Day 1: Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar…on a budget
Let me back it up just a little bit and explain my frame of thought in regards to money and traveling.
My current budget in Irkutsk is roughly $200/month. That’s how much money I spend on everything except rent (rent is about $275/month). Yeah, Russia’s cheap, I know, that’s why I’m here.
I wasn’t sure how cheap or expensive Mongolia would be, but I figured if I hitch, camp, and cook food, I could keep close to that monthly budget. So, in other words, there was no reason not to go to Mongolia. Normally, when I take off somewhere, I move out of wherever I am living and just go one-way. This would have been the cheapest way because rather than wasting that $275 of rent money, I could have spent it on something useful in Mongolia. However, the decision to go to Mongolia was a last minute one so I didn’t have time to move out of my apartment.
Train tickets from Irkutsk to Mongolia are expensive (over $100) and so are flights, so I did it this way: I took an overnight train from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude (about 650rubles ($10)), left at 9pm and arrived in Ulan Ude around 5:30am.
I sat in a cafe for a half hour or so, then walked to the bus station (less than 2 km away), where minibuses go to a town called Kyakhta (Кяхта, or Khyagt), which is close to the Mongolian border. The minibus costs 430 rubles. I tried to hitch from the Kyakhta ‘city center’ to the border, which is a few more km away, and ended up giving some guy 100 rubles to drive me there. I probably could have walked :)️. You can’t cross the border by foot, so you have to ask to catch a ride with someone. A few people said they would take me across for 200 rubles, and then a big bus came along and I hopped in there. The bus driver didn’t ask for any money :)
It turned out that that bus costs 1800rubles to get from Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar. I probably could have offered the driver some money to take me all the way to Ulaanbaatar, but I decided to try to hitch a ride instead.
The first ride I got was with a lady, her mother, and her baby; she was nice and knew about 3 words in Russian. She dropped me off somewhere between Altanbulag and Darkhan.
I stuck my thumb out and waited for about two minutes before another car stopped. This time it was a lady who spoke English, her husband, and kid. She first asked for 10,000tugrik (about $4) to take me from wherever I was to Darkhan (about an hour drive). I had no Mongolian cash at all so I declined her offer. Then she said 5,000, but I still had no money.. So she ended up giving me a free lift :) She was super nice, exchanged contact details with me and even offered for me to visit her home on my way back to Russia.
The lady dropped me off in Darkhan, where a big fat Mongolian guy picked me up. He didn’t speak a word of English or Russian but seemed very nice. He taught me how to say hello and thank you in Mongolian, then dropped me off about a half hour down the road.
I waited for another two minutes before one young guy in a little work truck picked me up. He didn’t know a word of English or Russian either, and all I knew in Mongolian was hello and thank you :).
This guy was quiet at first, but then started speaking to me more and more, even though I clearly didn’t understand anything he was saying. He mimed that I should take a nap. I tried my hardest not to fall asleep, even though I was tired. He started to creep me out. Gave me some kind of white liquid to drink. I kindly said no. The closer we got to Ulaanbaatar, the more talkative he became. I talked back to him in English and Russian, even though he clearly didn’t understand a word I was saying either.
I started to get the gist when he pointed at himself and me, and repeated the word “hotel”, also pointing at a hotel. It was an awkward situation and creeped me out to the point of me thinking out escape and ‘how to beat the shit out of him’ situations ️. Once we got close to Ulaanbaatar, he was really insisting on something and kept on repeating himself, as if I would somehow magically understand Mongolian if I heard the same thing over and over enough times.
I hopped out of his truck about 12 km from the city center, on a crowded street close to an atm and a bus station. Caught the bus for 500tugrik (19cents) to the center and met Felix in a hostel at about 9pm.
Altogether I spent about $18 on getting from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar. If I had taken a train from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude and then a bus all the way to Ulaanbaatar, it would have cost about $40 (rather than the $100+ you would spend on a train or flight).
That night I spent $8 on a hostel and another $2 on food.
So total cost of day 1 and 1000km: $28