Warm Greetings From Western Mongolia!

That’s about the only warm thing related to Mongolia at this time of year, except -thankfully- my hotel room!

The extreme cold of the past few days gave me an opportunity to complete another photo gallery while appreciating various warm rooms. It seems to me like this all took place years ago, yet it was less than two months in the past. Here’s the link:


How I happened to come to Mongolia is a bit of a story. Not only did I not plan to come here, there wasn’t even a hint of an idea to do so. I’ve already recounted that I took a 3-day train ride east from the Caucasus region. During that journey, I traveled a distance that is greater than what’s required to cross the USA, but this put me less than halfway across Russia. The distances here are mind-boggling, something that can be best appreciated by traveling on the surface, instead of just flying over the vast landscape.

Anyway, I arrived at the ski area of Sheregesh and had a very fun week of skiing there. Before arriving in Sheregesh, I already had it in mind to go to Lake Baikal, but I didn’t have any idea of how I might get there. When I got around to looking at a map, I found there is no easy or direct route. In fact, it appeared that the easiest way to get to Baikal from Sheregesh was to go through Mongolia. If it was possible to take this route, it would go through the Altai, a 4-country region I have long wanted to visit. So, I started looking into particulars.

There’s no information on the internet about winter crossings of the remote Altai border station between Russia and Mongolia. I was told by the hotel owners in Sheregesh that the road and the border are not open in the winter. I’m glad that didn’t deter me from going anyway. I left with the idea of going as far as I could and then turning back, IF the border was not open. At the very least, I would get to the Altai. But, as it turned out, the border is open for crossing. And the Russian roads are excellent all the way.

There is no public transportation in Russia that goes all the way to the border, there were only some relatively short bus hops of a half day, each followed by an overnight stay, then continuing further the following day. Slow but steady. The public transportation eventually stopped altogether, requiring the hiring of a taxi to go further and finally get to the border. During this entire process, the temperature kept dropping lower and lower, as I went deeper and deeper into the Altai Mountains, climbing in elevation the whole time. The coldest so far was -26°F/-32°C, which is not the coldest temperature I have ever experienced, but it is serious cold! A funny thing is I haven’t yet taken my down parka out of the pack; I’m prepared for even colder temperatures.

The border crossing itself is a long story. The short of it is that it took 2 ½ hours of interrogation before I was allowed to leave Russia! As with other times I’ve been questioned in Russia, part of it is their job, but the bulk of the time is spent on questions they ask out of pure personal curiosity. These guys have never met anyone like me, someone who doesn’t come close to checking all the standard boxes. The station chief himself took charge of the questioning, along with his assistant. We all had a good time. They were surprised and genuinely interested in my philosophy of life. They really liked my SmugMug page, which is what I volunteered in the beginning of the interview, telling them the answers to most of their questions would be found there. Finally, after I’d had enough questions, I said it was time for me go and got up. They agreed and I crossed into Mongolia.

Now, I am in the town of Ölgii, the biggest town in western Mongolia. There are limited things to do here now, because of the cold and snow. It’s possible to stay with eagle hunters for a few days, which would be fascinating, but I decided to do that another time. I’ve just finalized arrangements for a driver to take me to Ulaanbaatar, leaving tomorrow morning. Instead of going in the quickest manner, we will only drive during the daylight hours, so I can see the countryside. It will take us three full days to arrive in Ulaanbaatar this way. From there, it should be relatively easy to figure out how to cross back into Russia and get to Lake Baikal. The adventure continues!

Stay warm, have fun and don’t believe everything you’re told ?