Mongolia: Ulaanbaatar and Terelj

We last posted while hanging around in the dusty border town of Erlian. We spent a relaxing day there with a plan to head across the border the following morning and eventually make it up to Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital of Mongolia. We walked down to the main square at around mid day to find our transport across the border to the town of Zamiin Uud on the Mongolian side. As we neared the square, we garnered much attention from drivers hawking their trade. The offers were anywhere from extortionate to fairly reasonable, but it took a fair amount of negotiation to finally agree on 60 yuan (a little less than $10) per person for the transit. After waiting around for the van to fill up with passengers and other boxes of supplies, we set off towards the border. A strange math governed the actual border queue; there was a line of maybe five or six cars and trucks already present, but we pulled in front of all of them. The driver was happily chatting with the border guard while yet more jeeps pulled past us and through the border without even stopping. After maybe 45 minutes of no activity, the queue behind us was much longer, and the border guard waved us through. After convincing passport control that our passports were indeed ours (this included pulling my hair up, as it was when the passport photo was taken, several times), we were ushered across to the Mongolian side of the border.

There was a stark change in the no man’s land between the two checkpoints, and the Mongolian side was clearly lacking in the formalities and controls of the Chinese side. The passport controller examining my paperwork was happily chatting with her friend and mistakenly stamped my passport on the wrong page (it should be on the visa itself, apparently). Immediately after it was wrought, she gasped and apologized and told me to wait right there. After another hour or so of waiting, she came back with my passport; a faint “cancelled” stamp applied over the erroneous entrance stamp and the proper stamp applied to the visa. Our van and driver, clearly sick of waiting, had Oona come and fetch our bags from the van so they could leave and we were left to find our own way from the border to Zamiin Uud (some 5km). As luck had it, a public bus (the existence of which we were not aware) was just leaving from the border to the center of town as we were walking by, and we were able to hitch a ride for 1000₮ (about 50 cents). After securing sleeper tickets for the nightly train from Zamiin Uud to UB, we hung around the platform until departure.

The train trip itself was lovely. Our cabin, complete with ornate drapes and a handmade rug, was cozy and welcoming. At the end of each coach was a wood-fired water heater with red hot embers visible behind an open baffle. A family of three joined us in our cabin at Sainshand, the father of which was a jovial Mongol who spoke good English, and apparently Russian and Japanese as well. They had narrowly missed the train in Zamiin Uud, so they opted for a taxi to Sainshand in hopes of beating the train there.


UB is a strange place. Immediately upon arrival we felt uneasy, and we’ve been to plenty of other places which have been described as dangerous or otherwise sketchy. We’re used to being stared at, or being the object of attention in some way or another, but the residents of UB seem to harbor a great contempt for us. Malicious stares are commonplace here, the occasional middle finger from a passing car is not unheard of, and continued jabbing of our tattoos has taught us to cover up. Keeping a low profile seems to be key, especially when walking around town later at night. One day, while walking back to our hostel around 8pm, a shirtless young man with a bloodied face began to follow us. Clearly drunk, he was swaying back and forth and dragging his feet. After hearing him gaining on us and following the same corners we took, we turned to confront him. He didn’t slow down, and instead began pointing to his battered face. We sped up and made it back to our building with time to lock the door behind us. Fist fights between Mongols on the empty streets of UB are a fairly common sight as well. Needless to say, UB isn’t the sort of place for an evening stroll. We’re told there’s a time shortly before the bars close which has been referred to as “punch a foreigner o’clock”, so its not advisable to be out too late or you become a target for that sort of thing.

Sukhbaatar in the square formerly known as Sukhbaatar Square.

On the other hand, the garbage trucks pipe out charming music while plying the streets. Some play ice cream truck music while others play patriotic jingles such as Minii Ulaanbaatar.

Despite the threatening vibes, there are actually quite a few foreigners here. It’s a very popular stop on the Trans Siberian Railway, and a few days here is all but completely necessary for any trip into the Mongolian countryside. When you’re not being intimidated by drunken locals, there are actually a few nice things to do here. We spent a day at Bogd Khan’s Winter Palace, for example, which was enjoyable, in spite of the draconian photo-taking rules (which is why you won’t see any photos of it here, for example). Likewise, Chinggis Square is practically unavoidable, and walking through it is a good way to spend 20 minutes or so.

Khangarid Palace.

We met an American guy, Dennis, who managed to talk us into going on an impromptu karaoke night on a weekday. After several beers at Chinggis Brewery we were fairly easily coerced into going along. Karaoke here is in the Japanese style, in which you rent a private room for a period of time. We leafed through the stained pages of the song book before settling on Western jams like Dennis’s Say it Ain’t So and Oona’s Wannabe. In retrospect we should have looked for Minii Ulaanbaatar, whose tune was more or less ingrained after being the soundtrack of countless mornings. The drab karaoke bars were mostly empty and had some charm to them, although it was easy to imagine being stabbed or kidnapped into slavery.

A ringa ding ding.

Narantuul is another good place to spend a day. We were told that anything is available there, and it’s certainly a big market with lots of things to peruse, from car parts and kitchen appliances to saddles and hand-painted furniture. Constant warnings of the endemic pickpockets there had us a bit worried, but it turned out to be a pretty nice place, at least on the less popular weekdays.

The entrance to Narantuul market.

