Sayn uu Mongol – Hello Mongolia
I’m in Mongolia around 5 p.m. Another 350 km to Ulaanbaatar, that should be possible by 8 or 9 p.m. At least still in daylight.
Murphys Law hits me…
“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
Because at this first border crossing I had actually done everything wrong that I could do wrong. To travel from one country to another with the Landcruiser is something I have to learn as well.
But let me explain this in order. With almost 600 km on that day from Ulan Ude (Russia) to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), I had planned a much too long driving distance. Even if it only took me 3 hours at the border. First learning for further borders: Always spend the night just before the border and then shortly after it. Do not plan more than 150 km distance on the day of the border crossing!
Then I hadn’t thought of getting cash in the border area. You could also exchange money on the street beyond the border, but I wanted to do it in a bank in Ulaanbaatar.
My second mistake: never go to a country without cash, you will need it. I hadn’t considered that in Mongolia a road tolls were charged in some villages for passing through. Not much, but I was lucky to be able to pay in Russian rubles.
Dealers also sold Mongolian SIM cards just at the border. Also for rubles. But as I found out later they sold me a fake card. The lesson: Always have the seller insert SIM cards and test them directly. It is best to buy it in a store of a telephone company and not on the street.
And finally: It was still additionally Sunday evening. Banks and most of the shops in the towns were closed. Whenever possible don’t cross a border by car on a weekend!
The drive must go on!
So there I was. Without working Google Maps, without local money and without a hotel booking for that night. Because I wanted to do that with the new SIM card in Mongolia. Because in Russia before the border crossing I didn’t know if it would work that day.
But at least I had already found a hotel in Ulaanbaatar in the border area where the Russian SIM card was still working. But of course, I hadn’t thought of downloading an offline map of the track.
Nevertheless it had to go on and I had to get ahead. And so I set off in the direction of Ulaanbaatar with the help of my map and the road signs.
On the highway, I stopped at two rest stops to ask if they have an ATM and sell SIM cards. Unfortunately without success. Because of the slowly driving in villages, a moderate highway and sometimes slow trucks in front of me, I didn’t make much progress either.
There were also many animals on the street. Horses, cattle, sheep, goats and dogs. I almost caught one of them twice with the Landcruiser.
Meanwhile it was 9 p.m. and it got dark. I couldn’t keep my resolution here not to drive in the dark.
So I took a turn on the parking lot of a rest area once again and stood next to a Mongolian car. Next to it stood two men and I asked if there is an ATM here in the shop.
Through Mongolia at night
One of them spoke some English and said, probably not. So we got into conversation. And it turned out that he was the head of a health department in an eastern province of Mongolia. The other was his driver. Both were also on their way to Ulaanbaatar for a meeting at the Ministry of Health the next morning.
The men talked in Mongolian. I did not understand that and wanted to go on. Then the head of the health department offered me a ride with me and his driver was supposed to follow.
They wanted to guide me to the hotel in Ulaanbaatar. At first I didn’t like the idea of taking a stranger with me in my car at night in a foreign country. On the other hand, he had given me his business card. And my gut feeling told me that I could trust him.
The conversation on the trip was rather poor because of his English language skills. But at least that way I learned something about the difficulties of a health office in Mongolia.
Around midnight we finally reached the Mongolian capital. At the entrance to the city, my guide called the hotel reception several times to have the route explained to him. A map service was probably not installed on his smartphone.
At half past twelve at night I was at the hotel. And I only hoped that there was a room available. Because I had not booked yet. But everything worked out fine. We said goodbye, because they also had to go to their accommodation. Their meeting was supposed to start at 8 a.m.
Once again, the helpfulness of complete strangers in a completely foreign country made my day!
Ulaanbaatar – The capital of Mongolia
It is Monday morning and all stores are open again. So I can finally exchange money and get a working SIM card.
But even now a little patience is needed. The ATM in Mongolia was limited to maximum of only 120,000 Tugrik. That is about 50 US dollars and too little to fill up the tank of my car. So I wanted to exchange a part of my 900 Australian dollars, which I still had in cash.
But that was not so easy. Only a single bank in Ulaanbaatar exchanged something other than US dollars and Euros. And until I had found it and had finally changed the money it was already noon.
Buying and activating a SIM card was no problem here. Quickly I got a prepaid card including 5 GB, valid for 15 days, for 12.500 Tugrik, almost 5 US dollars.
By the way, the Mongolian language. That is a chapter in itself. For example, the Tugrik is also called Tögrög.
