Pamela MacNaughtan

The ground was covered with white crunchy snow, the air was cool and I could see my breath. It was 5 a.m. and our bus had just pulled into the station at Erlien, China. As I stepped off the bus a jeep driver approached me.

“You need jeep?”
“Yes, I go to the border.”
“Okay, 20 RMB.”

I nodded my approval, found my backpack and followed him to his jeep. The jeep in question was more like a pick-up truck. There was a flatbed in the back and the cab fit 4 people comfortably. However, this is Mongolia. A country who believes in sharing, and I assume, body heat.

By the time we were ready to leave the bus station there were 8 of us inside. Laps were full, bodies were warm and we were driving around looking for a hotel to stay in, as the border wouldn’t be open for another 4 hours.

The hotel we ended up in was a little more than I wanted to spend, but at 6 a.m., when we found it- I wasn’t going to argue. I spent a few hours attempting to sleep, then showered, and headed downstairs to check out.

Once the clerk figured out that I wanted to go, I spent another 20 minutes explaining that I needed a taxi or jeep to take me across the border and into Zamyn Uude, Mongolia. The clerk just shook his head, said “Taxi” and pointed down the street. I gave up, took my passport and went in search of a taxi.

When I found one, I said “Zamyn Uude” and figured that when he said yes, he understood that I needed to cross the border. I was mistaken. My taxi driver took me just outside the gates to the Chinese side of the border and pointed to a hut down the street.

I gathered my things, paid him some money and walked towards the hut where I was instructed to pay 10 RMB and given a blue ticket, which I assume was for a departure/transportation tax.

I then walked back to the taxi, thinking he would then drive me through the border. No. He drove me around looking for a jeep and we ended up back outside the Chinese border. Feeling a little frustrated, I grabbed my bags, got out and walked back towards the hut.

I was beyond grateful when a man speaking okay English asked if I need a jeep. When I replied yes, we started to barter for the fare. Originally he wanted 100 RMB. No way. I am not paying 100 RMB to cross the border. After a few minutes of going back and forth, I was able to barter him down to 50 RMB and I waited on the side of the road for a jeep to arrive.

After a few attempts, I was shoved into an old green army jeep. The jeep was crammed with boxes and there appeared to be only 2 seats. The man behind the wheel took my main pack and shoved it behind the seats and I slide into the front seat. A minute later his wife arrived and I had to slide over. I now have half a bum cheek on the seat and the rest of me was hovering over his gearshift.

To say I was uncomfortable was an understatement. I prayed that it would be a short ride. Thankfully, it was. When we reached the customs building, I grabbed my things and went inside. Once again Chinese customs as a breeze and within a few minutes, I found myself outside, looking for the green jeep. This time I was shown a wood and metal bench behind the driver’s seat and instructed to sit there.

I did as I was told and climbed inside. When I went to close the side door, it wouldn’t stay shut, so I sat there with one hand bracing the seat in front of me while the other was holding the door closed so I wouldn’t fall out.

Similar to the Chinese border, the Mongolian border was also fairly easy. I breezed through and made my way outside. This time I was taken to a white jeep. It was full of boxes as well and had a similar wood and metal bench located right behind the driver’s seat. I assumed this is where I would be sitting and went to climb in, however, the man’s wife motioned for me to sit up front while she and her adult son squished into the back. I felt both odd and honoured.

Within about 10 minutes, we were in Zamyn Uude, Mongolia, which is located in the Gobi Desert. It looked nothing like I had imagined. When one thinks of a desert, they think of sand dunes. There were no sand dunes in sight. What I saw was a barren land with small dustings of white snow, Old Russian type buildings, garbage, hungry dogs and a very sleepy town.

As I climbed out of the jeep, I thanked my driver and his family and went in hunt of the train ticket office to inquire about the next train to Ulaanbaatar.

I was tired, sick and in heaven, as I wandered through an alley along the railroad, looking for the ticket office. As I looked around, I understood why the guidebook I had read said that if you didn’t have to stay in Zamyn Uude, there were plenty of transportation options available.

It would have taken me all of three hours to explore the town, but I wasn’t up for it. Instead, I found the train ticket office and bought a soft sleeper ticket to Ulaanbaatar for 27,300 Mongolian Turgits, which is roughly $23 Canadian. Satisfied with my purchase, I found a bench inside the warm ticket station and settled in.

It was noon and my train wouldn’t leave until 5:30 p.m. Normally this is where I go out and explore. But being under-dressed, tired and sick -and carrying a 20kg backpack- meant that I was not in a position to do so. Instead, I bought some water and crackers, took out my travel journal and caught up on some writing.


  • November 17, 2010

    I really hope you’re planning to turn your adventures into a book–I feel you could have a whole chapter dedicated to being shoved into the back of various vehicles 🙂

  • November 17, 2010

    Sounds exhausting!

  • November 17, 2010

    Holy cow, what an exhausting journey to the other side!!! Glad you didn’t give up and kept on girl!

  • Christine Gilbert

    November 17, 2010

    I love how you wrote this, I can feel what it must have been like… the sort of bemused interest in how this will turn out, the quiet joy of travel.

  • November 18, 2010

    Ah Mongolia, such a wonderful country. It’s a strange old rule that you can’t cross the border by foot. I bet the ordeal of getting into Mongolia will prove worthwhile in the end! Looking forward to the nest post!

  • Garreth Lodge

    November 24, 2010

    Another great post. You’re site keeps me going in these last few months I have of university before I set off on my own trip! Keep up the great work and I agree with Emily, a book would most definately be a NYT best seller!

  • December 4, 2010

    Well, crossing the bordey was a journey! Must have been quite tired after that! But what wouldn’t we do to get to Mongolia:)


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