As we mentioned in our previous post we didn’t have a clear itinerary for our time in Mongolia. One thing was determined though; we had to meet the world’s last nomadic reindeer herders living in the taiga up north, close the Siberian border. It is as remote as it gets, meaning a lot of time goes into transport, but that also means an authentic experience with less tourists on your track.
So we began our journey up north. Our first stop was in Erdenet, Mongolia’s second biggest city. There are few ways to reach Erdenet, but we decided to take the overnight train from Ulaanbaatar. After countless sleep deprived hours in busses we have become quite fond of travelling by train, especially the sleeper trains. Even though they are often terribly slow, time goes by unnoticed while asleep and it saves you the cost of accommodation. Importantly, they are the birthplace of most of our blog writings.
Andri along with the grumpy train attendants!
Beautiful sunrise as we woke up in Erdenet
We arrived early morning in Erdenet, which is more of a town rather than a city by usual standards. The city center has a department store and a small park, which displays a musical fountain show every evening. The show must have the same tune every night, a melancholic American pop song that all the locals appeared to be lip singing during the show.
Erdenet is one of the youngest settlements in Mongolia. The city grew rapidly during the soviet era after the opening of the third largest copper mine in the world, around 40 years ago. Russia played a big role in the city’s growth and the industrial boom led to many Russian style blocks being built in the city to house mine workers. The influence of the Soviet Union and Communism can be easily spotted; Lenin’s gigantic face makes an appearance on a couple of walls there and seems highly respected by the citizens.
Our accommodation, Hotel Sanzar, had a cozy old soviet feel to it, with big old crystal chandeliers, shiny floral wall paper and dark wooden furniture.
We had a good laugh about our “soviet” style hotel, so we had to make a “soviet style” photo as well
The hotel had a nice looking restaurant on the first floor. After a long train ride we were starving and hoping to get a delicious breakfast. We looked at the menu and after a long thought we decided to order two Cesar salads and some tea…we were craving something fresh! But we found out the hard way; a Cesar salad in Mongolia is usually drowned in mayo and the tea has a lot of SALT in it!
Mmmmm….fresh Cesar salad and tea!
We only spent one day in Erdenet which is kind of enough to see most of it. We walked to the south part of the city, past the archery stadium, to a hill with a nice view over the city. Archery is one of the three national sports in Mongolia, along with horse-racing and wrestling. Apparently, Erdenet is home to the best archers in the country. We didn’t see anyone practicing at that time as Nadaam, the national games of the these three manly sports, finished in July.
Overview of Mongolia’s second biggest city
Even though the city center is mainly concrete blocks the outskirts are like most other small villages in Mongolia; gers and small wooden cabins with colorful roofs. The style of the wooden cabins reminded us of the small fisherman villages back home in Iceland; it kind of all looked like Eyrabakki, if you know what I mean 😉 We were quite fascinated by this small city, it has a sweet balance of regular “city life” but still gives you the countryside feel.
The atmosphere at the local market
After walking around town and getting an overview of the area we bumped into a small market. The market was busy with locals shopping sheep meat, dried cheese or freshly picked blueberries. We didn’t feel very welcome at the market; instead of friendly smiles we got a lot of staring from the locals. Maybe they were just curious about these blonde and blue-eyed foreigners. They don’t get many foreign visitors here.
We decided to by some fruits but we were surprised how expensive they were. Fruits in Mongolia aren’t very cheap since they are mostly all imported from Russia or China. The best way to eat cheap in Mongolia is to stick with sheep meat!
The local market
Traditional sheep slaughtering
You quickly start craving something else then mutton in Mongolia. They don’t seem to use a lot of spices (except salt) and the strong “wool” flavor of elderly sheep isn’t very palatable. During our time in Mongolia we witnessed the slaughtering of a sheep during a public holiday. The traditional way of butchering a sheep seemed exceptionally cruel to us; they slit the belly open, stick their hand in and block or tear the aorta, the main artery of the heart. This method keeps the meat clean and doesn’t spoil any blood. The sheep should fade away without much pain in 2-3 min., however, what we witnessed seemed to take forever; the butcher was a bit clumsy after drinking a whole bottle of vodka.
