Carrying on with my Trans-mongolian journey meant taking on the Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar leg. Almost every guide book you come across will say – always in a polite way – not to travel in Platskartny. Platskartny is essentially 3rd class on Russian trains. Picture an open dorm room with 27 double bunk beds. 54 beds in total with a row down the corridor and then sets of 4 beds in open compartments down one side. Each carriage is book-ended with some very questionable toilets; one which usually has to be defrosted in winter as it freezes solid.
I feel like I have done a lot of travel sleeping in my life, from countless airports and ferries, right through to trains. The worst occasion was an overnight bus in South-East Asia with broken air-con! But, back to Russia where we endured some testing sleeping arrangements in platskartny. From over-heating in 30°C heat (despite it being -40°C outside), to the smell of 54 people who have been trapped in the same room for around 5 days. Even the man in Seat 61(LINK) only recommends it for the most adventurous.
My personal view is that it is not as bad as most people and websites make out. Sure, if you are used to comfort, personal space and maybe a fresh smell then it definitely isn’t for you. It does, however, provide a real sense of adventure and an ability to share experiences with some complete strangers, who will invariably make you drink vodka (and no that is not a stereotype!)
At this point in our trip we had clocked up nearly 200 hours in just train travel alone. Within Russia, all of it had been in 3rd class, so as a treat, we had pre-booked the 36-hour section into Mongolia in the luxurious and swanky 2nd class (Kupe). Only 38 beds in separate lockable 4-berth cabins – it was pure luxury compared to how we had been travelling. The real unexpected bonus was that somehow, we were the only people booked into the entire carriage.
Meeting the Provodnitsa at the platform and handing over our tickets, she told us that we could go anywhere. Which had me slightly confused as these Provodnitsas usually work on military precision. I asked her again and she repeated ‘stay anywhere you want’. This was it people, we had arrived! A whole near new 2nd class carriage to ourselves. It sounds great until you add in the 36 hour element. But it did mean that we had complete privacy, clean toilets and a great night’s sleep; important considering we had a 5am arrival at Ulaanbaatar.
Because of the early start I did something that I don’t usually do; I pre-booked a taxi through the hostel. Probably the best decision that I had ever made. For those of you who haven’t experienced it yet, departing off a train in Asia usually means a horde of taxi and tuk tuk drivers fighting for your business. 5am on a winter’s morning in Mongolia meant no-one!
So being greeted by a personal taxi driver was brilliant. A short and inexpensive $4 taxi ride later (worth it for the heating), and we were standing in the lobby of Zaya Hostel, Ulaanbaatar.
Zaya Hostel is a small hostel run by a Mongolian family. There was no language barrier at the hostel as the main guy studied in the US, it felt like a home away from home: comfortable, clean rooms, breakfast, walking distance to all of the main city centre sites. Above all, amazing advice was provided about the area right down to local hiking clubs. It was probably one of the friendliest hostels that I have stayed at and catered for everything that we needed. A fine choice, with some brilliant private en-suite rooms, for Ulaanbaatar at a really reasonable price.
After a hectic few weeks of constant travel, Ulaanbaatar was the first stop planned to last more than a week. A great opportunity to fit in my trusty 3-day diet. The constant train travel has meant some not so healthy food so I use this 3-day diet to make myself feel better! But this time staying still also meant time to relax and recover from the Lake Baikal induced Christmas flu (jumping from a sauna into a minus temperature lake might sound like a good idea folks, but it might hurt later!) How best to do this? Finding some trashy takeaway food in UB and relaxing in bed watching films. Pizza Hut answered our call, they even gift wrapped if for us!
The rest of the evening was spent feeling tired and ill whilst watching the New Year’s Eve fireworks through the balcony window. Travelling isn’t always as glamourous as you want it to be, but you can find the home comforts when you need them. That night they were very much needed.
A few days relaxing was the perfect choice, I felt absolutely recharged and ready for a little road trip. Thanks to the kind people at Zaya Hostel we were set up with a personal driver to take us out for the whole day for only £30. There were a couple of big ticket items that I wanted to make sure I saw whilst in UB. One, was turtle rock, and the other was the statute of Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan) on horseback.
