We were in Mongolia from 19th September to 30th October 2003. We entered at Atlanbulag near Kyakhta in Russia and Sukhbaatar in Mongolia, and left by Zamyn Uud for Erlian in China.
Detailed info on the route and where you can get food and water.
We got our Mongolian visas in Irkutsk. It was perfectly straightforward but we did need a fax or letter confirming a hotel reservation in Mongolia to get a 30 day visa. Without such a reservation they would only give us a 14 day visa. UB guesthouse very kindly faxed our reservation directly to the Mongolian consulate. The Mongolian consulate is open 9:30 - 12:30 and 14:30 - 17:00 every weekday except Wednesday. They processed our visas that day for collection at 5pm. I believe the situation is similar in Ulan Ude.
Once in Ulaan Baatar we extended our visas. This involved going to an office near where the road Chinggisiyn Orgon Choloo crosses the railway. I would recommend asking your guesthouse staff where the visa extension office is and getting them to write it down in Mongolian. Then just catch a taxi, they are very cheap. In the office we paid (each) $1 to register our visas and $61 to extend them by 30 days ($15 for the first week, then $2 a day). Americans only need to register as they do not need visas. Registration is compulsory if you stay in the country for more than 30 days in total. You do need to de-register before you leave, but fortunately there is no restriction on when you can de-register. We registered and de-registered on the same day and then set off across the Gobi.
Entering the country at Altanbulag was straightforward, officals on both sides spoke good English and the Mongolians were very friendly (the Russian weren't unfriendly, but Russian officals never smile so the laughing Mongolians came as a bit of a shock). The border closes for lunch from 1pm until 2pm, there are banks in the building on the Mongolian side and moneychangers (who offer a worse rate) just outside the gate on the Mongolian side. I didn't have any luck trying to change Roubles in Togrog in Kyakhta.
Leaving from Zamyn Udd was a little more complicated because it is not permitted to cycle across the border (or to go on foot). Minivans and jeeps run between the square outside the railway station in Zamyn Uud and the railway station in Erlian. We paid 50 Yuan each including bikes and bags for a place in a minivan. I think it could be got cheaper with haggling. The only worrisome thing is that you have to leave all your stuff in the van while you go through passport control so don't go with a dodgy looking driver. If you didn't have too much stuff you could take it out of the van and carry it through passport control with you. The Mongolians opened a few bags but the van went through Chinese customs while we were in passport control, I don't think they opened anything and there were no customs forms to fill out. There was a Russian speaking passenger in our van who persuaded the driver to take us to a cheap hotel in Erlian.
Ulaan Baatar and the surrounding area seems to be a bad area for theft. Our friends Ali + Ingi had a pannier stolen while unloading from a minibus in UB, and Ed Genochio had his bike stolen while camping near UB.
Between Sukhbaatar and Ulaan Baatar (late September) we were surprised by the number of wet days, about one in three. But it was only once wet all day. Many days were windy but on every day bar one it blew from the north or west and so was behind us
We left Ulaan Baatar to head SE to China on the 7th October. The nights were cold, at least -10°C and some days the temperature never got above freezing. The wind was often strong but usually from the north or west. We carried an extra 2 litre flask to help us keep our water liquid. The following two weeks were remarkably mild, the temperature hardly reached zero, even at night, every day was sunny and the wind blew steadily from the north west. I think Ulaan Baatar is significantly colder than Sainshand and Zamynn Udd, not only because it is further north but also because it is 300m higher.
In Zamyn Uud at the end of October it was quite warm, as much as 15°C during the day and only a few degrees sub-zero at night. We did experience a storm about 100km north of Zamyn Uud, the sky clouded up completely duing the day and the pressure fell. Usually the wind dropped when night fell but this night it kept blowing with strong gusts and rained hard for about half an hour. It is often difficult to find shelter from the wind so I would recommend taking a strong tent.
It is of course extremely dry in the Gobi so the cold is easier to deal with. For example socks never get wet so you don't need so many pairs.
This is undeniably difficult. Lonely Planet do a phrase book which is invaluable but doesn't really do justice to how the words should be pronounced. Russian is quite widely understood at a basic level. We learned very little Mongolian and "got by" but it would have been nice to know more.
You will read a lot in travelogues and guide books about the paucity of Mongolian food. One thing is certain though, you will not go hungry! In fact we liked the food very much, sustaining vegetable and mutton stews and milky tea that is great for re-hydration.
