We met another German backpacker on the bus who stayed in a different hostel, but since it was the same way we all got the bus together and helped her to find her accommodation before getting to ours.
Our hostel was basically a converted flat with one dorm and two double bedrooms, a very small kitchen and a bathroom. Our room was toasty and small but alright. We were both starving after a day on the bus and thus headed out to grab a bite. After a few days of rather simple food we were excited to find the street around the corner lined with Korean restaurants promising long-missed meals full of flavour.
We only had one full day in the caital before getting on a bus to Kharkhorin so there were busy times ahead. The most important point on our list was applying for our Chinese visas. The visa office in Ulanbataar is open for applications 9:30 – 12:30 Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It opens again in the afternoon for collection. While preparing our application we heard that it was always very busy and only a limited number of people were allowed in each day so we decided to get up at 6 am in order to be at the front of the queue. When we got there at 6:45 we joined the foreigners line behind a French couple and an Australian traveller. The Mongolian queue was slightly longer but still not busy. This was partially due to the fact is was out of season. At least we had some nice people to talk to while waiting. It turned out the Australian girl was a vet and had been riding around the north and west of Mongolia on her two horses for four weeks.
Requirements for a Chinese tourist visa a quite tight. Beside the four-page application form (plus a two page appendix if you apply in a different country) there is a list of other documents required. You need a booking confirmation for at least the first three nights, a travel itinerary, a passport photo, proof of health (travel) insurance as well as proof of in and outward flights. Particularly the last point gave us quite a hard time. Because the direct train to Beijing only goes three times a week and not on the days we needed it. In order to fit all our activities into the 30 day Mongolian visa we had decided to fly to the Chinese capital. That was the inward part sorted. Our plan was to leave the country by train to Hanoi in north Vietnam but it emerged that there are two trains involved. One in China gets you within about five kilometers of the border. The Vietnamese train picks you up on the other side. While we could book most Vietnamese trains online, tickets for the train leading to the border could only be purchased at a train station within the country. Therefore this did not work in terms of our visa. Most people solve this problem by going to a travel agency (air market) in Ulanbaatar and get them to reserve flights in and out of China and obtain a confirmation. Since we only arrived in the city the evening before, we did not have time for this. After spending hours at looking at different options online and reading smallprint about cancellation fees we booked some outward flights on Expedia.com who offer 24 hour free cancellation for flights.
Armed with all our paperwork we were anxiously waiting to get into the Chinese embassy. Both queues had grown quite a bit (especially the Mongolian line). When the doors finally opened a woman came out and asked all foreigners for a Mongolian residence card. Only three people had one and where given a ticket with a number. Then she announced that they were upgrading their software and due to this no foreigners without a residence card could apply for visa. This could last anywhere between one week and a month i.e. nobody knew how long.
We were shocked and gobsmacked. All the hours invested in getting the paperwork and planning our travelling in China had been wasted and we had been thrown all the way back to square one.
In order to console ourselves and since we still hadn’t eaten anything we decided to go to a Korean bakery a few blocks away for breakfast with our new friends. The bakery called Tous le Jours was amazing. They offer a huge range of sweet and savoury pastries, breads and other baked goods as well as great hot drinks at reasonable prices.
By the end of our breakfast we were all in good spirits again. We spent most of the rest of the day going to Ulanbataars black market to buy warm clothes for the upcoming nights in gers during our horse riding trip and for our volunteering. Stalls on this market sell literally everything apart from food (separate market outside) and cars. You can buy every type of clothing and homeware equipment you could ever want at very cheap prices. We bought camel wool socks for 3000 Tugruk (1€) and wool leggings for 12000 each. Matthias got a windproof jacket while Zoë settled for a super thick fleece and gloves and finally found a replacement for her broken pair of sunglasses.
We also decided not to try again with our Chinese visa (at least not in Mongolia) and not to extend our stay in Mongolia. Extending Zoë’s visa would have been easy but Matthias got his visa on arrival (only a stamp instead of a proper visa) and we could not work out if that was extendable or not.
Back in the hostel we looked up flight connections from Beijing (we still had a flight booked) as well as visa regulations in the surrounding countries. In the end we agreed to go to Japan next. Flights to Tokyo were cheap and we can both stay there without a visa for up to 90 days (woohoo no more visa worries for a while).
The next morning we got our local sim card before boarding the bus to Kharkhorin ready for the real Mongolia.