The Genghis Khan statute is the tallest equestrian statute in the world at 40m tall, and sat on a pedestal which is a further 10m. The pedestal itself is the visitor centre, hosting items from the history of Mongolia including portraits of the Khans through history.
If you have a couple of days to spend in UB, it is worth taking a trip out to visit the statute. There is an internal lift and staircase which takes you out onto a viewing platform on the horse’s head that provides panoramic views of the surrounding national park. Unfortunately, it is not a 360° view as the lordly Genghis looks towards the place of his birth, blocking the view in the opposite direction. At a cost of 7,000 Tugrik (£2.75GBP) it’s an easy place to get lost in some history and outstanding views of the countryside. Plus, some awesome photo opportunities!
Turtle Rock: the name says it all is all. It is a giant, double rock formation, when viewed from one direction, looks like an enormous turtle. Almost every country has its own claim on animal shaped rocks and geological formations. One of the most common I have come across are ‘elephant rocks’, there used to be one in New Zealand before it collapsed and there are several in China.
The Turtle Rock formation works well as a stop off on the way to some local monasteries. In the boundaries of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, perched up on the mountain side, is the Aryabal Meditation Temple: a slice of real tranquillity. The hike up was an adventure in itself, plenty of steep stairs, ice, and a very questionable rope bridge. The payoff was an authentic experience around the monastery and some serene views of an eerily quiet valley. A perfect place to sit for a while and soak in the majesty of what I am able to do. In travelling around and visiting other countries and experiencing their cultures, I am able to explore a side of life that I have always wanted.
Back in the city, everyone is in full winter mode. They are all wrapped up against the infinite cold that is trying to chill your bones. Although I think I managed to brighten all of their days by sliding along on the ice with my walking poles. There is no other way to say that I am like a baby deer trying to take its first steps when I am on ice.
The suffering was worth it as it meant that I could take in some of the sites of UB. Chinngis Square in front of the Mongolian Parliament is such a large open place, it becomes a perfect gathering point for families. Especially as it is just around the corner form the National Department store, a place that effectively has everything from a supermarket right through to a cinema. A venue that the Mongolians are extremely proud of. On the edge of the square is the peace bell made from the melted currencies of countries form around the world. A real symbol of what it represents.
For those that like a more contemporary focal point, UB even has a tribute to the Beatles! A pretty eclectic mix, which sums up a city finding its identity and trying to make its own mark on the world. The influence of other cultures in UB is can be clearly seen just looking down the main road at the number of Korean Restaurants. It seems to be, at some point, there was a real influx of Koreans and the local Mongolians gained a real desire for the food.
On the topic of food, my restaurant of choice became ‘Broadway Restaurant,’ although not entirely authentic Mongolian. But it did hold with the Mongolian element of lots of meat. Their cinnamon flavoured steak is to die for, and to this day the best steak I have ever had. The mixed grills that this restaurant serves for around £20 GBP (a price well beyond local prices) was much more than 2 of us could handle. A meat-eater’s pure heaven!
To finish my time in UB, I couldn’t think of anything better than going to visit the Zaisan Memorial. A memorial that honours Soviet soldiers killed in WWII. On the inside, it has a full mural depicting many things, including the Soviet support for Mongolia’s declaration of independence. It sits on the top of a hill with a punishing 300 steps and overlooks the whole city. In summer, it must be an amazing sight, but unfortunately in winter it was tainted by another famous Mongolian aspect: pollution.
During winter, after Tehran, UB is most polluted city in the world. From my high vantage point I could see a yellow haze sitting over the buildings. During winter, all of the nomadic people bring their yurts into the outskirts of the city, and because of their temporary nature they have no fixed utilities. This means that their main fuel source for warmth is burning coal, releasing a tremendous amount of smoke and carbon into the air. When you add in the natural effects of UB being sat in a bowl at altitude, it means the pollution sits there all winter until the spring weather can burn it off.
During summer it is not as much of an issue but if you do visit here during winter, it is worth downloading an air quality app and taking the warnings seriously, especially if you have asthma or breathing problems. That may have been a sombre note, but it is a real takeaway point.
This chapter of my journey finishes very different from how it started. From an empty carriage where we were on our own, the one to Beijing was full with western backpackers. Boy, was that a change of pace!
Have you been to Mongolia or Ulaanbaatar? What did you enjoy the most?