Apparently the train ride from Russia into Mongolia is very beautiful. I am unable to confirm that as I spent 9 of the day light hours of the 30 hour journey at be border. What little I did manage to see was indeed beautiful as was the small part of the country that I was able to explore afterwards
Its a pretty crazy journey. I had elected to take the local train because although there is a faster train which gets in about the same time and takes 7 hours less it leaves at 4 in morning. Thinking I would rather be fast asleep on the train at that time I chose the slower option. Although Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar are only 521km apart the train takes a rather circuitous route around lake Baikal and through Undan Udee, travelling a total of 1113 km. Still 30 hours seems like a rather excessive time to travel 1000 km which works out at only 37 km/h – that’s not much faster than a bicycle. Although as I mentioned earlier much of the time was spent fannying around at the border. The actual border formalities were actually completed reasonably quickly and we seemed to spend much of the time sitting there not doing much. Although we set off with a number of carriages only the single coach that we were in actually crossed the border.
The coach was mainly filled with foreigners and I was sharing my compartment with some young Swedish guys which was actually quite nice as they were the first travellers I had spoken to since I said farewell to Michael in Estonia over 3 weeks previously. There were also some English people on the train, and it was a pleasant change not having to think about the linguistic and cultural minefield you have to negotiate when conversing with someone who isn’t a native speaker. The time passed pretty quickly I popped out at one of the stations and stocked up on beer and my compartment buddies taught me some Swedish card games and a Chinese one.
There’s always a point on a long train journey when you think it will never end but then suddenly you wake up and the two nights and a day have disappeared. We rolled into Ulaanbaatar just after 6am, bang on time. It seems like Russian trains, Mongolian trains are very punctual, but that seems to be a consequence of their slowness rather than any great efficiency. Still the trains always seem to get you in at a reasonably convenient time. They seem to be timed to arrive in major cities along the route at around 6 or 7 am so perhaps there is no point in speed if it means you’ll arrive at an inconvenient time. It was still a little early to be heading to my couchsurfing hosts so I hung around the station for a while then headed out into the frigid morning (it was around -6C) to try and find a mobile phone SIM card as my Russian one wasn’t working. But it appears that Mongolians seem to have a sensible attitude to mornings. Despite the waiting room being packed with waiting passengers none of the shops there was open wouldn’t be for another couple of hours according to the information desk. It turned out non in the surrounding area were open either. So I killed some more time and then caught a taxi. The cheeky bastard tried to drop me at the wrong place – but the GPS on my phone soon put him to rights – and then winged after I talked to long on his phone to alert my host to my arrival.
And what hosts they were. I know I’ve met some totally amazing people through couch surfing but these girls are up with the best. A couple of American Peace Corp volunteers, they had been in Mongolia for more than 2 years, and had array of knowledge of and contacts within the country. I stayed with them for a total of 6 nights on 3 different occasions and gained valuable insight and advice, had lots of laughs and great experiences. Cheers. You guys rock. The amazing hospitality started the moment I arrived. They were getting ready to head out to work but still gave me a warm welcome, gave me some suggestions of what to do. Gave me a set of keys and went to work.
Ulaanbaatar has a bit of a wild west feel to it. There’s a bit of a gold rush going on in Mongolia as foreigner companies and their workers pour into the country to take advantage of the abundant mineral resources. So the centre is filled with gleaming skyscrapers and equally gleaming cars, but as you move away from the centre the character begins to change. The roads are potholed and the pavements are cracked and away from the manicured areas in the centre often give way to dusty earth. On all sides the city is ringed with the dwellings of the many rural poor who have flooded into the city attracted by the bright lights and comparative wealth. Many still live in gers, the round felt tent things that have provided shelter for Mongolians on the steppes for hundreds of years. While they provide a cheap housing option they are heated with fires, usually by burning coal, which when combined with fumes from the horrendous traffic and the coal fired power stations situated within the city mean that the pollution is horrendous. The city is surrounded on all sides by mountains. In winter when the fires burn fiercest to combat bone chilling temperatures as low as -40 and the freezing still air collects in the hollow the city is blanketed in smog for weeks on end.
