The Grand Trans-Siberian Express Experience Part 6: Ulaanbaatar and Terelj National Park, Mongolia

This is the sixth and final entry of a in a six-part series of blog posts about my experience onboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express. To read the other parts, click here: 

Part 1: Moscow to Yekaterinburg

Part 2: Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk

Part 3: Irkutsk

Part 4: Lake Baikal

Part 5: Ulan-Ude and Tarbagatay

The video above is a 7-part anthology of short films that capture my experience onboard, a highlight reel of memorable experiences onboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express, taken during the summer of 2017.

The Grand Trans-Siberian Express is the premium version of the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway journey. The GTSE is an all-inclusive "cruise on rails" using a private charter train, with luxury accommodations and fine dining from start to finish onboard the train and at designated stops along the way. Our chosen route took us from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, over the course of 12 days, with guided day trips in between long hours in transit on the train. I had the good fortune of joining this trip thanks to Aeroflot Russian Airlines.

PART 6: Ulaanbaatar and Terelj National Park, Mongolia

Our first glimpses of Mongolia

ON THE MORNING OF DAY 11, we awake to see the sun rising over Mongolia, mist still clinging to the ground. We are awoken by our cabin attendant, who returns our stamped passports. I rise and don a jacket and step out to shoot before breakfast. It is a cold morning, and soon the pull of breakfast and hot coffee lures me away from the scenery.

It's our final breakfast on board, and I feel a tad wistful that in a few hours, we will say goodbye to Grand Trans-Siberian Express for good.

Last coffee on board

Beautiful morning light on our final hours on the train

At around half past nine in the morning, the train pulls in to Ulaanbaatar station. We and the Chinese group have our luggage unloaded, while the rest of the group will continue on to complete the route in Beijing. We say our goodbyes, giving our cabin attendants big hugs (and tips), and disembark one last time. But while the train ride has ended, an introduction to the culture and sights of Mongolia beckons.

Saying goodbye to our cabin attendant, who has taken good care of us the entire journey

We take our souvenir photos with the tour directors, hug Larisa goodbye and exchange contact info, and meet Uno, our youthful local guide in Mongolia.

The Filipino media group with Artem and Evgeny, tour directors of the Grand Trans-Siberian Express, after final disembarkation at Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar Station. The alphabet is the same, but the language is totally different

Uno takes us to our coach and we plunge into the unimaginable snarl of traffic that is Ulaanbaatar. I am accustomed to apocalyptic traffic jams in Manila, but somehow Ulaanbaatar feels worse - it is smaller and denser, and feels even more bereft of urban planning than Manila. Mongolia has a population of 3 million, and nearly half of them live in the capital. I do not dislike it, in truth - it feels, if anything, familiar, and the driver's soundtrack of Mongolian hiphop helps to pass the time.

Driving into Ulaanbaatar traffic

Our first stop is at the Ghandan Monastery, the principal Buddhist monastery of Mongolia. 

Entering Ghandan Monastery

We enter one of the buildings (no photos allowed), and I'm struck by how the scene in front of me, with rows of seated chanting monks and wall-to-wall Buddhist art and figures, is exactly like what I've seen in the movies and short films online. It's an atmosphere that transports me to another time, as mystical as one can feel in 2017. By now, this sense of time travel is a clear recurring theme of this trip.

We walk to the Temple of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara, a tall multi-tiered structure in the middle of the complex.

A stupa in the Ghandan Monastery

The Temple of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara

We step inside, and I am stunned to be gazing straight up at what feels like the largest statue I have ever seen. I'm dumbstruck by the scale of it, exaggerated further by being inside a confined space where the only way to see it is to look up. This is a statue of Avalokiteśvara, nearly 90 feet high, one of the tallest, if not the tallest, indoor statue in the world. Sadly, with no Mongolian currency as yet, I cannot pay the fee to take pictures inside.

From there we brave the traffic once again and go to Sukhabaatar (now called Chinggis) Square, the main square of the city, with its beautiful parliament building with its imposing statue of --- who else --- Genghis Khan.

 The Government Palace of Ulaanbaatar at Chinggis Square

The Government Palace of Ulaanbaatar at Chinggis Square

The Khan

The other side of Chinggis Square

From here the hotel is just across the street. We check in to the 5-star Best Western Premier Tuushin Hotel. I'm immediately impressed by the service and English-speaking aptitude of the ladies manning the front desk. We're checked in promptly and proceed to buffet lunch. As has happened before, it's a long meal break to allow the rest of the passengers to shower, as majority of the cabins on the train lacked shower facilities.

