After getting into Ulaanbaatar (UB) I fought through the throng of locals fighting for travellers to stay at their hotels, hostels, inns and what not. I decided to go find the hotel I had been instructed to go to by Intrepid. So off I walked alone into the city armed with only my guidebook and an address.
However, I should probably explain that I wasn’t feeling my best, I was tired and suffering from a slight headache. To explain the source of my body’s weakness I need to finish up the border torture entry from yesterday. As the border torture was coming to an end, I decided that it was time for the vodka to be opened. Sorry Chris and Lisa, I had meant some of this vodka for you in Shanghai, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Yannis was afraid that that it was illegal to drink (I personally didn’t care) so we poured the vodka into a water bottle and shared it from there.
During the vodka delight, I met two of the girls on our carriage. Verity, from Brisbane, was travelling with her parents and younger sister. She was an economy/law student at Uni and possibly attending the World Debating Championships in Vancouver BC. The other girl, Marina, was Russian and to my surprise was not 16 years old as I had previously thought but a much older engineering student from Irkutsk. She could understand my accent but was having trouble with Verity’s fast-paced speech. Regardless, the first bottle vanished and then we joined some British youngsters in another carriage – James, Hannah and Tamsin who were all travelling before starting Uni in the fall. By this time Yannis was quite drunk and by midnight we had to pour him into bed. I gave my address out to the folks… I wonder if anyone will contact me, I especially wonder if Marina will check out the site. She was very quiet but I had the feeling there was much more bubbling to get out. Plus she was cute (okay she’s young – shut up Craig, I can hear you and Cathy having fits of laughter reading this).
So now there I was still slightly filled with vodka and walking down the streets of UB. After an hour of walking from the station carrying my 25kg rucksack I reached the Michelle Hotel. Next time, I think I will check the scale of maps in guidebooks before assuming everything on one page can’t be that far! The staff of Michelle Hotel looked up my name in their register and unceremoniously dumped me into a taxi and sent me along to Annujin Hotel (imagine my bewilderment) where they gave me a room.
For Mongolia, I had decided that it was too much effort to try and book everything by myself and had instead contacted Andrea at the Adventure Travel Company in Edmonton and they had booked me a tour with Intrepid for 16 days in Mongolia. I had arrived ahead of the rest of the group who were to number ten or eleven. Since this was my day alone, I hit some museums. Armed with guidebooks, I checked out the Choijin Llama temple and the State History Museum both of which were superb! I also attempted to pick up my train tickets out of UB only to be told that they couldn’t find them and come back later.
I did run into the British youngsters from the train, James, Hannah and Tamsin on the streets. They were in a tizzy as they couldn’t find a bank with a working ATM. They needed to money that day (Sunday) to buy train tickets before they closed for the Naadam Festival held between 10 and 13 July. I think some tempers were starting to flare up, so I left them and went in search of email access.
I was shocked when I finally opened my e-mail. I had several e-mails wondering if I was okay and alive. I was completely confused as to why everyone had suddenly thought I was dead until I came upon Corey’s e-mail with a link to the news story. An S7 – Siberia plane flying from Moscow to Irkutsk had crashed at Irkutsk Airport just after I had left Irkutsk. Over 120 people (mostly children heading to Lake Baikal for summer) were feared dead as the plane had apparently overshot the runway in rainy weather (the same weather that had flooded the river) and crashed into a building.
Coincidentally, Anton had driven me to the airport so I could see the tails of the Soviet Migs that are parked at the airport. He had jokingly turned to me and said, “Four or five years ago the Irkutsk Airport had a reputation for having planes fall out of the sky as the runway was a little short.” Seeing my rather shocked face and my glance to a landing plane, he added quickly “Don’t worry, the airport is much safer now, nothing’s happened in four or five years!”
S7 – Siberia was the same airline I had flown to the Caucasus. Oddly the plane that crashed was a modern Airbus, maybe I shouldn’t have feared their aging Tupolev’s as much. For the time being heed my sage advice, trains are the best way into, inside and out of Russia, even with the border torture. Hopefully everyone I met in Irkutsk is safe and sound.
I spent my Sunday evening searching for a good Indian restaurant. I had not had spicy food for almost a month and I seriously needed some good curry. Due to my love for restaurants named “Taj Mahal” I searched high and low for the one listed in the guidebook in UB but ended up at Hazara near the Annujin Hotel. The food was okay but not to the gold standard of Indian restaurants – The Taj Mahal in St. John’s, Newfoundland during the 1996-2002 years. The Indian head waiter told me there were about 40 Indians living in UB, though he might have meant 40 families. I may not have mentioned but, for the most part Mongolian women are gorgeous, the servers at this restaurant exemplified this theory.
So my thoughts on Mongolia so far? In some respects Mongolia reminded me of Russia which had controlled this country for so many years. In others it reminded me of a fledgling Asian country. Looking at its geographical position between Russia and China I guess this mixture was natural. The road and building signs were fairly familiar to me as they were in cyrillic. The same Soviet housing schemes as in Russian towns ran rampant. They were soulless boxes of concrete with many small windows suggesting many small apartments. Most were run-down, with paint peeling and concrete breaking off. Once you passed the walls and entered the square in between such apartment blocks the sight was even worse. The grounds had not drained from a heavy rainfall a couple of days ago and had left large stagnant and dirt puddles for the residents to ferry over.
There were new condominiums going up and construction seemed to be a booming sector, but I wondered how much was going to be affordable to the average Mongolian. Traffic was chaotic and this reminded me most of Asia. There were bus conductors in vans yelling out destinations and picking people up, similar to Sri Lanka.
The people themselves have been incredibly nice and hospitable. The tourism industry seems more important to Mongolia than to energy rich and industrial Russia. Having now spent three weeks with the generally stoic Russians, it was pleasant to have smiles thrown at you from every direction. Thankfully, I was no longer the obvious foreigner here as I was in Russia. So far no one has singled me out or tried taking a photo of me. This might also be part of Mongolian culture. Either way I am impressed so far and looking forward to the Naadam Festival and seeing the rural areas.
Which leads me to what is happening today (Monday). My roommate for the Intrepid tour has shown up. Derek was from the west coast of the United States but now working in Manila as a school counsellor. Apparently we won’t be meeting the rest of the group till early evening today so we have the day to wander around UB again.