I think it was in January 2016 that I started considering traveling to Mongolia and exploring that remote, little known country stuck between Russia and China. On an impulse I bought a one-way ticket to Ulan Bator and that’s pretty much when I started planning my next big trip to Asia – on month in the fall of 2016 to explore Mongolia, cross over into China and make my way down to Vietnam.
Who would’ve thought that writing this account of my travels would result in a bit of a tilt shift feeling. Here’s a summary of one epic month of discovering a tiny glimpse of what Asia has to offer.
- Ulaan Baatar (Ulan Bator) – Karakorum (Kharkhorin) – Ulaan Baatar (1272km)
- Ulaan Baatar – Zamyn Üüd – Erlian/Erenhot (二连浩特) – Beijing (1340km)
- Beijing – Hong Kong (1958km)
- Hong Kong – Guangzhou (118 km)
- Guangzhou – Guilin (478km)
- Guilin – Yangshuo – Guilin (170km)
- Guilin – Nanning (379km)
- Nanning – Hanoi (328km)
- Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh (1137km)
Total : 7180km
I chose to get my visas for Mongolia, China and Vietnam in Belgium – even though I knew it might be more expensive there – because I wanted a hassle-free experience when crossing borders and using public transportation. I know that some backpackers would rather get their next visa on the go for more flexibility, but I chose to get all my administrative stuff sorted before I left. I wanted the flexibility of organizing my trip on-site as I pleased, according to my wishes, my moods, the people I’d meet along the way, and unexpected change of plans. As any experienced traveller knows, when backpacking solo for a while, especially in Asia, there’s a good chance that you’ll run into someone, or a few someones, who will tell you about fantastic day-trips, treks, and places that you just CAN’T miss. And I wanted to have the possibility to extend my stay here, cut short there and leave earlier if I wanted to or join a tour that left the next day. I wouldn’t let the hectic opening hours or the unreliable website of an embassy dictate how I was to spend my time in Asia.
So I packed bits and pieces of my life in a 70L backpack and left Brussels on Thursday September 8, 2016 around noon. I landed in Ulan Bator on Friday morning around 9am local time, after a 2-hour layover in Moscow and a twenty-something hour journey from one continent to another.
Truth be told, I wasn’t very interested in exploring the Mongolian capital, so I never spent more than a couple of days there. And while UB probably holds a few treasures, what I really wanted was to explore the vast wilderness of the Mongolian countryside. Not unlike holding infinity in the palm of my hand, as someone said, I wanted to experience for myself the overwhelming emptiness of the steppe, and explore the ancient land of the Great Khan. So I rounded up a few other fellow travellers and together we set for the unknown.
Let’s fast-forward 10 days to my journey from Ulan Bator to Beijing by land. I’d been reading many stories on how to get from Beijing to Ulan Bator by train, and fewer stories on how to do the reverse journey. I figured I had two options: take the Trans Mongolian for a much higher price than I was comfortable paying and stay on the train throughout the long and annoying visa process or do it the old fashion way with regional trains and buses. But bus schedules are hard to understand in Mongolia. First of, everything’s in Cyrillic, or in Modern Chinese when you get closer to the border, which doesn’t help much either. Also, bus schedules change according to the season and run on specific days. Add to the list that absolutely no one speaks English in Mongolia, and it can quickly make you go crazy. So I decided to play it by ear and bought a one way ticket from Ulaan Baatar train station to Zamyn Üüd where I figured I’d find a way to cross the border into China. And this is exactly what I did.
The train ride from UB to Zamyn Üüd was everything I expected and it reminded me of how much I love sleeper trains. They’re convenient, you usually meet curious locals who are as helpful as they are friendly, it’ll save you a night in a hotel and when you get to your destination, you’re ready to start exploring – albeit a bit stiff and probably hungry.
