Forget About the Chicken Trying to Cross the Road ….. Ulaan Bataar … Yikes!!
After our all night experiences of our China/Mongolia border crossings last night and dealing with both lots of authorities at each border, we could now settle back into enjoying our Mongolian experiences.
We were still crossing the Gobi Desert which was nothing like I had imagined it for other than its vastness for, this was a green desert which didn’t fit my image of it at all.
Due to recent unseasonal rainfall, we were very lucky to be seeing it at its best but, at the same time felt as though we had been robbed of our true experience in imagining what it would be like to be crossing one of the world’s most inhospitable areas as, we were looking out onto something totally different and felt that there was something wrong with this picture.
This was the Gobi desert! Large herds of stock were grazing on the short green grass – horses, cattle, sheep, goats and camels.
We were passing through quite a lot of towns – some large, some only small villages with a half dozen dwellings and, of course, the occasional isolated ger (traditional nomadic dwelling) sitting all alone in the desert.
There were people here and there everywhere, going about their daily tasks. There were lots of vehicles going to and fro on the many roads that seemed to criss-cross in all directions across the vast plains.
Sometimes there would be small lake here and there as well as undulating hills in the distance with wind farms and communication towers everywhere, enabling us to have mobile phone reception all the way across the desert; telephone lines with a linesman checking along the wires on his motorbike.
There were coal mines and long coal trains with railway trucks loaded to capacity with coal for shipping to wherever it had to go.
There were late-model 4WD’s (SUV’s); commercial vehicles; trucks and local residents driving around in their shiny new-looking vehicles.
All these scenes of modern everyday life.
Even the occasional underground house such as we see in remote areas of Australia where summer temperatures can soar to over 50 deg Celsius.
Even at home in Oz, we will sometimes say, “it’s a bit Gobi out there today” – meaning, that it is a very hot day. Here, their underground homes would do double duty, I suppose – to combat the extreme summer temperatures of the desert and to also be a snug warmer residence in the sub-zero temperatures of winter when it’s -35 or -40 degrees below zero.
Suffice to say that the Gobi was nothing like I have imagined it all of my life.
Yes, there were camels and there were nomads but, my visions of it being more like the Sahara desert with a “Lawrence of Arabia” type landscape, was way out of kilter.
Undoubtedly, there are parts of it that are like that and, that the scenes we were seeing from the train was the concentration of civilisation in close proximity to the railway line and its access to the outside world.
We travelled all morning until mid-afternoon, delighting in the scenes we were seeing outside the windows of our Trans-Mongolian train.
By now, the countryside was changing somewhat or, at least the route that our train was taking. Because we were now experiencing more hills, the railway line was having to curve around some of them as we headed towards Ulaan Bataar, the capital of Mongolia – in the winter months, the coldest capital city in the world.
This then gave us some excellent opportunities to try and get some photos of the length of our train as it curved around ahead of us and also behind us.
Our crowd was lucky in that our carriage was somewhere in the middle of the train so, we could get quite a good view of the curvature of the train as it rounded a bend in the track in either direction.
Luckily, we were able to get our hands and forearms just outside the European-style windows of the train that only tilted downwards from the top a bit, leaving a small gap, enabling us to be able to hold our cameras just outside (which meant we didn’t have to try and take a photo through the less-than-clean glass of the window) and so, get a much clearer photo of the length of the train.
This we managed to achieve so, were more than happy that we had been able to get a clear photo similar to those you see in travel magazines.
By now, we were only about an hour out of Ulaan Bataar and could see it quite clearly in the distance as we approached. We were still seeing large herds of horses (domesticated) and cattle as well as more frequent small villages and houses with very colourful rooves – red, blue, green and yellow. We were to learn later that Mongolians love colour.
We arrived in Ulaan Bataar at 2pm. Nemo, our local guide was there to meet us with the mini-van, along with his brother, Oggie, who was to be our driver for the next few days.
After our 30-hour trip from Beijing, we all trooped out from the train station, dragging our bags and baggage behind us as we managed to stash all of our gear as well as ourselves, into our mini-van.
The railway car park was like an overgrown jigsaw puzzle in itself with the cars as the pieces. They were squeezed in at every angle you could imagine. Getting them out was even more of a logistical nightmare.
Most times there were only centimetres to spare, as the cars involved had to back and fill to squeeze past, often having to back up and try again, once more, usually with only centimetres of manoeuvering room to do so whilst all the while, the traffic policeman on duty (in the car park – we hadn’t even made it onto the street yet!) was madly gesticulating with his baton and blowing his whistle.
