Guide to crossing Mongolia from Altanbulag to Zamyn-Uud, via Ulaan Baatar

What every cyclist needs to know is where food and more importantly water may be obtained. In the listing here I have tried to indicate cafes, shops, rivers and villages that we passed. If a cafe was the only building around then I have written "Solitary cafe" - remember that it could close! There seemed to be a lot of closed cafes about, maybe they will open or maybe more will close.

Altanbulag to Ulaan Baatar

The road from Altanbulag (on the far side of the border from Kyakhta) to Ulaan Baatar is smooth asphalt with little traffic and gorgeous steppe scenery. There are no steep hills but the road does go up and down a fair bit and climbs 500m between Km 250 and Km 293. We rode this section from the 19th to the 27th September. We had frost most nights and the first snow on the 26th September. There were also several days with some rain.

Distances are from the border crossing.

Km 0, Altanbulag Cafes, shops, petrol, money changers in the market as you exit the border crossing (better rates in the banks on the Mongolian side of the border crossing buildings).

Km 20, Sukhbaatar. At least five hotels (we stayed in the Hotel Orgki, pink building by the main road, $5 for a standard room for two, friendly Russian-speaking owners, good place), four banks, several shops selling a range of food including vegetables, bread and other staples. Water from a kiosk opposite the train station. There is an internet point in the Selenge Telecom building at the north end of town.

Km 50 Trees end. Camp now if the weather looks dodgy!

Km 66 Yeroo Gol. Three roadside cafes, including one with shop selling food, noodles, apples. Petrol station. Saw locals taking water from the river.

Km 120, Darkhan. Hotels, cafes, shops selling all staples. Petrol and water. The LP guide says the market is good.

Km 162 Cafe and petrol station at the top of the hill.

Km 176 Kharaa Gol river. A local said it was drinkable but it looked pretty murky.

Km 190 Bayangol (Baruunkharaa on some maps). Many shops and cafes. Petrol and water.

Km 245 Two cafes (the one with the red roof has an English menu and a tap in the loo) and petrol station.

Km 246 Boroo Gol. The water looked OK at a pinch.

Km 249 Solitary cafe.

Km 253 Boroo Gol river again.

Km 256 Solitary cafe with German speaking owner.

Km 278 Bayan Chandmar (Ikhsuuj on some maps). Shops, cafes, petrol and water.

Km 291 Tourist camp on the west side of the road. Looked closed when we passed (late Sept) but maybe a soure of water, food and accomodation in season.

Km 293 1500m pass summit, you gain 500m between Km 250 and here.

Km 295 Solitary cafe.

Km 308 Tiny solitary cafe, roadside "spring" (probably just a stream piped under the road).

Km 310 Small village with shops and petrol.

Km 325 Outskirts of Ulaan Baatar, many shops, cafes and petrol stations from here onwards.

Km 345, Ulaan Baatar, Sukhbaatar square.

Ulaan Baatar to Choyr (Choir)

We left UB guesthouse at 7:45am and had a relatively traffic free ride out of town. The southern "by-pass" road next to the railway (Teeverchidiyn gudamj) is a good road for cycling, it even has a wide shoulder for part of its length that is almost a cycle lane. We rode 28km from the city centre and then left the asphalt to head SSE towards Maant, but a new road is being built from Nalaik to Maant and then to Choyr, so when that is finished it will be easier to go via Nalaik. Eventually a complete "Trans-Mongolian Highway" is planned, but I think it will take a few years yet. The road to Choyr is scheduled for completion in October 2004.

Update from Andrea, October 2004: The new road is complete as far as Maahnt. From Maahn to Choir the road is under construction and the will not finish in this year. Is is possible to follow the road under construction for many km, it is like a white road.

The railway hamlets mentioned below usually consisted of a few houses and sometimes a couple of herder's gers. They must have water and would be a good place to ask, although we never did. Note that all streams or springs had animals paddling (and pissing) in them and therefore the water should be treated with caution.

