Mongolia is a huge land-locked country with a small population and very harsh weather conditions. Going there, you have to always be ready for surprises. I had many interesting experiences flying to and from Ulan Bator, and I knew that it is better to take Mongolian airlines flying from Beijing, as the Mongolian pilots are more experienced in landing at their home airport.
So I took Mongolian airlines for my flight to Mongolia. Boeing 737 was not new, but it was clean. We took off on time, and the flight attendants were not too strict – they allowed me to keep my handbag on an empty seat next to me during a takeoff:) We were served some soft drinks, beer and wine and a nice meat salad. The flight was supposed to last only two hours, so I took my audiobook, but after some time I removed my headphones because the reactions of other passengers told me that something was wrong.
The flight attendant announced that, because of strong winds, we would be circling above the Ulan Bator airport for half an hour until we got permission to land. During this time the flight was not turbulent at all, but after that came another announcement to inform us that we would be heading to … Irkutsk, Russia.
After 50 min we saw a frozen lake Baikal, and snow in Taiga, and then we landed in Irkutsk. We waited for around 50 min in the plane for Russian authorities to grant us permission to leave the plane. As we exited the plane, a Russian border officer took a photo of a cover (!) of our passports.
I have to admit that Irkutsk airport was one of the saddest airports I have ever seen… It met us with empty shelves and closed shops and bars. The local officers started counting and recounting us. For some reason they tried to distinguish how many Mongolians and non-Mongolians were on board, but they were constantly getting the number wrong. I am not sure if they managed to count us.
We were hungry and thirsty, and finally a cafeteria was opened and we could buy some food and water. The food did not look appetizing, my blinciki ( pancakes) where still quite cold after being microwaved, but at least we had something to eat … Thank God credit cards were accepted.
No announcements were made and we had no idea how long we would be staying in this sad airport. After a couple of hours, a bus arrived at the entrance of the airport transit hall. It was the only sign that we might be flying.
Without any announcement we boarded the bus, then the plane.
Back to Mongolian Airlines
After takeoff, flight attendants started distributing hot meals and drinks…Apparently wheather conditions finally allowed us to land in Ulan Bator airport, some six hours later than scheduled. But we were much luckier than Air China passengers – their plane returned back to Beijing and would only be flying to Ulan Bator the next day.
My tip: A wise choice for your flights to Mongolia remains Mongolian Airlines. Yes, I know that they do not belong to any alliance and you lose miles, but you save time.