Well, off we went, feeling like it was way too early to be leaving, especially considering the temperature was still hovering in the high 20’s. But Mongolia, much like the Prairies, is not a place a tourist necessarily wants to have anything to do with once the snow starts flying. A bit of déjà vu, with our first 2 legs being exactly the same as those we took to Bali in January. First to Vancouver, same Asian-dominant terminal, same Mama Burger meal from A&W that will presumably be my last for several months (cue bleeding hearts). One small difference was the apparently harried mother who, when the flight attendant politely insisted she either shut down her laptop or detach the tablet portion, growled for him to “shove it up his ass”. Out of discretion I didn’t turn all the way around but, from what I could tell, he did no such thing.
Author’s note: Thanks to the erratic and frustrating nature of Mongolian wifi at the moment, there will be limited photos included with this entry as of yet.
Then it was off to Seoul again, but a right turn this time to Ulaanbaatar, where a mere 25 hours after leaving home we found ourselves navigating the scrum of welcoming family and friends and taxi drivers searching for a sign bearing our name, which we quickly spotted held by a man towering above the crowd. Having half-expected a squat, gruff Mongolian driving a badly outdated but ruggedly utilitarian Russian vehicle, we were naturally quite surprised to meet the tall young Frenchman named Mathieu who greeted us warmly before ushering us to his waiting Prius hybrid. Along the drive from the airport we learned more about his situation (married the daughter of our family hotel after meeting her in France a few years back), and Ulaanbaatar – horribly polluted in the winter months due to the continued prevalence of coal stoves but that it’s fine this time of year, the proliferation of Korean restaurants, along with a somewhat surprising number of Mexican as well, and how Mongolians on the whole love to sing, leading to huge numbers of karaoke bars (usually featuring private booths such as you might expect in Japan or Korea) and family get-togethers often ending in large, involved sing-a-longs where each member of the group is singled out individually. Unpleasant news, but a useful warning, as I can now make sure I am well-prepared with a number of highly profound Nickelback verses which I can choose from having gauged the most appropriate topic for the occasion. I’m really hoping I can track down something that refers to getting wasted with friends or banging girl that’s really bad news.
Ulaanbaatar, or UB, as it is more commonly known for obvious reasons, has basically lived up to expectations so far, those expectations being rather low. Even though we have never been to Russia, and therefore have no logical reason to use it as a comparison, so far UB feels a lot like we picture a Russian city to be, just slightly softer – meaning the people are a bit more likely to smile, the buildings slightly less utilitarian, and the soup not quite as dominated by cabbage. Don’t get me wrong, though, the architecture still leaves much to be desired, unless of course you are quite particular to very, very square apartment block-style buildings awash with deteriorating concrete and practically impenetrable metal doors.
The focal point of the city, for tourists at least, is Chinggis Khan square, which, in case you’re wondering, is named in honour of the strangely admired genocidal tyrant we normally refer to as Genghis, apparently inaccurately. In fitting with the rest of the city, the square (also named Sukhbaatar Square, for reasons that continue to elude me) is gigantic, wide open and 98% concrete, with just a couple tiny patches of limp struggling grass here and there. Oh, and of course a 2-humped Mongolian camel built entirely out of grass, somehow, and for some reason. The square is the main gathering point for all potential rallies, protests and celebrations. While we were passing through, for example, we witnessed a large group of flag-wavers carefully watched by police as they cheered on a big screen which seemed to be showing some woman blowing out candles on a cake. Once she was done they all looked rather spent, and the crowd quickly dissipated.
We had read horror stories about the traffic here but for the first while couldn’t quite understand that reputation, as it was far from anything we may have seen in, say, India or Egypt, or even Indonesia, mainly since cars more or less paid attention to traffic lights, seemed relatively content to remain at least in the vicinity of their lane, and occasionally gave way to pedestrians, if reluctantly. We did notice the strange anomaly that even though cars drive on the right-hand side of the road, like in North America, at least half of all vehicles have the steering wheel on the right-hand side, I suppose because so many of their cars come from Japan and Hong Kong. Not ideal from a safety perspective, though. Anyway, by the end of day two, after a good many hours spent wandering the hectic streets, more subtle traits have started to become apparent. Such as the deep-seated anger hidden beneath the honking, as opposed to the friendlier, notification-type honking you often see elsewhere. That even as they slow for pedestrians at times, they remain constantly intent on intimidating anyone more vulnerable than themselves on the road. Show even the slightest hesitation, even while crossing on a walk light, and be prepared to feel the adrenalin-inducing brush of bumper on leg, or worse if you’re not quick enough. Even on designated pedestrian crossings nearly every Mongolian sprint-steps the last few metres, down to the oldest, cutest and in most ways least murder-able people. Spend even a few minutes watching closely and it becomes abundantly clear that despite, or maybe because of, a lifetime living here, not a single soul is every fully convinced they aren’t seconds away from being mercilessly mowed down.
Other than that, we more or less like it here, and have been happily shocked at the vast number and variety of restaurants here. Korean is the international cuisine of choice, but within blocks of our hotel you can find everything from Sri Lankan to Mexican to British to German. In certain instances, even a half-Mexican, half-Indian, or one with a British name, Irish theme, German food and a menu entirely in Mongolian (although with handy pictures). Laynni had also read that UB has a bit of a pickpocket problem, something I kind of shrugged off when she mentioned it (what city with a million people doesn’t have a pickpocket problem?), but actually got to glimpse firsthand this afternoon while returning from lunch and a small supply run from the highly popular “State Department Store” where we had been picking up a few anticipated necessities for our upcoming trek along the Kazakhstan border. While waiting an unreasonable amount of time for a walk light to change, suddenly I felt something brush or tug at my back, turned around to see a short man about my age, in a nice button-up shirt, looking around aimlessly as though he couldn’t possibly be less interested in me or my apparently extremely dull backpack. I immediately glanced at his hands, which were empty, and just kind of stared at him, not sure if I was being overly suspicious or what, and then he slowly ambled off, practically whistling like the guiltiest of characters in an old black and white movie. I quickly relayed this information to Laynni, who determined that the backpack was, in fact, now wide open but that, upon further inspection, nothing was missing. The lessons to be learned from this: don’t be so quick to discount sensible warnings, and always keep a brand new roll of toilet paper at the top of your bag to dissuade potential thieves.
Off bright and early tomorrow morning to fly to the western city of Olgii, where we will set out into the Altai Mountains for a week of trekking, horse-riding and, if all goes well, watching eagles attack things on command.