What we liked about Erdenet is that the town is much more quite than Ulaanbaatar, although UB (as the capital is referred to by the locals) is still very calm compared to other big cities in Asia. From our experience the average age of the citizens seemed a bit higher in Erdenet. Everywhere we looked we could see the older generation, sitting out in the sun, simply watching people passing by.
Friendship monument and the Buddha statue
It’s late August and the days are long (sun goes down at 9:30 PM) so we decided to walk to the hill north of town as well to get a better view over the copper mines. We walked up to the hill behind the Russian-Mongolian friendship monument and the big Buddha statue. It’s a very nice viewpoint over the city and you realise how massive the copper mines really are.
It was a beautiful sunny day with clear blues skies. Even though August is supposed to be one of the rainiest months we rarely encountered thick clouds. No wonder Mongolia is often named the land of blue skies, with over 250 sunny days a year. The country is landlocked, far away from sea, so it doesn’t experience any significant monsoon rain.
A view over the copper mines
A ridiculously epic yoga pose
The Russian-Mongolian Friendship monument
Next Stop: Murun
From Erdenet we had to get to Murun, the last “big” town before heading north to the taiga. After asking around, we found out that there are two bus station in town, one mainly for passengers heading to UB and another for those heading west to Murun. A bus station in Mongolia is not how you normally would picture a bus station. It is basically just a parking lot with a lot of cars and minivans heading out of town that pick up passengers to share the cost of gasoline. When drivers see tourists they usually approach you with a lot of shouting and yelling and try to push you into their car, since they know they can charge tourists a lot more.
We were originally offered 28.000 turghik (15 $) per person but after 30 minutes of asking around we found two young guys on a decent car that were happy with 15.000 turghik each. The road to Murun was paved, unlike most Mongolian roads, so we caught some sleep along the way and arrived without trouble 6 hours later.
Entrance gate to Murun
- Take the overnight train from Ulaanbatar to Erdenet and save time and money on accommodation. The sleeper class is 18.000 turghik per person and they provide free coffee and tea on board (you can also buy some snacks, noodles and water). The beds were comfy (compared to India) and clean sheets are provided. It’s kind of overstaffed; females only wearing flight attendant uniforms and they’re are all a bit grumpy. But it’s a cool experience. The trains left and arrived on schedule.
- The train arrives 8 km from the city centre and taxi shouldn’t cost more than 4000-5000 turghik to most hotels. Our driver drove us to a couple of hotels in the center, they are all pretty close to one another. A price for a single room ranged from 20.000-40.000 turghik. We stayed in a superior single room at hotel Sanzar (or Canzap in Cyrillic) which had a soft queen sized bed and a nice hot shower for 38.000 (breakfast included). Wifi was fast and reliable in the room.
- If you walk east on the main road you will end at the friendship monument where most of the busses leave for UB. On that crossing take a right turn (heading south) and walk to the end of that road where you’ll find minivans and cars heading to Murun.
- If you’re heading back to UB from Erdenet you don’t have to take a taxi all the way to the train station to buy tickets. Walk to the bus station at the friendship monument. One of the buildings opposite the bus station has a sign with two horses running (a sign of the Mongolian railway company) where you can buy train tickets (office is closed between 12:00-14:00). We bought them the same day and that wasn’t a problem. Bring your passport with you. If you need a ride to the train station ask one of the drivers at the bus station by the friendship monument.
- There is a nice internet café with big comfy chairs on the ground floor of Erdenet Inn. It’s on the main road about five minute walk to the west from the friendship monument and there is a big sign “East Restaurant” in red letters displayed on the 5th floor outside the building.
- Some say that you have to buy all your outdoor gear in Ulaanbaatar before heading to the countryside. It’s true that the most variety is in UB, but around the department store in Erdenet we found a couple of outdoor stores where I bought a knife, a rain jacket, and even a soldering device + solder (to repair my macbook charger) and the prices are lower than in UB.
- Tourists are allowed to visit the copper mines. Ask your hotel to schedule a visit as you need to organise the tour beforehand. The mines are located ate the eastern part of the city, about 6 km (4 mi) from the centre.
[sossy-social-profile id=”1469″ hide=”social”]
Find us on social media
[sossy-social-profile id=”1469″ hide=”description”]