysgalant Monastery

Somehow spared the fate of many of Mongolia's Buddhist monasteries during the country's period of communist rule, the isolated monastery complex of Amarbayasgalant Khiid is a curiously spectacular appearance in a landscape dotted mostly by white gers. After sending off our taxi driver and settling in to our tourist ger, we wandered the quiet complex, alone but for our small guides who silently led us from hall to hall. The long neglected buildings are in the process of slowly being restored, but the atmosphere of peeling paint, overgrown grass and unlit halls added to the eerie isolation of the sight. We spent our afternoon hiking in the surrounding hills, from where the monastery seemed even more impressive. Yann chased the kites that filled the sky around the monastery, every once in a while they would swoop down near us as they hunted (making Yann very excited). We had a one-bucket shower/laundry and a home-cooked dinner and spent an evening under a sky like none we'd ever seen. In the morning, I woke up early to catch the prayer ceremony. I couldn't get Yann to leave the comfort of our ger but was happy to watch the young novice monks gather for their lessons and singing. I sat in a courtyard by myself to watch the ceremony through the open doors of a temple hall. Other tourists had appeared late the previous afternoon in a hired jeep. With only a few minutes before sunset they had scurried around the monastery and had left the next morning before the prayer ceremony. We felt happy with our choice to travel independently, the sight deserved a longer stay.

Of course, we felt started to feel differently when came time to catch a ride back to the highway. We packed our bags and settled outside what seemed to be the central ger area. We asked the few people around if they were heading to the highway. There was very little traffic in or out of the monastery. Eventually a large group of local tourists appeared and agreed (after we offered money) to squeeze us into their van, but only for the trip to the highway. From the highway we would have to hitchhike to the next town.

Our departure was a slow one. We had to first picnic with the group, who were busy feasting on the Mongolian culinary treat chanasan makh (boiled meat) and drinking arkhi (made from fermented mare's milk). We were handed glasses of the slightly alcoholic arkhi and a knife and directed to the large bowl of makh. We seemed to be offered prime pieces and we were taught how to eat with a single utensil. I think we came off as a little bit delicate and there was much laughter at our technique. By late afternoon, we were in a car on our way to Erdenet, Mongolia's second biggest city, a 60km journey from the highway junction where we had been dropped off.

Big City Mongolia

Ulaan Baatar has over a million residents, almost half of Mongolia's population (the next biggest city has 86,000 residents). It's city centre is a busy, traffic-filled modern district. But it is estimated that more than half the city's population, a quarter of the country's citizens, live in the ger districts in the city's outskirts. These districts have no access to electricity, running water or sanitation services. A vast majority of the ger districts' residents have settled in the capital in the last two decades, abandoning their nomadic lives. The result is an odd, and often sad, juxtaposition of tradition and rapid modernization.
Below is a Google satellite image of a tiny section of Ulaan Baatar, each small white dot is a ger.

Most tourists spend time in the rich downtown area where the restaurants, hotels and embassies are concentrated. We were no exception, never really venturing very far from the city centre. We spent only two nights in the city before moving onwards. We knew we would be returning at the end of our trip, so we spent the two days mainly trying to figure out how to move forward through the country. We did however catch some of the city's top tourist attractions, spending most of our time at the massive Sukhbaatar Square. Surrounded by many of the city's most notable buildings, the square's most prominent construction is the modern Government Palace, stretching across the entire north side of the square. It is guarded by statues of Genghis Khan in the centre, his son Ogedei and his grandson Kublai on either side. These three, but mostly Genghis, are an enormous source of pride for Mongols and we heard of their victory over the Chinese on many occasions (we made no attempt to discuss 20th century Sino-Mongol relations). Genghis appears to adorn much of what is produced in Mongolia.
But our favourite Ulaan Baatar building was the huge glass "sailboat building", apparently commissioned and owned by Mongolian's former president, condemned shortly after its completion due to its lack of structural integrity, never used. It hangs over the capital's Soviet style public buildings and museums as a reminder of the country's new found capitalism and its unregulated rush towards progress. After consulting with the many fellow travelers at our hostel we realised that we were among the very few attempting independent travel. Roughly 6% of Mongolia's roads are paved, actually the vast majority of the Mongolian road network is comprised of cross-country jeep tracks. Hiring a jeep is a popular touring option. Our hostel's message board was covered in proposed itineraries and travel companion searches. After our disastrous border crossing you'd think we might have lost confidence in our ability to travel without a plan, but we didn't even question our usual practice of travelling by public transportation (until a few days into the trip any ways).