There are no kilometer posts so distances are from the city centre as measured by my cycle computer.

Km 0 UB Guesthouse, centre of Ulaan Baatar.

Km 15 Police check point. There are a couple of cafes and petrol stations here.

Km 28 We left the road and headed SSE on a good dirt track. The turn-off is about 1km past the village of Khonkhor, immediately after the radio transmitter (lots of tall masts).

Km 34 Crossed a small stream. Water looked clear.

Km 40 Met the part built Trans Mongolian Highway. This runs from Nalaik southwards and will be the easier route when it is finished.

Km 42 Pumped bore hole, a few gers and nearby is Bayan village. The borehole may be temporary for the road construction.

Km 74 Spring, a few pools of water, not all of them muddy. I would filter any water collected here.

Km 79 Borehole on west side of road, a couple of hundred meters beyond are a block of flats and some houses on the railway. The borehole may be temporary for the road construction, but the houses will have water.

Km 92 Village at the railway junction. Not marked on any map but I think the name is "Bachanga". Shops, water and petrol station. Quarry on the south side of the branch line is a good place to camp if it's windy.

From this village we made the mistake of believing our topo map and following the track it showed, rather than the railway. After 15km we met some guys on a motorbike who told us to head east back to the railway and follow that. On the way we passed a well and a quarry with prison attached for workforce. Going straight along the railway you will pass Maant which has shops, petrol and water, and save about ten kilometers.

Km 136 Hamlet on the railway, saw a sign for a shop and you could definitely get water.

Km 156 Well by the track. Water didn't do us any harm although it had some bits in.

Km 160 Hamlet on the railway.

Km 164 Hamlet on the railway.

Km 183 Well by the track.

Km 186 Hamlet on the railway.

Km 212 Deserted Russian air base, railway hamlet, marked "Bayantal"on some maps. I'm sure you could get water but I wouldn't expect much else.

Km 241 Choyr. Coming into town the place looks really dire, half demolished buildings, stray dogs and bits of barbed wire lying on the road. The station is quite smart though and the hotel 100m north of the station building is good ($4 a night per person, but don't drink the tap water). There is a restaurant in the station building and a few shops nearby selling basic provisions such as noodles, pasta, rice, tinned fish, fresh meat, sausages, onions, potatoes, carrots, UHT milk, bread, jam, beer and vodka. There is a water kiosk behind the only and obvious large block of flats, about 300m NE of the station, and a couple of banks and a petrol station near the water tower.

Choyr to Sainshand

The track out of Choyr is somewhat sandy for the first 10km, after that it is corrugated and stony by turns, with sandy patches! In general it is the corrugations that were the worst thing about this section.

Km 0 Choyr railway station.

Km 18 Track goes under the railway, onto the western side of the railway. I think it is avoiding the mine, it crosses back after about 4km.

Km 20 Lake (not marked on map) on west side of track, open cast coal mine on the east side. There is a pipe from the coal mine to the lake, so I wouldn't drink the water.

Km 24 Hamlet on the railway.

Km 36 Hamlet on the railway.

Km 57 Near the mobile phone mast the main track turns east, away from the railway. Follow it, it is a good track, smooth and firm all the way Tsomog. After 8km it follows electricity lines into Tsomog.

Km 71 Tsomog. Saw a water kiosk but no shops.

Km 81 Dalanjargalan. Saw a couple of shops but didn't stop.

Km 83 Road sign indicating Airag 25km, Sainsand 156km. Pretty stones litter the road.

Km 106 Airag (marked as Tsagaandorvolj on some maps). Several shops selling basic provisions, bread, milk, but no vegetables. We got water from the shop with a picture of a train on its sign. Leaving the village the railway branches (not shown on any maps), we crossed the lines at the crossing and follow the tracks on the west side of the west branch. The track on the west side then progressively deteriorates over the next 50km so it's worth crossing back to the east side when you can. We crossed at the hamlet at Km 151 but the crossing was locked (someone opened it for us), there was an underpass around Km 110 which would be a good place to cross.

