Сайн байна уу?
Well, I’ve added yet another great dictator country to my repertoire. I enjoyed my unforgettable adventures in the land of Genghis Khan, but it feels good to be back home in Russia. I apologize ahead of time: this one’s a long one…
My journey began at a godlessly early hour on the second frigid morning of 2013. I did some dozing, I did some reading (despite the judging stares of my Russian bus-mates who clearly prefer to sit and stare straight ahead and do nothing on 13-hour bus-rides), but mostly I watched in awe as the magnificent Buryat and Mongolian countryside drifted past my window. I’m a sucker for beautiful nature, and this part of the world has a wealth of it.
As always, I had a fun border-hopping adventure, which involved me standing in customs for over twenty minutes while the Russians pondered the spelling of my middle name. For whatever reason, the four letters of my middle name have always presented a daunting enigma to the Russian visa transcribers—every single visa I’ve been issued has had a different transcription. The customs officials didn’t like my current transcription, and they really didn’t like the fact that it didn’t match the transcription used for my migration card. After a lot of mulling and supervisor-calling, they decided to let me pass. A rose by any other name…
Around 8:00pm, I was plopped down in Ulaanbaatar and more than a little disoriented. To the tram! I got off when I saw Ulaanbaatar Department Store out the window, thinking I was in pretty good shape. Lucky for me, the city is pretty English accessible. The people might not speak much English, but everything is labeled in English—from “Supermarket” to “Chinese Restaurant.”
Public transportation can be frightening if you don’t know where you’re going. But not as scary as wandering around in the dark in a strange and foreign city looking for a hostel… Eventually, I summoned the nerve to ask for help. I went in the Department Store, selected a random sales girl, and asked—in atrocious Mongolian—if she spoke English. She did not, but it was immediately evident that I was a foreigner and I was lost. I showed her the address of my hostel, but she didn’t know where it was. She let me use her phone to call the hostel for directions. While we were on the phone, a random guy showed up who knew some English. He kindly offered to escort me. How nice! It was a five or ten minute walk down the road to State Department Store (I had chosen the wrong department store, it seems). There, a girl with a “Golden Gobi” sign was waiting for me. I bid farewell to my new Mongolian friend, and the girl took me the rest of the way to the hostel. Safe and sound.
I spent the next day exploring and getting to know the world’s coldest capital city in the best way I know how: walking. Even at -30 degrees, my favorite way to acquaint myself with a new city is to just walk around and literally see it. I had a vague plan for my route, but my adventure started with a wrong turn, of course. I walked for a long while before realizing my mistake and had to retrace my steps and start over. I walked to Sukhbaatar Square, the city’s main square.
From there, I headed south for Zaisan Hill. I knew I had quite a walk ahead of me. It was off the map—but the lady in the hostel said I could walk there, so walk I did. About an hour later, I had just about reached the base of the hill, an impressive Soviet-style monument beckoning from the top. I had over 300 steps to climb—but not a soul to judge me for taking numerous breaks.
The Zaisan Memorial commemorates the Soviet soldiers who fought in World War II and depicts the friendship and cooperation between the Mongolian and Soviet peoples. But the real reward for making this steep climb is the spectacular panoramic view it presents. Simply breathtaking, this was undeniably UB at its finest.
And then I began the long trek back to the center. The whole adventure took well over five hours, but I wasn’t freezing at all. My hair and eyelashes turned white and frosty, but my time in Ulan-Ude has transformed me into a master warm-dressing ninja.
The next morning, I set off for Mongolia’s National History Museum—with the goal of trying to gain some kind of understanding of what exactly Mongolia is. Because I really had no idea. Genghis Khan, Gobi Desert, Mongolian Barbecue? [By the way, “Mongolian Barbecue” is a total lie: Mongolians don’t eat vegetables. Wikipedia says this stir fry thing was actually developed in Taiwan]. I didn’t even know the language, which was frustrating for me. A week of cramming, trying to memorize “important” words and phrases just doesn’t cut it, especially for someone who prefers to understand how the language actually works… Besides, I was so obviously a foreigner that I needn’t have bothered learning “I don’t speak Mongolian.” One look at me invited all the English words anyone knew—“hello” from random passers-by, “thank you” from a guy you open a door for, “nice paintings” from someone trying to sell you art.
I guess the point of that tangent is that I enjoyed the museum and learned a little something about Mongolia’s past and present and Mongolianness.
