26 June. Ulaanbaatar. 5 AM. The provodnitsa enters our cabin and wakes us up in the most tactless way possible. Welcome to Mongolia.
The train is arriving in an hour, but she needs to gather the sheets, so we have to get up and gather our stuff. We sit down looking like three zombies till we finally arrive. The moment we step out of the train, a crowd of guesthouse PRs throws itself at us, handing us leaflets and overloading us with questions.
We zigzag through them and find the waiting room. Our plan is to sit there and rest for an hour or so, while we figure out how to get to our hostel. I find a sit and doze off till I feel Gian touching me and going: “Isn’t that your Mongolian classmate?”. I turn my face and there I see him, Ganbaatar. Wait, what? Why is he here? At the station I mean. Did he like really come and pick us up with no notice?
I say hi and hug him while still in some sort of shock. I mean, yes I did VKed him, told him we where arriving very early in the morning so we would have liked to meet him for coffee or something in the afternoon, but never would I have thought that he’d actually come and pick us up at 6 in the morning. After all, we barely spoke a bunch of times during Russian class at MGIMO, that’s it, it’s not like we were friends or anything.
So we get in his car and give him the address of the hostel. He says he’s gonna drive us there and check out the place with us so we can decide what to do today. Alright. We’re staying at Gana’s GH, which is actually located in a shady area, kinda looks like something in between a dumpster and a slum. Ganbaatar gets out of the car to check it out while we wait inside. As he comes back, he tells us that the place is really bad and that he actually has a flat where we could stay, if we want. We look at each other and, we want, obviously, so he says alright, I’ll just go get the keys and take you there.
He says that this apartment was assigned to him by the MFA of Mongolia, where he’s gonna start working on July 1. Are we really gonna stay at the Mongolian diplomatic apartments? Yes we are.
The flat is small, there’s no bedroom, but who cares: we actually have a kitchen and a bathroom and… a washing machine! And… a sofa! Ganbaatar says he’s gonna go get us plates and sheets and stuff and he’ll be back in about 3 hours. As he leaves, I collapse on the sofa and sleep like a rock.
By 11 AM he is back with a bunch of stuff for the house, and as we tell him we need to go to the Kazakh embassy to apply for our visa, he drives us there directly. Apparently, he has some connections there, he knows the ambassador or something, so in no time we’ve got everything figured out. We complete the forms, pay 60 dollars and hand in our passports. They’ll be ready by Monday or Tuesday they say. Easy.
We go for a tour of the city, which is actually pretty small and, as it seems, all under construction. There seems to be no city centre, no logic in the planning of these grey, soviet buildings, which starkly clash with the beautiful ocher mountains in the background. It’s even worse than the average Russian city, even worse than Omsk. Wow. Didn’t know that was possible.
We visit this hill, on top of which a soviet-looking monuments stands in memory of the Mongolian-Soviet friendship during the war against the Japanese. We can actually get a view of the whole city from up here and my first impressions about it are confirmed: no logic whatsoever, just a bunch of ugly buildings one after the other, spreading up to the horizon. The only vaguely attracting thing about the view is that the buildings sort of degrade in height as they get closer to the mountains: no more grey apartment conglomerates, but low, colourful little houses and gers attached to the back of the mountain.
We climb down the stairs and there’s another monument in memory of the war, a tank this time. In the square right next to it, a fountain plays at the rhythm of a Britney Spears song, little kids running around it. Neat.
We also visit the Khan’s winter palace museum, and I am immediately impressed by how old the pagodas are. They sort of emanate history, in stark contrast with the modern buildings surrounding their walls. New outside, old inside. Noise outside, quiet inside. Statues and icons of buddhas and gods are exposed inside the pagodas, along with objects and clothes from the time of the Mongol empire. Huge copper pots are lying outside the palace and Ganbaatar explains that they were used to cook the sheets, or the Tatars, who had to be punished for killing the wife of some Khan. Pretty reasonable right?
