Mongolia 2
July 2002

This one’s long – sorry! The day school finished Robyn and I hopped an overnight train from Guangzhou to Beijing, where we organized a Mongolian visa, spent a day hiking a remote and completely untouristed part of the Great Wall and visited Mao’s stiff in his mausoleum (conclusion: probably wax). One of our last days in China saw a first - in Tiananmen Square we passed a hobbling ancient woman who was being assisted in the painful task of walking by a man on either side of her – her feet were bound!
We took a series of trains from Beijing to Ulaan Batoor (aka UB, capital of Mongolia), the last of which was an overnight ride on the Trans-Siberian from the Mongolian Border to UB. UB is very similar to all other mid sized ex-Soviet cities – same big square buildings, center plazas, etc… Our first day in town we visited the huge, empty and cavernous Russian embassy where hidden cameras guided us through the deserted compound by buzzing random doors until we finally found a lone pasty white Russian who was trained to say things like “nyet”, “tomorrow” and “go away”. We opted to abandon our original plan of visiting Russia by train and spend more time in both Mongolia and Europe – flying between the two.

When we first arrived we stayed in the most popular backpackers “guesthouse” (first listing in Lonely Planet) for $4 per person per night. It’s the kind of guesthouse where you are actually staying in people’s apartments and sometimes the owners are living there too and sometimes not! We now call this ‘Guesthouse de Freakers’. (I’m trying to get a head start on learning French, but I don’t actually know any French words, so instead I’ve been trying to throw in a lot of ‘la’s and de’s’ wherever it looks like it might fit.) Everyone in our apartment either had insane things happen to them or were just plain strange themselves, here’s the complete list of people who were in our guesthouse:

1) Apartment Owner – Day 1, 10:00pm -- Our 1st night we elected to get a double room (instead of a dorm room), so we could have some privacy. We came back to our room from some local beer halls at around 10pm to discover the apartment owner in our room watching TV. We expected her to leave, but instead she sat enthralled with Mongolian soap operas for another hour while we tried to sleep. The next night we moved to the dormitory since extra cash didn’t really buy extra privacy!

2) Singapore Man 1 -- Day 2 -- This guy has been in UB for weeks and show’s no signs of leaving. Never ventures more than 50 yards from the apartment. Complains that UB is ‘boring’. Bought a small dog that runs all over the apartment and plans to smuggle it into China and then to Singapore.

3) Unknown 1 and 2 (couple) – Two large individuals arrive shortly after us on a huge motorcycle and smell incredibly bad. We don’t know where they are from because they never say a word, even when you say ‘hello’. Unknown 1 snores like a chain saw and keeps us up all night. They disappear before we wake up the next morning.

4) British Man 1 –Day 3, 03:00am – British Man 1 is pounding on the front door! BM 1 speaks so slowly that you often find yourself suggesting possible words to complete his sentences. (I got my…visa…in … [“London?”] no… [“Beijing?”] no… [“here?”] …yes! Since I wasn’t asleep anyway due to unknown 1’s snoring I open the door and he’s got a seat belt in one hand and a ball of his own hair in the other hand! He speaks very quickly, “I’ve been robbed!” He’d been visiting his Russian female “friend” in the Ger suburbs. While standing on the street corner at 2am waiting for a cab to come home a car stopped and 5 guys pulled him into the car by his long hair. They strapped his feet together, robbed him (he thought they were going to rape him) and dumped him on the ground in another part of the city. We wonder about his “friend's” involvement in the incident???

5) Spanish Man 1 – Day 3, 05:00am – I’ve given up trying to sleep. I’m reading in the kitchen when I hear someone else fumbling with the lock. I open it up for surprised Spanish Man 1 and go back to the kitchen. I look up a few minutes later to see a very slutty looking Mongolian woman (probably a prostitute) following Spanish Man 1 into the communal bathroom, where they stay for half and hour.

6) “Spanish” Man 2 -- Day 3 -- Claims he is from Spain but has the thickest Russian accent I have ever heard. Tells a story about being ripped off by a corrupt Moscow cop while in transit to Georgia with US$9000. (What we want to know is why was he carrying $9000 in cash from Russia to Georgia anyway!?).

