14 Mongolia

MONGOLIA. July 2000

Strangest border.

We did not want to take the train. We attempted to drive across the Russian/Mongolian border on Wednesday midday. We were refused entry at Kiakhta crossing and were sent 40km away to a town with a Railway Station, Naushki. (The law is that foreigners; i.e. not Russian or Mongolian, are only permitted into Mongolia by plane or train). Wednesday afternoon was spent trying to find a way of getting Dipli and us onto a train. A Railway worker took us for safe overnight parking at his house. We parked in the garden next to a large pen of very well-behaved chickens.

It took all of Thursday to find a flatbed railway wagon, to build a ramp, to load and tie down the vehicle.

(As so few people attempt this, the station is not geared for vehicle transport!). The last 3 hours were taken up by paperwork. Then we had a few hours sleep in the camper on the train. At midnight the crashing and banging started. Until 6 a.m. they shunted our wagon and the rest of the log-filled ones back and forth. Friday morning at 8 a.m. the goods train (heading for China through Mongolia), departed.

Mongolia: Enter only by train!

Detained by Russian soldiers

An hour later we were at the Russian/Mongolian border.

In Russian Army holding cell on Mongolian border.

Army guys did a customs/immigration check. Then the Russian Commander said: “No passengers on a goods train!” Jan explained and threatened and cajoled – realising the security risk at the other end. He took our passports: “No, Get off!”. 3 Soldiers stood guard while Jan put up all the security grids around the cab, including windscreen, and Leoné hastily packed documents, food and clothing. As Jan was closing the last locks, Leoné shouted (like a good librarian): “Remember the dictionary!” With a sinking feeling we saw our precious home disappear into the distance. It was going 10 km beyond the border to the first Mongolian Station, Sukhbataar. We were shown to the military base where we had to wait three hours for a passenger train to take us 10km back from whence we came.

Back at Naushki we waited. Friday night 20h00 and 12 hours after our first departure, we managed to squeeze into a coupé, with 6 other travellers, on the Trans-Mongolian Train. This time swiftly through the border. (The soldiers were playing volley ball).

At Sukhbataar-station, Mongolia, after customs and immigration procedure it was 10 p.m.. We searched up and down many long trains in the goods yard, before we found him. Al seemed OK, except that they had already tried to steal the spotlights, unsuccessfully, and had cut lengths off the tie-down straps.We unlocked the motor home to get some sleep. Soon we heard something outside and saw three thugs crawling towards the vehicle. One was already on the rail wagon when Jan jumped out with the tear gas cannister in his hand. When he took the cap off the cannister, the motion was exactly like pulling the pin on a grenade! They frantically scrambled off and disappeared between the wheels of the trains.

Saturday morning: paperwork and shunting and ramp building and offloading took until midday. Then we were on our own four wheels and set off again. Of the 40 countries so far on this journey (and 79 countries we had driven in altogether), this certainly was the most complicated border crossing!

Every effort was worth it! Mongolia has beautiful unspoilt mountains dotted with white felt tents. Horses graze or appear with a rider in the middle of nowhere. In Ulan Bator, we enjoyed the annual Naadam festival.

There was music with ancient instruments like the typical horse headed fiddle and throatsinging. We watched the traditional sports of wrestling, archery and cross country horse racing; most competitors wearing colourful traditional robes, hats and boots.

Mongolia’s Ghinggis Khaan created the biggest empire ever. Then it belonged to China then to Russia (only a few lovely Buddhist monasteries survived). UB has more Internet café’s than any other place we’ve seen. One major export is Cashmere wool. The daily price is quoted in the press. ($35 per kg. Sleeveless tops sell from $45 each).

Currency: the Togrog. Food: mutton. Drink: fermented mare’s milk & salty tea.


THE DATE: 21 July 2000

THE TIME: 3 p.m. in the Republic of Buryatia, Russia; it is one hour earlier in Mongolia

THE PLACE: The frontier town of Kyakhta on the Russo-Mongolian border, now but a grey, decrepit, vestige of it’s former glory, a century ago, when it was the bustling wealthy hub of the overland tea route from China.