Somehow there were always different ways of writing. At least in German, English and Russian. Additionally Cyrillic in Mongolian official language and sometimes in traditional Mongolian script. ᠤᠯᠠᠭᠠᠨᠪᠠᠭᠠᠲᠤᠷ is supposed to mean, for example, Ulaanbaatar. But I am not sure…
And if Mongolians speak to each other, it sounds similar to how the traditional script looks. Very quiet, with many sibilants…
Sightseeing of the city with Tatsral
I called Tatsral, whom I had met on entry at the border. And we made an appointment for the later afternoon.
First she showed me the center of the city, a mix of modern high-rise buildings, older buildings and those from the Soviet era.
The capital of Mongolia does not have too many highlights to offer for tourists. On the huge central Süchbaatar square there is a statue of the same named general.
And the impressive parliament building. In front of its entrance, a statue Genghis Khan is sitting on a throne, to the right and left his son Ögedei Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan on horsebacks.
At another corner of the square is the Mongolian State Opera located. Pretty pink painted. And just around the corner a small park with a Marco Polo statue.
Although he has probably never seen Ulaanbaatar. It seems that there are a lot of statues in Mongolia. Tatsral explained to me that the country has been occupied by either China or the Soviet Union for the last 100 years. And this is an attempt to develop an own identity.
And she told me something else interesting: In Ulaanbaatar it gets cold in winter up to -30 degrees. But nevertheless, she and her friends would then take long walks into the surrounding mountains. Without wearing thick clothes and without caps. She answered in the negative when I asked her if they wouldn’t freeze. Because the Mongolians would have a much thicker skin than the Europeans…
Just outside the city
The next day she showed me the Zaisan Memorial. It should remind of Soviet soldiers, who died here in the 2nd world war.
But that was not why she came here with me. Rather because the monument is located on a hill from which you have a great view of the city. But first we had to walk up the 300 steps.
Later we walked through bigger and smaller streets, which I would never have walked through alone. To the Gandan Monastery, the central Buddhist sanctuary in Mongolia.
And had ice cream, cola and snacks on our way.
Because Tatsral had to go for work again, I visited the National Museum in the afternoon. A fascinating time travel into the Mongolian history.
Although I am otherwise not so interested in museums.
I would have liked to stay one day or two days longer. But the following morning I had to continue my travel further west due to the limited duration of my Russian visa.
Out of the city
Unfortunately I forgot to turn on the dashcam in the morning. Because the bustle of the traffic on the main road which is leading out of the city was something special.
Not only are traffic lanes and right-of-way signs perceived at best as friendly indications. But you do not have to stick to them at all. Three lanes are often turned into four.
However, I was in a good position with my Landcruiser due to its height and its bullbar in the front. Because here was the rule: The bigger vehicle has the right of way. Tatsral had already warned me. The Mongols switched directly from the horsebacks into the cars.
The most impressive scene was at an intersection of three streets, which was also additionally crossed by a railroad crossing. Because everyone tried to get over first here, there was a huge traffic jam, which even a train could not get over and had to stop.
But sometime after what felt like 2 hours I was out of the city on the countryside. And here the streets became suddenly empty. About half of the 3 million citizens of Mongolia live in Ulaanbaatar. And the other half is spread over the rest of the country. So that statistically only 2 inhabitants live on one square kilometer.
Crossing Mongolia from East to West
From Ulaanbaatar there are three routes to the west. A northern one, which later passes large lakes and rivers. I had already been advised in Ulan-Ude better not to use this. Travelers who coming from there reported that everything was flooded and they had to turn back.
Then one route in the middle of the country. But this was only listed as a minor road in Google Maps. And quite lonely. There were apparently not many villages on this route.
And finally a southern route. Not as lonely as the middle one. First passing the edge of the Gobi sand desert. Because the main part of this desert is located in the north of China.
And then crossing the stone desert Gobi. I chose this route. I wanted to cross Mongolia via Arvaikheer – Bayankhongor – Delger – Altai – Khovd – Ulgii and Tsagaan Nuur. To Ulaanbaishint, the Mongolian checkpoint at the border to Russia.
On roads and tracks
Behind Bayankhongor I have strayed too far north off the main road. Instead I went on an adventurous tour across the country. Via Bumbugur and Buutsagaan. Until I reached the main road again near Altai. I will explain why this all happened furher below. Because it was not intended or planned!
Anyway, my colleagues who were watching the GPS tracker later said to me: If this had taken a few more days, we would have informed the German Embassy. Don’t panic people, all roads are leading to Rome. In Mongolia that means, to the west – or to the east 😉
On the other hand, this was an opportunity to experience Mongolia still on tracks. Because they are disappearing one after another with the road construction. Large parts of the southern route have already been tarred, and the construction is scheduled to be completed in a few years. And from the road you can see that nature is quickly reclaiming the old tracks on the right and left.
At the bottom of this post there are also some pictures of it in the video.