Mongolia is not known for the beauty of its capital city though, so it’s unfortunate that we need to spend so much time here sorting out our paperwork. Our progress, unfortunately, has come to a stop, however. After tracking down and submitting a veritable tome of paperwork, we ran into a road block we couldn’t circumvent. Since we’re here on student visas, the organization inviting us is also responsible, by law, for our health and safety, and therefore we are required to be accompanied by a member of their staff when in the countryside. Being that our trip was to last several months, that would be a huge extra expense for us that we weren’t prepared for. At this point, we’re still weighing our options, but it looks likely that we’ll seek refuge in Ulan Ude, Russia, not far across the border until we can secure normal tourist visas for Mongolia. While they won’t allow as long a stay, we’re perfectly satisfied with taking off from Mongolia a bit earlier if it saves us from yet more red tape.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Fortunately not all of our time has been spent in the dreary capital, and we were able to explore a bit of the neighboring Terelj park. We took the oddly-scheduled (and only) daily departure of the XO4 bus at 4pm to Terelj village. The bus was crush-loaded with backpackers and locals alike vying to get out of the city. After three hours of bumpy country roads and detours down and back dead-ends, we arrived at our destination at the village of Terelj. Little more than a collection of gers (yurts) and some brick-and-mortar houses and shops, the village at least offers the basic necessities from the stores and several restaurants. We set off following a river northeast of the village, and planned to set up camp in whichever nice spot we found sufficiently away from the clutter of the town. Six kilometers and several bare-foot river crossings later we found a lovely little site next to the river. It was just getting dark at that point, so we set up camp and drifted off to sleep under the calm sky.

Our campsite, the horses took a liking to it as well.

We headed back to town the next day to refill on water and khuushuur (fried pancakes filled with mutton). We heard ominous thunder in the distance on our way back to camp, but we were hopeful of making it back before the weather changed. This was misguided, and the skies opened up with some of the most torrential downpour of hail and rain ever experienced. Dressed in our summer shorts and t-shirts, we cowered under the branches of a collection of trees with a few other locals who were unfortunate enough to be caught outside the house. To add to the cacophony, lightning began to strike within several hundred meters of us, accompanied by deafening thunder and shaking of the ground. Having concluded that the tree offered no protection from the onslaught, we ran to the nearest ger along with the locals and were welcomed inside by the family. The modest living conditions of the ger were a great respite from the storm outside. Soaked to the bone, we were on our way as soon as the rain subsided a bit. At this point we didn’t even take our shoes off to cross the river, as there was little difference between walking on the path and walking through the river after that much rain. We made it back to camp and were relieved to find that the tent still stood, and our belongings inside were cozy and dry. Nonetheless, we wanted to camp a bit closer to town to facilitate our equally oddly-scheduled (and only) daily return trip to UB at 8am the following morning.

After drying out in the sun a bit and packing up our camp, we were standing before the river crossing (for the third time that day) considering whether to take our shoes off or not when a huge, Soviet era military cargo truck came rumbling from the direction we came. They offered us a ride and we hopped in the bed. The truck proceeded through the muddy and uneven terrain with the greatest of ease, making a mockery of our struggled river crossings. It smashed through the biggest river (a meter and a half deep in the middle) without even a hiccup, the current was so strong that we were being pushed downstream during the crossing, but no matter as we pulled out the other side. Standing in the truck bed as it bounced over the trenches in the road left us fairly battered though, and Oona has some leg bruises to prove it.

We got off the truck prematurely, and had to cross yet another river, this time up to our thighs before we found a suitable camp site near the town. Needless to say, after such a day we were exhausted and looking forward to some rest before returning to UB.

Tereljiin Gol.

We’re now back in UB, planning for our departure to the Gobi tomorrow. We’re definitely looking forward to leaving UB, and we should be ready to do so permanently after we’re back from our Gobi tour.


Mongolian is a member of the Mongolic language family, not part of the Altaic family as is oft claimed. The latter “family” is debatable, at best, and includes a handful of language families better-categorized as standalone units. Mongolian is the primary language of the Mongolic family representing some 95% of the speakers of all Mongolic languages. The language, as spoken in Mongolia proper, is written with the Cyrillic alphabet, a slightly modified form of the same used for Russian. Traditionally, the vertical Mongolian Script was used (and still is in Inner Mongolia in China), and is still visible in many places around Mongolia. Being able to read Russian Cyrillic helps a lot in interpreting Mongolian, but there are some big differences between the writing systems.

The vowel system of Mongolian is not like that of Slavic languages, and consists of seven vowels, five of which are phonetically back. Vowels harmonize on tongue root position, with и /i/ as a neutral vowel. These characteristics cause the sound represented by a particular written vowel character to deviate somewhat from the European norm. For example, Cyrillic у is often transcribed as /ʊ/, but its actual phonetic manifestation is something like /o/ but very far back with accompanying pharyngealization. The “weird” character ү represents a more “normal” /u/ sound. The same goes for о and ө, representing  /ɔ/ and /o/ respectively. Finally, э is realized as /e/ and а as /a/. Doubled written vowels represent long vowels in the initial syllable or “full” vowels in non-initial syllables. All other vowels (those written with a single character) in non-initial syllables are reduced to non-distinctiveness, being realized as a very short /ə/ or disappearing completely. Word final written vowels are not pronounced, but serve to distinguish preceding consonants in some cases. Л in Khalkha Mongolian is realized with clear frication, coming out as [ɮ]. In addition, word-final н is realized as /ŋ/. As such, a word like худалдан is actually pronounced like /xʊtɮtəŋ/ and долоо as /tɔɮɔː/.

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