Chinggis Emoti-Khan >:-)>
Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
45Trip End Aug 01, 2006
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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
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"
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
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) :)