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Frontier of Mongolia

Zamyn Uud, the Mongolian frontier town on the Chinese border. There is only three things in this town: a border, a train station, and the road that goes to the border. It was an interesting little place save for the constant sand that blows all through the region. To walk through these streets were to [...]

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Zamyn Uud, the Mongolian frontier town on the Chinese border. There is only three things in this town: a border, a train station, and the road that goes to the border. It was an interesting little place save for the constant sand that blows all through the region. To walk through these streets were to walk in a cloud of dust. Blowing sand seems to have the ability to get into every crevasse of a humans body. So after going for a short walk my eyes, neck creases, and ears were full of grit. It was alright though- once your gritty it dose not get much worse.

Mongolian train in siding.

The empty Gobi Dessert.

Coming into Ulaanbaatar.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Mongolia is desolate. Rode trains up from Beijing and upon entering Inner Mongolia everything in the landscape completely broke. There was nothing for hundreds of miles. Just desert in the proper sense. I love it.

I rode what turned out to be the Trans-Siberian Express train up to the Mongolian border. I quickly exited that rolling tourist trap (I was just pissed because they tried to charged me 4 dollars for a few meatballs and a couple chopped vegetable pieces), and got a hotel across from the station in Erlian. Woke up the next morning and headed out towards the border. Took a taxi to it and the driver dropped me off and split. I then got into an argument with the border guards because they would not let be walk through to the inspection post. So I fought with the border kids (they were younger than me) about this for a few minutes and finally just spent the 35 kuai to get across in some guy’s van that was packed with boxes. I had to sit on his lap for the entire 200km that he drove me up to the border checkpoint and then got out and went through the Chinese exit formalities. Stamped out of China, I proceeded on to Mongolia.

The Mongolian entry procedure was really straight forward. They took my passport, looked at me, asked if I was a tourist, then stamped an empty page. They did not even ask for additional pieces of identification, as many people think that I no longer look anything like my passport photo (it was taken seven years ago).

Away from the border garrison I walked into the arid land of Mongolia. The wind was blowing and it was cold. Zamyn Uud is suppose to be the hottest town in all of Mongolia and I was shivering. I walked on for around 500 meters when a jeep pulled up from behind me and a soldier jumped out. He did not speak any English and just pantomimed that he wanted me to go into the jeep. I refused. He then asked for my “pass” and I balked for a second at taking out my passport but then thought better of it and again refused. Even though he was dressed in the garb of a soldier he was little more than a traffic cop, and he spent his workdays telling Mongolians how to line up their vehicles one behind the other on their way to the border garrison. This seemed to me a mere showdown of power, so I tried to explain to him that I was just going to the town that was less than a kilometer away from where we were standing. I pointed to it- we could see it readily from where we were standing. But he kept it up and began pushing me around. I quickly tired of this soldier pushing me so I just walked past him and back to the border, and waited for a jeep with everyone else. He probably just wanted me to take his buddy’s ride so that he could charge me an exaggerated sum of money. I would just find a ride with someone else.

So I waited a while with some Chinese men who were also heading towards Ulaanbaatar. We joked a little in Chinese and became short-term friends. It is interesting how quickly language comes to you when you need it. Another Chinese guy who was around the same age as me crossed over the border and acted a little excited that I could speak some Chinese. We talked a little, then he hopped in a jeep and went got a jeep into town. I stood around for a few minutes and then also flagged down a jeep. I got in and asked how much it would cost for the ride in English. I only received puzzled looks in response. I then tried asking the same in Chinese and a couple guys in the Jeep understood and tole me the price- 10 yuan. The guys that tole me were also Chinese and we talked a little on the ride.

It is interesting how a common language makes people “real” to each other. If I could not speak any language with the people in the Jeep then I would simply have been vegtable lagsania and probably would of had to have paid much more for the ride. But by the graces that I could communicate, I was charged local price and made a couple road friends.

When we arrived in Zamyn Uud, and the Chinese guys escorted me to the train station and helped me purchase a train ticket by translating Mongolian into Chinese for me. It was a gesture completely of their own volition and I thanked them heartily. We then said goodbye and I went to find some lunch in the little town.

After lunch I went for a little walk and then made way back to the station to wait for my train. It soon showed up and I got settled into my compartment loaded down with boxes full of trade stuff. My Chinese friend from the border met me on the platform and asked if I would mind putting some of his stuff- he was a trader who ran a route from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar– in my compartment. I quickly agreed as I had a good feeling about the kid. The other passengers soon began filing into my compartment and they also had a large amount of supplies. They all chattered on in Mongolian trying to figure out how to fit everything on the train while I just stared into a book. Soon they figured it out and I was off to Ulaanbaatar in a train compartment with three big Mongolian guys.

We talked little through the first half of the journey, until the Mongolian sitting across from me grabbed the Chinese dictionary that I was half studying and thumbed a little through it. He spoke a little English and we talked a little. My compartment mates seem to be real friendly and the talked and joked amongst themselves as I just sat there watching them.

After some hours of this they soon got a little boarded and went off to get drunk- “stretch their legs,” the dictionary thumber haltingly said with a smile- while I tried to slip off to sleep. In a couple hours they returned with a beer for me and we all talked for a little while. I took this gesture to heart, and was very appreciative for the beer. After a little basic conversation they went back business and returned to the dining car to keep on getting drunk. I went back to sleep.

Next morning we pulled into Ulaanbaatar station and I stepped out into the city of Mongolia. The weather was brisk and the city seemed beat. I took a mild liking to it right away.


Filed under: Border Crossing, Deserts, Mongolia

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3689 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii

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