THE SETTING: The shadow of the huge abandoned Cathedral just does not reach quite far enough, so Leoné is standing in the blazing hot sun, hanging onto the steel bars of the Russian frontier gate, which had been slammed in her face by a border guard. She has a large handbag over her shoulder, containing all we had with us. All round her people are sitting in the dusty road, where they have been for many hours, even days, trying to get through what is probably the most inefficient border on earth.

After over an hour of cajoling Jan had finally managed to talk his way into the Russian side of the border zone. He was standing about 50m from the first gate and could just see Dipli, behind three high gates set in even higher security fences, still on the Mongolian side, where he had been for the last 6 hours.

THE SITUATION: After completing our visit to Mongolia, which had been very worthwhile, we decided to see if we could drive out of Mongolia. Upon arrival at the first gate of the Mongolian border zone, the guards stopped us and advised that foreigners may not leave by road; we had to exit by train! There was no way that we were going to go through that performance again! When we showed no intention of backing off from the gate they pulled a long steel plate with 4 rows of closely spaced steel spikes across the road. This meant that we could not get in, but neither could any other traffic get out. The impasse lasted about half an hour. Then one of the guards offered to drive Dipli the few metres over to the Russian side, but he wanted $50 to do it. Jan thought it was exorbitant, but in the circumstances faster and cheaper than the train episode as experienced on the way in.

WE still had to exit by train, so we took a taxi for the 25 km back to Sukhbataar. Fortunately we had started early, so we were just in time to catch the morning train (the next would be 12 hours later). This was also not so easy, as the tickets were sold out and Jan had to force his way past the soldiers guarding the train, to persuade the conductress to sell us standing room in the corridor. During the 20 km ride across the border, Mongolian immigration stamped us out and the Russians stamped us in. As this meant that our visas were now used up, we could not return to Mongolia at all. We then found a ramshackle Lada, whose driver put his foot flat down causing the car to drift all over the very bumpy road (worn out steering linkages & shockabsorbers) for the 40 km back to Kyakhta. We thus ended up about 100m from where we had started 5 hours earlier.

THE OTHER CHARACTERS: A Russian officer of the Border Guards and 4 of his men, none of whom could speak any English or German (neither could anybody else). They were cool & professional but eventually quite friendly.

THE VILLIAN: A Mongolian customs official, whose slanted eyes were exceptionally narrow, reminiscent of the proverbial snake; his flat face set in an expressionless mask. He was dressed in full uniform, complete with very large peaked cap.

THE SCENE: Using a combination of gestures and very few Russian & English words, understood by both parties, Jan could make out from the guards that the Mongolians were refusing to bring Dipli over. Jan then could make the Russian officer understand that “my car is now your problem”. He sent a man to shout across the no-mans-land and eventually the Mongolian customs man appeared. Again by means of our rudimentary communications system the, very embarrassed (because they were unable to do anything about it) Russians, explained that the Mongolian wanted $100 to bring Dipli across. Indignantly Jan made it known that he had already paid $50 for this to be done. The Mongolian officer countered by saying the other man had no authority to cross into Russia. The stand-off continued for half an hour, when the Mongolian went back to his side and returned, acknowledging receipt of the $50, but he still wanted another $50. An agreement was reached, via the Russians as intermediaries, that he would be paid once Dipli was on the Russian side. He then brought Dipli through the razor wire covered triple gates. Not only were they set at an angle to each other, but also there was a mound of earth, dumped as speed breaker between the last two. He hit this bump so fast that Jan found the kitchen unit covers on the floor afterwards, something which had never happened on our entire journey, including some of the worst tracks conceivable. (Only later did we discover that it also broke both front & rear RH spring shackle bolts. This was not immediately evident because the springs still hung by half the shackle plates).

The Russian formalities took another hour and then we were reunited and “free to go”.

THE OUTCOME: Having paid the US$100 ransom for Dipli, the three of us could drive off into the Siberian sunset …… to find a campsite. Set high on a hill in a Pine forest, some distance off the road (4wd always useful), it had a lovely view over the rolling hills. As it was summer in Siberia, we had to have our sundowners inside Dipli due to the ever present swarms of tiny flies, midges & mosquitoes, whose shifts overlapped at sunset!

THE CONCLUSION: If the odds are stacked very high against you, negotiate the best you can, but then there is only one thing to do …. be pragmatic!

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