Wednesday, August 17, 2011

ULAANBAATAR: How To Go To Mongolia



What do Mongolia, Brazil, and Israel have in common? Philippine passport holders could visit any of these three visa free. Hooray! Or not. Brazilians usually transit in Europe or New Zealand to go the Philippines. Israel is usually reached with a stopover in Europe. Mongolia can be reached through Beijing, although now via Hong Kong is also a possibility through Mongolia's flag carrier MIAT. Since Pinoys could transit and even stay in HK without a visa, Mongolia becomes the easiest option among the three, but expect to shell out some serious amount of cash. A one way ticket from Beijing to Ulan Bator already costs (around PhP20,000. Considering the distance between HK and Beijing, I could only imagine how much that HK - UB flight would cost you. Another popular option is the Trans Siberian Railway. Get on at Beijing and hop off at UB en route to Moscow. USD200 one way. The catch? Travel time is over 30 hours. This is a good deal if you have lots of time. Otherwise, you might just have to do what I did.

1. Go to Erlian from Beijing by air.
Erlian (aka Erlianhaote/Erenhot) in the Inner Mongolia region of China borders the Mongolian town of Zamin Uud to the north. These two always come in tandem when you go to online fora discussing visa runs by Americans in Beijing. Since travel to Hong Kong is costly, they go to Mongolia instead, where they are also visa free. It's a tedious process, but it's also the cheaper alternative. Go to elong.net and choose China Flights. Elianhaote is Erlian's alias in that website. Ticket prices before taxes could drop as low as CNY160 during off peak season. When is off peak season? Obviously not August since mine cost me CNY390 (CNY535 after taxes and fees). That's around PhP3,500 for a one hour flight. They serve a bun with a slice of luncheon meat wrapped in a very hot foil, along with 350 ml of water. An alternative is an overnight bus which will eat around 14 hours for half the price.


The flight to Erlian leaves at 7:35 AM. Catching the first trip of the Airport Express at 6 AM from Dongzhimen Station just gives you enough time to reach Capitol Airport's Terminal 1 before the check-in counter closes. Dongzhimen to Sanyuanqiao is five minutes. Sanyuanqiao to Terminal Three is fifteen minutes. Terminal Three to Terminal Two is ten minutes. The metro goes back after reaching Terminal Three but don't panic for it changes tracks. NO NEED TO TRANSFER at Terminal Three. After reaching Terminal Two you have to transfer to Terminal One on foot, with the aid of "walkalators" full of frustrated supermodel wannabes whom you'd just love to ram with your trolley if not for the lawsuit that it would entail. Give this ten minutes if you are a brisk walker, fifteen if you are slow. All in all, 45 minutes from Dongzhimen. If you fail to alight the train at Terminal Two, you should panic because it will bring you all the way back to Sanyuanqiao. I could assure you then, your flight will leave without you. Queues at the security counter could be long. It was when I was there.


Board the bus at once when they say "Boarding" at the gate. We spent fifteen minutes on that bus finding our way to the plane. I was already nauseous when the bus doors opened. Fresh air! I thought we were going on an overnight bus trip but we weren't informed. That plane seemed to be parked at the other side of Beijing!


2. Ride the shuttle from the airport.
There is only one shuttle outside Erlunda airport. There is no need to locate it. Unless you'd like to get ripped off by a taxi, you really have no other choice. Once you see Jurassic Park, you'll know you are already near the town proper. The mini shuttle bus stopped twice. I got off the first time, but the driver seemed to have sensed my bewilderment. He asked me, "Ni qu nar a?" and then gestured passport stamping with both hands. He asked me to get on the bus again. After the second stop he brought me all the way to the border. You'd know when you see jeepneys (NOT like Pinoy jeepneys) parked on the street leading to a building with a giant rainbow in front. The shuttle bus seems to be free. I didn't pay anything. Neither were fees collected any time before, during, or after the trip. When it's your turn to ride it, do the passport stamping gesture, the driver would know where to bring you.