We then head to Sukhbaatar square, or Chinggis Khan square (it’s still unclear which is the real name, it has been changed a bunch of times and people still keep calling it one or the other way at random). We take a picture with the huge Chinggis Khan statue, sitting in front of the government’s palace. Another statue stands in the middle of the square, the statue of the hero of the communist revolution, Sukhbaatar, riding his horse.
Ganbaatar takes us to a fancy restaurant and we get the local mixed Mongolian plate to share: sheep meat basically, cooked in every possible way, fried, grilled, stuffed into boiled dumplings. How can they eat this stuff every day? They must have stomachs of steel or something.
We continue our tour to the Gandan Monastery, a complex of old buddhist temples, way older than the ones we visited in UU.
We enter the main one and a huge golden statue of Avalokiteshvara buddha stands right in the centre. It’s so huge his head almost touches the wooden ceiling. It almost looks like he’s holding the whole temple together. The walls are covered in golden buddha statues, thousands of them, accompanied by the usual round boxes containing the prayers.
Ganbaatar then asks us what we wanna do tonight and we look at each other: drink? So we end up at this pub called Ikh Mongol. It’s a cool place, there’s almost no foreigners and the beer is good and incredibly cheap (1.50 Euros for a Pint!). At some point, a local band starts playing Mongolian rock and roll. Wait, what? It’s actually not that bad, definitely better than the Russian trash music we’re used to hear. We’re all pretty tipsy so we vote for hitting a club.
Ganbaatar somehow finds a driver outside the pub, gives him his car keys (yeah, apparently it’s common practice here in Mongolia, as police is quite strict with drink & drive situations) and we reach this Mint club. Ganbaatar says it’s the most “prestigious” in UB. All the girls are indeed very beautiful and everyone is dressed up in fancy clothes. And then there’s us, in sneakers and t-shirts. But who cares. We’re the only westerners, so everyone is looking at us like we’re aliens or something. And we drink, and dance, and have a good time.
27 June. Mongolia, day 2.
Ganbaatar stops by our apartment, well, his apartment, and picks us up so we can go visit some landsites around UB. We get in the car and he drives, sitting on the right seat, which kind of strikes us, as it’s not like they drive like in the UK here in Mongolia. He explains that it’s actually quite common here, people choose to have the steering wheel on the left or right side of their car as they like.
In no time we’re out of the city and the roads leads us straight on to the horizon, fields with ger camps on our left, fields with ger camps on our right. On the side of the road, there’s all sorts of stuff going on: kids selling onions, sheep furs for sale, piled one on top of the other, wild horses, huge sparrows, eagles and other scary-looking non-identified birds standing on wooden poles. And then fields over fields, green, ocher and brown, spreading against the naked mountains in the distance.
After about an hour, we reach our first stop: Chinggis Khan’s statue. The notorious Mongolian warrior is represented on top of his horse, looking east. The whole thing is huge and its silver color reflects and multiplies the sun beams a thousand times in each direction. I can’t really tell if I like it or not, there’s something about it, which is probably due to the fact that the whole thing was built just a few years ago with the main purpose of attracting tourists.
We climb the stairs to enter the museum, at their feet three huge birds, my size big, stand still and look at the visitors without flinching, like they’re keeping an eye on them or something.
We climb to the top of the statue, basically we’re standing on the head of the horse, take some photos with our buddy Chinggis and then visit the museum. Not that there’s much to see in there, just a bunch of old utensils and weapons. Still, it’s interesting to read about the history, the rise and fall of the biggest empire ever existed.
Not too far from the statue there’s another one, representing Chinggis Khan’s mother , looking straight at him. We go check it out and then stop at one of the many yurts along the road to get some food. We all order whatever Ganbaatar is having, having no idea what the names on the menu stand for. All we know is that there’s probably gonna be sheep meat in each of them, and we are not wrong.
So we order some sort of chebureki and meat lapsha to go, and while we wait we walk around the ger camp. Kids and puppies are running around, playing.
