Visa and train ticket in my grubby little hand, I headed to Beijing train station at 6am one morning to board what I had hoped would be the first leg of the Trans-Mongolian adventure (more on that later). Woop! This section is a mere 29-hours long so only one night in a bunk. Settled in with my cabin buddies, a jolly nice pair of Mongolian students, and arranged my supplies – token fruit, 3 pots of noodles and a tin Chairman Mao cup. Well prepared, as ever.
Turned out that I’d booked a ticket that included meals so was handed my school-dinner-esque meal tickets for lunch and dinner. Lunch was rather prematurely served at 11am so off I toddled down to the dining car to see what slop was to be served. Plus everyone knows the dining car is where friendships are forged. Sure enough, I lunched with an interesting student called Meela who was on her way home to Mongolia from her studies in Beijing to say hello to the fam. Asked her about the recent Mongolian riots that the Chinese government have taken pains to suppress but they were in Inner Mongolia. Apparently started when a truck driver squashed and killed a native Mongolian fella, inciting red-misted rage in the locals who went and rioted. Bit tense over there cos the ethnic Mongolians are a bit pissed off that all the mining projects are wrecking their nomadic way of life. Same goes (to a different degree) up over the border in Outer Mongolia too. Anyway, on the subject of unjust road traffic accidents, Meela also told me a story about how a celebrated Chinese musician was recently banged up cos he accidentally ran someone over, realised they weren’t dead so backed up to finish them off. Then he ran at an eye witness too, to try and cover his sorry ass. Crazy.
Dropped in on my Dutch pals – a group of three tall, blonde ladies on tour together – in another compartment on the way to dinner and found ourselves in a merry gang, joined by a French-Swedish couple and some odd Kiwis (diplomat’s children – figures) chatting into the night in the space age dining car over cans of beer priced very reasonably at 50p.
Before you arrive at the Mongolian border the train grinds to a halt for a few hours and you are tipped off the train into the arms of a waiting supermarket and waiting room. All the Mongolians buy as much fruit as they can carry cos it’s scarce on the steppe. Meanwhile, the train folk whisk the carriages away – with all your stuff and a few stragglers on board – and change the wheels, elevating the carriages and sliding a new set of wheels underneath to account for the different gauge track North of the border. That I loved this hints at my inner train-spotter geek.
Soothed to sleep by a belly-full of beer and rice and the bright lights of the immigration officials in the wee small hours, we awoke the next morning to glorious views across a tantalising glimpse of the Gobi desert (not your conventional desert) and the green rolling steppe. The train takes all sorts. In the compartment along from me were a young German family resident in Beijing with two toddlers, one of whom screamed delightedly most of the way, the other of whom ran up and down the corridor repeatedly. In the other direction was a family of about 10 Swedes on their way to ‘meet the in-laws’, since the daughter had been dating a pleasant, big-faced Mongolian guy for a couple o’years.
Arriving in Ulaanbaatur, one of the first things that struck me was how many homes have a ger (yurt – the difference is ably explained by Wikipedia here) in the back garden. Despite the fact that over 40% of the population lives in the capital and a further 23% live in other large urban centres (though this depends largely on your interpretation of ‘large urban centre’), the Mongolians are attached to their tented lifestyles and sections of the city exist devoted to the gers. Granted, these aren’t just play houses for the wealthy, they tend to be actual homes in the poorer areas of the city as well. I’m told that expats in foreign service aren’t allowed to bring their kids here because the air quality is so noxious in winter that they could be permanently damaged. This comes from those in the ger camps running low on fuel for the fires and resorting to burning anything to hand, namely plastics.
Ulaanbaatur itself is not the ramshackle dust-bowl nor Soviet concrete jungle that you might imagine. Its dusty and the infrastructure suffers the vagaries of winter, but the architecture is grand and they have some commendable monuments.
Sure, they don’t have street lighting (beware walking around after dark – kicking a kerb in flipflops smarts) or double glazing or properly paved roads, but all in good time. The roads are so badly pot-holed that it takes days to cross the country. Mongolia is booming. It is the main trade conduit between Russia and China (two countries who you might recognise from the BRIC acronym), the mining companies have found willing accomplices in the local government and are seeking to exploit the country’s rich mineral (coal, diamond, gold etc.) wealth, not necessarily in an above board fashion. Mongolia ranks 120th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. If you’re bookishly interested in hard fiscal facts, check out this rather good website.