3. Get a jeep to bring you across the two borders.
While it is physically possible to cross the border on foot, it is not really allowed, even when the distance covered is ridiculously short. Once you approach the parked jeepneys, someone is most likely to come by to usher you into theirs. I got charged 80 yuan. You would know that this is a ripoff even without thinking about it. I tried to haggle it down to 50 but my effort was in vain. Try haggling in Mongolian. Good luck. Besides, the other jeepneys were already full. I had more to lose if I didn't cross that border because my train and hotel tickets were already booked. The ride itself is ridiculous. You are forced to tuck yourself inside a jeep full of luggage and boxes. Watch the video if you want to get an idea.


Enter the rainbow building and get your China exit stamp. REMEMBER THE PLATE NUMBER OF YOUR JEEP and make sure that you stick with your group to easily locate the vehicle afterwards. The drivers also cross immigration and it actually takes them longer to do so. The wait time for the jeep is actually longer than getting your own stamps. This is true for both borders. Once your driver drives by, get in for a five minute ride to the Mongolian border, which greatly pales in comparison with its counterpart in Erlian.


Repeat the process, this time with Mongolian immigration. The officer stamped my passport without questions and without asking for any other document aside from the arrival card. Waiting for the jeep after this took longer than expected. I showed the driver my train e-ticket. After five minutes or so we were already at the train station of Zamin Uud. Landmark? The building with the pyramidal crystal roof. Between it and the Immigration Building (NOT the border immigration earlier) is a two-floor office, the facade of which is made of glass that reflects the postcard perfect panorama on the other side of the railroad tracks.


4. Ride the Zamin Uud - Ulaanbaatar train (number 275).
This one leaves at 5:30 in the afternoon daily and arrives at Ulan Bator the next day at 9:30 in the morning. Reserve your e-tickets at urtu.net. This wasn't possible until the website developed an English version just recently. Take advantage of it. Having a reservation form means having your train ticket waiting for you at the Information section on the second floor of the building mentioned. Still, I fell in line when I shouldn't have until the woman next to me saw my reservation and said something in Mongolian. I asked her if she spoke English. She gave me a WTF? facial expression before snobbing me altogether. That's when I went to the Information counter and realized that my tickets were already there. Yehey me! I bought some snacks and waited for the train. Money could be changed in one of the Bureaux de change inside the same building. I recommend the bank on the second floor. Slightly higher rate, and it is a bank. They are less likely to give you fake money. One thousand Tugriks is roughly around 30 Philippine pesos by the way, close to the exchange rate of the Korean Won.


Everyone was looking at me with curiosity as if I were an animal on display in a zoo. I didn't saw any other foreigner. If there were any, they surely hid themselves well. Everyone looked Korean - Chinese, in short, Mongolians. I really can't tell if they look more Chinese or more Korean. Let's just say that they look Mongolian, to be fair. Three people asked me, "Betunam?". Apparently, I look Vietnamese to them. In Korea though the major notion was that I am Japanese. Weird.


The train parked by the platform at 4:30 PM and left at 5:35. Locate your wagon with the number stated on the ticket. Get on it. Locate the bunk number also stated on the ticket, next to the wagon number. There are four bunks in a room. If you get one of the lower bunks, congratulations! Your bed will become the de facto public sofa for the four of you while the sun is still up.


There really is nowhere to go. You could try the aisle, but the repetitive view of endless plains of grass meeting the light blue sky in the horizon might bore you after a while. Mongolia is a landlocked country. Their substitutes for our beaches, in terms of spectacular panoramic views, are these eternal plains which really look like a wallpaper on your desktop. Enjoy this view. They go down with the sun. It's three years of darkness after that, unless one of the many stops abounds with lamp posts. Yes, the train stops once in a while. I wouldn't know if passengers alight the train during that time. Well, they probably do. Otherwise, why stop?


