Land of the Vast Blue Sky

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 11, 2006

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Thursday, August 17, 2006

Third Pit Stop: ULAAN BAATAR, MONGOLIA (Country Name in Local Language: Mongol Uls)
Local Time: 9AM, Thu
US Central Daylight Saving Time: 7PM, Wed

Last night in Beijing, I went with the tour group to a restaurant specializing in Peking Duck. My group consisted of Bora, our guide of Belarusian heritage; Dick and Eileen from Greeley, Colorado; Paul from Western Australia; Jeff from a town 100 km north of Brisbane; Emil, Dan, and Janine from Melbourne; and Graeme and Ange from Hamilton, New Zealand. There were also two people from England: Roy from Darby and Andy from Nottingham. In short, we were an English-speaking group with diverse personalities and accents, but my first impression was that everybody seemed very nice. We were all bound by a common interest in traveling off the beaten path.

On Wednesday morning at around 6:40AM, we met in the hotel lobby to catch the 7:40AM train bound for Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. Although I was still tired from last night, I was filled with excitement to discover the exotic landscape and culture of this remote country. We walked to the Beijing Railway Station and waited in a long line at the front entrance. This was the first train station I had encountered that used X-ray machines and metal detectors to screen passengers.

Punctually at 7:40AM as the train departed Beijing Railway Station, the epic train odyssey officially began. Each compartment had two upper and lower berths. There was no shower on the train, and the only restroom was very filthy and odiferous. At the end of every car was a Russian samovar, where hot water was heated in a beautiful metallic vase-like container. Some people used it to prepare their instant noodles. About two hours outside Beijing, one could admire the breathtaking rolling hills and valleys of northern China. We even passed by a segment of the Great Wall of China, which slithered up the verdant hills like a guardian serpent. The rural landscape of China was filled with an abundance of natural beauty as well as impoverished shanty towns and dirt roads. I shared the compartment with Dick, Jeff, and Paul all from Australia; I was virtually surrounded by Aussies! I had to make sure I did not make any politically incorrect statements about the Land of the Kangaroos, otherwise I would be thrown out into the steppes.

Twelve hours after departing Beijing, we reached the border town of Erlian, China at around 8PM. Since the Mongolian railroad track was narrower than that in China, the train was pulled into a warehouse where the bogies (locomotive undercarriages with supporting and aligning wheels) were altered to fit the Mongolian track. The process took 2 hours. However after the change, Chinese and Mongolian passport control and customs took another 4 hours! The Chinese officials first embarked on the train to collect the exit customs forms. We were told not to declare anything and just to write a maximum of $500 US in cash. I was a little concerned about my new Japanese computer and other electronic devices. However, there were no questions or complications. Next, the Mongolian passport officials arrived to confiscate our passports. There was a cute, young Mongolian girl in a Soviet-style military uniform whom all the men in the car were peeking their heads out to watch. Before she walked towards the compartments, there was a flurry of male onlookers craning their heads out into the narrow hallway just for a glimpse. From 10PM until 2AM, we sat in our compartments and waited for the return of our passports. US nationals did not require a visa; however, all my other companion travelers had to obtain an entry visa into Mongolia.

A little after 2AM, the train started moving again. We turned off the lights and quickly fell asleep to the rocking motion of the locomotive. By 5:00AM, I opened my eyes to the bright light coming through the window. It was the sunrise, but on this particular morning, it was no ordinary dawn. I pulled open the diaphanous white curtains to witness the subdued sunrise over the Gobi Desert. It was very quiet and tranquil on the train at this hour as I meditated on the vast, serene sandy landscape that was reflecting the soft rays of the sun on this new morning. I felt at peace on the train while staring at the endless, demure sand dunes undulating in all directions.

While on the train, I made a lot of friends. There was a young, friendly Biology instructor from Nantes, France with whom I spent a lot of time. We conversed entirely in French, and he was very well traveled, having just visited Iran, Tajikstan, and Afghanistan. He was now returning to France via Beijing, Mongolia, and Moscow by train. Hearing us talk in French, my tour group began to have a suspicion that I had an affinity for languages. I also met an American couple from Seattle, WA. They were between jobs, so they were undertaking a round-the-world trip from Singapore to Beijing, Mongolia, Russia, Germany, Ireland, and home. We had a lot of common traveling interests, so I also spent a lot of time with them.

From the border of southern Mongolia to the capital Ulaan Baatar was a 12 hour ride replete with diverse landscapes. The expansive Gobi Desert to the south was like an endless sea of sand. There was also a dust storm as we passed through the area. The train officials approached each compartment to warn all passengers to close the windows. However, our window was stuck halfway, so the strong gusts blew sand speckles inside. Our berths were flaked with brown, crystalline sand. It took two strong officials to finally raise the window a little more, but it was not securely locked. We had to cover the top space with a blind. The next landscapes of southern Mongolia were rolling, treeless steppes and mountains. They actually reminded me of the sun-burnt hills around San Francisco during the summer time.


Finally at around 3:30PM, the train arrived into Ulaan Baatar, the largest city and capital of Mongolia. Ulaan Baatar meant "Red Hero," and this name was given to the capital after the Soviet occupation in the early 20th century. Before that, Ulaan Baatar had many other names alluding to the Buddhist religion.

