Inner City Blues
The two sets of giant nuclear smokestacks on the way into town would be a precursor to what would be a very industrial city. I don’t know what I expected from Ulaanbaatar, really: maybe something more “traditional” and quaint? Perhaps little corner tea houses, rickshaws rolling down narrow streets and red lanterns hung on trees? I was way off.
What I got was a massive, gray, and “blah” spread-out metropolis, filled with lots of traffic and those big, ugly Soviet-style buildings. This may sound like an insult, but it’s not. It’s just what Ulaanbaatar is – a city completely different than I imagined. And that’s okay, I still enjoyed my time here. And if you look hard enough, and walk far enough, you can see some cool (and even beautiful) things in this town.
I’d have three nights here. Landing at 7:20am, I was lucky enough to have a full first day. After my early check-in and freshen-up at the Holiday Inn, it was out to explore the streets of Ulaanbaatar! Come along, won’t you?
The highlight of my stop here was the weather. It was March and when I checked the weather earlier in the week, it was calling for high temps in the 40s, with a low of 7 degrees. I was dreading the cold. I’d packed jackets, sweaters, scarves, hats and even thermal underwear. By midday I didn’t even need a sweater – the weather was absolutely divine! I realize weather-talk is boring stuff for a blog – but you just need to know how thankful I was. I’d dodged crappy weather on both ends and hit a sweet spot of sunshine and 70s and I was just so grateful!
My first stop this morning was a place called California Restaurant, where I ordered American pancakes. I’d have plenty of time for traditional Mongolian food while I was here, but I’d been away from home for a week and was just craving some carbs and syrup.
After breakfast, I continued my pleasant stroll through the streets, over to the Beatles Monument and then the post office. Color me crazy, but I needed to mail a letter to Kim Jong Un. I knew the chances of getting a letter to North Korea‘s “Dear Leader” from the US were slim to none, but from Mongolia? Maybe! It was hard to keep a straight face when I handed the letter to the woman at the counter inside the Mongolian Post. But soon enough, my letter was stamped and on the way. I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m sending a letter to Kim Jong Un. I have to leave some things a mystery, don’t I?
Next, it was over to Sükhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar’s central plaza. I admired a few statues and the grand building. There were tents set up around the square selling books and a group of female dancers entertaining the crowd. I was warming up to Ulaanbaatar.
I was most interested in the protest/march quickly developing and growing larger in the square. Every travel advisory I’ve ever read warns visitors to stay far away from demonstrations, and I here I was, super nosy – trying to figure out what the message was here. I asked a couple of reporters on the scene what was happening. They completely ignored me. That was awkward. I headed across the street for a coffee before returning to the hotel to rest for a spell.
The Plane, The Plane
It looked like I’d seen about all there is to see in the city, minus the big museum – so I turned to a website called Atlas Obscura. A.O. provides lists of “bizarre” things to see all around the world, in every city and town and on the roads in-between. One look at the listing of the old Soviet Antonov An-24 resting in between buildings in a nearby residential neighborhood, and my plans were set. Some people enjoy safaris and snorkeling on their vacations – I like to walk miles to look at old, weird planes, parked in places they don’t belong! What can I say, I’m a wild and crazy guy!
Now I Know my ABCs
On the way home I stopped into a convenience store to try some local candy. I loved the Nesquick strawberry milk candy bar and the chocolate bar with mango filling. Healthy eating at its finest.
Check out the print on the lower right of the chocolate bar though: Now’s a good time to mention they use the Russian alphabet here in Mongolia, which I thought was super strange – but then again, maybe not because of Mongolia’s proximity to Russia (they are next-door neighbors). At first, I thought I was seeing Russian with all that Cyrillic script around town on so many of the signs and storefronts. Turned out, it’s indeed Mongolian, just using Cyrillic letters. The Russian letters were introduced to the Mongolian People’s Republic under Soviet influence, in the 1940s, and used ever since. However, Mongolia has announced plans to restore the use of its traditional alphabet by 2025. I find this all so super interesting.
After some chill time at the hotel, it was back out on the street to find dinner, which was a challenge. I just didn’t see anything that spoke to me. I had high hopes. I finally settled on a local Mongolian chain restaurant that offered horse on the menu. When in Rome – I wanted to at least try horse once in my life. But alas, they were all out. I settled for chicken and rice which was nothing to write home about. Little did I know that tomorrow night’s meal would be quite the adventure.
Next Day’s Function
I’d actually planned to spend my entire time here in the city until a Facebook friend insisted I book a tour with the guide he’d recently used. I ended up booking a last-minute, two-day out-of-town trip with the company he recommended and I’m so glad I did. I’m not sure I could’ve enjoyed three whole days in Ulaanbaatar. I met my guide Chess the next morning and we headed out of town for an overnight adventure!
First, to the Genghis Khan Statue Complex. It was enormous! At 40 meters, it’s the largest equestrian statue in the world. It was quite a sight and photos can never do justice to this massive, shiny national hero and his horse rising up into the sky. It was absolutely spectacular.