When it gets dark you have two choices: sleep, or play Harry Potter. The three Mongolians with me in the room didn't speak English, so I just began keying this article on my phone's Word editor. Oh, so there are three options! Harry Potter would have been fun. This is probably the closest I could get to a Hogwarts Express ride, and it really felt like Death Eaters would suddenly appear amidst the darkness. Too bad.


Extra information. The cabin lady gives you tea, coffee, hot water, and a plastic package with sheets and a towelette inside. Those are NOT free. They ask you to pay MNT1, 600 when they return. The fee is really just minimal so better just go with it. Besides, you would need the extra sheets while you sleep. Our cabin window was open and it was cold all night as if we had air-con. A bathroom is located on both ends of the wagon. The one in front is for men; the one at the back is for women. There really is no difference. There’s just a steel toilet bowl and a sink that had no running water.


They also collect your ticket at around 8 PM. They give it back the next morning at around 8 AM, after getting the towelettes and the sheets you paid MNT1, 600 for. I thought I could take those home, haha. Apparently not. We arrived at UB train station at exactly 9:30 AM, as is stated on the schedule. Upon arrival there you are on your own. Your itinerary would depend on your interests and on your hotel location. There are some travel tour offices nearby. I asked one how I could get to Suhbataar Square, which is the landmark for my guesthouse. I found my way. Para-paraan lang yan. English here is a rarity, by the way. You better start practicing your charades.



13 creature/s gave a damn:

pinoydaysleeper.com said...

wow.very interesting place

ihcahieh said...

@pinoydaysleeper.com - Yes, interesting indeed. =)

a-BERD(een)'S EYE VIEW said...

are you sure about this statement:

"Israel is usually reached with a stopover in Abu Dhabi or Dubai."?


these gulf states are not in "good terms" with Israel, so why would they allow a stopover in either Abu Dhabi or Dubai?


Most Filipinos who go to Israel either transit in HK or Europe... ;)

ihcahieh said...

a-BERD(een)'s EYE VIEW - Thanks for the info. I thought Emirates flies to Tel Aviv. I already verified it, turns out they don't. Edited. =)

Markyramone said...

Wow I'm always interested in going to Mongolia. Nice detailed instructions on how to go there with all the viable options. Now, I only needed to save up haha

ihcahieh said...

@Markyramone - By train is always an experience to look forward to, lol. Again, I suggest around a week of stay for the trip to be worth it. =)

melvin said...

I'd love to visit mongolia but its just hard to get there.

ihcahieh said...

@melvin - hard but not impossible. I think the best way for backpackers like us is the route I took. Have to use those trains. Next year I might try Vladivostok via Harbin (China). Will update you guys if ever, that would be another land border crossing from China. :)

Adventure Accountant said...

I was idly doing a Google search about a China-Mongolia-Russia route. And behold! A pinoy blogger has been in Mongolia! Good catch on the details how to get there. I'll make it a reality someday. :)

ihcahieh said...

@Adventure Accountant - Hope the details here could help you on the planning part, hehe. :)

anabananas said...

I stumbled on your piece as I was trying to find a route from PH to Mongolia. Planning to head there next year. I'm just worried because it's already 2016... I usually backpack and seeing that their train ticket is alien-ish... I think I'll have pretty much the same exp. when I was in BUrma or worse. WHew. Do you happen to have any updates on prices?

anabananas said...

I stumbled on your piece as I was trying to find a route from PH to Mongolia. Planning to head there next year. I'm just worried because it's already 2016... I usually backpack and seeing that their train ticket is alien-ish... I think I'll have pretty much the same exp. when I was in BUrma or worse. WHew. Do you happen to have any updates on prices?

ihcahieh said...

@anabananas - sorry but it's been a while, so I wouldn't really know the updated prices. The thing is, many locals use this train, so I don't think the price would fluctuate that much.

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