But when I was there, the sun was shinning and the air relatively clear. After over a week of pretty hectic travelling with only a minor interlude in Tomsk it was nice to be able to chill out and explore UB as it is ubiquitously known – well among expats and travellers and English speaking Mongolians anyway. I probably spent a bit long fannying around really and perhaps could have seen more of the countryside but what the heck I needed the relaxation time and anyway it was getting cold so the countryside was not so conducive to chilling out. Anyway I got to experience and learn about some of the history of Mongolia. My first port of call was to Zaigan a monument to the heroic soviet red army situated on a hill on the outskirts of town. On the steep steps up to the summit I encountered members of the Mongolian Rugby team training by carrying each other to the top. They looked pretty hard so I smiled politely and nodded. I would have said hello if I could have, but Mongolian is one of the craziest languages I’ve ever heard. It sounds like someone with a lisp who is trying to hack up an enormous lump of phlegm whilst speaking a combination of Chinese and Russian. I found even the simplest of phrases impossible to get my head around. I always try to learn at least how to say hello, thank you and please in the local language for every country I go to, but I have to say Mongolian defeated me. The sculpture at the top was pretty impressive a large obelisk surrounded by a huge ring decorated with carvings celebrating the achievements of the red army. There was also a fantastic view over the city from the brand new towers in the centre, to the posh serviced apartments being constructed below and then across the narrow sprawling city to the ger districts.
After descending I called into the winter palace a rather decaying residence for some king or other, and I’m not sure why it was the winter palace because it was bloody freezing. Still you could appreciate its former glory and there were some pretty nice artefacts and paintings. A few days later I visited the Mongolian History museum, and it seems like not much has happened in Mongolia since the 14th century when Chingis Khan set out an conquered much of Asia. His descendants carried on his conquests and at its height the Mongol empire stretched from Korea to what is now Bulgaria. The largest contiguous empire the world has ever known. A pretty impressive feat for a bunch of nomadic herders. Recent DNA research proposes that 8 % of males in a large part of Asia and some European regions are direct descendants of Chingis Khan!!! So it seems like he got about a bit in both senses of the phrase. It seems that the Mongolians ruled pretty fairly and relatively compassionately at least over those who did what they were told and didn’t resist being subjugated. With some pretty sensible laws. For example take the following “Whoever takes goods on credit and becomes bankrupt, then takes goods and becomes bankrupt, then takes goods and yet again becomes bankrupt, is to be put to death after the third time”. Which to my mind would be quite a useful rule today. It certainly might serve to focus the minds of the bankers who’s greed and stupidity has served to fuck up the world economy so successfully. The earlier inhabitants also had a significant impact on their neighbours with first the Turks and the Uyghurs creating their own kingdoms and then empires as they spread outwards. But it seems the glory days of the last Mongol empire have faded away long ago and there was barely a mention of the few hundred years up to the turn of the 20th century. I guess being occupied by the Chinese is nothing to crow about. But the second communist revolution ever certainly is. So the next big mention was the events of 1920 which saw the Mongolian Communist party with the help of the Russian Red Army see off the Chinese and introduce the Mongolian People’s republic. And for nearly a century Mongolia shared a very close relationship with their northern neighbour. Mongolian is written in Cyrillic – indeed the communist party had an impressive record on literacy, turning a largely illiterate society into a 95% literate one within a generation. Floods of Russian investment and knowhow poured into the country building factories, mines and power stations. To this day a significant Russian community exists within Mongolia. Other customs and habits followed, including a preladiction for vodka which still dominates many social events and activities. Alcohol is a significant problem within Mongolian society and my couch surfing hosts described the debauchery during the holiday season with inebriated bodies littering the streets and fights breaking out on the smallest pretext.
Just down the road I called in a the museum of art which clearly doesn’t see many visitors. I was followed round the exhibits by staff member who switched on and off the lights as I went passed. It was a shame that there was so few visitors because the collection was reasonably impressive and well displayed, but I guess people don’t come to Mongolia for the art. They come for the impressive scenery which can be found pretty much everywhere but Ulaanbaatar . It was time to get out there and see it for myself.
