Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 2 Ulan Bator and the Trans-Mongolian

Part 2 Ulan Bator and the Trans-Mongolian

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I arrived in Ulan Bator early afternoon on the 21st March having slept pretty well on the train. I found the lilting of the carriages accompanied by the metronome click-clacking of the rails helped me drift off…with sufficient beer.

I received a free transfer from the train station to LG Guest House hostel. It was only 400 metres from the station but I was to learn that that was a real stroke of luck that they offered the service by email prior to my arrival. It was a shithole around the train station and a shithole around the guest house. In fact, with the exception of a few gentrified, newly built newly moneyed Mongolian condo areas, and the area around Sukbhatar Square where the government buildings and museums are, it’s pretty much all a big messy shithole. There’s wifi on the buses but no street signs, not even in Mongolian.

Nevertheless, I’d be remiss to mention the following. This was a couple of years ago now and there appeared to be a lot of growth and development. The rate of that growth, with the yurt slums around the outskirts, seemingly indicating a migration into the city by people that still preferred the traditional Mongolian mode of housing and/or that they couldn’t yet afford the nice new condominiums being built in different areas of the burgeoning metropolis.

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I went for a walk to pick up my ticket for the next train from an agent in an office near Sukhbatar Square and got lost almost immediately, even with the big map kindly provided to me by the lady at the hostel. Generally, I don’t mind getting lost. I feel getting lost lends itself to really discovering a place and getting to know it as you have to truly have a good look around. On this occasion, with the strong icy winds slashing at my face like a gang of Glaswegian teenagers, and the fact that there was almost nothing of any note to look at save horrible communist era buildings and rubbish, it wasn’t a nice experience.

Walking across the bridge below, for the first and actually only time, the cold worried me. It worried me physically as the wind on my face and hands seemed to cause an excess of adrenaline. It was as if my body was confused by what was happening and thoughts of being swept head first down onto the frozen river filled my head.

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Across the bridge, I found one of the nicer aforementioned affluent areas with a university and a bank and some bars and restaurants. No one could speak enough English to direct me to Sukhbatar Square which is akin to a Korean tourist in London failing to get directions to Leicester Square.

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Nazi Bank

I finally walked into a bank, changed some dollars into the baffling local currency Togrog and asked the pretty English speaking teller for directions. I was apparently miles off-track and I was directed back over the bridge of death and….right. I finally found Sukhbathar Square, a central area dominated by a large government building fronted by a statue of Genghis looking grimly determined while having a nice sit down.

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The above was where I picked up the tickets, and is a fair representation of how uninviting almost every commercial building’s facade looked from bars that looked as if they should be called Knifey McKnife’s, Salmonella R Us restaurants, and shops you wouldn’t want to buy a box of matches from.

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Mongolian cuisine another chance and headed to the Modern Nomad restaurant. Here, I chose a plate that according to the menu gave a good selection of all the Mongolian favourites. The best I can say about it was that it was edible, but never has a national cuisine cried out more for some kind of sauce. A dollop of ketchup would have tripled the tastiness of the meal. But there was wifi in the restaurant so that made everything OK.

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After dinner, I found a bar that looked like I could have a drink without getting my throat slit and took the edge off while working out the route to walk back to my guest house.

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Unfortunately, the guest house was in the wrong place on google maps leaving me totally disoriented and again lost in a city devoid of signs.

Ulan Bator in the daylight is just an eyesore. People allow their kids to take open air shits along busy roads but at night there’s a more dangerous edge to the place. Public drunkenness is rife, muggings where victims are held from behind while an accomplice rifles through their pockets are, according to the guidebook, one of the more popular crimes and attacks on foreigners and mixed-race couples are also supposedly commonplace. I was walking near the main shopping centre, the State Department Store, when one of a pair of rather burly looking Mongolians veered directly towards me to give me a ‘Do you fucking want some?’ shove to my shoulder. I thought better of it, shook my head and marched on.

After wandering into what seemed to be an open air drug market and failing to get a taxi for a while as most Mongolians seem happy to just flag down random unmarked illegal cabs that will either take them to their destinations or perhaps rape them in a car park, I buckled and walked into a largish hotel and asked them to call a cab for me to my hotel.

Back at the hotel, I drank some beer, watched Deuce Bigalow Male Gigalow in Mongolian and went to sleep.

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I was leaving Ulan Bator late in the evening, so I had almost a full day to take advantage of the little that the city had to offer. Knowing now that the city wasn’t great for walking I looked into what buses I could take to get me back to Sukhbatar Square and the museums that were adjacent to it.

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I got to the square on the cheap bus and headed to the Mongolian National Museum.

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There were lots of pictures of Putin on the ground floor. They appear to like the Russians as much as they dislike the Chinese.

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In the main area upstairs there were loads of examples of the traditional dress of the multitudes of different tribes/ethnic groups found in Mongolia. Fascinating.

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To be honest, the only things worth looking at there was this Mongol horde warrior in full battle getup and a yurt.

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The National History Museum was better though still in dire need of smartening up. This vulture was the size of an eight year old boy. There was a decent dinosaur exhibition there. Still nothing to write home about.

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I saw a few different Beatles monuments in the ex-communist areas as if they were the embodiment of everything they’d been missing.
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It started snowing outside. It seemed to snow every time I was leaving somewhere. I doubted that the snow would be able to prettify Ulan Battor, however.

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Leaving the Mongolian capital, I reflected that Ulan Bator simply wasn’t ready for tourists or at least were someone to go there, they should arm themselves with transfers and guides to take them to wherever they want to go and that can only really be to stay in a yurt in the Gobi desert as far away from the city as possible.  Am I glad I went there? Definitely. Much like being a supporter of a football team that isn’t Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester United, you’ve got to know the lows to truly appreciate the highs, and travelling is certainly no different.

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It was dark and still snowing when I left Ulan Bator for the 29 hour trip to Irkutsk in Siberia. I had bought a range of different beers to try. I found myself in a 2nd class compartment with Charles and Kate who I’d met on the train from Beijing and were up to Moscow on exactly the same itinerary as me. They had been working in IT and law respectively in Hong Kong for a year and were taking the train back to London. They were very nice and I was lucky to have been roomed with them for the two nights we were going to spend on the train.

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The scenery was as one might imagine, fairly sparse. The stations were rather bland in comparison with what was to come in Russia. The trip would be shorter than the previous one, but we would spend 6-7 hours going through the good cop/bad cop routines of Mongolian and Russian passport control.

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I went to sleep, knowing that I’d be waking up in Siberia.

Part 3 Irkutsk and the Trans-Siberian

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