We finally made it to the right bed in the right hostel in Ulaanbaatar. I’m pretty sure it’s 23:30. We had as interesting a day as you can have if you spend it in a bus and met a range of funny people. There was Sebastian Vettel, our fearless bus driver, not concerned with his own life or that of his passengers. When he spoke (although shouted is a more correct term), he reminded me of an angry Irish sailor, should said sailor speak Russian or Mongolian – I never figured out which language the man ordered us around in. After unsuccessfully trying a local bus, we ended up squeezed into a make-shift taxi with two Canadians and Usher, our driver, singing along to this cool tune. And finally our host Baatar, a real joker.
But let’s start from the beginning, which was at 5:15 this morning. After almost two months, we left Russia, heading for Mongolia. If you’re interested in the practical details, we got the 7:30 coach from the old bus station in Ulan-Ude. Boarding was supposed to start at 7:00, but the place was already quite busy when we got there. Russians don’t tend to be late, I’ve noticed, not when it comes to transport at least. We shared the (full) bus with four Canadians, a Spaniard, a Kazakh family, three Buddhist monks and of course a bunch of Russians and Mongolians. Not to forget Vettel and his skinny, silent side-kick, taking turns to zig-zag between cows and cars.
It took us until about 11:00 to pass dry hills and pine forests before we arrived at the border. As we approached, the bus stopped to let a Russian army guy on to do a quick check of our passports. We were handed Mongolian entry forms to fill out. A little while later another official looking man (more relaxed uniform, though) came in to check that we all had passports. After arriving at the actual border zone, we were joined by a Russian lady who collected all our passports after carefully scrutinizing our faces, checking that they did indeed match the photos. I got one good look, Christophe two. I think it’s the beard, but he maintains it’s his natural charms.
Anyway, off she went with about 50 passports and in came another two border guards to do a random inspection of some of the upper lockers. Then the waiting began. About two hours after entering the border zone we got our passports back, complete with new stamp, and we were driven 50 meters further down the road to the Mongolian check-point. I kept waiting for more Russians to show up – the first guys had hardly looked at our migration cards and carefully organized registration form – but no such luck.
Vettel started shouting and people got out of the bus to collect their luggage, so we followed suit. We lined up for the Mongolian passport control, had our luggage x-rayed, filled out a form stating we had nothing to declare, got some more stamps and were then yelled at by our driver to get a move on. When we were back on the bus, another Mongolian border guard showed up to check our passports and visas again.
Voilà, some three hours later we were done. Free movement within the EU sure is comfortable. Just imagine going through this procedure every time you need to go from Belgium to France. The queues would start in Brussels come holiday season!
We stopped at a hotel/café to exchange some roubles into tögrögs with some eager ladies, who, according to one of the Canadians, gave us a good rate. Wonderful, since we didn’t have time to get any cash at the border. We gulped down some very hot lunch: Mutton with home-cut noodles in broth. Now I know I’m in Mongolia! My theory that our driver had just been hungry proved wrong as he loudly ushered us back into the bus, giving a few honks to those that didn’t catch the hint.
The drive through northern Mongolia was really interesting. While the villages and houses reminded us of what we’ve seen in Russia, the landscape changed. Most of the time we were surrounded by low, rolling hills covered with green grass and every once in a while beautiful yellow flowers. Some hills featured conifer trees, but most were bare, and the further away from the border we got, the more white gers and people on horseback, rearing cows, we saw. The landscape is really pretty – flat and slightly hilly at the same time – and I’m surprised it’s so green when Buryatia, which we just came from, looked so dry.
Despite Vettel and skinny guy’s best efforts, we arrived more than an hour late in Ulaanbaatar, which put the total travel time at just over 12 hours. You hardly felt it.
As a note: This post doesn’t contain a lot of photos as my camera battery was nearly depleted by our lovely and slightly tipsy guide, a funny woman in her 60s (my guess), at our “wedding party” in an Old Believers’ village last night. (Turns out, old fashioned hats and boots really bring out the Swiss in Christophe, but we’ll get back to you on that if we dare post the pictures.)