I figured that taking a cab and finding the right platform while carrying 25kg on my back would be a bit hazardous so I asked Bobby, the hostel manager, to write a few words in Mongolian on a piece of paper. She wrote “Can you take me to the train station?” and “Where can I find the train to Zamyn Üüd?” and as there’s only one train station in UB and one train leaving for Zamyn Üüd on that day. Easy peasy extra cheesy. And just to be safe, I’d bought my train ticket as soon as I arrived in UB, so about 10 days before departure. It cost less than 10$ USD and would take between 9 and 10 hours to Zamyn Üüd.
The train left at 5:30pm sharp and chased a beautiful sunset over the yellow steppe for a while. My bunk buddy was a nice Mongolian lady who spoke some words of English. I read my travel guide, had tea with my new friend, snapped some last pictures of Mongolia then soon enough it was too dark to do anything. My bed was comfy, my pillow fluffy and no one snored in my wagon. Time for bed!
When I woke up around 5 am, we’d arrived in Zamyn Üüd and everyone was getting off the train. My new friend told me she was going to take the bus to China and that she already had her ticket. I thought I could try my luck with her so I followed her to the bus stop while politely turning down the taxi drivers who tried to get me to follow them. When you get to Zamyn Üüd, you can either take a bus to China for about 50¥, or opt for one of the many soviet taxi vans waiting in line. Luckily I could get on the bus with many other Mongolians and we set off for the first border station which opened at 9am local time in China. Crazy fact, our bus was the first one in line when the border opened and the buses went first, before the taxis, van and private cars. This probably played a big part in getting across the border to Erlian in about an hour.
On the bus they gave us a form to fill in with some basic information; make sure you don’t lose that. The next hour felt like a well rehearsed dance through custom and immigration. Passport, visa, custom form, check. 25kg on my shoulders while waiting in line with 50 other asians, check. Smile, don’t look suspicious, answer a few questions, stamp. I was singled out for being the only Westerner, had to answer a couple of questions, hand in my passport then out the glass doors. Bus, backpack, Visa, Chinese immigration, repeat. Going through this painful process at 9am with a bus full of Mongolians made me feel very happy I got my visa in Belgium and comforted me in my decision to get all my visas back home. The bus dropped us in Erlian at 10am, by the train station/bus terminal and I started looking for a counter where to buy a train ticket to Beijing on that same day. Some guy followed me around and told me he was selling bus tickets to Beijing, but I ignored him. When you get to Erlian, you can either take a sleeper bus to Beijing or the train, which seems faster. The employee at the counter told me no train was going to Beijing and for some reason, I didn’t think that was true. But I guess I’ll never know, will I? So the sleeper bus it was!
I followed the random Chinese guy to a small office in front of the train station, on the other side of the main road, and got my bus ticket. The sleeper bus was due to leave at 3pm and it was 10am. What a waste of time to run around with nothing to do for 5 hours. The staff were nice, offered me sweet milk coffee but didn’t speak English. After some help from an online translator program I found out that the bus would drop us at Muxiyuan Long-Distance Bus Terminal in Beijing, south of the city center, from where I would have to take a cab. Some noodles, an unpleasant nap, and a few pages of my travel guide later, I was ready to face an uncomfortable bus ride to Beijing.
At 2:45pm I went to the bus station across the street and met Steve, another English teacher from Philly who was doing a visa run. I honestly didn’t think the bus ride would be great as I’d read stories about smelly buses, but it was! Fluffy blankets, AC, pillows and enough space for everyone to sleep comfortably. Think Harry Potter and the Knight bus, but less bumpy and less magical. That was pretty much it. I dare say I did enjoy my ride to Beijing very much! Fun fact: there were no restrooms on the bus. When I really couldn’t hold it anymore, I asked the driver to stop for a quick bladder relieve and he pulled over on the side of the road, by an open field. Ladies went left, gentlemen right and I realized that I wasn’t the only one who had to pee badly – about 10 people got off the bus with me.
We arrived during the night, around 3 or 4 am but everyone just kept on sleeping. Steve and I took a cab together and I finished the night at my hotel. It’d been a long journey altogether, I was exhausted but happy to be in Beijing. (Beijing, Hong Kong and Southern China to be continued in another post)