Welcome to Mongolia!
18.08.2013 - 22.08.2013 21 °C
We arrived in Mongolia far too early on a crisp August morning - condensing breath and all - after a bit of an impromptu train vodka party the night before with some Americans who helped us finally finish the awful vodka Josh had bought and carried around since St. Petersburg. Here's two things I immediately noticed:
Firstly, almost everyone we saw had this weird expression on their faces, showing a lot of teeth, the corners of their mouths turned up. It took me a while to realise people were actually smiling. Goodbye, Russia!
And secondly, we'd definitely arrived in Asia now. Technically, Lake Baikal is in Asia, but everything about Russia still feels distinctly European to me, while everything about Mongolia is Asian.
Ulaanbaatar is a sprawling, dusty place, and probably one of those cities that will look entirely different in 20 years time. There's building activity literally at every corner - and also sandy holes where there was sidewalk two days before. (Some of the buildings being raised are unforgivably ugly - I mean, really, is that necessary nowadays? Have we learned nothing? Some of them, though, I rather liked. Like the one that is apparently supposed to symbolise a pregnant woman's belly. Weird, but kinda neat.) In between those construction sites, though, the occasional Ger tent can be glimpsed, which is probably a feature unique to Ulaanbaatar. There is a lot more English around than in Russia, some of it information, but a lot just American-themed bars and restaurants - they seem to be pretty into that. They are definitely into Karaoke.
Our honcho this time was a lovely young woman named Zoloo, who spent a lot of time with us as she came with us to the Ger camp outside the city. We had a day to start exploring the city, and then another after coming back into the city, and a few sights stood out:
The Gandan monastery complex, unfinished as everything seems to be in Ulaanbaatar, the biggest temple currently being built and looking a lot like the construction site for a mall or office building. The older parts, however, somehow escape the widespread destruction by the Communists. This was, as far as I remember, my first time visiting a Buddhist monastery, since this was also my first visit to an Asian country. About 150 monks live in this monastery, some of whom we could watch perform the ceremonial chanting. There are also a whole lot of pigeons on the square, because to the people there, feeding the pigeons is a kind of ritual to ensure they themselves will always be fed. Miraculously, we survived crossing the square un-shat-on. The main building of the monastery houses a huge gilded Buddha statue, though the best thing we saw was outside: A huge pair of feet (bronze? brass? gold?), just sitting there with no body attached. Only when Zoloo explained and we saw the info posters behind it did we understand: Basically, they were planning to build a truly huge statue to be the centrepiece of the monastery complex, except the money ran out before they could finish anything but the feet. The thing, which they probably still plan to finish, will tower over the Statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio and even the Statue of Liberty in NYC ... if it ever gets finished. As it is, the disembodied pair of feet is absolutely hilarious.
The main square in Ulaanbaatar is just as big and square as you'd expect from a main square, flanked on one side by the government building and a huge statue of Dschinggis Khan (whose name is not Genghis Khan, as all English-speaking people like to call him, for whatever reason). Dschinggis Khan is to Ulaanbaatar (and Mongolia) what Napoleon is to Paris: Ever-present, totally glorified, except even more so than Napoleon because aside from his grandson Kublai Khan, who finally conquered China and founded the Yuan dynasty, he's the only famous Mongolian there is. (My personal favourite, though? Princess Khutulun.) Around the corner from the square is the National History Museum, a big part of which is dedicated to Dschinggis. Even if the map of Europe and Asia they had hung up got less geographically correct the farther west you looked, it nonetheless served to illustrate just how huge the Mongolian empire used to be.
(Of course, that quote from Iron Man is what actually came to my mind: "The bow and arrow once was the pinnacle of weapons technology. It allowed the great Genghis Khan to rule from the Pacific to the Ukraine, an empire twice the size of Alexander the Great and four times the size of the Roman Empire." What. Those movies are very educational.)
We got a proper look at the whole city from a viewpoint we only just reached before sunset, which is actually a monument to the Soviet soldiers who helped Mongolia - and it looks oh-so-very-Soviet too. The view is quite amazing, and at this point there's not too many huge buildings, but I'm willing to bet that'll change in the coming years. The whole city is sort of embedded in the same kind of landscape you see in the countryside, mostly rolling, sometimes rocky hills.
However, most of our time in Ulaanbaatar was probably spent in restaurants, bars, and shopping. The Transsiberian Handbook already describes Ulaanbaatar's nightlife as "surprisingly wild," though due to absurdly early morning departures, we didn't get to sample all of it. We did sample a lot of beers (I like the Grand Khan, especially in shandy form, though the Dschinggis beer was also consumed) and cocktails as well as Mongolian vodka, which ... more on that subject in the next post.
Most of the truly Mongolian food we had in the Ger camp, but we got pretty lucky with restaurants in the city: Chinese for lunch, which was alright; Pizza for dinner, which I'd call barely average due to too much cheese and not enough tomato sauce or pepperoni, but which the rest of the group liked better. Then a Mongolian BBQ place, probably one of the most touristy restaurants in the city and kind of pricy, but we arrived after 9pm, so the crowds vanished pretty quickly and we ended up the only ones left, plus the food was pretty great (a kind of DIY buffet of ingredients you gave to the cooks to barbecue). The best one, though, was a vegan place we all yearned for after coming back from the Ger camp and more mutton than any of us ever wanted to eat in one lifetime. Luna Blanca served vegetarian Mongolian dumplings the others actually enjoyed for a change, while I had mushroom-tomato pasta, absolutely delicious, though some Parmesan cheese would have made it even better.
Ulaanbaatar: Definitely good fun, and far less of a shithole than expected. (No offence intended, shithole is a term I use lovingly most of the time - Nottingham, where I lived for almost a year, is definitely a bit of a shithole.) Not really a place I had on my list of cities to visit, but I can definitely recommend it for everyone who's in the area. However, the real highlight of our time in Mongolia was the countryside - more on that in the next post.