Ulaanbaatar – Arvaikheer, 450 km
The first part of the road was well developed and there were modern rest stops. At one of them I stopped, bought a coffee and took some pictures.
I shouldn’t have done that. Or at least I should have put on a shirt with long sleeves. Because a few hours later I realized that my whole arm was bitten by mosquitoes. When it happened I had neither seen nor heard them.
In the early afternoon I made another short stop at a foothill of the Gobi desert. However, this seemed to be more a destination for tourists from Ulaanbaatar. With camel riding, food and lodging in yurts.
All the small places and villages in Mongolia were not listed in my hotel app. So I had to look for accommodation directly in Arvaikheer. But that was no problem, there were small motels directly at the road.
Arvaikheer – Bayankhongor, 200 km
In the further course of the route it became more rural. Road and tracks alternated.
From a distance I saw something that I first thought was a farm on a small hill.
But as I got closer, it turned out to be a kind of monument. Or a cemetery. Apparently for successful Mongolian horses. Because I could not read anything. And there was nobody else around whom I could ask.
Bayankhongor – Buutsagaan, 180 km
Here I strayed from the route I had actually planned. Because I wanted to take originally the main road towards Delger and Altai.
I have to explain that the main road to the west here was still under construction. That means you had to drive next to it on tracks.
Sometimes they ran right and sometimes left of the road under construction. The road had to be crossed from time to time as well. As long as there were cars in front of me, the road course was no problem. But at some point I was on my own.
And the ‘signs’ where to go did not always consist of signs. But sometimes also of three small stones on top of each other.
Sometimes that meant ‘driving this way’. But sometimes it seemed to mean ‘Don’t drive here’. The locals surely knew the meaning but I had my problems with that. In any case, I headed north at exactly such a place instead of driving further west.
Get lost in Mongolia
Then I found myself in the middle of a great plain. Other cars were no longer to be seen. So I followed the tracks for the time being. I would get already somewhere.
However, when smaller hills built up to the right and left of the lane and finally a chain of hills directly in front of me, I was no longer sure whether the track continued here.
Directly in front of the chain of hills, however, the track made a 90 degree turn and it went on. Lucky me!
And a little bit later I reached the small town of Buutsaagan. But at that time I did not know the name.
In the village I ask someone for accommodation. We both could not understand each other, so we had to communicate with hands and feet. But it worked out and he showed me the way to a motel.
The toilet (a simple hole in a wooden shed) was about 50m from the house. There was no running water and no sewage system. Instead you could fill water from a canister into a container above the sink.
And under the sink, the sewage flowed into a bucket. Nevertheless, I slept very well in this little place in the middle of the Mongolian desert. And could even charge my cell phone at night. Because I was also given an extension cable that reached to the socket at the room door.
However, the dinner had to be cancelled. Because I did not feel like asking for a restaurant in the village anymore. In addition, I still had snacks and drinks in the car from Ulaanbaatar. By the way: If you want to lose weight, I can highly recommend this road trip. After my arrival in Germany I had lost about 7 kg…
Buutsagaan – Altai, 200 km
The next morning there was already a lot going on in the corridor. Later than I probably a lot of other travelers arrived, who were now preparing to continue their journey.
A family with two teenage daughters from Ulaanbaatar was there, who spent their vacations on a car trip around Mongolia. Does something like that actually exist in Germany? Once around Germany?
Anyway, the daughters spoke English and offered me a cup of tea. And I must say, I have very rarely drunk such a delicious tea as this morning in Buutsaagan.
Always following the bus through the area…
I took the opportunity and asked the girls how I could best get to Altai. The answer was as simple as amazing. I should first drive in southwestern direction and then look for a bus. And then just follow the bus through the countryside. It would drive to the main road. And where it turns left at the highway, I should turn right.
It should be noted that all long-distance public transportation in Mongolia is handled by buses that connect Ulaanbaatar with the rest of the country and single villages.
Said and done. And in fact, I was soon overtaken by a bus that I could follow. But it drove through the terrain at a speed I didn’t want to expect from the Landcruiser. Especially because of the potholes and stones. The bus driver obviously knew every stone here personally 😉
But it doesn’t matter. I could still see the dust cloud of the bus for miles. And followed roughly that direction. It didn’t really matter which of the tracks you drove on. At some point they all came together again. And so after a few hours I reached the main road again.
…and on the highway again
The highway was here perfectly developed again. And so new that in some parts the lane markings did not even exist yet. But it was already open to the traffic.
I drove with 80 or 90 km/h and it was also quite stormy. Suddenly I heard a bang. In the rearview mirror I saw that my son’s camping table had detached itself from the roof rack and hit the road behind me.