With the mining conglomerates come the weaselly secondary industries – your bankers, accountants, real estate agents, NGOs, do-gooders, yada yada… They’re all here and they’re all spend spend spending in the country. FDI is welcomed by the government but influence is viewed with suspicion by the locals who are terrified that China is going to annex them at any moment.
Which is one of the reasons why they have actively promoted pro-natalist policies for years. Any woman in Mongolia these days who has four kids or more, you don’t have to keep them; those that you adopt out still count, get a monthly payment of $1,000 from the government for being a champion breeder. Not so many years ago it was illegal to carry condoms. Has the Pope been a-visiting?
The lingo is outright weird. I met an Aussie lawyer in the visa queue in Beijing who was asked by his Mongolian friend to describe the language. He said it sounded like someone slushing through snow and slipping every now and again. He’s sort of right. When I asked this same friend to tell me how to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’, it sounded like he was just inhaling and exhaling. There are lots of Welsh-style ‘ll’s in there and they speak through the sides of their mouths. Linguists say that it is part of the Altaic family of languages that encompasses Korean, Turkic and Japonic languages but others say that it is closely related to Hungarian and Finnish too. And the reason given for the language having pockets that far away?
Chenggis Khan. Ghengis to us in the West. He presided over a preeeetty expansive empire back in the 1300s that stretched from China to Eastern Europe. Wanna see how he compares to other big empire builders? Have a looksee at this map. We all know him as a fearsome warrior, but he was a lover as much as a fighter. A prolific one, in fact. DNA sampling has suggested that he is the direct ancestor of 0.5% of the world’s population today. That’s 16 million blokes. When they were out marauding, old Chenggis would take his pick of the pretty fillies in the villages they took over, siring children all over the shop.
Womanising (if you can call it that) aside, he is also said to be one of the world’s first diplomats, rewarding loyalty and honour over bloodthirst. The Yasa Code was a document laid down by the Big Man that essentially provided a code of conduct for his society to eliminate disputes: innocent until proven guilty was in there, respecting all religious worship was too and no one was allowed to use egotistical titles to address one another. You couldn’t steal women from other tribes (unless you were Chenggis) and you had to give food to travellers. Better still, if you went bankrupt three times, you would be killed. Financial irresponsibility was not tolerate. Reckon a few of our bankers wouldn’t have made the cut?
Ulaanbaatur’s National History Museum has an excellent Chenggis exhibition at the moment. It’s a pretty good museum as a whole actually and a room showing the daily lifestyle of Mongolians and, among others, one show all their garb too. It seems they’re big into hats and the ones you have are sacred. You’re not allowed to throw them away or put them on the floor. Quite what you’re allowed to do with them except wear them, I’m not sure.
The other highlight of the city’s museum/art gallery scene is the dinosaur exhibition in the Natural History Museum (careful not to confuse them). The rest of the taxidermy in the museum is skippable unless you are particularly amused by alarmed faces on stuffed animals, but the dinosaurs are excellent. I loved the fossilized nest of hatchlings but they have an awesome armoured dinosaur on display and a famous (so famous that the New York Natural History Museum has borrowed it) fossil of two dinosaurs that were killed by a sandstorm 80 million years ago while locked in mortal combat. The plucky little Velociraptor, with big-assed claws, is hanging on to the neck of the Protoceratops, slashing at his fleshy belly with his talons. All the poor Protoceratops can do is gnaw on the little dude’s arm hopefully.
First night in town, I settled into the shabbily comfortable hubbub of UB Guesthouse, along with half of Holland and one very weird albino Italian who looked like a musketeer, insisted on picking his toenails on the sofa and claimed he was awaiting a casting call from X-factor UK. To be the freak show, no doubt. Got a call from Charlotte North, a friend of a friend back home. What are the chances of being the second furthest place from home (the first obviously being Timbuktu) at the same time? Naturally, we went for a beer and raised a glass to the Miller connection. C-dog brought a lithe young friend with her in the form of Eckhert, a German gent cycling to South Korea. What a catch.