We enter the ger of the woman who is preparing our food: the “kitchen” is on the left side, opposite to it there’s some sort of sink and a mirror, and in front of us, beyond the central part of the yurt, where the only opening besides the door is and which is forbidden to cross (it’s considered the sacred part of the house), there’s a bed with a baby boy lying on it. There’s something about Mongolian babies, their features, with such accentuated checks and almond-shaped eyes, that make them cuter than the average baby. Ganbaatar asks us not to take pictures of the baby, as here it’s associated to stealing the should of the child.
We get out and as we wait at the table, the woman from the yurt offers us a cup of their traditional milk with chai, which is salted instead of sweetened. Weirdest beverage that I’ve ever tried, for now.
Our food is finally ready, so we get back to the car a start driving toward the river. The road gets dustier and dustier until there’s no road at all any more: it’s interrupted by one of the main branches of the river. Ganbaatar gets out of the car to check how deep it is and, before we realise it, we’re crossing the river by car, like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
We park somewhere by the trees and set up our portable chairs and table by the river bank. The meal is really good, heavy, but good. In the end we all feel like we’re exploding though: think of a ton of sheep meat + egg noodles + horse meat + fried stuff and you get the point.
The whole atmosphere is very nice, sort of soothing, the sound of the running water in the river, wild horses, cows and sheeps hanging out.
We continue our excursion on to Terelj National Park. As we pay the toll to enter the area, the landscape changes abruptly: no more dry steppes but green fields, conifer forests and rocky mountains with weird shapes, levigated by the wind.
We stop by the “turtle rock” and Gian and I climb it to the top, enjoying the view and the fresh air.
Ganbaatar then drives us home and we then walk to the nearest supermarket to buy some food. Everything is obviously written in Mongolian so we spend half figuring out if the products we’re picking are actually what we want, trying to ignore the dead sheep heads in the meat department. In the end, we sort of manage to get all we need.
We head back home and finally collapse on the beds, well, mine is just a bunch of blankets piled up on the floor, but I’m so tired I can’t really feel the difference between this and a real bed.
28 June. UB, day 3.
Sunday lazy Sunday? Happy Sunday?
Ganbaatar picks us up in the early afternoon and we head to the National Culture and Recreation Park, which is apparently the biggest in the city and, most likely, the only one. There’s a desolation about it, a sadness that’s almost cute. It’s like they tried, they’re trying to make something beautiful out of this city but they haven’t really succeeded. I guess the climate conditions just won’t allow it. The grass won’t grow green, the newly planted trees will struggle.
The whole place is full of people, yet it feels abandoned in a way. It’s like nature won’t bend to the will of humans. The wild refuses to be educated.
We rent bikes and just spend the day riding across the park, where all the youngsters of UB seem to be gathered. School kids are playing with water pumps in the soccer field. Not far from it, a couple of teens just got in trouble with the local police for smoking what looks like weed. It’s actually a double punishment: weed is forbidden entirely, and smoking is forbidden in most public places like squares, stations and parks.
We keep riding our bikes and spot a bunch of guys carrying buckets of water and pouring them on the trees, as, apparently, there’s no proper irrigation system.
We invite Ganbaatar and his mom over for dinner as a thank you for his great hospitality so once we’re back to the apartment we start cooking: the menu consists of bruschette, spaghetti alla carbonara e gelato for dessert. And red wine, of course.
About an hour later, our Mongolian friend shows up but says that unfortunately his mother couldn’t make it. Oh well, more food for us. He seems to enjoy the meal, so at least we found a way to figuratively repay him for all he’s done for us.
And the more I think about it, the more I realize the oddness of the whole situation: if someone had told me that we’d end up staying in the flat of this guy a couple of months ago, I’d have laughed at them. After all, we really spoke but a bunch of time at school, so there’s really no explanation to why he helped us so much other than disinterested generosity.
