Mongolia – The halfway point: Ulaan Bataar

Flight 9: Yangon to Bangkok was a bit rough. We were slightly delayed as the plane was late arriving, then they got us all on, we were just waiting for cargo to be loaded and said sorry because they have been on the ground for 25 minutes they have to complete some immigration thing. All up we were about an hour late and then took off and went straight into a monsoon storm. It was dark but from the lights on the wings we could see the rain pounding the plane. We shook, rolled and dropped consoling ourselves by the fact that we are flying Air Asia and they must be used to this weather. It was fine once we were through it but it’s not an experience we’re keen to repeat and we were happy it was only a 90 minute flight.

We had three hours in Bangkok but because we were changing airlines we had to get our bags and go through immigration (luckily we talked to someone official looking and they let us through the diplomatic lane). We checked in for our next 2 flights after clearing hand luggage checks and immigration and we had enough time to change a few USD to get a coffee.

Flight 10: Korean Air to Seoul. We were very excited to have in flight entertainment for the first time since the Wellington-Sydney flight. We had blankets and slippers and plenty of room. The downside was we took off at midnight and it was only a 5 hour flight so by the time we had taken off, they’d given everyone a snack there was an hour gone, then they woke us up for breakfast 1.5hrs before landing so the chance for sleep was small. We landed in Seoul a bit knackered with 5 hours to kill. We figured out we needed to take the underground shuttle to our gate so did that and changed enough money for a couple of coffees. Eventually we found free internet which killed some time.

The last flight was an uneventful 3.5 hours and we did manage to have a short nap or two.

We’d been looking forward to Mongolia for ages just for the cooler weather but we landed in Ulaan Bataar at 4pm and it was 29C. It was a perfect day though and with no humidity and a breeze we just found it rather pleasant. The guesthouse was picking us up and we soon found our sign, it was a young guy so we made him wait until we caned the ATM.

IMG_4027We were excited on the long journey into the city. It is surrounded by rolling green mountains and a vast nothingness. As we’d come in to land we could spot gers dotted on the landscape. The city looks much like you would expect for a country that was communist for so long, square concrete buildings and streets with not much personality. It is a very dusty city and when the breeze picks up big clouds of dust blow down the street like an outback town. We have always learnt a couple of words of the language of the country we are in so on the way to the hotel we asked our guy what ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are and practiced them in the car much to his amusement. Mongolian is a really hard language to learn and we gave up on learning ‘no’ for now – yes is easy ‘tea’. Thank you we had to learn from the guidebook later.

We took a long route to our accommodation which gave us a chance to get a feel for the city. They also drive on the right in a mix of left hand and right hand drive cars. Traffic lights are meaningless as most traffic seems to just ignore them. The guidebook says that the most dangerous thing to do in Ulaan Bataar is to cross the road, but we haven’t found it to be too bad. There are no motorbikes or scooters to look out for and when the road is really busy we just wait for a local to cross and stick with them ensuring they are on the side that the traffic is coming from. We call them sacrificial lambs.

Emma had booked us a ger, they have 8 on the roof of the guesthouse. We dumped our kit and although we were tired headed out for a while just to get a stretch of our legs and get our bearings before it went dark. UB doesnt have the best reputation and we had read on forums about people being hassled. Many people have moved to the city from the countryside to effectively ger slums around the city and alcoholism is a problem so we had no desire to be out after dark. Along the main road and in the main department store pickpocketing is also a real problem so we were on full alert. Like many countries the city is apparently very different to the rest of the country and once outside there are no concerns.

IMG_4033We had decided before we arrived that to see the country as best we could in the 3 weeks we have we would need to suck up the cost and hire a jeep and driver, but this being peak tourist season in Mongolia we didn’t know how easy that might be. We asked at our guesthouse the next morning and weren’t surprised when they said they had no drivers available. We returned to our ger, wrote a list of all the guesthouses and tour agencies in anticipation of having to do the rounds. First up we headed to a guesthouse that gets really good reports form other travellers on the forums. ‘We want a jeep and driver for 2 weeks’ we said, we were quite shocked when the guy said ‘yes that is possible’. We got out our map and list of places we wanted to go to (mainly Central Mongolia and the Gobi Desert) and worked out with him what the itinerary would be. He said he had quite an experienced driver return the day before – we just hoped we liked him as it was going to be long trip.