It then became a combined effort with everyone getting involved for, whoever else of the general public happened to be standing around outside, all tried to help, with us sitting inside, peering out of the windows at this juggling exercise, all the time expecting to hear the scrape and crunch of metal as we tried to squeeze by.
Miraculously, we made it onto the street unscathed (even with side mirrors still intact) but then, it was here that the real fun began.
Traffic in Ulaan Bataar is like this massive fairground of dodgem (bumper) cars on steroids. Organised chaos certainly and, you really need your wits about you and can take your life into your own hands in just trying to cross the road.
Pedestrian crossings don’t mean anything nor apparently, do traffic lights – especially if your vehicle is turning into a side street. Vehicles and pedestrians battle it out to be either, the first to cross the road or the first to turn the corner. Nevermind, that as a pedestrian, you are supposed to have right of way if the lights at the crossing for the oncoming traffic, are red.
There is much horn-blowing and arm waving and road-rage is alive and well on the streets of UB. Traffic is always in a constant jam at any time of the day or night. Forget peak-hour – it’s like this all the time. No wonder drivers get frustrated. Also, the fact that both right-hand and left-hand drive vehicles share the road in Mongolia has to add another confusing aspect to the road rules thereby making collisions even more likely.
Several times, Oggie, our driver, had to get us as close as possible to our hotel in the few days we were there, then park somewhere (usually on the footpath) for us all to leap out to walk the last 200-300 metres home as, many times, the traffic wasn’t going anywhere. It was total gridlock.
Crossing the road isn’t for the faint-hearted either. Just after we arrived and had stashed our stuff at the hotel, we headed off on our 20-minute walk to the Museum of National History.
Crossing a wide street, I was about halfway across when a woman pedestrian coming towards me from the opposite direction was almost knocked down right in front of me by a vehicle turning into the road – just missing her by centimetres as she leapt out of the way.
2/3rds of the way across, I hear a bang behind me and a crunch of metal. A minor bingle had occurred in the middle of the pedestrian crossing and about a dozen other people who were also trying to cross the road. Such happenings are guaranteed to put your heart rate up!
We continued on with our afternoon walking tour of the city, stopping for short while in Sukhbaatar Square, the main square of the city, named after “the hero of the revolution”, Damdin Sukhbaatar where, in July 1921, he declared Mongolia’s final independence from the Chinese. The square was named after him which also boasts a huge statue of him sitting astride his horse.
Some( almost) 70-odd years later, he may not have been quite so happy if he knew that it was also here in 1990, in this very same square, that the first protests took place which ultimately led to the fall of communism.
Bordering one side of the square is Parliament House where, at the entrance to the building is a massive statue of Genghis Khan seated in the centre with two of his trusted generals flanking him on either side – his son Ogedei and his grandson, Kublai Khan.
The square itself is quite impressive and covers a huge area and is also a favourite meeting place for families to come and spend time. You can also hire bicycles to ride around on or, the tiny remote-controlled cars that small children can sit in and pretend to drive which mum or dad control from a distance, seeming to be a favourite with parents for the younger members of the family.
Since communism finished in 1990, there has been a movement to change the name of Ulaan Bataar back to one of its ancient Mongolian names (of which there have been several) which is something that the Mongolian people feel very strongly about. Our guide said that it will probably happen but, it will take awhile. Ulaan Bataar is a Soviet name from the communist era meaning, “Red Hero”.
We then went on to the Museum of National History where we only had an hour so, Ted, Jen and I headed straight for the ancient history section and the history of Genghis Khan where Nemo explained at length about Genghis and the Mongolian Empire (but, that’s another story) which, even today, around 800 years later, still retains the title of having been the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. His empire stretched from China in the east to Europe in the west and as far south to what we know today, as Vietnam.
In more recent times, the old country/province of Inner Mongolia was the “buffer zone” between China and Mongolia in earlier days when China began to expand its borders and took over this part of Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is no more, as far as Mongolians today are concerned, and hasn’t been for many years, but the Mongolians don’t waste time crying over spilt milk. They regard it as part of their past history and today, forget that it ever existed.
After our visit to the museum, we then went on to a Mongolian cultural show to see and hear some of their traditional music and to see the musicians play many different musical instruments. Here, we would also get to hear the famous Mongolian throat singing.
Khoomii (Mongolian throat singing) has many different types of sounds. Scientific research has found that as many as 12 different sounds can be identified. The sounds can come from the larynx, the bottom and top of the throat, the stomach and the palate. The result is that the singer can produce two different sounds, simultaneously.