First stop was Gorkhi Terelj national park, which due to its proximity to UB is used as a getaway by city residents seeking some respite from the pollution and chaos. My friend wanted me to experience life in a ger but we certainly weren’t going to be roughing it. It was on the cusp of winter so many resorts had closed for the reason and the only one that answered my call was one of the most expensive. Oh what the heck, may as well do it in style. It was dark when we arrived so we missed all the scenery on the way in. But sometimes its nice to be surprised when you wake in the morning. We were welcomed by a roaring fire that had been burning in the stove for some time. So it was actually sweltering inside even though frost was already forming outside and I stripped down to my t-shirt. I was actually surprised by how spacious it was inside. It could have comfortably slept four. We were told to leave the door unlocked for the dude to come in an stoke our fire throughout the night. How good is that, but what a shit job he has spending the whole night building fires for lazy pricks who can’t even be bothered to move a few metres to put a log or two on the fire. It was also pretty hard to regulate the temperature in bed. As the fire died down the freezing air seeped in from outside causing you to snuggle deep into the thick duvet. Then the fire starter dude would come in and work his magic and you’d wake up covered in sweat and throw off the covers only to come to a few hours later shivering to repeat the all process all over again. God only knows what it must be like in the depths of winter when there’s no magic fireman and it’s -40C outside.
Next morning after a leisurely start to the day, with breakfast in bed courtesy of my very kind companion I summoned up the energy to poke my head out of the door. It’s a beautiful day with bright sunshine casting a delightful light over the scene. And it’s gorgeous. We are in a lovely valley, grassy for the most part except for the rocky peaks and larch trees on the steeper sections. Already the grass has faded to a drab brown first by the harsh sun of summer and then by the coming cold of winter. Right then it had a harsh beauty to it, but it must be magical when the new life of spring adds a vibrancy to it. We spent a lovely day wandering through the valley, seeking shapes among the weird and wonderful rock formations, exploring the empty resorts and taking lots of photo’s. We scaled one of the smaller peaks and admired the view across into a neighbouring valley.
The place we were staying at was pretty posh, at least by Mongolian standards. According to my friend some of the other guests worked for Mongolian TV and the car park was full of Mercedes SUVs. We were basically paying western prices for everything. I bought some crispy fried meaty pancakes for $20 which would cost less than $1 in a standard Mongolian restaurant. When you are back home and you pay a premium for something you expect to get something a bit extra even if that is only wanky pretentious shit. Like exquisite service, or a crisp napkin or truffle oil. Here there didn’t seem to be the case, you didn’t get anything extra it was just fucking expensive just because, well just because it was expensive. The surroundings were pretty ordinary. In the restaurant just a tiled floor and some wooden picnic style benches and the service was average at best. Yet they were charging $100 for a bottle of vodka. It seemed to me the ultimate illustration that fancy shit is exactly that, fancy and shit. Someone is playing on peoples snobbery and their desire to appear superior and laughing all the way to the bank. The ultimate in the emperors new clothes. There’s nothing really there. That’s why all this boutique shit pisses me off. A boutique is a small French clothing shop. A small hotel that charges shit loads because its got a bit of fancy decor and some soft sheets is not a fucking small French clothing shop it’s just a con. Then there’s boutique offices. There not boutique either they’re just small offices with a few fancy plants thrown in and maybe a sculpture of a sheep’s head – I kid you not actually seen. And don’t get me started on boutique breweries. It’s only fucking beer. Wankers.
That night it snowed and we awoke to an even more beautiful vista. I poked my head out of the ger to see the whole valley covered in a dusting of white. Misty clouds were pouring down into the valley from the mountains above, like dry ice swirly around the flares of a 70s glam rock band. Unlike the aforementioned band it was magical. After breakfast we scaled the nearest high point scrunching through the thin powder of snow to an even more beautiful view.
