And so, on leaving Hohhot at 10pm, I boarded the train bound for Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia. I had been warned it was going to be very, very cold (indeed, Mongolia is statistically the coldest capital in the world, according to wikipedia), and I had tried to be sufficiently prepared – I bought a thick coat, which protected against extreme cold (-30 degrees c) and a thick hat and gloves, as well as long johns.
The train arrived at Erlian, on the Chinese border at about 6am. The train tracks in China are internationa gauge, what they use through most of Europe. In Mongolia, they are the slightly larger Russian guage. And so, at Erlian, there are two tracks, as shown below.
We then got off the train, and headed into Erlian. I say we…. I was sharing a room with a Mongolian woman who needed help with some parcels to take to the post office, so I agreed to get off the train and help her. It was, in hindsight, a good move, but at the time it didn’t feel like it. I thought there would be lots of shops etc around the train station, but there wasn’t. It was just housing. We got a taxi to a hotel (I don’t know why) where we stayed about half an hour, and this woman left her parcels. Then we headed into town whilst she searched for another hotel where her friend, I think, worked. After much searching we eventually found that and again, that was a good half hour wait at least. We then got some lunch and then the woman went to a fruit market and bought loads of fruit, leaving me to carry my rucksack (which I took from the train), and the box of fruit. Then she said we would go back to the station, which was locked.
Before this trip, I’d found it difficult to find a timetable or any information on the Hohhot-UB route. But one blog post I read from 2013 had mentioned the station was shut until about 3pm – which it was – when it reopened and we went through passport control and customs. The weather was nice and the sun shining and it wasn’t too cold, so I was content with sitting outside the station reading my book.
We eventually got back on the train, and it quickly crosses the border and you arrive in the first Mongolian town of Zamydd-Ud, I think it is called. The train waited for about two hours here. You could get off the train, though I didn’t. We then left again, after clearing Mongolian customs and were on our way. I slept most of the night and awoke in the morning to some stunning views of the Mongolian countryside.
I was picked up at the train station and taken to the hotel. It was a two-star hotel on the edge of the main city centre, about a 10 minute walk from the main square.
My hotel room
On arrival at the hotel, I unpacked briefly, and then went to explore, and to change some money. Exchange rate at the time was $50 USD to 100,000 Tugruks (Mongolian local currency). I also got to see some of main parts of this compact city.
Building in top picture, often called Tetris building because of how it looks. The central square in UB is Chinngis Khan Square, which is where the Parliament building is (the long palace-looking building). The pink building is the opera house and theatre. The blue tower – which is made up of glass and curved – is a hotel. The green building on the other side of the square is the theatre.
My time in Mongolia was interesting, not least because I was there during their Lunar New Year holidays. I admit, I did not check before I arrived whether they celebrated new year in Mongolia. It meant I was the only guest in the hotel, and that many things in the city centre were closed. I managed to find one bakery, which was open. I mostly just relaxed, read, did a little Chinese, and watched television, not something I get to do that much. The manager of the hotel, who spoke good English, and lived in the hotel, invited me to spend a very pleasant afternoon with her family in the hotel, where we ate dumplings and talked. This was a nice treat.
I managed to get to the National Museum of Mongolia. When I left, I got on the train at 07:30, and discovered I had a private room to myself. The train was the Trans-Mongolian Express, which had started in Moscow. I was a very pleasant journey. I returned to Beijing the following morning.