Monday, September 19, 2011

Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar (Across Russia, Part 8)

Our next stop after the wonderful Lake Baikal was Ulan-Ude, which was a transfer stop to Mongolia. We had decided that taking the bus from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar was a good choice, since it actually takes less time than the train and costs a fraction of the price. Some things in life you never expect to know and for me the price of crossing from Russia to Mongolia ($40 per person) is definitely one of those pieces of information.

To get to Ulan-Ude, we took the #362 night train from Irkutsk. As with all the Russian trains, it arrived and left punctually, but this train wasn't like our other trains. Besides the samovar, which was almost identical to the nicer trains, this one was older and definitely part of a completely different strata of trains in the RZD system. It was visibly older with more wood and less comforts, but one bonus was that the old wooden framed windows could be opened.

After the break, we'll take a look at the largest Lenin head I've ever seen and the trip from Ulan-Ude to Mongolia!

When we arrived in Ulan-Ude, we quickly found our hostel, the Ulan-Ude Hostel/Travelers House. It's extremely central and overall a pretty friendly hostel. The super nice owner, Denis, lives there with his wife, who also is a dressmaker (in the morning, we looked into the communal area to see a woman in her wedding dress being fitted!). If you're passing through, this is I think the best option in the city for price and location. It's located just across the street from the main sight of Ulan-Ude: The head of Lenin.

Lenin presides over the main square and this head is a particularly massive one. We only had one day, so we weren't able to see the other sites in the area (and it was rainy), but overall this is the main sight to see in the city. I think if we were there longer and had better weather, we would have liked to go see some of the other sights such as the monastery, the Old-believers settlement (a sect of the orthodox church that split off from the main Russian Orthodox church due to a disagreement about which texts to use), or another trip out to Lake Baikal (but this time on the eastern shore).

The morning after it was time to go. We had picked up our tickets from Baikal Naran Tour, which is roughly located here in this building. To book the tickets, you can go through your hostel or book them directly with them by sending Svetlana an email. All we had to do was to show up to the right place at 7:30am and get on the bus.

For those worried about the bus, it really isn't that bad. It's just long and this particular bus was a little tired. There were cheers when we cleared a big hill and at one point, the driver opened up a panel in the ceiling to fix the A/C while we were moving. This bus is a work horse and like many things in this area, it's probably on it's second or third life as a bus (It's not uncommon to see buses with Chinese or Korean characters on them). The trip is long, but at least on our bus we had a friendly and jovial group of travelers made mainly up of locals heading home, including what had to be the happiest baby on earth.

For 12 hours, he was just happy and entertained by everything. The mother and father were paragons of parenting, and it really showed in how this kid was behaving. He was very social and content in a situation that would have other kids throwing a fit.

We left at 7:30am and arrived at the boarder at 11:30. The process took a total of two hours to get through and back on the road in Mongolia. The process involves numerous checks and rechecks of all your documents, from the moment you cross into no man's land. Here's how it all went down:

  • 11:30: Arrive at the border area. Wait in line to get to border crossing.
  • 12:00: First check. A Russian guard enters the bus and checks your documents. 
  • 12:15: Everyone exits the bus and enters the border security building, with their stuff. Everything goes through an x-ray before lining up for the actual exit visa check.
  • 12:30: We're in line for the passport control. When you get up to the guard, you hand over your visa registrations, arrival card, and passport. They ask you to take off your glasses and compare your picture to you. If they don't like it... you might be in trouble. I almost didn't get through because my picture from 2002 is me with an extra 40 pounds.
  • 13:00: All clear. Everyone gets back on the bus. 
  • 13:20: Almost to Mongolia! But first, another Russian guard gets on and checks all of the passports for exit stamps. 
  • 13:40: We're in Mongolia! Everyone off the bus again with their stuff and into the Mongolian checkpoint. This is far more casual and for US passport holders, it's just a matter of getting a stamp. 
  • 14:00: All done and baggage checks. There are money changers in the building itself, who will exchange currency. As with everywhere here, crisp bills only. If there is so much as a crease, fuggettaboutit. 
  • 14:27: Everyone back on the bus and headed out. Mongolian guards get on the bus and check for entry stamps and visa. 
  • 14:35: We're officially in Mongolia! Just afterward, money changers get on board and offer to change money there. 

Your first sight in Mongolia. That is also where you have lunch. :)

From here, it's basically a straight shot into Ulaanbaatar. It takes another 8 to 9 hours, but you're almost there. Join me next week for some sight seeing in Ulaanbaatar, a trip into the countryside, and my favorite, the golden eagle.

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