So my introduction to Mongolian living was nice but very sanitised. However my next stay in a ger was the real deal. Out in the middle of nowhere, with a herder family with horses and yaks and shit. My great hosts in UB had a peace corp. mate out in Tsetserleg about 7 hours west of the capital. I hopped on the only bus of the day at 8 am and was soon trundling through the gorgeous if rather bleak countryside with a bus full of assorted passengers. Young women, beautifully attired with perfect make up, gnarled old men with skin burnished a deep mahogany and ingrained with deep lines from a lifetime in the stark Mongolian sun. Round faced women cooing over bouncing babies. It was interesting to note that all the women had pictures of their children or grandchildren as wallpaper on their phones while the men had pictures of horses. We paused for lunch at a tiny dusty hamlet which was just a string of half a dozen restaurants arranged along one side of the road. The toilet seemed to be the verge on the other side of the highway. Surprisingly there was another foreigner in town who of course was from Sydney and was coincidently booked on the same train as me to Beijing – in fact the next compartment, and I even bumped into him in a park in Beijing a few days after we arrived. Small world an all that. Except having traversed half of it I can attest to the fact that it’s not actually that small at all.
The Lonely Planet describes Tsetserleg as the most attractive Aimeg (provincial capital) in Mongolia. I reflected on this as I stood waiting for Tim the Peace Corp dude on the rutted patch of dust where the buses stop. Clearly the other places must be extremely ugly because the town was just a collection of small and rather ramshackle buildings and a few more ugly apartment buildings from when the Russians were in town. The location was however rather more pleasing on the eye with rocky mountains surrounding the settlements on all sides. Tim arrived shortly and showed me to only hostel in town. At his suggestion the guest house managed to hook me up with a local family to stay for the night. They had recently moved to the winter grazing grounds which were a fair distance from town so it took a fair while for him to arrive. About an hour later a tall thin dude with a broad grin rocked up on a motorbike. He was dressed in traditional attire of a long blue jacket, fastened with a belt around the waist. He looked doubtfully at my thin travelling trousers and walking shoes and explained through the receptionist I should put some warm clothes on because it was going to be a cold ride. I put on all the layers I had, including two jackets and my newly purchased long johns. He was eager to head off so I jumped on the back, he gunned the engine and we sped off into the fading light of the evening.
What a ride it was. It was breathtaking. The scenery of course, but mainly the speed at which we were flying down the dirt road. Dusk was falling and he wanted to cover as much of the 30km plus journey in daylight as he could so he wasn’t hanging about. The track consisted mainly of loose gravel and larger stones, and we weren’t wearing helmets, so any slight misjudgement would have been very serious indeed and I’m pretty sure my insurance policy didn’t cover me for helmetless off road motor biking in Mongolia. It really was a white knuckle ride because I had to cling on pretty hard to stay on the bouncing bucking bike. The first part of the ride I spent staring at the road ahead, pointlessly watching out for any upcoming hazards because there was nothing I could do to avoid them. Eventually I was able to relax enough to take heed of the scenery we were passing through and it was stunning. The sun was setting off to one side so the sky was lit up all orange and pink, highlighting even further the desolate beauty of the landscape of hills. The slopes were carpeted with grass and the summits and steeper sections dotted with conifers. Occasionally we would pass through a herd of sheep and cattle gathered around a half a dozen gers, but for the most part the landscape was devoid of life. The road was like a deep scar through the hills. As it got more rutted and difficult to pass drivers would seek out a more comfortable route causing the scar to widen.
The light was falling fast and within half an hour of riding had faded altogether. Although he was now driving through complete darkness illuminated by the rather dim lights from his Chinese made motorbike my driver barely moderated his speed. I guess he was on familiar territory as we neared his home so he knew the road ahead. But it was still rather unnerving to be zooming into the unknown at a fair rate of knots. At last as the cold was beginning to bite deeply into my bones the sweet smell of wood wafted into my nostrils. Instead of speeding past the small collection of gers as we had on numerous previous occasions – much to my disappointment – we turned in and came to a halt at the home at the end. I eased my aching butt off the seat and was invited into the welcoming warmth of their ger.