Because of the shaking in the terrain, the lashing belt had loosened. And the wind had reached under the table plate. Fortunately at this moment there was no other car behind me. And apart from a dent in the side, the table was not damaged. Nevertheless I fixed it with 2 more safety straps immediately…
At a rest stop and later in Altai I met again travelers from Western Europe who wanted to go to Ulaanbaatar. Two Frenchmen with motorcycles, two bicycle tourists from England and an Italian with a scooter. They asked me about the way to the east. And I asked them about the further way to the west.
Altai – Khovd, 450 km
Here, too, most of the route was perfectly tarred. I have the impression that the road is being built from both directions. From the Russian border to the east. And from Ulaanbaatar to the west. And somewhere in the middle of Mongolia the construction teams will meet then.
Only shortly before Khovd you should move to a track next to the road for a while. But the locals didn’t care about that. They just drove on the road until directly in front of the construction site and changed to the track next to the road at the very last moment.
Excursion to Khar Us Lake, 150 km
In Khovd I wanted to take a day off to drive to the nearby Khar Us Lake. Maybe I didn’t catch the right spot or maybe it wasn’t the right season. Anyway, there was nothing to see of the animals described in the internet. No ibex, no snow leopard and no storks. Except some bones on the tracks.
By the way, I noticed in Khovd that the time zone had changed again. Only +5 hours compared to Germany. But maybe this change already existed since Altai.
Time does not really matter here. You get up when it gets daylight. And when it gets dark, you go to sleep. And whether it is one hour earlier or later on the clock was of no relevance.
Khovd – Ulgii, 250 km
Once again an alternation between a well developed new road and in between stretches across the terrain. But the landscape changed now. If I had driven over the Mongolian plateau so far, the Tavan-Bogd massif came into sight in the northwestern direction. A part of the Altai Mountains between China, Russia and Mongolia.
In Ulgii I actually wanted to stay only one night. Especially since the small town does not offer anything special. But in the evening a tooth filling came off. And so I had no other choice than to look for a dentist in Ulgii next day. After a walk and a search on unpaved village streets I finally found one.
In the waiting room you first had to exchange your shoes for slippers. But the treatment room then looked like a normal dental practice. After 10 minutes the tooth was filled again for 9 US dollars.
And because I’ve already been there, I went to the hairdresser’s next door as well.
There was a nice reading café in Ulgii. I couldn’t read anything here, but there was a delicious cappuccino.
In the evening I watched the World Cup game of the German team against Korea with some Mongolians and an Englishman in the hotel. And after the 0:2 defeat I had to listen to some jokes of the Englishman. While the Mongolians rather felt sorry for me…
Ulgii – Ulaanbaishint Checkpoint, 90 km
The last day in Mongolia has started. I quickly reached the checkpoint. And leaving Mongolia was the fastest border clearance on my whole trip.
Passport and car registration papers were quickly checked and at the customs inspection there were only two questions:
“Do you have anything illegal in the car?” – “No.” “Are you sure?” – “Yes.” “Good travel.”
Ulaanbaishint Checkpoint/Mongolia – Tashanta Border Gate/Russia, ca. 25 km
But I am not in Russia yet. Because both checkpoints are far away from each other here.
Probably neither of the two countries wants to bring its border guards into this wilderness every day. A gravel road runs over 5 km to the Russian border fence. There, however, only one official will write down the license plate number. Then you have to continue for another 20 km to the actual Russian checkpoint. Now driving on a tarred road.
Here, however, it takes 6 hours to get through. The main reason for such a long waiting time was that all travelers in front of me had to unload all their luggage. Which was then X-rayed and carefully checked.
I only needed to show my backpack, which was then x-rayed. And a friendly customs officer filled out a form in Russian for the car and the items I brought with me. That took some additional time.
And in Russia again
At 6 p.m. I’m back in Russia. And Mongolia is unfortunately already lying behind me. Certainly a highlight on my road trip! What a pity, I would have liked to stay there longer. Because there is still so much more to see. But I’m excited about what else to expect on my further trip.
The following video (4m 09s, music: Hyde – Piano Rock Instrumental) shows my trip through Mongolia from dashcam and drone perspective. Because of its size I had to upload it unfortunately on YouTube. Actually I would have preferred to have it directly on the blog. Like the pictures. The video quality is best on the smartphone.
And who knows what else is coming. When you can travel without restrictions again, Polish friends want to travel from France to Mongolia. In the footsteps of two monks who, even 26 years before(!) Marco Polo, made a journey to the Mongolian leader in the city of Karakorum. The then capital of the Mongolian Empire during the reign of Genghis Khan. Maybe I will join them…
And if you want to see more of Mongolia right now: Here is my video from 2019 (14m 9s).
About my further travel through the Russian Altai to the Kazakh border I will tell you in my next blog.
Cheers, Ruediger 😎