I had the chance to visit Mongolia as a side trip to our family’s travel to China. Since airfare from the Philippines is expensive, we decided to try out the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Beijing. Not only was it cost-effective, but it also allowed us to view beautiful gorges, rivers, mountains… Excuse me for the spoiler, but we were not disappointed!
Thanks to National Geographic magazine, I had the chance to “visit” Mongolia numerous times. It seems it’s a favorite among Nat Geo explorers given that it’s been featured so many times for the past three years since I started subscribing.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to visit this country, a place that I’ve never imagined myself going to with, of all people, my family! Going here via train and staying in a yurt are indeed a test for my parents and brothers who are not so used to rough traveling. It’s nice to share my kind of travel with them, though I don’t think they share the same views as mine. It’s a trip to remember, for sure.
Since it will take 36 hours to get to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, from Beijing, we decided to go with Inner Mongolia only.
Some Tips on Visiting Inner Mongolia:
> Philippine citizens do not need a visa for stays of up to 21 days. For longer stays, you can apply for an extension while you’re in Mongolia. But still, it’s best to have a Chinese visa when traveling around Mongolia because of contested areas in the country.
> Flights from Manila to Ulaanbaatar are expensive, so what we did was to take the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Beijing. Tickets can be bought online from Ctrip which now takes the name of Trip. I highly recommend that you book in advance since tickets sell out fast.
> It took us 11 hours from East Beijing to Hohhot by train, then another three hours from Hohhot to Xilamuren Grassland by car. A one-way train ticket cost us 38 USD each for a soft sleeper berth. There are five categories to choose from: luxury, soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, and hard seat. There are ample toilets on the train (but don’t expect too much). There’s also a restaurant serving hot meals until 7 PM. We booked the evening trip going to Mongolia, then the early morning trip back to Beijing.
- Important: One thing that you can’t do online is to choose your seats, so the best option is to ask/plead/beg to do a swap when you get to your carriage. Imagine, we were seven passengers all assigned on different carriages! Make sure you have your Google Translate (Mandarin) available offline since English speaking ability among staff and passengers is limited. Good thing we got to download this before leaving the hotel.
> Contacting a local tour operator is the way to go when visiting Inner Mongolia because of limitations in local infrastructure and communication. You will be wading your way into the country’s VAST grasslands with sparsely located road signs, pit stops, ATMs, hospitals, and police stations. You will travel for hours without seeing any of these. It was the best decision to hire Mr. Jason Cao as our local guide. You can contact him at +86-158-4710-8168 (via Line, Viber, WeChat, or WhatsApp).
> As for food options, it’s clear that restaurants fit their menu for the Chinese who dominate Inner Mongolia’s tourism market. Traditional Mongolian cuisine is comprised mainly of meat, dairy, and alcohol (my Dad was so happy). But in restaurants, fruits, grains, and vegetables are also available.
> The city market is the best area to purchase souvenirs from since they are cheaper and you have more options. Souvenirs you find in the grasslands are from the city so they are more expensive. But it’s also a thoughtful gesture to buy even a few items from the locals here since they only get to see tourists three to four months a year. The grasslands’ tourism market is closed in autumn and winter due to harsh weather.
Why I want to go back: After just one day, my brothers were bored to death. There was no TV and mobile signal, and no attractions other than the vast grasslands, the clear blue skies, and the sight of healthy horses. And you feel like you are stuck in the middle of nowhere. But as for me, I loved every bit of my stay here. I know that no other landscape can offer me such freedom. It’s a breath of fresh air to be staying in a place like this.
As with any country in the world: Do not quickly assume. Make sense of the why behind the what first and while you’re at it, get lost and find yourself. Happy travels! 🙂