Gandan Monastery is one of Mongolia's most impressive religious buildings

Gavin Haines waves goodbye to Russia, climbing on board the Trans-Mongolian Express for his latest rail adventures. Staying with nomads, he discovers stunning landscapes, freezing temperatures, and even Jeremy Clarkson....

Trans-Mongolian Express onboardThe ornate décor inside the Trans-Mongolian Express captures the romance of train travel
WTG / Gavin Haines

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Russia. But crossing the border into Mongolia, a cloud seemed to lift. In the dining cart of the Trans-Mongolian Express, a tangible sense of celebration prevailed; suddenly there was music, dancing and western travellers, none of which I’d encountered on the Trans-Siberian Express. No-frills Russian styling had been replaced with carved wooden panelling, vibrant carpets and antique furniture; the train appeared to belong in a transport museum.

Some things remained the same though; in the dining cart, vodka was being consumed in heroic quantities. A bartender freely poured the stuff into empty glasses, while goading foreign travellers into dancing down the aisles to Asian pop music. The party continued until the vodka ran out, which was just before we arrived in Ulaanbaatar at the crack of dawn.

Waking up in Ulaanbaatar

Chenresig Temple, MongoliaChenresig Temple, Ulaanbaatar's star attraction
WTG / Gavin Haines

It was -35°C (-31°F) when I stumbled off the train. I was so desperate for a warm bed that I’d have slid between the sheets with Anne Widecombe. In other words, I was perfect prey for the hotel touts waiting at the platform.

Through the hordes, I befriended a kind-faced Mongolian woman, who took me back to her guest house, the Golden Gobi. Refreshingly, there was no talk of money – she told me to go to bed and worry about that after I’d slept, which I did until early afternoon.

It was the sound of sawing that roused me from my slumber. The family were cutting up half a cow on the kitchen floor, a practice that would raise eyebrows back home, but one which was perfectly normal in a country where a third of its inhabitants are subsistence farmers.

I left them to their work and ventured outside. I was wearing every garment in my backpack, but it wasn’t enough. The wind mocked me as it blew through my clothes. My eyelashes froze.

Abandoned by the Soviets when the iron curtain fell, Mongolia has emerged from the doldrums of communism suckling on the warm bosom of capitalism. A posh new mall has sprung up in the centre of Ulaanbaatar, which I snubbed – well, I couldn’t see any locals wearing Ralph Lauren, and they looked warm. Instead, at a market, I found some locally made clobber; a pair of woolly gloves and some long Johns. Finally, I was ready for the countryside.

Staying in a ger

Mongolian countrysideMongolia boasts some stunning countryside
Hemera / Thinkstock

Ulaanbaatar is a grubby city. The roads are congested, the pavements dirty and the Soviet architecture is ugly. Save for the magnificent Chenresig Temple, it certainly lacks in the attractions department.

So why get off here? Simple, because Ulaanbaatar is the gateway to some of the most stunning countryside you’re ever likely to see. Its wild mountains and vast steppes, once the stomping ground of Genghis Kahn, are home to the country’s fascinating nomads, who live self-sufficiently in gers (a kind of Mongolian yurt).

Staying with nomads is all part of the Mongolian experience, so I booked a ger trip through my guest house. Granted, it’s not everyone’s brew; there are no showers, the toilets are outside and your hosts may well ask you to help “prepare dinner”. Oh yeah, that means slaughtering a sheep.

Nonetheless, if you have an appetite for adventure, this will be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have whilst travelling.

Living like a nomad

A ger in MongoliaMade of wood and canvas, gers provide warm accommodation in the depths of winter
WTG / Gavin Haines

Gers are what estate agents might call cosy; made from wood and canvas, their sloped canopies and low doors make for cramped living if you happen to be taller than 1.5m (5ft).

The family I lodged with had three of them; one for guests, one for sleeping and the other for cooking, eating and watching television. These nomads might follow traditional lives, but modern technology has crept into their homes and, thanks to a small wind turbine outside, I watched Mongolian soaps and a translated episode of Top Gear with my hosts.

However, television was the sole luxury. Spanning three generations, the family has led tough lives. From dusk to dawn the women prepared food, looked after children (constant breastfeeding) and made endless vats of a hot, salty drink they called tea. Outside, the men tended the animals. Other travellers I’d spoken to had been invited by their hosts to help sacrifice cows, sheep and even horses, but judging by the carcasses hanging in the shack outside, I’d missed that party.

Dinner time

A camel in MongoliaAn unexpected sight in Mongolia, camels are great at adapting to the extremities
WTG / Gavin Haines

Due to the language barrier, there was no verbal communication between me and the family. It didn’t matter; the warmth they showed me transcended any language. We often communicated by miming, which I did mainly after dinner; rubbing my stomach and smiling to signify a great meal. I was lying. The food was awful; heavy, artery-clogging dishes of fatty meat and homemade pasta.

When I wasn’t with my hosts, I explored the magnificent countryside. I climbed hills and admired the astonishing vistas from their summits. One day I met a nomad, who let me ride his camel through the snow. Another day, I walked to a Buddhist temple and had a cuppa with the caretaker. On my last night, my hosts treated me to live music in the ger; the eldest son played the guitar and sang beautiful songs about horses, before graciously bidding me farewell.


Trans-Mongolian Express train outsideThe Trans-Mongolian Express runs all the way from Russia to China
Creative Commons / whatleydude

The Trans-Mongolian Express: Runs from Ulan-Ude, Russia to Beijing, China. The English-speaking reps at the international ticket kiosk in Ulan-Ude make booking tickets fairly simple. Alternatively, visit the Trans-Siberian Experience (, who will help you plan your trip. The sleeping options are limited to second class, which is no hardship because the four-birth compartments are very comfortable.

The experience: Living in a ger is a must in Mongolia, but if the real deal sounds a bit raw for you, there are some more civilized alternatives with western toilets and hot showers. These can be organised through the Trans-Siberian Experience.

When to visit: Spring (April-June) is the best time to visit Mongolia, avoiding the extremities of winter and summer. If you’re feeling brave, go in November, when the mercury plunges and the country is blanketed by snow.

To read about Gavin’s eventful trip onboard the Trans-Siberian Express click here.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.