The stove was burning fiercely so I began shedding my layers as soon as I arrived. And I was welcomed with warm smiles firstly by his wife and then by their young daughter who had the rosiest cheeks I’ve ever seen. I have to say she took a bit of a shine to me – well at least one Mongolian girl did even if she was only 3!!! A steaming mug of milk tea was thrust into my hand and then the wife grabbed a bowl, and began filling it with handfuls of cream which had been sitting festering away in bowls on a cabinet. There was a thick skin of congealed yellowness on the top and even the stuff at the bottom was thick and gloopy. The husband grabbed a loaf of bread and began cutting huge door stop sized slices. He grabbed one, took a huge spoonful of cream and slathered on a layer of cholesterol filled ooze that was so thick it might have proven daunting even for my brother in law – a noted lover of clotted cream. He was soon tucking into it with relish and motioned for me to do the same. I took a rather smaller spoon full and gingerly spread a thin layer and took a bite. It was actually surprisingly tasty, but unbelievably rich. I was starving though so helped myself to a second artery clogging piece.
If you’d been lactose intolerant you would have pretty shafted there because milk featured in all the meals I ate. That evening the wife prepared noodles. Kneading the dough, then rolling it out and cutting it into strips it was cooked with meat and the left over milk tea and was surprisingly delicious. Breakfast was sour cream again. I excitedly tucked into the rice I was served for lunch, thinking it would be a break from the dairy products. Alas no, it had been cooked in milk too, so that it tasted rather like rice pudding – with lamb. Even the booze was milky – fermented horse milk!!! The only food that I was offered that didn’t contain milk was the bowl of offal that was kept under the bed. It was passed around and the recipient poked around for a bit, picked up a choice morsel, a heart or spleen or whatever, hacked off some slices and passed it round. I politely declined when it was my turn given it was impossible to determine exactly how long it had been sitting under the bed.
Nobody in the family spoke a word of English, and I’ve already described my failed attempts at trying to get my tongue around Mongolian, so communication was interesting. We managed to convey our names and ages, but anything deeper was impossible. But there was a lot of smiles and laughter, lots of smiles in fact. The whole family always seemed to have broad grins on their faces. And I had some fun and games with their daughter, pretty much everything I did was accompanied by lots of giggles. It was a pretty comfortable set up. It was reasonably spacious and everything was arranged around the stove which took up the centre of the room with a metal chimney exiting through the centre of the roof. There was a fair bit of furniture, a couple of beds a kitchen cabinet with pots and pans and a row of jars with cream festering away in them. They even had a sink with a mirror which drained into a bucket in the cupboard below. In one corner was a brightly painted chest with a row of candles used for worshiping the ancestors. Next to the candles was a flat screen TV, perhaps the 21st century form of worship. Much of the woodwork was brightly painted in greens, blues and yellows which lent a cheery aspect to the surroundings and it was illuminated by battery powered lights which were charged by a solar panel outside. I guess their lifestyle had a pretty low environmental impact. They had few possessions, and there was just a couple of small bags of extra clothes under one of the beds. All their daughters toys seemed very well loved. Apart from some flour, vegetables and petrol they provided everything else for themselves. Although looking around the landscape it did seem to be suffering the ravages of overgrazing, so perhaps it wasn’t really an environmental idyll after all.
Later when it was time for sleep, I formed a bed in the corner from some carpet. I was grateful of the sleeping bag my host in UB had lent me because as soon as the fire burnt down the temperature inside began to drop. Wrapped up in my snug parcel with a couple of extra blankets for good measure I spent a very comfortable night.
I was expecting being woken at the crack of dawn as the family rose to milk their animals, but actually they got up around when I would get up normally anyway. Then when the task was over they returned back to the warm tent to chill out and have breakfast. Indeed it seemed like a remarkably laid back way of life. Nothing was too hurried. A task was completed and then they would return to the ger for some tea and a gossip, and maybe a snack. Perhaps a neighbour would pop by for a chat and a bit of offal. It seemed totally like my style of life, although perhaps I wouldn’t be thinking that when its -40 outside and there’s a dozen yak and horses to be milked.