Among the ‘must do’ checklist for Mongolia is staying in a ger, so I duly tramped out to the nearby National Park of Terelj. It’s not that far from the city but it takes so long to travel anywhere on Mongolia’s lumpy roads (apparently due to asphalted in 2012, slicing journey times right down) that the further flung places were sort of out of the question given the pressing Russian visa situation. The Hovsgol Lake up in the North is supposed to be stunning but I had designs on Siberia’s Lake Baikal, guardian of 25% of the world’s freshwater. Close second but second nonetheless.
Prepared for some steppe solitude with a night out on the tiles with Sebastian, another friend of a friend residing in this neck of the woods, and his Mongolian friends. Wound up in UB’s answer to Rock Bottom, complete with live Filipino band. Most excellent.
Staggered hungover out to the National Park the following morning, breakfasting on ice cream and blowing the cobwebs away with a hike into the wildflower meadows and a little horse ride, against my better horse-riding judgement. It’s just beautiful out there. Look at it. And what you can’t get from these pictures is the amazing aromatic smell of the steppe. It’s wild rosemary or something similar but it smells magnificent compared to your average countryside smells in Europe.
There’s blissfully little to do out here except for chill, walk around, watch impromptu horse races, admiring the eagles wheeling up above and wait for meals. One bloke ingratiated himself by bringing a bottle of chili sauce. Clever man. Mongolian meals are mostly fatty mutton and very samey. You’re not hungry but that’s about all you can say.
The felt-lined gers have a stove at the centre and beds around the outside. They’re comfortable, warm and nearly silent. Best sleep ever. While there are a fair number of tourist camps in this national park, people so still genuinely live in them too. A ger will set you back around $1,000 and takes 5 men to assemble. Chenggis couldn’t be bothered with that so he had his put on a big cart and dragged around by 20 or so oxen. Riding around on the horses at sunset we watched the locals rounding up their horses. The kids are pretty much born on horseback but I particularly enjoyed watching a little boy carefully placing his toddler brother on the back of a skittish calf. He’d created a sort of bridle from rope and the littlest kid would get on the back and start whipping it into action, to his obvious delight. Calf would bounce around in confusion and big brother would have to catch it and start again.
So yeah. You have to go to the Mongolian steppe before you die.
I wouldn’t be British if I didn’t give you the weather low-down. Being land-locked, it is mecurial and extreme. When it’s sunny, it’s boilio. When it’s cold, it’s Siberian. Pack your thermals. But it also makes for the best star-scapes and the best storms. Check out this chink of luminous rainbow that smiled sadly on me on my last day.
Back in town, I headed to the Russian Embassy to pick up my transit visa. I won’t go into too much detail but let it be said that the system is retarded. I’d spoken to the Russians back in Beijing who’d told me that I wasn’t eligible for a tourist visa application outside of my official country of residence (a bit awkward seeing as I don’t live anywhere) but that I could get a 10-day transit visa at any embassy, provided I showed them proof of all tickets across the country. Easy. I wanted to take the Trans-Mongolian anyway so the bookings had to be done at some time. Set about getting them all in place. I should mention here that the folks at Real Russia were amazingly helpful and I would recommend them to anyone trying to navigated the Russian bureaucratic maze.
The Russian Embassy in UB is open to accept applications for one hour every day between 2 and 3pm. Lazy fecks. Because every application is fraught with difficulties, you have to be in line by 1.30pm latest or you will not be one of the three (average) people that the diplomats see each day. You’d think given the amount of time they spend with each person that they carefully appraise each application for any mistakes, tell you what to correct or if you’re not eligible for a visa so that you can limit your trips to, say, two.
They don’t. They drip feed you information and invent excuses every day. I went back every day for five days. ‘You cannot have more than one stop’. ‘This booking confirmation isn’t valid.’ By the end they said the queueing system didn’t apply to me as I was ‘resident’. And the final reason that the alcoholic, sociopathic diplomat in shiny trousers said ‘it was not possible’ to issue a transit visa? Something to do with suspected espionage? Journalistic fears?