We brought several kilos of vegetables in from Kyakhta (on the Russian side of the border crossing) but found onions, potatoes, carrots and cabbages for sale in Sukhbaatar. In other shops between Sukhbaatar and Ulaan Baatar we saw onions, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and garlic. In Ulaan Baatar itself you can buy everything - fruit, vegetables and dried foods. All small shops sell at least noodles, tins of fish and chocolate.
Cyclists we met who had been to Western Mongolia found some villages had neither vegetables nor bread.
We thought hard about how much water to carry. People we met carried between 10 and 20 litres each at most. We started out with about 16 litres each, giving us 4 days supply at 4 litres a day. This was probably more than we needed, because there are railway maintainance hamlets at 40 km intervals, which probably (we did not ask), would give you water. We drank freely (about 5 litres a day), but always had excess water, as the land is quite flat so we covered 40 to 50 km a day instead of he 25 to 35 km we expected off road. You can get water containers at the Black Market in Ulaan Baatar, see below. We also so plenty for sale in Erlian, the Chinese border city, if you are coming from the south.
Friends biking away from the rails in the Gobi in summer carried 20 litres each, and went for a maximum of three days between water, a distance of 250 km. (These were strong guys www.sport-trifft-kultur.de).
On our route we were never far from the railway. We didn't carry a GPS and did not feel the need of it. Away from the railway though it would be extremely useful, the landscape is often largely featureless and the penalty for getting lost could be high.
We did buy (and use!) a proper compass with rotating baseplate for crossing Mongolia. It was useful for taking sightings down the railway to determine where we were, and on the rare occasions when we were out of sight of the railway for deciding where to go. The cycle computer was an essential guide to how far we had come.
For proper touring away from the railway a pair of binoculars would be very handy for spying out the route. All the herders have them for finding lost animals.
You can get bike spares (at a price!) from Karakorum Expeditions, www.GoMongolia.com, in Ulaan Baatar, who run mountain biking trips. I saw complete bikes for sale in the State Department Store but didn't see any spares. Bikes are a common sight in Ulaan Baatar and to a lesser extent in the countryside. They usually have neither brakes nor gears, probably because spares are unobtainable!
A reader of our website emailed us the following additional information:
"I was in UB for four months earlier this year, and can report that there is a large bike section at the Black Market; they sell cheap chinese bikes as well as a wide variety of spare parts and tools (mostly of poor quality, but probably adequate to get you out of a fix). One noteable absence was shraeder/presta-valved tubes; only the hideous woods valves seemed to be available.Apparently there is a bike shop on Ard Ayush in thethird or fourth microdistrict; but I never made it over there. Outside UB, I'd not expect to find anything; though I do recall seeing a few rear mechs and cable housings in the market in Hovd. Mongolia is full of surprises!"
The "Map shop" by the Elba electronics store on the road In Toyruu on the edge of the N.W. ger district, sells very pretty 500,000:1 topographic maps of the whole country. They are not very accurate with regard to the roads and tracks but they do show contours, towns, some (not all!) villages and the railway accurately.
"International Travel Maps" map of Mongolia is widely available outside Mongolia but wildly inaccurate. The position and quality of the roads is often wrong and place names are often different to those on other maps or used locally. The quality of this map is indicated by the fact that the scale printed on the front is wrong (it is 1:2,500,000 not 1:1,200,000 as marked). In Ulaan Baatar other maps of the whole country are available, eg. "Road Map of Mongolia" which are a little better.
Incidentally, we could not find any maps of China, but we were able to get a basic road atlas in Erlian, just over the border from Zamyn Udd.
The "Black market" in S.E. Ulaan Baatar has an wide array of fabric, webbing and plastic buckles if you need to repair equipment. They also sell plastic water carriers in a range of sizes. The selection of (presumably fake) North Face jackets is impressive, don't know if they would hold water though! Didn't see any bike parts, or indeed any tools or hardware so that must be somewhere else (although see "Bike spares" above). The indoor market sells a decent range of fresh food.
Ayanchin Outfitters on the road Seoulyn Gudamj, S.W. Ulaan Baatar is the best camping equipment shop in town. It has some lightweight gear but mostly sells camp beds, cooler boxes and folding chairs.
Fuji Film Image Service roughly opposite the National History Museum, does nice prints of digital photos. They can read any digital camera media. Good for sending friendly herders pictures of themselves.
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