For most Westerners, the name Mongolia conjures up the idea of a mysterious Asian country which they know little to nothing about. Most Americans are aware, if anything, of Genghis Khan, and perhaps have heard stories of Mongolian throat singing or seen National Geographic videos of the great Gobi Desert. It is likely due to this aura of mystery and the exotic that people are drawn to Mongolia, and as Irkutsk is so close to the border it is a tempting target for anyone studying here. After all, it is the draw of the exotic and mysterious that often draws people to Siberia in the first place. However, traveling to Mongolia can be complex and even dangerous, and many are put off by the difficulties of planning the journey. For this reason, I’ve put together this guide to the various routes that one can take to Mongolia and what to expect when you get there.
I. Visas and Paperwork
The first challenge of a journey to Mongolia is entering the country – for Americans this process is much simpler than for Russians, as Americans can travel to Mongolia for up to 90 days without a visa and up to 30 days without registering. If you intend to stay for more than 30 days, you will need to register at the Office of Immigration in Ulaanbaatar within seven days of arriving and obtain a residency card, even if you will be staying outside the city. If you plan to stay for longer than 90 days, you will need to get a visa, which can be obtained at the Mongolian Consulate in Irkutsk (Ulitsa Lapina 11) or at any other Mongolian Consulate, which includes those located in Moscow, Ulan-Ude, Kyzyl, Elista, and Ekaterinburg. For more information on the US visa regime with Mongolia, check out the US State Department website.
II. Getting There
Once you’ve gotten whatever paperwork you need to enter the country, consider how you will get to Mongolia. The simplest way is to fly – there are flights from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar twice a week run by Aero Mongolia. Aeroflot also runs regular flights between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar. Flying is fairly expensive however, the flights are often at irregular hours, and the Ulaanbaatar airport is a considerable distance from the city. Thus, most people choose to go overland.
Even though Mongolia and Russia have a very long border with many border crossings, there are only four points at which foreigners are allowed to cross. Two of these are in the Republic of Buryatia, one is in the Republic of Altai, and one is in Zabaikalskii Krai. The border crossings in Buryatia, which also borders the Irkustsk province, are much more heavily used, largely because the crossing between Naushki and Sukhbaatar is the only rail link between the two countries. There are about three weekly trains which run between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar and one train from Irkutsk. While the easiest way to travel to Mongolia is by rail, the train is extremely slow and frequently spends upwards of five hours at the border, thus requiring a full 24 hours to complete the journey between Ulan-Ude and Ulaanbaatar. The train is also expensive, only slightly cheaper than flying.
A much cheaper way to travel is to take the daily bus from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar. Ulan-Ude is located on the other side of Lake Baikal from Irkutsk and can be reached by rail or bus. The bus from Ulan-Ude leaves every morning at 7:30 AM from Ulan-Ude’s Opera House and arrives at the train station in Ulaanbaatar approximately 12 hours later, making numerous stops along route for bathroom breaks and lunch. The bus costs approximately 1600 rubles; tickets can be bought on the bus or can be reserved ahead of time through BuryatIntur in Ulan-Ude. This bus travels to Mongolia via the road crossing between Kyakhta and Altanbulag, right next to the rail crossing. As the bus can be quite crowded on weekends and only runs once per day, booking in advance is advisable. If you decide to spend a night in Ulan-Ude in order to catch the bus the next morning, the Ulan-Ude Traveller’s Hostel is highly recommended. It is conveniently located very close to the bus stop and the owner, Denis Sobnakov, can also help you reserve tickets for the bus if you contact him ahead of time. If you do wind up staying in Ulan-Ude for a while, be sure to check out the giant sculpture of Lenin’s head, said to be the biggest in existence. Additionally, Ivolginsky Datsan, a large Buddhist temple, is just a short marshrutka ride outside of the city and definitely worth a visit.
If you’re really looking to travel on the cheap, the most thrifty way to get across the border is to take a local train as far as Naushki, then get a taxi over to Kyakhta and try to hitch a ride across the border (you must be in a vehicle to cross, pedestrians are not allowed). Once across the border you can get a ride back to the rail line and hop on a local Mongolian train, or just try to hitch a ride all the way to Ulaanbaatar. Be aware that depending on the day and the time there may be very few cars crossing the border that are willing to take passengers; you may well wind up waiting for several hours or even overnight. In the winter, when temperatures drop as low as -40 C, this can be very dangerous due to the lack of shelter at the border. If you find yourself stranded on the border, try to get back to Naushki where you can stay overnight in the Resting Rooms (Комната Отдыха) at the train station.
Compared to the two crossings in Buryatia, other border crossings are much more complicated. The next best way to cross is the road crossing in the Republic of Altai between Kosh Agach and Tsaaganuur. This can be reached by taking a train to Barnaul, then a bus to Gorno-Altaisk, and lastly a marshrutka to Kosh Agach. There are no regular buses across the border but there are plenty of taxis and marshrutkas which shuttle passengers over to Tsaaganuur in Mongolia. From Tsaaganuur you can get a ride to Olgii, the main town in far western Mongolia. This crossing will put you in a fairly under-developed region of Mongolia; the towns will be quite small, no one will speak English (and very few people will speak any Russian), and what little tourist infrastructure there is will be closed in the winter.
