• Aaron

Ulaanbaatar to North-West Mongolia

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

In this Blog Post:

  1. The Pajero is fixed, but we have some issues with Mongolian Immigration Police

  2. A week and 1,600 kilometres off-road through Mongolia's north-west

  3. An arduous border crossing into Russia

  4. Where are we now and what's next

Before I get started, here's a few photos from around Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia's capital and only big city), including of the kids playing at a peculiar little theme park downtown. As you can imagine, this is closed during Mongolia's minus 40 degree celsius winters, so Mongolians (and us!) were out and about making the most of the summer. Towards the end of this set of photos I've included a few from Ulaanbaatar's 'black market', where the girls got some lovely new shoes at a great price!

The Pajero is fixed, but we have some issues with Mongolian Immigration Police

DHL is darned good. They collected the new suspension springs from Kings Springs in Brisbane - Australia on a Friday, and we had them in Ulaanbaatar - Mongolia by the Tuesday. I then had a pretty full on day of work on the Pajero to contend with. Yuanga, who with her husband, Bagi, runs the property at which we were renting accommodation, came with me to find a local mechanic and do the translating. We found a suspension specialist just along the road, but his experience was limited to small cars and he thought my heavily modified Pajero looked complicated. That was fine however, as he was prepared to lend me his floor jack, which was the only piece of equipment needed that I didn’t already have with me. I took his floor jack back to where we were staying, where our hosts were happy for me to work on the Pajero outside in the yard. I removed the front and rear suspension, as it was time for a bit of maintenance at both ends of the vehicle while I was at it.

With the Pajero fixed we were able to return to the Immigration Police to inform them and show them that we had obtained Russian transit visas for the period 5th to 10th August. Russian transit visas are issued for strictly fixed dates, so we needed to be confident we could cover the 1,600 kilometres of off-road terrain to our selected border crossing by the 5th of August. I was charged a fairly nominal fine for breaching our Mongolian visas, but was warned that the consequences for any further breach would be much more severe, including automatic deportation and a ban on returning to Mongolia for 12 months! Just to recap, the reason we exceeded our visas in the first place (by just one day in the end!) was due to the broken suspension spring and need to import replacement parts from Australia. Even an email sent from the Mongolian embassy in New Zealand, urging the authorities in Ulaanbaatar to be understanding of our circumstances, was rejected on the basis that no excuse is deemed acceptable in Mongolia.

Now, here comes the really hard part to comprehend. After paying the fine and showing the Immigration Police that we held visas to enter Russia on the 5th of August, they set a deadline to exit Mongolia by the 4th of August! Obviously, this deadline was not achievable, this given we weren’t permitted to enter Russia before the 5th. So, it was immediately obvious to everyone that we had been put on course for an inevitable further visa breach, and the more serious consequences that go with it! I wanted them to match the exit deadline to the date our transit visas permitted us to enter Russia, but logical as this would seem, their inflexible rules meant the 4th was now fixed and unchangeable. It’s well known that attempting to enter Russia a day ahead of the dates shown on your visa is strictly not permitted, so this was a real problem. I don’t want to give the impression that the Immigration Police were being deliberately unhelpful; they were friendly and trying to help, but it was clear that they were hamstrung by their inability to vary an inflexible set of rules that evidently must prevail.

The border where we planned to exit Mongolia in the north-west entails driving through 26 kilometres of ‘no man’s land’ between the Mongolian and Russian check points. With this in mind, I offered that we would exit Mongolia on the 4th, camp that night in the ‘no man’s land’, and finally enter Russian territory on the 5th. Whilst I think this would work and is what we would have done to avoid serious penalties, they couldn’t agree to this on the basis that no one is permitted to stop in the ‘no man’s land’ between the two countries. Finally, someone recognised that the border checkpoint we were headed for is closed on Sundays, and as luck would have it the 4th of August was a Sunday. Mongolia permits visitors to exit one day after the expiry of their visas without penalty only if the border was closed on the prior day. Awesome! There was our solution and I grabbed it. But how lucky that the 4th turned out to be a Sunday. If it was any other day of the week we were locked on course for serious consequences. We would have camped in ‘no man’s land’ in an effort to avoid harsh penalties, but this too might have had repercussions – I spotted an armed soldier with a dog heading out on patrol into ‘no man’s land’ from the Mongolian side when we eventually crossed the border.

To conclude this, it appears that rules are hard and inflexible in this part of the world, with no exceptions permitted. But I don’t let this level of bureaucracy detract from the awesome adventure we’re having. I might feel differently about it if we have a similar incident in one of the countries we’re heading for soon, where this sort of 'infringement' could earn you a three week prison sentence, or significant fine! It goes with the territory on a trip like this that your 4wd has to work very hard every day tackling countless miles of off-road terrain. Despite how well I maintain the Pajero I cannot guarantee that we won’t break something, which leads to a delay and potentially exposes us to a visa breach. This is something to be mindful of when ‘overlanding’ through this part of the world. I had assumed that the circumstances behind our brief ‘overstay’ would be taken into account, as would occur in many other countries, but this is not the case here. Here, the reason for an overstay is not deemed relevant and you’ll face the same consequences as someone who willfully disregards their visa end-date.

