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Getting around Mongolia

By Air

Mongolia is vast country with sparse population and poor infrastructure relies heavily on air transport. MIAT, Aero Mongolia and Hunnu Air operate scheduled and charter domestic flights to 21 provinces. Most flights have their hub in Ulaanbaatar and thus, getting from one destination to another within Mongolia often requires a touchdown in UB. A round trip to Dalanzadgad or Murun costs approximately USD320. For inquires, call 1800-1980.

If you are short on time and have the money, flying domestically could be your best bet to catch many sites all around the country.

Aero Mongolia flies to Altai, Dalanzadgad, Khovd, Ulgii, and Ulaangom. If you have a couple hundred dollars to spend, flying will save you more on comfort and time than you can even imagine.

Hunnu Air (www.hunnuair.com) is the newest carrier. Domestic flights to Bayankhongor, Dornod, Murun, Khovd, Omnogovi, and Choilbalsan aimags. International flights to Manzhouli, Hailar and Erlian. All flights originate from and return to Ulaanbaatar, naturally.

By Train

You can purchase tickets or billet (билет) for trains within Mongolia at the Ulaanbaatar Train Station known as either Вокзал (vokzal in Russian) or Галт тэрэгний буудал (galt teregnii buudal in Mongolian). To purchase the tickets, find the building on the left as you’re facing the station. The lounge and restaurants are in the building on the right. Traveling around Mongolia by train can be one of the most interesting and stress-free ways to visit places. It’s also the safest. Unfortunately, the routes are limited to north and south, pretty much confined to the path that the Trans-Mongolian takes from Russia to China, and they are slow. Nevertheless, they run on time, and there are some great places to see along the way. The main stops through Mongolia are Sukhbaatar (northern border), Darkhan, Erdenet, Choir, Ulaanbaatar, Sainshand, and Zamiin-Uud (southern border). There are three classes of train compartments, reflecting the level of privacy and comfort you can expect in the old Russian-style wagons. If you aren’t traveling for a long distance (i.e., UB to Beijing), getting a first class private coupe isn’t really worth the extra money considering that second class is much cheaper and still pretty comfortable. Because the ride is so long, you might be better off taking a purgon or bus if third class is your only option, unless you’re up for an adventure. However, if you’re traveling the 30 hours from UB to Beijing, do it in style; splurge for the coupe.

For inquires, call 1800-1940

First class or “coupe” (купэ) compartments are closed cabins with soft bench seats that double as beds. Benches above fold down to accommodate a total of four passengers. Coupe (pronounced “coop-ay”) tickets give you your own comfy bed in a private cabin, but unless you are traveling with three other people, there is a solid chance you will be in a private cabin full of strangers who might have different bathing habits than you. This can be a fun way to interact with new folks by playing card games, drinking, singing, and showing pictures. Or it can be a stinking holding cell with drunks who won’t stop playing cards and forcing you to repeatedly look at pictures of people you don’t know in places you’d rather not see.

Second class or “half coupe” (hagas coupe, хагас купэ) are open compartments nearly identical to the coupe but without a door, making them airier. They are a fine choice if you have ear plugs. If you’re tall, your legs will hang off the end, and you will be bumped awake constantly unless you assume the fetal position. Despite some drawbacks, second class is the best deal for comfort and price.

Third class goes by many names including hard sleeper, public car (obshii vagon, обший вагон), and third class (guruv dugaar zereg, гурав дүгаар зэрэг). This is the most economical way to travel, but third class cars don’t offer nearly the comfort you might crave. There tends to be a much more social atmosphere here. (Read: it might be smoky, and you’re almost guaranteed encounters with unwanted drunks looking to make a new best friend.) All of the important information on the ticket is in the upper right hand corner. The first line indicates the train number and departure date. The second line is the carriage number followed by your seat number. The third line is the departure date. Finally, the fourth line is the departure time. It is important to take note of the departure time because unlike most other forms of Mongolian travel, trains leave on time.

By Bus

In Ulaanbaatar the two main bus stations for domestic travel are the Dragon Tuv (pronounced “dargon”), which runs all the buses traveling to the west, and the Bayanzurkh Tovchoo, which runs all the buses to the east. Be sure to buy your tickets at least a day in advance for most destinations, and buy them in the morning to ensure a seat for the next day. During the Tsagaan Sar (Lunar New Year) and Naadam (summer sports festival), you should purchase tickets two days in advance if possible. Buses leave around the scheduled departure time (especially for closer destinations), unlike any other shared vehicles in Mongolia. There are many pros and cons to traveling by bus, though most foreigners prefer buses over other shared transportation options because they can purchase an individual seat, not merely the opportunity to be in the vehicle. Buses, because they are so large, can make the long bumpy hauls more tolerable, and they are relatively safe. Even so, they are still pretty uncomfortable by most Western standards, especially if you’re not a small person. Some have air-conditioning, and some have better heat than others. If you are at all prone to motion sickness, be sure to pack Dramamine.

Luggage gets packed under the bus, on overhead shelves, under seats, and in the aisles. There will be a spot somewhere for your luggage even if it doesn’t look like it. This may mean your luggage will be under the bus, leaving your bags very dusty and dirty by the end of the trip. If not, you will most likely want your bag to be something malleable, so that it can fit into a real-life game of Tetris played in the middle aisle. Put anything fragile in a smaller bag to go overhead. Paved roads to most destinations, especially the west, are more likely to be non-existent the further you travel from UB. Some trips west are scheduled for multiple days with multiple drivers, and sometimes breakdowns turn a trip of hours into one of days. There are scheduled food and bathroom stops along the way, but long distance drivers never stop to sleep. If you feel you absolutely cannot sleep on a bus, you may want to reconsider how you travel out west, although you’ll probably be in a fatigue-induced state of semi-consciousness after the first 24 hours anyway.

Car rental

You can book a private car through a guesthouse or travel agency. They almost always come with a driver for whom you may have to provide food and accommodations, but this form of transportation will give you the most freedom to set your itinerary.

Russian Jeep: Usually grey with a soft black top and bare on the inside, these Jeeps can go almost anywhere, albeit uncomfortably. Even if it breaks down, it has been such a ubiquitous utility vehicle for so long that spare parts can be found in even the remotest villages. The 69 or jarin yos (pronounced “jar-in-use”) should be a last resort for shared transport, but it is a good option for private use.

SUV, Land cruiser: The most expensive but most rugged transportation option you’ll find. You know you’re riding in style if you find yourself in one of these. It’s not the budget option by any means, but it’s by far the best way to travel if you have the money. The vehicles are usually fairly new, have seat belts, and can make what would be a 15-hour bus trip in closer to 8 hours. If you’ve rented the whole vehicle, you can plan your own itinerary.

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