Even before we crossed the border, the landscape was changing. The South of Russia was already how I had imagined Mongolia to be. Wide open plains, burnt orange in colour with rocky mountains lining the horizon, rivers meandering through the middle and small villages made of wood built up alongside it.
Unlike the Russian train, this one was mostly tourists and we spent the time chatting and playing games. It was only 22 hours, 5 of which were spent at the border. It takes as long to leave Russia as it does to enter Mongolia and the corridors outside the cabins are full of officials, each with a different job. Eventually we were on our way and a few hours of sleep later we were in Ulaanbaatar.
Ulaanbaatar is a place of contrast, but I am not sure if I really like it. The Soviet influence is clear in the concrete buildings but interspersed between these are small neighbourhoods, ger dwellings and wooden houses with brightly painted rooftops creating a patchwork of colours against the grey concrete and pale sky.
The mountains in the distance make for an impressive backdrop but smoke rises constantly from two huge power stations on the edge of town. They are pumping out fumes all day and the city feels polluted. People walk around with facemasks. The smell of diesel hangs in the air as old cars and minivans packed full of people chug out fumes.
It suddenly feels like I have left Europe behind.
The Buddhist Gandantegchinlen monastery in the centre is beautiful and feels like an escape from the rest of the city . One of the temples houses a giant golden Buddha surrounded by hundreds of smaller Buddha like figures, all facing the central statue. Incense lingers in the air. Locals come to pray and spin the wheels. It’s a place for peace and stillness, with only the sound of the monks’ singing to fill the ears.
All around the city, Mongolians are friendly, smiling, helping you find the way and welcoming you everywhere. I am leaving for the west today with Jordi, an epic 3-5 day bus journey on unpaved roads. I am glad to be leaving the city but excited to meet more people.