Even the cheapest tour operators were charging more than we had budgeted, so we took a train to the next big city on the Trans-Mongolian rail line, Darkhan. It took us 8 hours by slow local train to get there. We arrived in the late afternoon to this strange city, where we mostly saw row after row of huge concrete apartment buildings. In one of these buildings was apparently a backpackers' guest house and we went from building to building attempting to find it. As it got later, we became frustrated and a little bit nervous about our inability to locate our accommodation.  Locals didn't seem to have any clue as to what we were looking for so we gave up and headed to the Darkhan Hotel. Described by our guide book as "a Soviet-era monster with scruffy old standard rooms", they might have added overpriced and sketchy. I found a note in my journal that I wrote about Darkhan, it said "sorry Darkhan ... you are very ugly. We came here hoping to meet other tourists to share onward transportation which didn't happen." From Darkhan, we had planned to meet up with other travelers and share transport to an isolated monastery off the main highway. After only a few minutes in the city we knew we would be on our own.

The next morning we woke up early to find a single car waiting at the taxi stand. After lengthy negotiations we settled on what we thought was a decent price for the 120km trip to the monastery. Our friendly driver was surprised when he realised that we intended to stay at the monastery and that he wasn't driving us back to Darkhan. The monastery is 30km away from the main road, not on the way to anywhere and he clearly questioned our ability to get ourselves back. A local family quickly lured us to their tourist ger and we sent our driver off, knowing that in the worst case scenario we'd have a 30km hike the next day.

The Train to Ulan Bator

I'm not sure that we have ever crossed a border without being cheated in some way. China to Mongolia was no exception. We planned to arrive at the border as early as possible in order to beat customs queues and purchase our onward train ticket once over the border. We had read that we should hire a Mongolian jeep to take us the 7km across the border. Arriving in Erlianhot at 5 a.m., with no Mongolian jeeps around, we settled for a Chinese jeep. Our driver charged us the full border crossing price, but dumped us at the border gates, knowing that it didn't open for another 2.5 hours. We considered getting a taxi into town to have breakfast, but there was no one around, even the Chinese border guards were still asleep. So I killed time by taking pictures and Yann killed time by getting mad at me for taking pictures of a sensitive area. Since we were now jeep-less (and had spent out taxi budget for the day), we decided we would walk the 3km over the border.  As the border opening approached, jeeps began pulling up to queue at the gates. When the border guards finally opened their booths, we pushed our way to the front to purchase pay our "border-use tax" (we had to push even though we had been queueing for about 2 hours more than anyone there). This is when we learned that walking across the border is forbidden.

This was a bit of a disaster because we were now at the mercy of the drivers who were very aware of border regulations and charged the same price to stuff you into their overloaded vehicle for 3km then the train ticket for a 15 hour trip to Ulan Bator.  There would be no negotiating.

I can't remember how many people were stuffed into our soviet jeep, but there was no room for our baggage so it was piled on the hood. We drove slowly as the driver made sure not to lose any of his cargo. We paired up with two other tourists who had made the trip before and we managed to complete the process in just under 2 hours by beating the bus and train passengers to the customs desks.  There was an incredibly minimalist search of vehicles. Arriving in Zamyn Uud Mongolia by 11a.m. we were feeling optimistic. We had until 5:30pm to purchase a ticket for the local train to Ulan Bator. The queue at the train ticket office was small but aggressive. It took all of my focus to keep my place in line. Every Mongolian train ticket has the passenger's name and passport number printed on it manually, making the process fairly slow. When we finally arrived at the front of the line I had the following  conversation with the ticket agent, possibly the most unfriendly woman I've ever encountered:

"Ulan Bator, today, two people"




"After tomorrow?"