We hired a Russian jeep as these are the cheapest, you can also hire a Russian van, which fit more people in and Japanese 4WD Jeeps and vans (often the newer Delicas to ours, the ugly spacegear things) which are much more expensive but more comfortable. The daily rate gets you the jeep, driver, his food and accommodation. We also had to buy some oil and brake fluid for the jeep as a one off cost and to pay for fuel on the way.

IMG_4046Accommodation wise we had 2 choices – pay and stay in ger camps every night or camp for free. Our budget already busted with the jeep hire there was no decision. We don’t do camping on the ground under canvas and we knew that spending days bumping around in a jeep then sleeping in a tent was going to be hard going. We just hoped for good weather and figured that we could bail and stay in a ger when we had enough. The driver (sensibly) would stay with families in a ger. Mongolia is such a sparsely populated country that that is what they do – nomad families give hospitality to anyone that needs it, it’s ingrained in the culture.

We decided to leave the day after next giving us a day to get sorted and buy a few essential camping items and have 2 more sleeps in a proper bed. We’d written a list of things we needed but the tour guy would give us most things for free – tent, mats, stove (minus gas), water tank, cooking kit. We asked for an extra stove for boiling water whilst we were cooking as we know that is much faster and easier and they added it in for free. We still had a few things to get so having whittled down the list we headed for the market – for some reason it is named the black market. It was a long hot dusty route and we missed the main entrance and ended up going in via an entrance on the other side, This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as the market has a reputation for pickpockets and bag slashers near the entrance queue. We had no queue at our entrance. As we weaved through the car boot stalls that had set up outside the market some drunk man took a disliking to Marie and gave her heaps of agro. Shouting in Mongolian really wasn’t going to get his point across and Marie ignored him and kept walking, which didn’t seem to please him much but another guy intervened and cut off his tirade and stopped him following us. It’s not uncommon for local drunks to give foreigners grief, some just because don’t like them, others are just drunk. Usually it’s European men that say they have copped grief and we had been prepared for hassle but not quite that level of agro. We momentarily didn’t like the place so much and it reminded us what we already knew – it couldn’t be more different to Burma.

IMG_4028The market was like a proper South American market, sprawling out over a huge area and selling everything under the sun, We bought some much needed shorts for Marie and our list of camping essentials: a flask, a bucket, a rope, a dust pan brush and a big sheet of plastic to make bags for our rucksacks as the Gobi, being a desert, apparently can get very dusty. The following day we figured we’d make the most of an opportunity to get a last lie in (well, Emma did anyway) before heading out to the Post Office to post Dave the Burma stuff.

We got lunch, visited an ATM and went to the supermarket in the State Department Store as it is a good one so we got a few bits that we weren’t sure we would be able to find elsewhere. Emma got a haircut, if you want to understand a culture go and get a haircut. She walked in and got a nod, told them what she wanted. Spent the next couple of minutes confirming what she wanted with gestures. She was sat in her seat by two hands firmly on her shoulders, head pushed forward whilst the gown was put on, head pushed back as the shaver was run over with one hand with the other hand firmly gripping her head, palm down over the crown and fingers splayed moving her head around like a joystick. It was a decent cut, though a bit expensive.

The rest of the day was spent getting organised for being on the road for a while. It rained all afternoon and evening anyway which suited us just fine.

Observations:

  • Ulan Bataar airport has the slowest bag carousel in the world
  • The people here are tough. The climate is tough and making a living here is tough so it is hardly surprising. Wrestling is one of their national sports, which is a good reflection of the national psyche.

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