Chinggis Emoti-Khan >:-)>

Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Getting to Mongolia is no piece of horse-battered cake, no matter how you swing it. Our flight from Japan being one of the less popular ways to crash Ulaanbaatar, we encountered a fair bit of resistance even back in the States with our best-laid plans to reserve and purchase in advance averaging excess and deficit to leave us 4,000 yen (about $35) short on the tickets at the time of departure from LA. We were in truth put through out paces in Japan with out MIAT quest leading us down a few blind alleys before 40 minutes of gesturing/waiting, 3 failed languages (though in Russian I was able to learn about the one woman's childhood and favorite horse), and an exasperated nearly $35 later, we gamely conquered the first rampart of Mongolia: buying a ticket there. Rest should be a snap, no?
It was an all-day journey to the land of Chinggis the hero (Ghengis the barbarian to the West); with our trains in Japan, 45 minute stop to change gates but not plane in Korea, and multi-hour last leg of the flight somewhat incongruously entertained by Yours, Mine, and Ours. We arrived very late, just after midnight (as do nearly each one of the international flights that land in UB at the rate of a little less than one a day) and did run into a bit of a mixup having 2 separate parties there to pick us up. One was Gan, a friend of Yumiko's from Japan who I had spoken to over the phone that morning, and the other was Mejet, fella I had corresponded with and was recommended by another set of travellers to give tours and who surprised us by having found out when our plane was to arrive and waiting there holding a sign with my name on it (first time I've ever gotten that sweet treatment!). He and his wife put us up at their second apartment that night and, though we weren't able to tour with him because of time restraints and us not being able to round up 4 other people on our own straightaway to share the cost, I'll leave his email here should you be looking for a good contact/tour provider in Mongolia:
Next morning after some well-deserved and needed slumber, we marched the 4 km into the center of town and quickly found out that Mongolia is just about the opposite of Japan. Ulaanbaatar (UB as the Lonely Planet says it is "affectionately dubbed by tourists and ex-pats") is by far the largest city in Mongolia, containing over 1 million of the country's 2.5 million people. The coldest capitol city in the world (it gets down to -40 in the winter, which means damn cold regardless of whether you're a fan of F or C), it also doesn't have the feel of a modern and "developed" capitol city notwithstanding cell phones everywhere, the best way to jump past the long-standing lack of infrastructure of wide-spread phone land lines. To give you the 5-cent history tour, it was founded 365 years ago amongst 4 sacred mountains that protect the city and was given its current name Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero) by Sukhbaatar (Axe Hero). To me it had a confused identity as a big city: small enough to get around on foot, but the worst traffic I've ever seen (red lights- and pedestrian lives- both rank low on the UB driver's priority list, well well below holding down one's horn for lengthy periods and indiscriminate reasons); it's also got 7 or 8 major universities, 5 Buddhist temples (though the populace is largely not very religious), and even a Mormon church, yet the majority of folks live not in the apartments near the center but scattered around "downtown". It seemed to Ryan and I that, though there were signs of real progress and improving quality of life for the citizens of UB, the predominant feature was featureless, crumbling 1950s Communist architecture and no color with fewer happy faces, all giving the feeling of a sort of frantic deadness. It's also worth noting that the friends that we made coming from Russian and the others from China held a somewhat differing view of UB, finding it much warmer by comparison. I do suppose that 8 awesome days in everything-you-need-and-clean-too Japan will spoil a guy :)
Upon reaching the city center and arranging accommodations at UB Guesthouse (highly recommended, it was friendly, safe, and arranged our Gobi tour), we had a few errands to run, the more surreal of them being seeking to buy our train tickets to China for the following Thursday. Doing that required venturing down by the 'tracks, the more "seedy" part of town though to be honest the only major difference was a greater than usual density of drunk guys trying to grad us next to the boxcar container mall. The international ticket office is actually exceedingly well hidden, a testament to covert urban planning, and when we rolled in at about 7:30 PM was nearly deserted. Following some points and a grunt from one and fleeing some shoos from two others, we happened upon the "VIP Room" with twin ladies sitting at a circular desk who secretly made fun of us in Monngolian until I started speaking Russian, when they properly switched to that tongue to ridicule us. A couple scary Russian guys fame in right after one of the women picked up the phone and had a short, terse conversation while eyeing us warily and they brushed right up against us despite there being plenty of space in the room, but they ended up being very nice once i started talking about drinking vodka with my uncle in Kiev. Miraculously coming away with 1-way tickets to Beijing (for a much lower price than we thought!), we spent the remainder of the evening testing our luck by walking around UB at night accompanied only be the occasional grandma and frequent, sullen, drunken groups of young guys eyeing us down, no worries though because we were protected by my Fists of Fury.
