Slept fine for someone vicariously positioned on a top bunk of a rickety old train. Fortunately there was a sort of harness attached to the side of the bed and I strapped my leg to it. It could very well have saved me a broken arm. Baggi let me know that the Gobi had ended and the shacks and gers dotted over in the distance were the far reaches-the suburbs-of Ulaanbaatar. The houses seemed a little ramshackle but wholly liveable, and who wouldn’t want their own ger in the garden?
“Normally a family member, maybe an aunt, will live in the ger.” Baggi told me.
“How many rooms in a ger?”
“Just one room.”
“For the whole family?”
“How about if…the parents want a bigger family?”
“They will all stay there.”
“Yes, yes, but how do they…make a bigger family?”
“Thank you, Baggi. I’m wondering how the act of copulation occurs with the little’uns scamping around.”
“The family helps.”
As the gers got fewer and the shacks, houses, apartments more abundant I knew we were getting close. I washed my face, brushed my teeth and had a sachet of the Elixir of Life. All of a sudden we were stopped and it was time to go.
Ulaanbaatar train station is madness. The hustle and bustle could scare a crocodile. Animals scattered around, old women-bent at a right angle from the waist from decades of toil-selling goat’s milk by the bucket, children waist high scurrying around so quick that you keep your hands in your pockets as a precaution until you’re out of there. In Beijing, as in many city stations all over the world, it was similar but the Mongolians seemed to be a special kind of piercing when asking if you wanted a cab. We still had Baggi with us when a worker at our hostel caught sight of us (I doubt it was too hard for her) and directed us out of the pit. As we were leaving, a middle aged fat man with a Tzar’s moustache and a face like a turtle grabbed Youngja’s arm.
“Come with me! I take you, not her” He bellowed.
As our guide told him to push off he howled at us:
“This woman is shit! She is shit!”
She took it better than us. The pure rudeness and indecency of the guy shocked me. He then slinked off to abuse someone else.
We said our farewells to Baggi and caught a cab with our guide. The hostel was situated fairly central, just off ‘Peach Avenue’, the main road which cuts through the city. After the distress that Beijing’s Feel Inn bought us, the least I was hoping for was hot water and a smile.
“Is this area dangerous? Youngja asked.
“What’s the point in asking? She won’t tell you if it is.” I whispered.
“It’s very dangerous.” She said
Apparently, the area around the hostel was a pickpocket hotspot and hardly a day went by without some occurrence. There were indeed some unsavoury characters lurking and we decided that counting money in public may not be the smartest.
The hostel was located in a square. Very Soviet. Very blocky. Obviously built by the Russians, as most of Ulaanbaatar was. It reminded me of a John Le Carre novel: grey, uninviting buildings, squared off on all four sides with a park in the middle that had seen better days. If I was location hunting for a cold war film, this place would be used at the finale courtyard shootout scene.
First impressions weren’t great, there was a hole through the window where some rapscallion had pelted it with a stone the night before, but as soon as we were in it was a wonderful little place. Warm, cosy and very friendly. The manager was called Bob and was willing to help out with any little thing about which we were curious. There was free tea and coffee and a clean, empty 4 bed dorm waiting for us.
We fought the urge to go right back to sleep and got started arranging the days ahead. The first thing we did was to organise a tour for the next day. A nice old German lady, staying at the hostel told me about her tour and said she had a fantastic time: full of horses, hills and hospitality. We decided to copy her trip. Unfortunately we couldn’t spend as much time in Mongolia as we would have liked because we had to catch our train in Russia so the most time we could spend on the tour was 2 days and 1 night. Bob organised a tour that would include a driver, a tour guide, visits to the local sights and sometime in Gorkhi Terelj National Park, after which we would spend the rest of the day with a traditional Kazakh family, helping tend to their farm and generally seeing how they live. Along with other bits and bobs involved it came down to $98 each for two people. More people joining would lower the price but we couldn’t pull anyone’s leg to join us. I think it was because of Youngja. Couldn’t have been me.
We fought the urge to spend the evening in a nice, clean, warm, wifi enabled house and trudged around Ulaanbaatar. As we were leaving the manager warned us again about pickpockets.
“Not to worry. My trousers have zips.” I proudly said.
“Yes. Maybe you should still worry.”
We started at the State Department store and got some dinner. From the look on the menu it seemed that mutton would be the staple meal in Mongolia. Fine by me as I love the stuff, not as good for the lady as lamb and its variations makes her wretch. She found some friend rice and picked it apart while I wolfed down my old sheep.
We walked up the road to the Intellectual Museum, the irony being I wasn’t smart enough to find it, so we went to the dinosaur exhibition instead where there is a complete Tarbosaurus on display. The Tarbosauruses is a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus and despite the ‘museum’ being one room consisting of said dino (the main museum is under renovation), it was good to see. Pictures were strictly forbidden but I stealthily snapped a good one of it.
After that we walked down to the Government Palace, a grand, impressive edifice which serves as the offices of the President, Prime Minister and members of State Great Khural. Guarding the front of the building is a large bronze statue of Genghis Kahn, seated in his finery.
While walking through the city I surveyed the female species. Mongolian women are especially beautiful people. Long legs, big eyes and chocolate skin. A certain way they carry themselves gives them a charisma that is hard to find elsewhere.
It think I can speak for both of us when I say we didn’t fall in love with the city. It being freezing didn’t help but there is also a certain greyness to it which I’m sure would still be there in the sunshine. We wandered around a little more, went to a run-down temple that was closed, saw a Beatles memorial opposite the department store and got back to the hostel for tea, a shower and a well-deserved snooze.