Nope. That I didn’t have two *facing* pages clear in the passport. Two clear pages, but not facing. I asked why, given that the visa is one sticker and they stamp on the sticker but it was apparently out of his hands. You can no longer get extra pages added to the British passport (something to do with terrorists and forgeries and whatnot) and you can’t trust a Russian sociopath when he says he will accept other documents from your Embassy on an urgent basis.
In a last ditch attempt to get a visa, I went for the Consul himself to ask for special dispensation. Obviously that’s not as easy as it sounds. I asked if I could call him or make an appointment to see him.
Sociopath: ‘it is better if you write him a letter.’
me: ‘How can I deliver the letter? Isn’t there an email address? Can’t I just make an appointment?’
Sociopath: ‘You could try his secretary.’
Me: ‘Who is his secretary?’
Sociopath: ‘I am’
Me: ‘Can I make an appointment?’
Me: ‘Can you pass him a letter?’
Found a way, by hook or by crook. It fucked them around a bit more, to my pleasure, but the answer was still no. So in a small attempt at getting the karmic wheel moving, I found all their direct line phone numbers on the internet and posted it to the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum, sincerely hoping that everyone who wants a visa there now gives the Ambassador a bell directly. And that the phones are ringing off the hook.
Anyway, some things ain’t meant to be so I checked out the town in its entirety and, plan for the great train epic foiled by Russian red tape, booked onto an Aeroplop flight through to Helsinki. Ironically stopping for 6 hours in Moscow airport on the way. With it’s shocking safety record, it wasn’t an airline I particularly wanted to travel with, but the alternatives were Air Mongolia and Ukraine International Airway. Rock – hard place.
Near Ulaanbaatur, along a road lined with people selling wild mushrooms, yoghurt and berries, some reverential business men have clubbed together and built a giant statue of Chenggis Khan. It’s excellent. Inside they screen a film of the life and times of Ghengis; there’s a giant version of a Mongolian boot and you can take a lift up on to the horse’s head. They are also steadily surrounding it with mini (by comparison) statues of men on horseback, wearing the face of the bloke that has paid for it. I can only imagine that archaeologists in years to come will have a new Terracotta Warriors-esque mystery on their hands. They’ll have a field day. ‘What in the feck were they doing?’ they’ll ask themselves.
I got to know and love Ulaanbaatur. It’s packed full of great coffee shops, bars and restaurants. It can be a bit rough and ready, but ain’t that the best way?
Everyone – everyone – will warn you to be careful of pick pockets and it is a massive problem. It was estimated at one point that one in four travellers would fall victim during their stay. Mostly they are kids working in gangs who will try to distract you while the other has a rifle through your bag. The Black Market is one place teeming with them, as you’d expect. They only tried my tightly clutched bag the once but I was too wiley for their tricks. Or they were just really amateur.
Apparently there are more sinister gangs who will try to mug and strangle you after dark. Which is why they say not to go out after dark. In the day, the city feels perfectly normal so I didn’t chance the night time too much.
Interesting fact – in Mongolia it is considered unlucky to stand on someone else’s feet. You can rectify the ‘bad luck’ mistake by immediately shaking the person’s hand. Or just grabbing it. Think that might be a ruse used by the pickpockets too though.
There is a big Buddhist temple in the city, Gandan Monastery, that Mongolians celebrate as one of their national symbols. It’s got a 26m high statue of the Buddha in it, plus some ace fire God. Plus the Dalai Lama set up home here for a bit in the early 20th century. So it must be good. And a nice Summer Palace where a tramp spat on me. That’s on the way to the Buddha Park which is a lovely place to hang out on a sunny day with all the families and their bubble guns. You cross a river on the way where, on a weekend, you can see all the locals dicking around in the crystal clear waters and picnicking at the side. Idyllic.
Unfortunately I’d just missed the famous Nadaam Festival that take place for a week around 11th July every year. In Mongolia you are only considered manly if you can shoot a bow and arrow, race a horse and wrestle. The wrestling uniform is a rather bizarre pair of large pants, a hat and a cut-away waistcoat. Rumour has it that the waistcoat used to meet at the middle but one year there was a scandal when a woman won the contest so they now check for fun cushions. The winner of any given wrestle is entitled to do the eagle dance. It looks a bit gay from a Western perspective but you wouldn’t tell any of the hulking great Mongolian wrestlers that.