Km 119 Hamlet on the railway.

Km 134 Hamlet on the railway.

Km 151 Hamlet on the railway.

Km 175 Large hamlet on the railway. The track was diabolically corrugated!

Km 201 Hamlet on the railway.

Km 235 Sainshand. There are actually two towns here, coming from the north, when you are opposite the railway station you should see the "tank monument" (a tank on a plinth) in the distance to the S.E. Head for it (uphill) and you will see Sainshand beyond.

In the shops near the post / telecom office we found a wide range of food including fresh vegetables, fresh meat and all the usual staples.

Sainshand to Zamyn Uud

We left Sainshand by the road that heads east past the telecom office, not southwards as marked on the Lonely Planet map. Maybe that works too. We crossed a spur of the main railway and then followed the main railway on its west side. There are a few kilometer posts scattered between Sainshand and Zamyn Uud, but they are few and far between and usually on some parallel track so I have used my cycle computer again to measure th distance.

Km 2 Tarmac ends!

Km 18 Track crosses the railway near a hamlet. The track then heads away from the railway, although never far from a line of electricity posts.

Km 36 Hamlet on the railway about 1km west of the track.

Km 58 (Km post 53) Village of Senj (Orgon county). A few shops selling staples including bread. There is a water kiosk but it was shut. You could try the station buildings, or if you don't need much buy some bottles as we did.

Km 79 Marshy area with lake on east side of railway.

Km 82 Track crosses railway.

Km 102 Ulan Uul. Thanks to a friendly man on a bicycle we were guided to a couple of well hidden shops, had the water kiosk unlocked for us, and were taken to the "butchers" (a shed containing a freshly butchered cow from which I selected a chunk). Got water, bread, onions, cabbage, noodles, biscuits and petrol.

From Ulan Uul we made a detour in search of the sand dunes mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide as being "30km south west of Ulan Uul". After two days of much off-track pushing we did find a nice area of 40m high dunes. They would be much more easily reached by taking the track which runs due west up a valley from a few hundred meters north of the 115km marker post. They are about 17km west of this point, on the south side of the valley. You will see them easily from a few kilometers away and will need to leave the track and push or ride about 1.5km south to reach them..

Km post 136 The only roadside cafe we found between Ulaan Baatar and Zamyn Uud. It is a couple of sheds by a ger. They served us mutton stew (what else?) and we bought four litres of water from them for 500 Togrog. Closed in October 2004.

Km post 182 Large ponds both sides of the road.

Andrea reported in October 2004 that there were no pools by the road but that only 10km of the track to Zamyn Udd were bad.

Km post 218 Zaymn Uud. The last 30km of track are about the worst of the whole trip! Zaymn Uud feels like a thriving metropolis after the desert, it is at least as big as Sainshand, with plenty of shops selling the usual staples plus imported fruit from China. There is internet access in the post office which is across the park from the station, on the "other paved road" but set back a bit opposite a school. There are several hotels and cafes around the square by the railway station, which is readily identified by its steeple-like tower. Banks change Togrog to and from Yuan and dollars.

South to North tours

If you are doing the reverse trip, you are likely to have only the Mongolia inernational travel map. This marks the track staying next to the rails. This is mostly true, except for the first 100 km or so from Zaymn Uud, where the best track is west of the rails. From the end of the tarmac (see diary photo), follow the well used set of parallel tracks on a bearing of about 310 degrees. There are concrete posts that used to have kilometre markings on them. I don't remember any confusing bifurcations, but if in doubt take the east most alternative towards the railway. A friend who stuck close to the rails, did a lot of pushing though sand. Bad news: the prevaling wind is about 20 km/h from the north or west.

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