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Getting from China to Ulaanbaatar is certainly one of the trickier and more long winded immigrations we’ve encountered. This is the fourth and final part of our journey in which we find transport north and take our first ride on the Mongolian leg of legendary trans-Siberian railway.
But first of all, we need some tickets and we have arrived very late after our border crossing.
Zamiin-uud ticket fun
There have been some problems with getting train tickets to Ulaanbaatar of late, or so the internet told us. We are travelling in high season, mid July 2013. Our Mongolian friend in Harbin advised us that if we couldn’t get the train we could always hitchhike rather than stay the night in the desert outpost of Zamiin-uud.
We aren’t good with early mornings, so getting up at 6am to cross the border the second it opened (at 8:30am) and secure the best tickets to Ulaanbaatar wasn’t going to happen. We finally rocked up at the train stations after much pissing about at the border at 13:15.
There happened to be a Mongolian in our jeep who spoke English, which was amazingly handy! On the north side of the railway station is a dark blue glassed building which has some banking symbols (Mastercard, visa etc.) on it. Through the doors on the left are some ATMs and a waiting area, upstairs is a ticket office.
The benefit of turning up late is there was barely anyone waiting in line. The bad side, as our friend told us, was that they only had hard seats left… A few more questions later and it turned out that although the hard sleepers (about $14) had sold out, and the soft sleepers were almost sold out, there were a couple of single beds still available!
So at 13:30 in the afternoon (The office opens at about 7am) we managed to score two soft sleeper beds, in different rooms but in the same carriage for 27,300MNT ($21) to Ulaanbaatar leaving at 5.35pm. Sweet!
Another friend, from Australia, said he had also picked up a sleeper the night before. Whatever horror stories had happened to other travellers in the past that had led to them having to stay up to 2 nights in Zamiin-uud or buy tickets on the black market at inflated prices, certainly did not happen to us!
Obviously, the earlier you arrive the better but it is good to know that tickets may still be available if you are a late comer.
If you don’t happen to bump into someone who is bi-lingual, here are the questions you should throw in your translator and convert to Russian:
We don’t have to be in the same room
We want to travel today
Any two sleeper tickets, we must leave for Ulaanbaatar today
If there are no sleeper tickets then we want two hard seats
Can I sleep tonight?
Well I certainly wasn’t sleeping early as the scenery and the sunset were stunning, a must see. Surrounded by sand and scrub the train wound its way into a pink horizon.
We passed herders, gers (The Mongolian round tents – mobile homes really!), epic desert emptiness heading off into forever and endless telegraph poles seemingly running all the way from the border to Ulaanbaatar.
As for the sleeping arrangements, they were quite comfortable enough for the cheap price and people who speak English in the carriage will always want to practice on you, so making a few new friends is pretty easy!
The soft sleeper is really just like a Chinese hard sleeper but with 4 beds per section and a door. There was no air con but with the windows ajar it was easily cool enough to sleep, with the added bonus that we could take photos out of the open windows.
The attendants will bring around coffee, tea and clean packaged sheets… We thought this was a perk of the soft sleeper class, it’s not, they are not free! The sheets are cheap however and a little more hygienic than using blankets and pillows that haven’t been washed in years.
2000MNT ($1.50) for a pack of sheets/towel/pillow case and 400MNT (35 cents) per coffee sachet – we recommend the “Irish Cream” ones!
Arrival in Ulaanbaatar
Most people on the train seemed to be awake by 6am, the train actually arrives between 9am and 10am. Within seconds of sitting up at 7.30am the stewardess, even though the door had been closed, seemed to telepathically know I was awake and instantly came in to take my sheets away before I had even wiped the sleep from my eyes.
The overnight desert landscape had transformed into rolling green hills with morning dew glistening into the distance. It’s fair to say that crossing the Gobi Desert by train gives you a taste of its vastness but without the sand filled nostrils! More sandy times to come in later posts though!
The most surprising thing about arriving in UB was the suburbs, many KMs of traditional gers, each cordoned by a wooden fence. It’s like the herders and nomads have just been condensed, they certainly have not adopted a full city life. As you approach the central station the rural stylings give way to a familiar city scape that is mostly Chinese looking but with a hint of Russian.
We’d made it! After leaving Hohhot at 10am on Saturday we arrived at Ulaanbaatar central at 9.30am Monday – just under 48 hours. An epic journey, an interesting route and all at a budget price.
Read our complete summary of getting from China to Mongolia for a complete price breakdown and further info.