A week and 1,600 kilometres off-road through Mongolia's North-west

We had a really nice time in Ulaanbaatar and after spending 12 days in one place, at the hostel run by Bagi and Uyanga, we were beginning to feel quite at home there. Their daughter had her first birthday while we were there and Sylwia baked the official birthday cake. But with the car fixed and a strict time frame to exit the country, it was time to move on.

With Uyanga on the morning of our departure

I decided we would take what’s known as the ‘north route’ west across Mongolia to the border with Russia. It would have been possible to take an on-road alternative north to Russia's Lake Baikal and then travel on-road to the west, but some checking on Google Maps indicated this would double the distance, requiring an additional 1,600km. Surely off-road would be quicker, and in any case the whole point of having a well setup 4wd is to be able to go where we want. We enjoy dashing overland between remote villages that don’t too often get visitors like us. There is sooo much more to see and experience away from motorways and roads that regular travelers and vehicles use. The following GPS track map captures all our routes across Mongolia in the two months we spent exploring there – yes two months! This is a vast country, and as the map shows, we are left with plenty of further exploring still to do here.

I captured enough footage along our route across the north-west to make a fourth video from Mongolia, if/when time permits. For now, I’ll let the photos and a number of short video clips give you an idea.

There was one place we hoped to have enough time to pause briefly along the way, and that was Lake Khovsgol (included in pictures above - and the video clip below). On the way in heavy rains had caused chaos, with plenty of flooding. Again, we observed how Mongolians use (abuse) their cars. A road ford/river was raging and risky to cross, so a number of tractors had arrived and were charging to tow cars across - some drivers used the tractors and others didn’t. Most made it across, though on the far side a collection of cars that were no longer running, with wet electrics, was building up steadily. We passed a stranded semi-submerged Toyota Prius mid-stream as we crossed!

I’ve already put a photo on Instagram/Facebook showing Kornelia riding a horse with a young Mongolian boy. Two boys rode over on horses to where we were camped outside a village and offered our kids rides. Micky and Beany weren’t up for it, but Kornelia is a little daredevil and loved it! She’d want to ride a giraffe if we ever go to Africa!

Here we stopped in a village to get icecreams and quickly found ourselves the centre of attention with locals. Incidentally, five icecreams (branded and wrapped) costs just NZ$3 – yes, for all of them! (Similarly, I've just returned from the shop here in Russia with 10 eggs, a loaf of fresh baked bread and 5 litres of water and that all came to NZ$3 too!)

The following night we had been camped on a hill overlooking another village. We’d just packed up and were about to move on when two car loads of locals turned up to welcome us… or party! That’s a bottle of Mongolian vodka one local is holding – too early in the morning for us!

Some of the men showed an interest in the Pajero and so I showed off some of its modifications, though initially I was surprised when they seemed most impressed by the on-board water systems. One electric pump feeds a tap via a 1 micron water filter and another pump feeds a heated outlet that we use for showering and washing up. After all this time in Mongolia it was really only here that it truly sunk in for me that these people don’t have a water system like this in their homes! We know because we often fill the on-board water tank as we go through villages. We look out for locals carting water tanks on trolleys to the local pumping facility, such as that pictured below. In most Mongolian villages some locals have very basic houses (or gers) without flowing water, showers or flush toilets etc.

The pump station supplies water at 50+ litres per minute, so we fill our bucket and then the Pajero sucks it into the onboard tank

The lake shown in the next set of photos was a highlight of this route. It's too remote to be visited by many other travelers, but we thought this isolated spot was magnificent. The water was crystal clear and yet lovely and warm for a swim. I was desperate to BBQ here. We'd been unable to find coal, but had been fortunate enough to follow in the path of a truck that had dropped the odd log here and there.

A final obstacle on this route was posed by rivers in flood not far from the border we needed to cross. We had encountered a number of thunderstorms along our way and had endured some very slippery muddy tracks - we actually had a couple of 180 degree spin outs!

In the last village before the border town we were aiming for, a local tried to warn us the rivers beyond the village were impassable. Had this been true this would have spelled disaster, as we were towards the end of the period we'd been given to exit Mongolia and had little time to wait for rivers to go down, or backtrack. Fortunately, some other locals helped us find the best way across one of the rivers, and they were rewarded with cold beers from my fridge! Actually, they turned up to assist after I'd already been wading around in the river for several minutes and believed I had plotted the optimum course over the river braids. When the locals then guided me to drive exactly the same course I'd already determined looked optimal it came as a welcome validation of my plan. I was a bit anxious, as for obvious reasons I'm super cautious about the risk of getting the Pajero stranded in a river somewhere this remote.

Finally we made it all the way to the north-west!

An arduous border crossing into Russia

I had read some interesting things about the unavoidable Mongolia/Russia border crossing in the north-west (including cases of travelers being subjected to hours of interrogations on the Russian side!) and hence knew to expect a long day there. Even going in with low expectations, still they managed to disappoint. To be fair, the Mongolian border checkpoint wasn’t too bad. There was a queue of slow moving vehicles leading to the checkpoint, with a further delay when the border closed for lunch. But after lunch, once we were finally being processed, it was reasonably efficient. A soldier possessing enough English guided me to each of the stations where I needed to present the right documents.