The last border crossing option is the road in Zabaikalskii Krai between Solovievsk and Ereentsav, which can be reached by taking a train to Borzya, a marshrutka to Solovievsk, and then trying to find a taxi willing to take you across the border. While technically open to foreigners, the Russian border service makes it virtually impossible for foreigners to cross here, claiming that the region is closed to foreigners due to the uranium mining in the vicinity. There is no regularly scheduled transit across the border in Zabaikalskii Krai. There is also a rail line running from Krasnokamensk to Choibalsan, but this is for freight only and cannot be used to cross the border. Even though both the Republic of Tuva has a border crossing, the road from Khandagaity to Davst is simply not open to foreigners under any circumstances.
III. Inside Mongolia
Once in Mongolia, you’ll have to decide where to stay and what to do. Ulaanbaatar is the capitol and by far the largest city, and if you travel through Buryatia or fly this is where you’ll stop first. Throughout Mongolia very few people speak English or Russian, and even in Ulaanbaatar you’ll have difficulties communicating if you don’t speak Mongolian.
There are now a large number of guest houses and hostels in Ulaanbaatar which offer beds at very low rates; during the summer they’ll be crammed with tour groups and during the winter they’ll be almost entirely empty. The best known of these guest houses are UB Guesthouse, Golden Gobi, and Khongor Guesthouse. All of these guesthouses also organize tours and day trips and can help you get out into the backcountry. Due to the lack of public transit and language barrier, most travelers wind up traveling on organized tours if going outside of Ulaanbaatar. There are marshrutkas from Ulaanbaatar out to other towns, yet these will be hard to find, slow, and uncomfortable (even by Russian standards). Accommodations are also difficult to find outside of Ulaanbaatar. While Mongolians are extremely friendly and often invite strangers to stay with them, if you don’t speak any Mongolian you’ll have great difficulties trying to find a place to stay, especially during the winter when most of the tourist infrastructure is closed.
If you visit Ulaanbaatar, you’ll be surprised by the wealth of cultural sites to see. I’d recommend starting at Sukhbaatar Square, the recently renovated central public square dominated by the new Mongolian Parliament building and crowned by immense statues of Genghis Khan, the medieval Mongolian conqueror, and Damdin Sukhbaatar, a prominent Mongolian Bolshevik who created a communist state in the 1920s. From the square, there are numerous sights within easy walking distance. If you walk west on Peace Avenue you’ll pass by the State Department Store, Mongolia’s oldest shopping mall, before reaching Gandan Khiid (The Gandantegchinlen Monastery), Ulaanbaatar’s largest Buddhist temple and the only temple in the city to remain in operation throughout the Communist period. This large complex sits on top of a hill and has a number of shrines and monasteries buildings apart from the main temple with its 26.5-meter-high gilded statue of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. If you sit in on one of the services long enough, you may be invited to tea by Russian-speaking lamas.
Exiting Gandan Khiid to the east, you can descend some steep alleyways lined with gers and shanties before getting to a major road – on the other side you’ll see a large bare hill which offers excellent views of the city from the summit. If you loop around back to the north end of Sukhbaatar Square, you’ll pass quite close to the Zanabazar Museum and the National Museum of Mongolia, both of which have fascinating collections of Mongolian antiquities. If you still aren’t sick of antiquities, you might check out the Bogd Khan palace, a museum in the former palace of the last Khan of Mongolia.
Apart from museums, Ulaanbaatar is also known for its markets. The largest of these, Naran Tuul, is an expansive compound of outdoor stalls and buildings selling everything from food to car parts to furniture. You’ll have to search around a bit to find things that you might actually want to buy, but wandering is half the fun, and the prices can’t be beat. Be aware that basically none of the vendors speak any English or Russian. Either write numbers on your cellphone, or learn some basic Mongolian vocabulary, because you will need to haggle. Naran Tuul is in the far southeast corner of Ulaanbaatar; there are buses which go there from near Sukhbaatar Square and you can also take cabs there for about 5000 tögrög (approximately $3). Closer to the center, the container market or Bumbugur market near Peace Square has most of the same stuff as Naran Tuul, just slightly more expensive and with fewer vendors (it is also largely indoors, a big plus in winter).
For outdoor sights, try climbing up to the Zaisan Memorial, a monument built in collaboration with the Soviet Union to celebrate the creation of Communist Mongolia. Visitors from elsewhere in Asia find the monument to be kitschy and bizarre; if you are coming from Russia it will feel quite familiar, but there is an excellent view which makes it worth the walk. Further afield, the massive equestrian statue of Genghis Khan is a half-hour cab ride from the center, while numerous tour companies can arrange for excursions in nearby Terelj National Park.
Further afield, the town of Kharkhorin is a 12-hour marshrutka ride from Ulaanbaatar. The ancient capital of the Mongolian Empire, nothing remains of its former grandeur except for the a stone statue of a turtle which sits in the step a couple kilometers outside the village. The town is also home to a very large Buddhist monastery which is worth a visit. Further south from Ulaanbaatar is the great Gobi Desert, though you’ll need to contact a tour company to arrange a trip there.
Back in the direction of Russia is Lake Khovsgol, which was originally a southerly extension of Lake Baikal, formed by the same geological trench which created its larger cousin. Now, the lake is a popular spot for Russian tourists, who enjoy the excellent fishing and scenery.
In the far west of Mongolia, towns like Olgii, Khovd, and Ulaangom provide an interesting contrast to Ulaanbaatar and are home to ethnic minorities such as the Kazakhs, who are known for their falconry, and the Tsaatan, who herd reindeer for a living.
IV. Go to Mongolia!
Mongolia is a fascinating country which is very difficult to travel to; I’d highly recommend that anyone studying in Irkutsk take advantage of their proximity and visit while they can. Though planning a trip may seem daunting, hopefully this tutorial will give you the information you need to travel with ease across the border and best enjoy Mongolia.