When reading the guide books for the Trans Siberian, they mention that the trip around the bottom of Lake Baikal should definitely be done in daylight. Since we weren’t going to sleep on the train this time, I booked 3rd class, which is open carriages, four on one side, and two on the other, with only curtains for privacy. I had also tried my best to figure out which way the windows would face, trying to get a lake view, but as our earlier experiences had shown, there’s no way to tell in advance. And, as it turned out I’d guessed wrong. But I’d find a place to look at the lake later, we had some time in the mountains before we’d see it again.
After we were all seated, we received a visitor, a small Russian girl with a backpack full of plastic toys, who wanted to show them all to us and play with L and K, despite not having a word in common. They did play a little, and then, just as suddenly she packed everything up and left.
I spent a bunch of time at the end of the car, trying to get pictures out of the window as the lake reappeared.
And a short video of what it looks like as we start to see the lake.
Otherwise, we sat and read and played games and did homework and I took more pictures.
As evening came, we got into Ulan Ude.
Our hotel was within walking distance of the train, but that involved a long walkway over the tracks and some searching. In Irkutsk though, the receptionist at the first hostel had shown us 2GIS, a wonderful offline map app that had already helped us tremendously while we were there. I highly recommend it.
When we got there, it was a hostel, and there was limited English, but it appeared the two bedroom place that I’d booked and so been looking forward to no longer was available, and instead they took us off to another room in a building across the street. It was OK, but not what we had booked, though again it was cheaper. No matter, we could deal with it. Ivo headed out to try to get bus tickets to Ulaan Bataar. We’d decided to do this leg by bus instead of train because it took half the time, was cheaper, and it involved far less waiting at the border. But it was hard to find out how to get the tickets ahead of time, so we wanted to get them as soon as possible.
Of course, by the time he got to the bus station, it was closed. He noted the opening time, and at this point we decided it was a pizza night. I broke out the cider I’d finally found the night before and toasted David again looking out at Ulan Ude before heading to bed.
The next day was Tuesday. The last day of our visa was Thursday, but we were planning to play it a little safe and leave on Wednesday. So, first thing in the morning Ivo headed out to get the tickets again, and this time succeeded. That accomplished, we decided to see the sights. But it turned out that the one thing I’d really wanted to see in Ulan Ude – the apparently awesome folklore museum – was closed on, you guessed it, Tuesdays. There is more to do outside of the city and around the lake, but we no longer had time for that, but if you plan to not actually spend a lot of time in the city, it is apparently worth spending a few days there. But we were out of time.
So we just wandered around for a bit, finally mailed postcards and figured out the byzantine way of doing so, with the help of some Morman missionaries who really liked speaking English for a change.
Then we saw the biggest Lenin Head in the world (not sure where the competition is) and a rehearsal for what looked like a grand spectacle dance and music show, that looked like it wouldn’t have been out of place in Soviet times.
The water truck, car and dance performance. I’m curious what it all looked like in the end.
We then headed to the market. We looked around the market and I sort of regretted not being able to buy anything but food (though we did buy some dried fruit and some of the pine nuts, still in the shell, that everyone in the region snacks on). After a trip to a regular supermarket, we walked back, since we were out of rubles and didn’t even have enough for a bus (and at this point, didn’t really want to get more).
More photos of Ulan Ude.
So, very early the next morning, after we’d finally gotten checked out and inspected (and our deposit back – yay, rubles!), we walked down to the bus station (Ivo knew the way well by now), kids whining because of the walking and the early morning.
We found our bus and our seats and settled in for a long day. And that it was, but not unpleasant. The TV showed a Mongolian music videos nonstop (most of them showing very folkloric scenes involving herders and their gers in winter) and we looked out the window, watching the forest and hills pass by.
Eventually we got to the border. We loaded all our luggage off, crossed out of Russia without issue, then got back on the bus 50 meters further on to get to the Mongolian side to do it again. Here, we did cause a bit of a problem. We’d all been Dutch in Russia, since that was the only passport we could have easily gotten visas on in the Netherlands (other passports can only get a visa if they’re resident there, and we obviously don’t have a residence permit since we’re Dutch). But Canadians don’t need a visa for Mongolia and the Dutch do, so to save ourselves a couple hundred Euros, the kids and I were changing nationalities (Ivo had a visa).
So, I went up with the kids and blithely handed over our Canadian passports. All fine, I don’t think they get many, so he had to think about it. But then he started looking for our Russian visas and couldn’t find them and was confused (obviously, we’d just left Russia). So I handed over our Dutch passports. This confused him further, and he had no idea how to proceed. He called his supervisor over, and then he called his supervisor, and eventually they figured out that it was actually fine and stamped us in. Phew.
Then we tried the ATMs at the border, which didn’t work of course, and headed back on the bus for the ride into Ulaan Bataar. But we needn’t have worried about changing money – as we headed through the border town, a bunch of money changers boarded and changed everyone’s rubles or dollars or euros. We changed our deposit money.
Then the rest of the long ride through Mongolia, with one stop at a restaurant where we quickly figured that as non meat eaters, our bread and cheese was a better option.
And we started to really see the emptiness of Mongolia, especially as the woodlands by the border disappeared and the grasslands started. Here and there there were gers and some animals, but there was almost no traffic and no one to be seen.
This seemed to all change in an instant as we got to Ulaan Bataar and a traffic jam. Traffic was crazy, cars going every which way and horns blaring. The bus station was a crowded parking lot with sketchy pavement and of course as soon as we got out the taxi drivers descended. There was apparently a city bus available, but it was late and who knew where it was, so we entered negotiations with a driver, finally agreeing a price that was probably too high, but was what we could get (15,000 tugrik, or €6), After some crazy driving, lots of honking, one wrong destination because apparently there are two G sounds in Mongolian and another guesthouse close to where we were going had the same name with the other sound as ours, we finally made it to Gana’s Guesthouse, which would be our home on and off for the next several weeks. Welcome to Mongolia and the end of our planned trip. We had a place booked for the night, but no other plans. Mongolia presented itself as a clean sheet of paper: exciting but also a bit