After breakfast they put me to work. Firstly shovelling frozen shit from around the camp and animal pens. It was pretty easy going apart from the odd stubborn turd that had frozen to the ground which had to be prised off the repeated stabs of the shovel. We soon had the yard looking spotless and a big pile of shit in the back of his pickup. Then after a break for more tea and chats we went off to get some logs for the fire. We had to drive a fair old distance because it appeared that most of the suitable trees near the camp had already been plundered. He spent some time selecting a suitable place, driving off the track up the valley side until we reached a stand of trees at the top. It was high and north facing so the ground was covered in snow from an earlier fall that had melted elsewhere. We got out of the truck and he started tapping all the dead trees with the back of an axe to determine which ones were still sound in the centre. I think the dead ones were chosen because they were nice and dry for burning rather than any environmental concern to preserve those still living, but I could be wrong. Then the felling began, first one then another, and another went crashing to the snow covered ground. And they weren’t exactly small either . As the volume of felled would built up I was becoming concerned about the amount of energy I would be expending over the next short while, especially as the only activity even approaching hard labour I’d completed in the past 14 months was helping my parents in their garden. Given they’re both the other side of 75 such activities usually involve as much tea drinking as they do actually work so I was beginning to get a little worried. At last we finished felling and he deftly began sawing them up into sections. Sections which were just about able to be lifted by two people well by a flabby mollycoddled westerner who’d drunk too much beer and his accomplice. Not only was I required to lift large lumps of wood but I was also required to push the truck when it got bogged down in the snow. Even with snow chains fitted it was still sliding crazily around as the driver tried to squeeze it backwards through a narrow gap between the trees. One of the wing mirrors took a battering as did the side of the vehicle, but we made it in the end. By the time the flatbed was filled to the top with great bits of tree I was absolutely shattered and the muscles in my arms were screaming silently in protest. My smiling friend seemed to be smiling even more broadly than usual, as if to say ha well that’s another soft foreigner broken then. It seemed like a pretty good deal for him as well. Getting a days labour out of me and getting paid for my stay as well.
There was just in time for one last milky meal and then it was to head back to civilisation. Except it wasn’t even particularly civilised. Unfortunately the hostel was fully booked that night so I was stuck with the hotel next door. My guide book was certainly right when it said it had seen better days and that was written more than 5 years ago. Clearly things hadn’t got any better. The bed was hard and the walls stained. The drains stank, so the stench of shit wafted into the room whenever you opened the toilet door. Its the one and only time I’ve ever taken a dump and actually improved the aroma. One of the doors was missing from the shower cubicle so lukewarm water sprayed all over the floor and the toilet when ever you took a frigid shower. I consoled myself with the thought that I had arranged to meet up with Tim that night so at least I would enjoy a decent conversation after spending the last 24 hours using strange noises and sign language to communicate. But I missed his phone call and then due to the vagaries of the Mongolian phone network was unable to connect with him again that evening. So I sat in the pub on my own drinking beer. I couldn’t even bring myself to try and negotiate the Mongolian menu because the waitress didn’t speak English and I didn’t have a phrase book. Google doesn’t even bother with Mongolian so I couldn’t use that either. I contemplated ordering something at random but decided it was safer just to stick with beer. And so passed my second last night in Mongolia.
Luckily my final night in Mongolia was much more pleasant . I took my hosts out for lovely Mongolian meal and a couple of beers to wash it down. Then it was back to their place and a sleep before I was up at the crack of dawn to catch my train to Beijing. My carriage again was largely composed of western travellers and it was fun to share some of their stories. There was a couple heading to Singapore to start a new life, another couple heading to Australia and Aussie kid I’d bumped into in that tiny villages. I have to say compared to the rest of the country it wasn’t a particularly scenic ride. My hosts told me that over half the population lives in UB of the rest half live along the train line to China. So the journey seemed to consist of a series of dusty little settlement, and the odd coal mine surrounded by a sea of rather flat featureless semi desert. It wasn’t exactly ugly but I was glad I’d taken the time to explore some of the rest of the country.