With one more day to spend in UB before heading out into the countryside, it seemed as good a time as any to get the pages added to our passports that we would be needing down the road given the amount of countries we'd be hitting and large portions of space taken up by some of the more ostentatious visas that we had to get. Possibly because we didn't establish an embassy there until 1988 or perhaps because even the almighty Starbucks hasn't reached the steppes yet, reaching the US Embassy requires you to hoof it out of town a ways to search for the Stars and Stripes until you find it tucked behind and away in the back lot of the much more impressive Laotian outpost. We did find it a bit odd that most embassies, including America's, were guarded not by special envoys of the nation's soldiers but by non-US-citizen Mongolian security guards, I guess it doesn't rank as highly on the list as some of those air-conditioned garbage trucks we're been spending our national security dollars on. Fortunately, even though it was the wrong day for American Citizen Services, they weren't super busy at the moment and were nice enough to oblige us. While our passports got sewn up to their current hefty proportions I was entertained by a Good Housekeeping from 2003 and the trio of workers fixing the door: it took ages, still didn't work, and at the end was just missing a chunk.
Meaty passports in town, on the way back while searching for Ryan's slice of pizza for the country, we met a Mongolian girl our age named Nomi with impeccable English and designer sunglasses that put my swap-meet Dolces to shame. Inviting her to meet up with us later, I had only to pick up a new toothbrush as my old one had recently molded over (travel/general hygiene tip: don't use a moldy toothbrush kids, all that happens is that your mouth feels dirtier) before getting ready to head out for the night. Before heading to Brau House, we gathered our English dormmate Shaaaghlat, which a proper English speaker might pronounce "Charlotte". Slagging her about the way she spoke, as we did a good part of the evening, was not insensitive though, even the English rip the piss on her northern accent (as Alex the Canadian Brit explained, the north is where they make stuff and the south is where they use it. He also expressed a strong preference for casting Wales off as its own nonsense island so I think it's fair to say there may be some regional preferences at play here). Nomi met us there and we had a legendary time with their stock exchange system for beer (the price rises as more orders are placed and plummets as people stop and also realize that all those dot com startups weren't turning an actual profit), the menu (Ryan ordered meatcheese, we weren't sure which it was or either but they were out of one or the other or both anyhow), bingo (Shaaaghlat won twice!) and the band (I wrangled an invitation onto stage to play Bubble Toes on the electric for the crowd). Nomi then took us in her car (mercifully laying off the horn symphony) up one of the 4 sacred mountains guarded by a huge gold Buddha, where we caught an awesome view of the UB not-so-much towering skyline but rather sparse lightpattern. The night ended up at Strings, the hottest new UB club, with the cover band that knew everything, making friends with Tommy the Mongolian Gangster from LBC, and closing with Let it Be and the angry Korean guy letting us back in well after safety curfew.
Next morning, without so much as 40 winks or a proper packing scheme between us, we loaded up and out for our 6-day trek of the Gobi Desert.

Moral of the story: Honestly, behind the Laotian embassy?! The only thing worse would be the Dutch (that's for you, Ivo) :)
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