After lunch, we visit the Bogd Khan Museum, part of which houses the former Summer Palace. It has an exquisite collection of Buddhist Art and the priceless possessions of the Bogd Khan. The complex was built at the turn of the century and is one of the few Mongolian historical attractions which was not destroyed by the Soviets or the Communist Mongolians. Once again, however, photography is prohibited.

One of the few photos I snapped before being called out by security

Like in the Ghandan Monastery, I feel transported to the set of a movie or to the world of a fantasy book here, looking at the Bogd Khan's coats made from the furs of hundreds of animals, or his throne, which reminds me of that of the Dalai Lama in Seven Years in Tibet

Our next stop on the city tour is Zaisan Monument at the top of the city, a memorial to Mongolian-Russian cooperation during World War II. I welcome the climb up the stairs after sitting in Ulaanbaatar traffic.

A memorial at the foot of the stairs leading up to the Zaisan Monument.

The Zaisan Monument coming into view halfway up the stairs

The Zaisan Monument, depicting a Russian holder waving a flag

At the top is a circular mural depicting the story of Russian-Mongolian cooperation and a 360-degree view of the city.

Mural at Zaisan Monument

Looking out at Ulaanbaatar, I see a city that is being built out rapidly, with construction projects in abundance inside the city and on its outskirts. It occurs to me that now is the time to visit Mongolia, though it remains rough around the edges, because once all these large projects are done it may lose something of its character.

Looking back at Ulaanbaatar from Zaisan Monument

The density of Ulaanbaatar from above

View on the other side of Zaisan Monument

With a bit of free time, we stop by one of the large cashmere stores to shop, along with all the other tourists. Afterwards, we are told, we are attending a fashion show.

I admit to not having been excited by the prospect, but the show at the fashion house Torgo turns out to be interesting, if a little overlong at about an hour or so. The designs range from traditional to ultra-modern but all carry distinct Mongolian elements. I take lots of pictures and some video clips, in case I ever want to make like George Lucas and base my sci-fi/fantasy movie wardrobe design on Mongolian designs.

Dinner for tonight is Mongolian hotpot, with one "special" item on the menu: horse meat. Most of the other groups couldn't even muster a bite, but we wiped off nearly everything on the table. Filipinos, what can I say.

Mongolian hotpot dinner for five (?!)

Tonight's "specialty"

It is the morning of Day 12, the final day of the entire tour, and it potentially saves the best for last: we are finally going to see the Mongolian countryside, via the nearby Terelj National Park, about 40km away, just over an hour's ride from the city center.

Our first stop is to see an unusual stone pile on a hill along the ride. This, we are told, is an ovoo, which serve mainly as sites for the worship of Heaven and lesser gods, and Buddhist ceremonies as well. 

An ovoo in Terelj National Park

Behind the ovoo, there is a table selling some antique trinkets as well as a couple of gers - those signature white tents strewn across Mongolia, used by nomads and as low-cost dwellings in the city.

Merchants sell small trinkets in front of their gers

Found some fantastic beasts

But my attention is immediately drawn to a man by the road who has, on three poles, three impressive specimens of avifauna: an eagle and two enormous vultures. I'm usually leery of things that appear to be tourist traps like this, but the fee for a picture is minimal and the animals are too amazing to pass up. I pay about 150 Philippine pesos for a picture - totally worth it.

Smile! Photo: Berg Go

Gazing into the eyes of this animal, feeling its heft and power and on my arm, would prove to be one of the most memorable experiences I have on this trip, despite its brevity.

This vulture is bigger than some people I know... I was afraid it'd fly away with me in tow

We continued on to the town at the bottom of the hill to an old wooden bridge parallel to the highway bridge, its uneven planks undulating in waves.

Wavy planks on an old wooden bridge

A bizarre art installation on the bridge

A view of the river being spanned by the bridge

We drive on and make our way past striking rock formations on the road, before making an unusual stop: at a field full of yaks, with a sweeping backdrop of mountains.

Panorama of said yak spot

Signature Mongolian view

Berg and Uno having a discussion while Atom and I shoot some yaks

Scenery down the road nearing the camps

We go on into one of the nomad camps for the another moment we've looked forward to: visiting the home of a Mongolian nomad. 

