Mongolia is one of those places that I never thought I would have the chance to visit… Until, my family and I visited China. Since airfare from the Philippines to Mongolia is expensive, we decided on trying out the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Beijing since it’s by far the most cost-effective way for us to visit this country. Excuse me for the spoiler, but we were definitely 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. It’s a trip to remember, for sure.
Since the train trip is super long (36 hours for Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital) 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. It’s best to have a Chinese visa though, as there are random checks on the train with inspectors asking for this.
- 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. However, as of this writing, I’ve noticed that Ctrip is now rebranded as Trip and to be honest, I prefer the old platform. I highly recommend that you book in advance since tickets sell out fast.
- It took us 11 hours from East Beijing to Hohhot, then another three hours from Hohhot to Xilamuren Grassland, which is part of Inner Mongolia. A one-way ticket costed 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 in the train (but don’t expect too much). There’s even a restaurant on board. The ride may be long, but the wonderful views are worth the experience.
- Important: One thing that you can’t do online is to choose your seats, so the best option would be to try to do a swap when you get to your carriage. Make sure you have your Google Translate (Mandarin) available offline since English speaking ability among staff and passengers is limited. Imagine, we were seven passengers all assigned on different carriages! Good thing we got to download the translator before leaving the hotel. Plus, we got lucky with the staff who have all been really helpful to us.
- Contacting a local tour operator is the way to go when visiting Inner Mongolia. Unless you have a car and know the terrain, language, and culture well, it’s best to have someone guide you through the overwhelmingly vast grasslands. There are barely any road signs, there are many blind signal spots, and Mongolian is the primary tool for communication. We enlisted the local guiding services of Mr. Jason Cao. You can contact him at +86-158-4710-8168 (via Line, Viber, WeChat, or WhatsApp). Not only is he highly knowledgeable of the area, he is also very responsible and thoughtful of the group’s needs.
- As for food options, it’s apparent that it’s catered for Chinese tourists who dominate Inner Mongolia’s tourism market. Traditional Mongolian cuisine is comprised mainly of meat, dairy, and yes– alcohol. But in restaurants, fruits, grains, and vegetables are also available.
- The best area to purchase souvenirs would be at the city market since they are cheaper and the options are better compared to the grasslands. Souvenirs you find in the grasslands are brought in from the city, after all. But it’s also thoughtful to buy even just a few items from locals living in the grasslands as a way of supporting their trade.
- Why I want to go back: After just one day, my brothers were bored to death. There was no 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! 🙂
P.S. The keys to sustainable travels are universal: take public transportation | stay in accommodations where cooking is allowed (private or shared, it doesn’t matter) | take good care of your valuables | walk as much as you can | wake up early | stay away from guidebooks | immerse yourself in the local language, culture, and history | visit local cafés | know that the possibilities are endless | listen to your gut ❤