At four, I was supposed to have orientation for my Ger to Ger excursion. I left plenty early, giving myself ample time to get lost—which I seem to have a knack for in UB. Sure enough, I soon found myself helplessly lost once more. Once more, I had to summon the nerve to ask for help. And once more—a sure sign of the deep and genuine kindness of the Mongolian people—asking for directions got me a personal escort out of my lostness. This man took a long look at the address I was seeking then gestured for me to follow him. Fortunately, he knew some Russian (at least for the time-being), so we were more or less able to communicate. Thank you, Soviets!
He said it was a long way away—though it turned out he didn’t actually know where exactly we were going. He led me along by the arm (a common gesture in these parts of the world, though I suspect he was rather concerned that I kept falling on the ice, which is for some reason even slipperier in UB than in Ulan-Ude)and was very kind. Eventually, though, it got weird. It became apparent that he didn’t know where he was taking me, and he seemed to forget all his Russian and started talking to me in Mongolian. Soon, we were back by the State Department Store. I decided I’d just go back to the hostel and start over again, but my companion wouldn’t let me go until we’d reached our destination. I let him escort me to the hostel, pretended that’s where I needed to be, and said goodbye and thank you in Mongolian. Inside the hostel, I asked the lady for directions. Turned out Ger to Ger was right next door—I could see it from the window.
Even with all these wandering adventures, I was only ten minutes late. But I arrived at the office to find a note: “Arielle, I waited for you for an hour and a half. Call me.” I called and arranged to come in the next morning, but I was still confused as to how ten minutes could translate to an hour and a half…
That evening, I had the rare pleasure of American company. One of my roommates at the hostel was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, and we had made plans to hang out that evening. I really enjoyed the company and the conversation and the bond of solidarity that forms between two fellow countrymen living in random far-off corners of the globe. We stayed out past last-call (which, in Mongolia, is all of 11:00, since the bars all close at midnight).
The next day, after Ger to Ger orientation (this time, I was the one waiting for 45 minutes), I made my way to the Gandan Buddhist Monastery. As is usual with me and datsans, I found it really beautiful and impressive. I got to witness a bunch of monks singing a service, an incredibly tall Buddhist statue, a massive pair of feet, and a flock of psycho pigeons.
In the evening, I hung out with a group of people from the hostel. I had been a little apprehensive about traveling alone in a foreign country, but with the constant influx of travelers at the hostel, I never even had the chance to feel lonely. I met a lot of really friendly and interesting people from all over the world—France, Spain, Chile, Poland, Australia, Finland, Japan. And these weren’t simply people randomly vacationing in Mongolia. These weren’t simply students enjoying a gap-year. These were people in their late 20’s mostly, off on these massively epic months-long treks across Asia and the world—some visiting up to 17 countries on a single journey, some on the road for over three years. I was amazed and impressed to hear about their travels—I felt almost lame in comparison.
On my last day in UB, I visited the Natural History Museum with my new friends. This is usually my favorite type of museum, though this one in particular was a little disappointing. Afterward, I made my way to the train station to purchase my bus ticket home for Wednesday morning. I had purposely waited until the last minute to do this—until I was sure of my Ger to Ger itinerary and when I’d be back. Though I had booked and paid for a 2-day-2-night trip, the girl assured me (several times, with total confidence) that I’d be back in the city by Tuesday evening. [As you might gather from my tone, this was not really the case…]
Monday morning, I began my journey to the beautiful Terelj National Park to join a nomadic family in their ger. This was to be the highlight of my Mongolian adventures: UB is nothing terribly special as far as cities go—the real reason to visit Mongolia is to marvel at and drool over its nature and to experience its unique cultural lifestyle. While my experience was not at all what the program proclaims it to be (lots of traveling around on horseback and learning about Mongolian life and helping your hosts do things, etc.—here’s the link: http://gertoger.org/), it was still a worth-while and once-in-a-lifetime immersion into nomadic life.
My first host—who seemed quite jolly– met me at the bus stop with his dumb ox, helped me onto his ox-cart, and whisked me off to a near-by ger. Here, I was welcomed with tea and cookies and gawked at by two little Mongolian girls, who danced and showed off for me and blathered on in Mongolian like I could understand. Soon, it was back to the ox-cart for a 10 km ride to the next ger. It was a stunningly beautiful ride, to be sure—and stunningly cold as well!