The Pajero in queue at the Mongolian checkpoint

The girls enjoyed a small playground while our vehicle was in queue

The difficulties really all occurred on the Russian side. It’s hard to comprehend how it was possible for Russian Customs to be as slow and inefficient as they were. A queue I was in barely moved an inch in the more than two hours I stood in it. I knew it was getting close to closing time for this border and it was obvious there were more unprocessed travelers and vehicles than could be handled prior to close. I presumed the border would be forced to remain open until all people currently in process were cleared. But no, this isn’t how it works!

On closing time the window to the booth I was queued at just closed and a metal screen was lowered. It was then announced (initially in foreign languages and only in English after I requested it) that the border was closed.

We were inside the secure Russian compound, unable to proceed into Russia and equally unable to return to Mongolia, or even the ‘no man’s land’. We were told we could leave the compound overnight to walk to a hotel in a small village outside the gates, apparently visible somewhere in the distance. They needed to hold our Pajero (and with it our camping equipment and food). We were stunned by this! I wasted no time in playing the small children card, and it worked. Whilst other travelers were forced to walk to a hotel in the nearby village, I was taken to an office where our documents were promptly processed. They wanted to do this out of sight so that no one else would realise we had been treated preferentially, but of course when we drove out of the compound, we passed by people walking along the road headed for the hotel and they all stopped and looked. I thought it best to drive by them while they were still in the ‘looking bewildered’ phase. Whilst we were fortunate to avoid their fate, which would have included the following day spent back in process in the Russian compound), the whole situation wasn’t right.

Where are we now and what’s next

We’re in Barnaul, Russia, as shown on the GPS track map shown further up. We’ve rented a tiny apartment for a few days to catch up on work/school-work and experience this surprisingly clean and cosmopolitan city. We passed through areas of incredible scenic beauty on our way through Russia to here. Barnaul is a beautiful city, with cafes and flowers blooming. It’s hot – around 30 degrees. Over the next few days we’ll cross the border into Kazakhstan and make our way on-road to Almaty. So the next section of our journey will be spent on-road, exploring some beautiful cities of Central Asia. Further ahead, later in August, we still need to make our way over the 7,500 metre high Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, including a route along the Wakhan Valley bordering Afghanistan.

As this is the final post on Mongolia I'll end with our country-specific 'what to expect' section

What to Expect

  • a good choice of petrol stations in towns and villages, but none in between if you venture away from the sealed roads

  • reception & mobile data even in remote towns and villages, but nothing in between

  • lots of Toyota Prius and other 2wd cars being used off-road. If driving a well-equipped 4wd you will be expected to rescue them if/when they get stranded

  • when driving in Ulaanbaatar, no one, and I mean absolutely no one will let you in! If you're too slow turning, other cars will simply ignore you and will drive around you in all directions

  • a fee/tax/ticket to enter not only museums and monasteries but also national parks such as Yolin Am. Inexpensive however

  • plenty of sun. Temperatures seldom exceeded 30 degrees C but with no trees to hide under you're exposed to the harsh sun from the moment it rises (5.30am) till it sets (8.30pm) - June/July. Sunhats, sunscreen and sunglasses essential! A vehicle wing awning like our Batwing is a very good investment

  • Mongolians on holiday, camping

  • lots and lots of Toyota Land Cruisers, but not so many other makes, which made finding parts for our Pajero difficult

  • dust, dust and more dust, not just on the many dirt tracks, but also on sealed roads - blown by winds

What Not to Expect

  • a WiFi Cafe or a cafe with WiFi. We spent a whole morning on our first day in Choibalsan looking for one and our attempts were fruitless. It's not impossible, just very difficult. That said, we eventually got a sim card that came with a whopping 99GB of data - incredibly it was free!? And yes, it did work.

  • People to speak English. The older generation may speak Russian, the younger, unless it's the capital city, don't speak any foreign languages

  • people and drivers you pass to return your wave. Then just when you give up someone waves at you first

  • your debit/credit cards, regardless whether it's Visa or MasterCard, to work all the time. It's hit and miss: sometimes they work and sometimes not, so it's important to have cash on you at all times.

  • Mongolian drivers to stop when traffic lights change to red or when there's no room on the other side of the intersection. Many will carry on regardless, leading to terrible traffic jams and general chaos. Police direct traffic in Ulaanbaatar at most intersections.

  • cars to stop for pedestrians at pedestrians crossings. There's hardly any break in traffic which means waiting would take a very long time, so you must stride confidently onto the road and watch them carefully

  • fresh fruit and vegetables in little shops in small towns and villages. At best we could get apples, carrots and cabbages. However, a range of fruits and vegetables are regularly sold in glass jars

  • an air compressor at any petrol stations. We didn't see even one! Fortunately an air compressor is built into our Pajero, so we didn't have to spend time resolving this one

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