The ger we are about to enter, and our host Nimjilma

Camp scenes against a dramatic backdrop

One of the few other places I've seen outside the US, the Philippines, and China where #BallIsLife

We are welcomed by Nimjilma, a lovely elderly lady, into her colorful home, a humble but welcoming neat one-room circle populated by brightly-painted furniture and personal effects. She serves us various dairy products and tells us about her life as Uno translates. She has actually moved to the countryside in retirement to get away from the noise and bustle of the city.

Entering the ger.

Our host Nimjilma serving us some snacks

A glimpse into Nimjilma's life, including a saddle on the left

After a brief visit, we must make our way to a tourist camp nearby for lunch, followed by the culminating event of the day: a "Mini Naadam" Festival. The Naadam is a traditional Mongolian festival and one of the biggest events in the Mongolian calendar. It involves three competitions: wrestling, archery, and horse-racing. However, as the real Naadam Festival is set to occur a month later, they stage this miniature version for us to have a taste of the drama of this signature piece of Mongolian culture.

Opening festivities with a traditional Mongolian throat singing performance

This proves to be as interesting and as rich a photographic opportunity as expected. Though staged specifically for tourists, I still appreciate and enjoy this first taste of sights and sounds that I've only seen online or on TV and movies.  Sadly, it's a little abbreviated, particularly the horse racing and archery, due to time constraints.

The wrestling tournament in progress

In between stages of the wrestling tournament we enjoy some cultural performances

A young acrobat showing off some mad skills

Though staged, the Mini Naadam is still a worthy combination of local color + visual spectacle

The winning fall

The champion of the wrestling tournament with his adoring female fans

High fives because it's been an awesome day. Or maybe I made a yak joke that I can't repeat here.

With the Mini Naadam over, one last thing remains on our itinerary: a visit to Turtle Rock.

Turtle Rock. I wonder why it's called that...

With time and the fitness of our group permitting, we decide to clamber up the steep path to the middle of the rock.

Hiking up Turtle Rock

Looking down at a tourist camp from Turtle Rock

Beginning the steep walk back down

With Turtle Rock behind us, it's time to return to Ulaanbaatar. We make one last stopover back at the ovoo to buy from the merchants. The gray sky has turned into a brilliant, cloudless blue, saturating the colors of the landscape.

A brilliant afternoon in Terelj National Park

We return to find Ulaanbaatar in the midst of rush hour gridlock. Around Chinggis Square, traffic has not moved for what feels like ten minutes (just like home). Finally, already late for dinner, we decide get off our bus and make the two-kilometer walk to the restaurant, where we arrive just five minutes before our bus does. (To our disappointment, dinner isn't Mongolian Barbecue, but Korean buffet.)

Typical rush hour traffic at Ulaanbaatar

Walking to our restaurant

With that, our Grand Trans-Siberian Express journey officially comes to an end. However, it's a pleasant afternoon, the temperature dropping rapidly with the setting sun, so I decide to return to Chinggis Square to shoot some time-lapse and just enjoy the city. I discover that, in the late afternoon, the square comes to life, full of locals and many children, who can rent small electric cars to roam around the wide open square.

One time-lapse session for the road at Chinggis Square

Ulaanbaatar's Government Palace lit in the evening

The next morning, we are up before sunrise to head to the airport. We say our final goodbyes to our guide Uno, and check in. The adventure is finally over.

Sunrise at Chinggis Khan International Airport

It is hard to sum up the experience of the Grand Trans-Siberian Express without resorting to meaningless clichés, or to sum it up at all, being a journey of such mind-boggling scale. Perhaps the best, most distinctive aspect of it is the time travel: both due to the distance traveled, and its commitment to bring back a sense of old-world grandeur. You can do the Trans-Siberian as a literal non-stop train ride just to get it off your bucket list, but if you have time and money to spare, it's a singular experience to do it in such style.

You don't have to spend $12,000 to do it: apart from the room, you have exactly the same experience at a third of the cost by booking a Standard cabin.

As for me, after seeing photos of a frozen Lake Baikal, I am making plans to return to Siberia in its most infamous, and beautiful season: winter.


Many thanks to Regina Laquindanum and Lizette Jocson of Aeroflot Russian Airlines for having me along for this trip. If you are from the Philippines and would like more information on booking this trip, you may contact Aeroflot Philippines at:

GSA: VITA Travel Services

Unit 809 8F Tower One, PSE Plaza Ayala Triangle, Ayala Ave. Makati City

T:+632 759 2191 / 759 2192 / 836 8975