When we reached his ger, I was welcomed with more tea (Mongolian “milk tea”) and noodles with mutton. Two more babies were waddling around playing peek-a-boo with me and being generally adorable. We talked a bit—quickly exhausting my Mongolian vocabulary of what is your name, where are you from, what’s your job, etc. After an hour or so, the woman had me get dressed and grab my stuff, and she took me over to the guest ger where I would be staying. “This is your ger,” she told me, and left me there.
It was only 4:30, but it seemed sort of final. I had been told during orientation that I’d be left alone in the guest ger for the evening to respect my (and the family’s) personal space and privacy and whatnot—but 4:30 seemed awful early to be abandoned like that. What was I supposed to do by myself until morning? I was rather lonely and more than a little disappointed.
But then it got better—as things always do! I was pretty startled by the arrival of a whole group of travelers at my ger. Two couples from Holland and one guy from Australia. I was extremely glad for the company! We were all invited back to the family ger for a dinner of rice and mutton and milk tea and some more conversation. We spent the evening in our guest ger playing a dutch game called Rain Worm, which was a lot of fun, and then we went to bed pretty early. At first, our ger was quite hot. And we had loads of wood to keep our fire going through the night. The trouble is, you go to sleep, and you don’t wake up to tend the fire until it’s gone out, and you’re practically freezing to death. To put it lightly, it was a cold night.
The next morning, I realized just how unplannable life is in Mongolia (much like in Russia, only more so). I was supposed to go back to UB that day. And the group of Dutch and the Australian were supposed to stick together and go off to their next ger. But our hosts took a look at our little cards from Ger to Ger and came to a completely different conclusion. Apparently, the Australian and I were supposed to go to this one family (“you and you—Zorigt!”) while the Dutch were sent off to another. We had to just go along with it.
Our program said that we were supposed to travel by horse or ox-cart, but the nomads said it was far too cold for that, so they crammed us into a car and drove us to our destinations. After lunch (rice and mutton) Jeremy and I spent the afternoon hanging in our new family’s ger, trying to make what little small-talk we could manage, watching the family’s two adorable little kids (adorable, but filthy. Hygiene isn’t really a thing here: the kids just squat down and use the bathroom whenever and wherever they want, and it gets wiped up with toilet paper, and then the same unwashed hands make the food, etc.). After a while, it got painfully dull. Eventually, they showed us to our guest ger. This ger was an upgrade from our previous one—it was beautifully decorated and well-stocked and whatnot. But it was like a sauna—we had to go outside pretty frequently just to escape the heat (that, my friends is the true meaning of “Mongolian barbecue”). We went on a long walk to explore the scenery—looked at horses and mountains and walked on a frozen river.
In the evening, our host came in and asked if we wanted to go horseback-riding. Of course we did! One at a time, he led us on his horse around the area for a bit. So it was kind of like a pony ride around a very scenic ring– but I was on a horse in Mongolia, so I was content. Our host brought our dinner (noodles and mutton) to our ger, and we were on our own. Read, read, read. Then sleep. It was kind of disappointing—just to sit there uselessly in the ger and be waited on. The program was supposed to let us do things and learn things and actually participate in nomadic life and stuff—but we’re just a source of alternate income for these families, so it’s probably easier for them to just take care of us and do their work than to teach us how to help them. But it still gave me some huge insight into their life. And at least I had excellent company. [For the record, Australian accents never get old]
It was another freezing night. Only this time, we were at the mercy of our hosts to tend the fire—they didn’t leave us any wood or coal to do it ourselves but insisted on coming in every few hours to make the fire. It got awfully cold. Snow-pants, coat, hat, wool socks, shivering cold. I don’t know how these people can live like this night in and night out. And I don’t want to shock you or anything, but… if there’s something I don’t want to do when it’s -40 and windy out, it’s pull down my pants and squat over a toilet-slot in the dark. But, on the bright side, the reward is the most majestic and breath-taking night-sky I have ever seen in my life. Just beautiful.
In the morning, we packed up and made the journey back to Ulaanbaatar, where I was looking forward to a hot shower, clean clothes, a real toilet, and a bag of oranges to offset the scurvy-licious malnourishment of living on mutton and noodles. Back at the hostel, I found all of that and more—I was surrounded by familiar faces and new friendly faces eager to hear about my ger adventures. I bought a new bus ticket for the next morning. That evening, the hostel staff made us all a wonderful meal of traditional Mongolian food—and I was delighted to find not mutton, but the familiar and savory pozy/buuza.
My return journey felt like a homecoming. I left behind the land of Genghis Khan and the ever-present and catchy Mongolian music and the nomads and gers and the roadside camels and returned to a place that has really come to feel like home.