Don't eat the pigs-in-a-blanket in Ulaan Baator

Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
Trip End Nov 20, 2007

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Friday night, September 7th through Monday evening, September 10th

In all the times I've flown, I don't recall ever being met at the airport by someone holding a sign on which my name was written, but there he was, a young, burly Mongolian standing in the lobby of the Ulaan Baator airport awaiting my arrival. I was relieved to find him there and all the more relieved to discover that my driver (whose name I don't recall, sorry to say) spoke pretty good English because I had neglected to even crack the slim introduction to the Mongolian language in my travel guide. (God, how I hate to act like an ugly American.)

On the way into town, I learned that he picked up English while living with his brother in the UK for three years and, in the small-world department, improved his language skills last fall at Eastern Washington University in (if I recall correctly) Cheney. Y'all Washington state natives, feel free to straighten me out if necessary. We talked politics a little, but he was too young to remember the Soviets pulling out of Mongolia in the early 90s. We also talked about how I was going to pay him given that it's impossible to get Mongolian currency outside the country, and all I had were travelers' checks and a credit card. He could take me to an ATM or the hotel could put it on my tab. I figured I'd need the cash and that the hotel might skim some off the top if I gave his money to them, so I opted for the ATM. He turned in front of oncoming traffic (a common driving technique in UB, I later learned) into a dark sidestreet lined with clusters of people loitering around and looking, in the headlights of passing cars, exactly like thugs. My driver blithely hopped out of the car as if we were in the parking lot of an American shopping mall at high noon on a Tuesday, but he still locked the car doors, I noticed, before heading for the security-gated front door of a building that clearly was being renovated. It's being fixed but I think we can still get in, he explained to me. No such luck, it turned out, so we returned to the car under the (probably imagined) watchful eyes of Ulaan Baatorians posing as thugs, and he took me the rest of the way to the hotel.

The night clerk at the Tuushin Hotel slipped up and gave me one of the tonier suites in the entire joint, it seems, with a living room almost as big as my great room at home, a separate bedroom, two baths, and banks of large, south-facing windows running the length of both the living room and bedroom. (By Mongol nomad tradition, ger-elsewhere known as yurt-front doors always face south, and pretty much everything important in UB follows suit, including embassies, Buddhist temples, most if not all hotels, and the State Department Store.) Surely this was one of the plushest hotel rooms I've ever stayed in. Alas, the next morning the day clerk very apologetically had me move to another room, still plenty snazzy but with only one bath, no separate living room, and north-facing windows that opened onto...a concrete wall. I later walked around the building and discovered a warehouse or something similar blocking the views of a small portion of the rooms on the north side, mine among them.

After moving to my new room, I hustled over to the railway ticket office to get a ticket to Beijing. I'd read varying reports about the train schedule (subject to change) and the availability of tickets to Beijing, and I didn't want to be stranded in UB for long. I learned that trains going straight to Beijing were sold out until September 22nd (two days after my tour to Shipton's Arch begins), but I was able to get a ticket for a night train to Hohhot, China on Monday evening the 10th, from which I already knew I could get a train to Beijing. Not my first choice, in part because I was hoping to see more of the Mongolian countryside, which wouldn't be possible on a train leaving at 8:05 pm, but as my friend Pete and I discovered in Slovakia last fall, little glitches in plans can become rewarding diversions. I'd be spending a couple of nights in Hohhot, which I hadn't originally expected to see at all.

Spending three days somewhere certainly isn't enough to truly understand it, especially when you don't speak the language, but Ulaan Baator is more resistant to even a superficial comprehension than anyplace I've ever been. Many neighborhoods looked like they'd fit in just fine among the housing projects in any American city: three- to maybe six-story apartment buildings graced with peeling paint, yards of dirt or uncut grass, shipping containers in many parking lots for (I assume) storage, battered fences, the occasional missing manhole cover. Some of the streets and all of the alleys are potholed gravel or dirt. Installing and maintaining sidewalks seems to be at the discretion of building owners, and many owners didn't bother; the sidewalks that exist are varying distances from the street and varying conditions, mostly wretched. (This would be a hard place to be blind.) Yet there were no broken windows, no burned-out shells of cars, no apparent drug dealers or drug addicts, no beggars or street people, no one wearing clothes that looked like hand-me-downs. Whenever I passed someone, I made eye contact and smiled (I didn't want to give the impression of being a haughty foreigner), and almost everyone smiled back or nodded. After that first night at the ATM, I never felt unsafe regardless of where I was.

