Sunday, April 24, 2016

Arriving in Mongolia: an overland odyssey


Whenever it’s possible, we try to get to a new country by land. Not only for budgetary reasons, but also because it allows us to get to know places that are often off the beaten track. And since we already were in Datong which is located at the north of China, we decided to take a train to Erlian, the overland gateway to Mongolia.

Erlian is the typical border town, i.e. it is not very appealing and most people seem to be involved in something suspicious. We spent the night in a pretty grim hostel (to say the least) and first thing in the morning we went straight to the Central Square, where we got a minivan to cross the border.

The immigration process was much faster and organized than expected. With our duly stamped passports, our van was waiting for us on the other side of the building to continue our trip to Zamiin-Uud, located only 2 miles from the border. Arriving there, we did what we always do when arriving in a new country:

1. Exchange money to local currency;
2. Buy tickets for the next leg of the trip;
3. And if we have to wait, look for a place to eat or drink, preferably with wifi.

The first point could not be easier, as we withdraw money from an ATM machine without major problems. The second was also quite simple, especially because the minivan left us literally around the corner from the train station, which was neither big nor busy. By the way, it reminded me a lot of the train stations in the Argentinean Pampas: lost in the middle of green meadows, where you can only see the tracks, the platform and the lonely station. The price of the ticket to Ulaanbaatar, our next destination, with the Trans-Mongolian train cost USD 35, an adequate amount for a bed in a 12 hours long trip.

And finally, for the third point we found a tidy and "modern" coffee place that looked more like a fast food restaurant. This is where we would hang out for the next 5 hours until our train’s departure at 6pm. There, we also met a very friendly backpacker’s couple who were also waiting for the same train.

Everything was going so well... so harmonious... everyone was so friendly... shame that we haven’t notice a small but crucial detail: the Mongolia's time zone is an hour ahead of China’s. The daylight saving time started however, as we will learn later in Ulaanbaatar, the government never informed the international body that regulates these issues. It is precisely for this reason that our mobile phones never exchanged the time, and when I say "our mobile phones", we are including the couple who were waiting with us!

Even so, we decided to go to the train station a “little over an hour earlier” the departure time, after all, better safe than sorry. Little we know that our train was already on the platform, ready to leave in only 10 minutes time. We’re relaxed, but decided to ask one of the train staff anyway, and using hand gestures, he signaled NO. At that moment we understood he meant that it was not our train, but actually he was saying that we could no longer embark.

And that's when the odyssey began. First to let us get on the train and that did not work. Than to reimburse the ticket, and this time, it kind of worked, or rather 35% worked, as this was the percentage of the amount we got as a refund. Looking back I think they were more than generous, considering that it was entirely our fault. We had no other alternative but to buy another ticket for the next train that would leave at 9pm. But at this time, we were the first onboard!

The trip was peaceful. The monotonous landscape consisted basically of a vast green steppe stretching out as far as eyes can see, interrupted from time to time by a Ger house (traditional tent where the nomads live) a herd of horses or yaks.

The train itself is from the Soviet era, in other words, as old as it can be, but works beautifully and is very well assisted by a cleaning crew and attentive cabin attendants. The private cabins shared between 4 people, are quite comfortable and have enough storage space for luggage.

Around 10 am the next day we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, but that's another story for another time.

Here is the video we made while we waited for the second train out:


  1. This land looks so amazing and I have never listened to anything before about this land. And good to see that you enjoyed every bit of it with your friends.

  2. thank you for sharing the post. Theland looks so amazing and I have never listened to anything before about this land
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