7) Canadian Woman 1- Day 3 – 12:00pm – Relieved to be rid of unknown 1 and 2 the chainsaw snorers we have a new addition to our dorm, a large “bag” lady. Within minutes of arrival she splays herself on her bed and sleeps fully clothed with plastic bags all over her body, bed and floor that are filled with all kind of crap. She snores like a chainsaw!

So, we escaped UB as fast as possible by hiring an old Russian la Van complete with a driver, la cook, and de translator. We shared the van with a French couple and Japanese man, all of whom were excellent people. We did a 12 day loop through Northern and Central Mongolia, mostly staying in rural gers (big round white tents) but also staying in hotels and camping a couple nights.

Mongolia is probably the most preserved place we’ve been. The people outside UB live almost identically to the way they did hundreds of years ago. Almost everyone still lives in gers without running water or electricity and they depend almost completely on their livestock for all of their needs. Travel between the provincial de capitals is mostly in packed Russian la Vans, but local travel to closer places is usually done on motorcycles or by horse (usually horse!). Many people still use carts with wooden wheels. Mongolia is the only place we’ve been where it’s almost impossible to get Coca Cola (outside of the capital)

Mongolia is stunningly beautiful. The landscape is endless and almost completely uninterrupted. Periodically transversed with large beautiful herds of horses, yaks, cows, sheep, and camels (both domestic and wild); the only evidence of human habitation is the occasional gers and herders. The population density is incredibly low. There is an amazing amount of SPACE. The day sky is deep blue and the night sky is devoid of light pollution – the view of the Milky Way is great! The people are also beautiful. Super friendly, always generous and honest and often have huge smiles. Our driver (who reminded us of our driver the year before in Tibet, so we decided he was a reincarnation of ‘Gunslinger’) and cook, in particular, had infectious and continuous smiles that rarely failed to put us in a good mood.

There is nary a paved road or sign in the country. It was nothing short of a miracle that our driver could regularly choose the correct dirt track out of ten identical looking ones between every two hills. Gunslinger is an amazing driver. He never failed to fix our van, which broke down at least twice a day (often with scotch tape!). He drove hard and fast when the ‘road’ was very bad or non-existent; when it smoothed out he slowed down, rolled down the window and smoked cigarettes. The first couple days I was continually sure we were going to tip over, but later got used to driving at a 30 degree tilt over rough ground.

We typically drove all day between destinations and spent a day or more when we arrived. We visited a couple of excellent monasteries (Mongolia follows Tibetan Buddhism.) and climbed a volcano. We stayed at two incredible lakes- one of them being Khovsgol Nuur. Khovsgol Nuur is a huge lake that contains 2% of the world’s fresh water. It is 30 miles from the border with Siberia and is surrounded by thick Siberian forested mountains dotted with lush meadows of flowers that we rode through on horseback and hiked through on foot. La lake is crystal clear and is so far from Ulaan Baatar (25 hour bus ride) that there are very few people there (great for skinny dipping!).

After 12 days we parted with our travel partners (who were continuing to the Gobi) and took a local bus back to Ulaan Baatar. The ‘8 hour’ bus ride took twice as long as intended and got us in at 3am, when the only hotel open was the top hotel in the city. (Note: At a $100 a night we were highly annoyed to discover that the hot water was broken and the breakfast was terrible!). The bus ride, however, was one of the highlights of our trip. We shared our Russian mini-van with 12 Mongolians. After picking everyone up at the central market, we then dropped everyone off at their homes so they could pack! Two hours after getting into the van we had finally finished dropping off and picking everyone up again and we got on our way. As the night settled over the steppes and the stars came out in force, someone broke out with a vodka bottle and gave shots to everyone on the bus (including the women) out of an (unused?) ashtray. Then the 4 men in the back seat started singing beautiful songs in deep voices. Our guidebook said such singing on public transport is common and often the songs are about how beautiful the countryside is, which is certainly true. A woman who spoke a bit of English leaned over to Robyn during one song and said, “This song about how beautiful Mongolian women is.”

Stay in touch,
Keir and Robyn

Getting stuck on the 'road'!
Sometimes you don't want to know what's in the kitchen!
Mongolia had beautiful sunsets every night.
One of the countries most important (but remote) monestaries at Amarbayasgalant Khid.

Created: October 12, 2002
Maintainer: Keir Paesel