One sound is like a low-pitched, guttural growl whilst the other, a higher-pitched melodious whistle but, it is more a chest-whistle rather than coming from the lips, which is where we usually associate the sound of whistling to come from.
Today, khoomii can be studied in 4 separate universities across Mongolia. It is a very difficult technique to learn and for students, the teaching of it is very selective.
If you would like to hear an example of it, there is an excellent video on YouTube: Unreal: Mongolian Throat Singing. Just Google, “Mongolian Throat Singing”.
In conjunction with throat singing, the accompanying instrument is the marin whoor (horsehead violin/cello-type musical instrument) which is an ancient, traditional Mongolian stringed instrument that has been around since before the time of Genghis Khan. It is still played all over Mongolia by the many different ethnic groups – the Daur, Buryats, Mongols, Khalka and Khazaks. It’s Mongolia’s most ancient, traditional and famous instrument. It has a square body, a long neck, a horsehead shape on the top, two strings and a hollow, vibrating soundbox something like a guitar.
We all spent the next hour listening to the music and hearing the artists play and sing whilst feasting our eyes upon the elaborate costumes of the performers.
Towards the end of the performance, we also got to see perhaps the most talented contortionist I have ever seen.
This girl was just amazing while we watched, transfixed, as she went through her routine. I never knew that the human body could be formed into such extraordinary positions.
During our few days in UB, we were to discover that quite a number of things cost you extra if you wanted to take photographs i.e. the museum we had just been in and our cultural show was also no exception but, I gladly handed over my T10,000 Mongolian Tughriks (about $AUD6) for this show as, it was really something quite special.
At the conclusion of the show, it was now time for dinner so, headed to “Nomad’s Restaurant” on the way back home, where Ted and I had a dish called, “The Highwayman”, which was a selection of 3 meats – pork, lamb and horse …. yes, …. horse.
Dinner tonight was to be another one of those occasions where, you know – when in Rome, or Mongolia – you have to try the local dishes.
Horse is quite a common meat in Mongolia so, thought that we had better try it.
Have to say, that it was okay – nothing startling but, it was quite tasty, sliced thinly in a light gravy and not thicker as in a steak. Another occasion whereby you had to disassociate your thoughts away from what you were eating and just consider it as another meat.
Overall, the horse meat was much more tender than either the lamb or the pork which were really quite tough. Think both of them could have done with another couple of hours in the slow-cooker. The lamb and pork were so tough that I couldn’t finish eating them. Happily though, we did have a very nice small salad to go with our meal. One of the things I miss very much when we are travelling, is my salads and my vegetables if they are not available. Thankfully, all throughout Mongolia, this wasn’t an issue as both were in plentiful supply.
During our many hours of train travel, we had become very good at inventing games or other fun stuff to amuse ourselves and to help pass the time. Through one reason or another, one of these was a guessing competition to see who could correctly guess how much a pint of Guinness would cost when we got to Ulaan Bataar.
Not sure how this idea originated but, probably had something to do with Will in our group being Irish and our knowledge that there was an Irish Pub in Ulaan Bataar that just had to be checked out after our arrival.
We all had to guess how much we thought the pint would cost, with the winner (being closest in amount to the actual cost), winning said pint. Regardless of the fact as to whether you actually liked drinking Guinness or not, had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with it!
Now, bearing in mind that one Australian dollar in Mongolia is worth around T1,670 (Tughriks) in local currency, the said cost could, and would, amount to thousands!
Daughter Jenni was the overseer of the estimates given by everyone with them only to be revealed upon discovering the actual cost at the pub.
Guestimates came in during the day and even after our arrival in Ulaan Bataar but before the defining moment that night when visiting the pub, when all would be revealed and the winner announced.
After our dinner at “Nomad’s”, some of our party returned to the hotel with the others going on to check out some of the night life of Ulaan Bataar, including the Irish pub, “The Grand Khaan.”
“The Grand Khaan” is one of Ulaan Bataar’s hottest nightspots and is also a favourite hang-out for ex-pats as well as locals and was the ideal place to bring our guessing competition to its conclusion.
Jen (of Will and Jen fame) was announced as the winner of our competition and was almost the last of our group to put in a bid at T7,000, which was closest to the actual cost of T6,200 or about AUD$4. Way to go, Jen!
In Oz, a pint of Guinness can set you back somewhere around $6-$8. Not that I’m in the habit of drinking Guinness but, our guessing competition had been a fun way to help pass the time during the long hours of our train travel over the last couple of days and certainly stirred up some hilarity and friendly rivalry between all of us.
Just goes to show …. you can make your own fun in the simplest of ways ……