The train was 2 hours late. At the station, we were greeted by our guide Nemo and our bus driver Mia. Nemo, who was fluent in English and Russian, had studied medicine and trained in Urological Surgery, but he had been working as a tour guide for several years since the salary was better than a doctor's wages. Mia, who used to guard the Mongolian-Russian border for many years, had been a tour bus driver for the past 18 years. They were both very friendly and eager to meet foreigners.

This year was a special year in Mongolia. Throughout the year, the nation was festively celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Inauguration of the Great Empire of Chinggis Khan (pronounced Cheengis Han, formerly known as Genghis Khan). According to The Secret History of the Mongols, in 1177, in the Year of the Dog, 15 year-old Temuujin (Chinggis Khan's birth name) was riding home on the vast steppes of Mongolia when he discovered a horse whip lying on a hill. Believing in the divine prophecy of the horse whip as a symbol of great luck and power, he soon thereafter successfully forged a great alliance with many tribes, who declared allegiance soon to him. His Empire stretched from China to Poland and Hungary.

The Mongolians were all fiercely proud of Chinggis Khan since his picture was on every denomination of the Mongolian currency called Togrog (1 USD = 1200 Togrogs). There were no coins; the lowest bill was 20 Togrogs ($0.016). Everything was cheap in Mongolia! A 1.5L bottle of water was only 220 Togrogs ($0.18), a nice two-course dinner with wine was 8000 T ($6.60), and one hour of internet was 600T ($0.50). According to the CIA WorldFact, the monthly income for an average Mongolian was $61 USD, but one could witness an exaggerated distribution of wealth. The countryside was full of poor peasants, but in Ulaan Baatar, there were a few people driving expensive SUV's and Hummers and sporting designer wear. Contrary to Beijing, there were no bicycles in the Mongolian capital. The city had a few skyscrapers, and most of the city had the former Iron Curtain atmosphere of Eastern Berlin: bland communist architecture, torn-up sidewalks with potholes, and run-down street cafes. However, there were so many bars and cafes lining the streets that night life in Ulaan Baatar was very lively. In fact, traffic jams at midnight were ordinary, and crossing the street on foot would be difficult with so many cars not yielding to pedestrians. The center of Ulaan Baatar actually had an atmosphere of Montrose and Westheimer in Houston -- neon signs, old houses converted into chic restaurants, trendy bohemian shops, and antique stores. There were more signs in English in Ulaan Baatar than in either Beijing or Osaka. Although the Mongolia had been under Russian oppression for more than 70 years, no traces of the Russian language or culture could be found anywhere.

We were transferred to a 3-star hotel, Zaluuchuud Hotel, not too far from the US Embassy. Although I had a two-room suite, it still had a long way to go to actually attain Western standards. The hotel reminded me more of a motel than anything. There were no elevators, and hot water was turned on only from 5PM-10PM according to city zoning regulations.

Before dinner, I attended a wonderful cultural show of traditional Mongolian music and dancing. The highlight of the evening was twofold: the stupendous form of singing called "throat singing," in which Mongolian singers were trained to open the false vocal cords and produce two sounds simultaneously in a pitched tune. It was like listening to two singers coming from one performer. Certain singers also used a local technique of rapid tongue flapping to also produce a unique melodious sound. The other highlight was a group of young female Mongolian contortionists who marvelously reshaped their bodies to the appearance of pretzels.

At dinnertime, I went with the entire group to a chic restaurant called Mongolian Nomads. This highly reputable restaurant was full of foreigners from Europe and North America. However, the service was less than desirable since we had to wait almost 45 minutes to have our orders taken. I was feeling adventurous that evening, so I decided to try something different. Since I was so hungry that I could eat a horse, I elected to order some horse fillet served with a Mongolian curry sauce. I was extremely curious to discover what equine meat would taste like. I knew that horses served several functions like the production of glue or the strands of a violin bow. But a horse meal was beyond my imagination. The taste of horse meat was actually very similar to beef brisket; there was no "gamey" aftertaste and the meat itself was quite tender, in fact, it was prepared with great culinary attention. My companion travelers joked that if my fellow Texans would know about this, I would be branded like a calf.

After dinner, we went to a local bar called Dave's Pub right in the heart of downtown Ulaan Baatar next to a wide-open square. There was trivia night at the bar, in which some American and British ex pats were orally quizzing the clientele on world geography, history, and traveling facts. As soon as I went there, there were so many Americans that it reminded me more of home than Mongolia. I met two Californians and their Mongolian friends. Alec and Eric, originally from Monterey, CA, had been living in Mongolia for almost 2 years while working the peace corps. Alec spoke fluent Mongolian, and he was engaged to Tosca, a native of Ulaan Baatar. We chatted life in Mongolia, and the Mongolians were curious about life in Houston. One of them, Otkhal, was a gynecologist, so I compared notes about medical training in this part of the world. It turned out that admission to a Mongolian medical school was not based on an entrance examination, but on connection. After graduating from 10th grade, Otkhal worked as an orderly cleaning bedpans in a gynecology hospital in Ulaan Baatar. Her hard work earned her the admiration of the hospital staff, who succeeded in placing her in medical school. She studied for five years and was trained in gynecology for 6 years. Now she was working at the top gynecology clinic/hospital in the capital. Although she was using Russian books in medical school, she mentioned that now all courses were being quickly upgraded to using current American medical textbooks just like in almost the entire world.

The night was topped with beautiful fireworks over Sukhbaatar Square, the heart of the capital city. It had been a very eventful experience, but I was looking forward to escaping into the Mongolian wilderness tomorrow.
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