After Genghis Khan, it was over to Gorkhi Terelj National Park, where we passed by Turtle Rock and then stopped at Ariyabal Temple. I enjoyed walking the paths, crossing an old, wooden suspension bridge, and then climbing stone stairs to finally arrive at the temple. I made the journey solo (my guide stayed back at the car) and I really enjoyed the solitude. What a place to be alone with your thoughts. Such a great reset!
High Class Luncheon
Next, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for traditional Mongolian cuisine. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I ate the Mongolian beef! I especially enjoyed the fried meat pies called huushuur. Very tasty!
After lunch we drove to Khustai National Park where we witnessed dozens of wild deer and then wild horses. We really got close. It was magical.
All in the Family
Minutes after exiting the park, we left the road and, to my surprise, we were completely off-roading in this Toyota Prius. I thought it might have just been a five-minute shortcut, but minutes turned into an hour-plus, maybe more. Where the heck were we going? This was the true definition of BFE, if there ever was such a place!
Finally, we arrived at two yurts, more commonly referred to as ghers here in Mongolia. It was just the two traditional, round structures and that was it. Nothing else for miles and miles. This would be my accommodations for the night. How exciting!
I was introduced to the Jargalsaikhan family. It was husband, wife, grandfather and a nephew: a tot that must’ve been about four years old. This was 100% the real deal: a traditional Mongolian family that lived off the land – so far away from any roads or electricity. Just the bare plains, the animals and a simple house. A single solar panel provided power for the lights and TV inside each house – they even had a satellite dish, but that was it! The outhouse was a small wooden box, situated over a hole – about a hundred feet from the residence.
I especially enjoyed seeing all the animals on-premise. Especially one little baby goat that took a liking to me and his image on my iPhone’s camera screen. And that part on the USA immigration card asking if I’ve “been close to any farm animals or livestock?” Yikes! Can I plead the fifth? I just wanted to cuddle with this little guy all day!
After sunset, the family served me dinner inside the gher. This was probably the cleanest food I’d ever eat in my life – everything coming from the land, just feet away – talk about organic! We had tea with milk, lamb, bread, and carrots(?). I knew from experience not to go for the khuruud – these little white morsels look like Italian wedding cookies, but don’t be fooled! They are really chunks of dry, fermented (and very sour) milk. I learned the hard way in Kyrgyzstan last year! Yuck-o!
After dinner and some chit-chat, it was time for bed. I felt bad that the family was giving up their main sleeping quarters for me, but they insisted. It was lights out, as I disconnected the wire leading from the LED lights to the car battery sitting on the shelf. Suddenly I was in complete darkness and quiet, minus a few intermittent animal noises from outside.
We Ride at Dawn
I awoke to the sound of an animal rubbing against the side of the gher. I was afraid a hoof would poke through and stab me in the side of the head! I took a walk outside before breakfast, then it was up onto a horse to herd the animals with Dad. Okay, so he was the only one who actually herded the animals, I just came along for the ride, but we can pretend, can’t we?
I was mesmerized at Mr. Jargalsaikhan’s craft: the way he was able to corral so many wild animals with a simple vocal gesture. The man was definitely in charge. He made it look easy. I thought about how I’d survive if I was left out here by myself. I wouldn’t last a day out here on my own. And it wasn’t even cold – I could only imagine how tough it’d be out here with sub-zero Mongolian winter temps in January. A shiver went up my spine just thinking about it.
Back to the Hotel
It was soon time to go – I had a 1PM Corona Virus test appointment back in the city that I could not be late for. The drive back was grueling. It seemed like forever. Sitting in the back of a Prius, taking in all the bumps, dips and turns as we speed through the plains (off-road) was taking a toll on me. I craved my room back at The Holiday Inn: the big comfy bed, the hot shower, the TV, the room service. Just one night in the sticks and I realized what a city-boy I really am! How did I get so spoiled? I really enjoyed the overnight outing, but couldn’t imagine spending more than a night away from a hotel room. I have many friends who’ll stay out in the bush with the tribes of South Sudan for days – I don’t know how they do it, but much respect.
Back in the city, traffic slowed to a crawl just a couple miles from my destination. I thought we’d never arrive, but thankfully we did – I needed out of that car. Chess dropped me off at the clinic where I took my test and then I footed it back to the hotel and never enjoyed a hot shower this much in my life.
For my last meal, I treated myself to a meatball sandwich and Oreo milkshake at Ted’s Diner. I needed some comfort food! This was my last stop – I’d begin the long journey home the next morning.
That afternoon, both the cold and the wind arrived. As evening approached, the weather become more and more unfriendly. I wasn’t mad at all – I’d really lucked out weather-wise for most of the trip. I turned in early, packing my bags and then relaxing a bit before knocking out.
I enjoyed the flight from Ulaanbaatar to Seoul aboard MIAT – my first time flying with them. It was a successful and rewarding trip through countries 176 through 178. 15 more to go. It’s the final countdown.This entry was posted in Asia