Not much was happening while I was in UB, or at least I couldn't find it. The local papers mentioned nothing, the Palace of Culture and the State Opera and Ballet Theater were closed Saturday and Sunday afternoons (by which I deduced, perhaps incorrectly, that there were no shows), the building that houses the Mongolian Circus was abandoned and home to the only broken windows I saw in the whole town, and the one movie theater was showing something I don't remember and didn't want to see, so I spent my days wandering the streets and my evenings in my hotel room reading and writing.

During my daytime jaunts, I stopped at a couple of Buddhist monasteries, but I'm not Buddhist, so I was more taken with the elaborate architecture than with imagery that I didn't understand. There was a small festival in full swing at the Gandantegchinlen Khiid (aka "Gandan") monastery. At a dozen or more tables set up in the street in front of the monastery, folks were selling local crafts, handing out literature, checking blood pressure, and selling ice cream and candy bars. A stage in the middle of the street saw a stream of local musical groups, including little kids dressed in Buddhist monk garb and some adult acts that looked and sounded like professionals, in a lounge-lizard sort of way. For all I know, this may have been a weekly event in lieu of sitting in pews and listening to a sermon. If so, here's hoping they have an indoor venue for when it's 50 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. 

I was (unfairly) surprised at the amount of construction in UB, especially new office buildings, and apartments or condos, some of them 10 to 20 stories tall and equipped with tower cranes. For smaller buildings, the construction techniques were quaint. ;-) I noticed at least one building of three or four stories under construction at which the poured-concrete floors were being supported by branches as thick as your arm until the concrete had cured; I happened by while they were removing the supports.

Out of curiosity, I kicked around some in the State Department Store and a couple of grocery stores and learned that Mongolians have a lot of the same things available to them that we do, although the language on the package was seldom English. (M&Ms taste the same even when the writing on the package is Cyrillic.) Then again, you don't see many animal pelts or camel-hair sweaters on the shelves at Target.

A couple of travel websites and my travel guide warned me off of traditional Mongolian food, so I had a good cheeseburger in an expat restaurant named Millie's and two terrific meals at a place called Silk Road, which came highly recommended in the guide. The illustrated menu showed mostly Western fare: salads, pasta dishes, steaks, a multitude of other entrees, and some good-looking desserts, including chocolate souffle. The staff was friendly, and the view out the wall of windows was of a well-maintained Buddhist temple. I also stopped into a place that billed itself as Mongolia's National Fast Food and had a couple of flattish, calzone-shaped things stuffed with mutton and fried, and a variation on pig-in-a-blanket, with a sweet and tasty dough wrapped around a hot dog. I shoulda known better, not because it was a hot dog (which some of you will surely dispute), but because it came out of the kitchen a little too quickly, was a bit shrivelled (as if it had been reheated a time or two), and wasn't quite warm enough. I finished taking antibiotics on Wednesday. 

Late Monday afternoon, shortly before it was time to leave for the train station, I popped over to Sukbaatar Square, which is a massive brick-paved square on the scale of the area around the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It's an apt comparison because the north end of Sukbaatar Square (again, facing south) is home to a Lincoln Memorial-like monument honoring Genghis Khan, Mongolia's national hero, complete with an Abe Lincoln-sized statue of Genghis Kahn. (The building is also, I think, home to Mongolia's parliament.) The square is a gathering spot for tourists and locals alike, and is flanked by several government buildings on the west side and the Palace of Culture and the State Opera and Ballet Theater on the other side. Me, I was there to take a picture of myself in the company of the statue of Genghis Kahn. When I'm finally someplace where I can do some photo editing, I'll make this the picture of myself on the main page.

As an aside (which implies that some portion of this blog is not an aside), over the last few days, I read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, and the title does not overstate the case. Genghis and his heirs can take credit for opening trade routes and communication between Europe and Asia for the first time, encouraging acceptance of all religions at a time when Christians in Europe were burning people alive, sponsoring universal education, patronizing the arts, and, unfortunately, inadvertently spreading the bubonic plague. My understanding of world history of the 1300s and 1400s has changed substantially. I don't have enough thumbs.
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scottk on

Re: Wei
Hi Gary,

Sorry, I don't know that story. (Not enough advance reading, surely. ;-) Would you enlighten me?


scottk on

Re: Captain Kirk
Sorry, no pics of the pig in a blanket. I haven't resorted to food shots yet, and in this case it's just as well. The picture alone might be enough to put some folks off hot dogs for a while.


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