People behind us were getting impatient, and Yann and I were perplexed. We re-read our guidebook: "...then catch the local 5:30pm train to UB." This was supposed to be easy. None of the staff were interested in helping us. Eventually, with the help of two Mongolian women also having no success with ticket purchasing, we were able to get the answers to some of our questions (although not exactly what we wanted to hear). Tickets for local trains could only be purchased on the day of travel. We were told to come back at 7am the next morning. If we wanted to purchase tickets for the (expensive) "Trans-Mongolian International Carriage" we could purchase those at any time. After spending hours at the train station, this option was not that horrible sounding, except that the international train only departed twice a week. We would have to wait 4 days in the tiny, dusty, desert border town before moving onwards. This was a very discouraging prospect.

Zamyn Uud is not much more than two streets, a dozen or so kareoke bars, interspersed between run-down apartment buildings and a few hotels. It seemed like most of the people in Zamyn Uud were waiting for the train out. With a little bit more research on our part, we might have noticed on a map of Mongolia that there are no roads leaving Zamyn Uud (other than the 7km to the Chinese border). We were laughed at by locals when we asked about getting on a local bus to Ulan Bator. Our only way onwards was on a train, or back to China. Most of Mongolia's foreign imports are Chinese. The daily local train linking the Chinese border to the Mongolian capital is basically used by Mongolians to import Chinese goods as cheaply as possible. Every passenger on the Zamyn Uud train platform was waiting with piles of items purchased across the border in China. Watching the 5:30 boarding process was unbelievable. As the train pulled into the station, porters rushed the doors in order to be able to find place on the train for luggage (all overhead as well as under berth storage is taken on a first-come first-serve basis apparently). Police stood on guard trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent fights between passengers fighting for luggage space. As the train pulled off, porters were still leaping out of the train windows after having secured space for their last pieces of luggage. Watching this spectacle, all hopes for getting on the next morning's train faded.

With no other choice, we checked into a grimy, over-priced hotel with questionable structural integrity. Hisashi, the Japanese traveller who had helped us cross the border shared the room with us and showed us to a local restaurant for the "best dinner in Zamyn Uud". After exploring the eerie desert town, we hung out all evening on the stairs of the hotel, a more comforting location than our room. It was here that we met a local woman who could "help us" with our ticket problem. She worked for the local government and would be able to ask around ... for a small fee. As each ticket is assigned to a passenger, she would have to find two passengers willing to give up their tickets, then, with access to the train station official, she could get our names put on the tickets and stamped with the official approval. There was obviously a series of people who would be requiring fees in this process. The cost for this service would be twice the actual price of the tickets (plus the ticket price of course). This meant paying more than  first-class international carriage tickets for second class tickets in the local train. Once again we had planned our trip brilliantly. We still had hope for securing tickets ourselves the next morning, so we passed on her services, but agreed to phone her the next day if we required her help.

Despite arriving at the train station at 7am, we were near the end of the ticket queue. It seemed clear that people had slept on the stairs of the train station. As for the train boarding process, police were on hand to control the crowds. When the doors of the station opened, the queue dissolved. Everyone began running to the second floor ticket office, we followed, rather clumsily.

In the crowded ticket office, we each picked a separate queues and attempted to keep our place in line. This was an extremely challenging task. The crowd was so rowdy that the police resorted to discharging their taser guns in the air!  This happened several times in the short period it took for the train tickets to sell out. We didn't get tickets. We phoned our agent and began the covert ticket buying operation.

By late afternoon, we had secured our triple-priced tickets (with the original ticket holders' names scratched out and replaced with ours) and were waiting for the embarkation process to begin. As locals loaded their satellite dishes, boxes of fresh fruit, mannequins, children's toys, electronics,  we rushed to secure a space on the train for our backpacks. By the time the train took off, every space surrounding our berths was taken up by someone else's cargo. After a fairly stressful 24 hours we were treated to a firey red sunset over the Gobi Desert as we settled comfortably into our berths.