A lot of the people we met during this journey have somehow made me regain hope in humankind. Yes, there are still good people out there. There are still nice, disinterested people in the world, people who do things just for the pleasure of it. No hidden games.
29 June. UB, day 4.
Today was a lost day. Completely useless. Ganbaatar told us yesterday that he would go get our passports at the Kazakh embassy and stop by the apartment at around 10.30 AM.
So we wake up, have breakfast and wait for him. 11 AM. We wait. 11.30 AM. We wait. 12 PM. 1 PM. We wait. Is he even coming? Is everything okay with our passports? 1.30 PM. Still no sign of him.
Alright, we need to get out of the apartment. First cause we’ll go mad otherwise, feeling like animals in a cage. Second cause we need wifi to try to contact Ganbaatar and find out when he’s coming.
So we walk to Chinggis Khan’s square and down to Peace Avenue till we find this wifi cafe, order some juice and message him, both on VK and on whatsapp. No answer. At 4 PM we decide to go to the Kazakh embassy ourselves and get some answers.
Marta starts to look worried. I can see a number of worst case scenarios running through her head. Being stuck in Mongolia with no passports is not a good thing. I try to calm her down suggesting that we can freak out after 9 PM. If by then there’s still no sign of Ganbaatar or our passports, then we’re allowed to freak out.
And it’s actually a good suggestion cause, as we finally reach the Kazakh embassy, we find out that he just stopped by and picked the passports up like half an hour ago. Great. Oh and “finally”, because finding the embassy has been a not-so-easy operation. Turns out, Mongolian people have no idea where the streets are located, they just use landmarks to navigate themselves through the city. We even asked for directions to a couple policemen who gave us contradicting answers, in Mongolian, obviously.
At some point we’re looking pretty lost so some kids, who spoke English, offered to help us and stopped a taxi for us. Oh, and that taxi. The seats are covered in white lace, a neon “taxi” sign is hanging near the rear mirror, while the ceiling is covered in green paper illustrating some sort of rain forest and, dulcis in fundo, two plastic birds are hanging from it. As we stop at the red light, the cab driver takes out his phone and takes a selfie with us. He then shows us some posters stuffed in the back seats, showing all the selfies he took with his clients. He’s even dressed like Santa in some of them. What the..?
Apparently the guy has no idea where he’s going so at some point he stops, enters a building to ask for directions, then comes out and goes: “Kazakh embassy – no, but here, Embassy Belarus! Okay?” What? No, obviously. It’s not like they’re interchangeable dude.
He goes back in and finally gets the right directions and manages to get us to the embassy and then back to our place. What a ride.
So.. back to square one. We still have to wait for Ganbaatar. Will he show up in an hour? Will he show up in four? Who knows.
Fortunately, at around 6 PM, we hear someone knocking on the door and, yes, it’s him! With our passports and visas. Slava bogu! So we thank him and tell him we’re thinking of going to Karakouroum tomorrow, or the Gobi, if we manage. So we ask him what’s the best way to get there.
And then he goes: oh, you know, maybe there’s a train going to the Gobi tonight, if you get your stuff ready we can go straight to the station and in case there’s one you can leave directly. Cool, alright, let’s do this!
So we get to the station and he starts asking around for trains. And it’s good he’s with us, cause nobody speaks English. Literally nobody. We have no idea what’s going on as we don’t understand a word. In short, the first train is leaving tomorrow, so Ganbaatar suggests we all hire a driver so we can go by car.
Wait, we? Is he coming with us? Apparently he is. Didn’t he just say he has to go to work tomorrow? Oh, don’t worry for that, he goes. Okay, whatever.
So, after a long bargaining, we agree for a ride there and back for 100.000 Tugric each. We’re leaving at 10.30.
We’re going to the Gobi! I didn’t even think that was possible, considering how little time we have in Mongolia. From what we read on the internet, it was either too expensive (tour agencies organise the trip for no less than 500 euros) or too far.
We go back to the apartment, get some dinner and get ready. We’re going to the Gobi!