And then we were poisoned and robbed

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

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Even after we had showered the desert away and gotten a chance to unload and relax, something felt amiss. Like there was something missing ... something we really had to do with our remaining time in Mongolia to ensure our journey there was not one big waste devoid of any value. Something that we could really sink our teeth into. Something with perhaps a crust and delicious melted mozzarella over a steaming layer of zesty marinara. Oh yes! Ryan's pizza quest.
Mongolia ... check.
Had a chill night ordering in with our desert travelmates at the hostel (you'd think we would have been sick of each other by then!) and recounting stories of our Gobi adventure.
Next morning began our last full day in the land of Chingghis as our train was to depart early the next morning. One highlight we knew we had to hit was the Black Market. A mix of exciting, bizarre, bazaar, and suuuper shady, the object of the game was for Alex to buy VB boots and for none of us to be robbed. Well, I suppose nothing goes quite to plan. Alex of course struck out because, let's face it, and as he knew all along, no one is VB. But poor Jerry, with a freshly-purchased pair of binoculars firmly in his front jacket pocket, stopped short suddenly when, not 10 minutes after collecting them, suddenly felt the conspicuous absence where they formerly resided. We figured the binoculars were feeling particularly nostalgic as a strikingly similar pair appeared at the booth from where he'd bought them shortly after Jerry's loss. But it was when Ryan, fortunately just missing a receipt from his back pocket, noticed the same 4 lads circling near us as we shopped down the vendor alleys that Ivo bought his silly fake Russian hat, I concluded my exhaustive negotiations for some new blue gel ink pens and some loo rolls, and we cut our losses as they were.
That night we came through on our promise to visit the Italian restaurant owned by Nomi's family. Bringing the crew and a few miscellaneous Swedes (had them going for a while that Ryan was distantly in line to be their king but probably blew the cover when I insisted that I was the duke of Stockholm as well), we had what tasted to be a lovely, homecooked Italian feast. Davaa (and Nomi and her friend joining later) led us to a few bars with live bands and "backstage" (i.e. the kitchen) I got to wail on the axe of the most famous guitarist in Mongolia. He was soon displeased though and snatched the instrument back a few bars into "Burn One Down", scowling, "This guitar is for rock 'n' roll ONLY!"
In a premonition of things to come, Ivo stood up looking pale a bit later and announced that he needed to get back to the hostel. One rule of travel cuisine is that eating the local food, prepared properly of course, is the best plan as anything imported from a distance is bound to be a bit dodgy. The heart of Rome is well away from UB, and we all that night learned the reason for that rule, somes worse than others. Ivo and Ryan had it good and even ended up fashioning a system on the fly to designate which toilet was to receive gifts from which end.
Needless to say we were all a bit worse for the wear in the morning and had a marvelous time making it to our 7:30am train. To add annoyance to illness, a fella dressed in official-looking clothes grabbed Ryan's bag right off the taxi over his protests and bolted ahead with it to our cabin. Ryan followed in hot pursuit and when I arrived trailing behind carrying the rest of the stuff, he was being badgered by the guy trying to get the equivalent of $10 for the service (which doesn't sound too outrageous until you remember that a steak dinner cost $1.50) and as I approached insisted that I owed him $10 as well until he got lost when he saw he wasn't getting anywhere.
Karma might have a funny way of biting back though, as a 30-hour train to Beijing is bad enough, but especially with vicious food poisoning and add heinous "toilets" and the fact that only in our carriage would the windows not open and the temperature hovered at 95 degrees F. The heat prompted gradual clothes removal, but before you get too excited remember that it was pretty much us and large Mongolian men on the train walking around topless. That's. Hot.
A few highlights though: met and had a great conversation with this Mongolian girl Tula studying acupuncture in China, Jerry thoroughly faced with his car of Mongolian miners popping in to visit and trying to make us believe that horse milk vodka was the cure to what ailed us, and while stopped to change train bogies on the Chinese border at midnight, getting to surprise Papa with a phone call right before he left for work on his birthday.
As the hours rolled by, the desert turned into some grass turned into small villages turned into suburbs turned finally into Beijing train station. Sad to leave some friends in Mongolia, happy to be bringing others along to China, and excited to try and examine the workings of and daily life in the first communist country I'd visit, Beijing welcomed us in.

Moral of the story: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Ulaanbaatar, why don't you eat some camel instead.
And have more inside jacket pockets with zippers.
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