Fri 14 Jun ’13 – day 34 I slept quite well although the train continued to make stops throughout the night including two fairly long ones. After what was an unscheduled stop in the middle of nowhere I got up at 04:40 hours and did my ablutions, but still in cold water.
There was no early morning call as we had been told so I gave Michael a shake at 05:15 hours and all along the carriage people are beginning to stir.
I stripped the bed and handed the linen to “Bertha” who just grunted when she took it from me.
The countryside was gradually changing as we approached Ulaanbaatar; there were lots more dwellings now and quite a few have a Ger in the backyard. You could see the power station from miles away as black smoke pours from the tall chimney; this is a relic of the Soviet occupation and as the country has vast deposits of coal that is what they burn to produce electricity and hot water to heat the old apartments.
There were a few more unscheduled stops at small stations on the outskirts of the UB, most just with a single platform and no other infrastructure, then we arrive right on schedule at 06:10 hours and I have now travelled 6306km from Moscow by train.
Crowds of taxi drivers throng the platform with most around our carriage as this is where the foreigners are and they are considered fair game for increased charges to where ever they want to go. There were a number of people holding up signs and I saw one that said Mr David, so having said goodbye to Nat and Michael (they had been good company) I walked over and introduce myself.
As we walked to the lady’s car she told me that her name is Ankhaa and that she works for Tour Mongolia, the local firm that are the ground handlers for Cox & Kings, the company who I have booked my Mongolian trip with.
My Dad often talked about wanting to visit Ulaanbaatar; maybe it was the name, or the fact that for many years it was out of bounds to westerners, or because in was in the exotic east, but he could never explain why he wanted to come here.
During the planning phase for my journey and when I was considering what to do during my time in Mongolia, Bryony at John Allan Travel showed me the Cox & Kings brochure as it had a trip that did not include flying, unlike the vast majority of other excursions around the country with other companies. This fitted my stated intent which is “To travel around the world using surface transport only” and one of the tour start dates almost fitted straight into my schedule. So after a little bit of juggling with the arrangements before I arrived in UB (basically start the whole journey a few days earlier) I got Anne to book the trip.
When she phoned Cox & Kings and said that I only wanted the ground arrangements, the man at the other end immediately said “So he’s arriving by train then”. This caused them absolutely no problems as they are a company who deal in small group tours to unusual locations
It was a quick drive to my accommodation, the Ramada, and I knew that I was in a top flight hotel when the Bell Boy came out and took my luggage. As the hotel was full last night there was only a smoking room available, so I reluctantly took this until a non-smoking one becomes available later in the morning. I could taste the stale tobacco in the air – horrible, but also noisy as it was at the front of the hotel so overlooking Peace Avenue, the main road through the middle of the city.
Having stripped off I climbed into a big soft bed with large fluffy pillows and so had the best couple of hours sleep since the hotel in Warsaw all those days ago. When I awoke and having got dressed I walked around the shopping mall that is part of the same complex as the hotel and the items on sale were very western orientated.
Back to the hotel I was now given a non-smoking room and as this was at the back of the hotel it was considerably quieter. All the bags were emptied and things that were no longer needed were placed in a pile ready for sending home by courier; the dirty laundry was bagged up ready for dispatch and the remainder put away in the many cupboards and drawers in the room.
The shower was most welcoming as there was lashings of hot water; it’s so good to feel really clean.
I used the internet facilities in the hotels business centre (no charge) to send some e-mails giving people an update on my progress.
Down to the lobby and having changed £100 into local currency – I received 184160 togrög in return, I asked the receptionist to order a taxi to take me to the local DHL office. It took some time to get there as the city was gridlocked and at one point I had to wake the driver as he had fallen asleep while waiting for the traffic lights to change!! I was probably overcharged, but as 10000 togrög is less than £5 I didn’t make a fuss.
The staff in the courier office quickly got things sorted out and the lady had a hand held device into which she put the UK postcode and house number and out came an address label; they certainly have the whole world covered.
I decided to walk back to the hotel now that I had got my bearing, the traffic is frantic, the pavements are dusty and you have to watch where you walk as there are holes everywhere. I crossed the road using one of the underpasses and so I was now on the north side of Peace Avenue near the statue of Marco Polo who passed through UB on his way to and from China.
The first stop was Sűkhbatter Square and there was a temporary exhibition displaying dinosaur relics as many skeletons have been found in Mongolia. I took a photo of the statute of Damdin Sűkhbatter astride his horse and this depicted the revolutionary hero on his ride to Moscow in 1914 to seek the aid of the Bolsheviks after the country had been invaded by the White Russians. Then to the front of the Parliament Building where there is a huge (and I mean huge) statute of Chinggis Khan with two Mongol soldiers in front of him and smaller statutes of his two sons at the ends of the building.
While strolling along Peace Avenue I noticed a souvenir shop so went inside and saw that they had a good selection of postcards, so bought twenty. Back outside and while waiting for the lights to change I noticed that a restaurant listed in the Lonely Planet Mongolia guidebook was across the street so I crossed the road and went inside.
Strange – the restaurant, a tourist information office and a bank are all in the same building and all accessed via the same front door.
I checked out the Tourist Info first and got some more postcards plus stamps as this will save me a trip to the post office; the ladies here spoke excellent English. Then into the restaurant for a meal while I wrote some cards. Had a dark local beer first, but it was a bit too sharp for my liking so I switched to a light coloured beer which was more like a lager. I end up eating too much so I was full.
On my way back to the hotel I stopped at a small shop “Books in English” run by an expat lady and bought a novel to read plus a very tatty copy of the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook that will do while I am in the country and I can then dump before returning home.
Back at the room I wrote some more postcards and watched the BBC World News, the first time I had seen this since Brussels – so this is definitely an up-market western style hotel.
When the laundry arrived back everything was in its own clear plastic wrapper, even the single socks.
As I was now feeling tired it was time for a snooze.
Sat 15 Jun ’13 – day 35 The snooze lasted a long time as it was 02:00 hours when I awoke, so up, go to the loo, cleaned my teeth, drunk lots of water and then straight back to bed.
I woke a couple more times during the night but just rolled over and went back to sleep. It was 08:30 hours when I finally arose, so more than twelve hours sleep; I must have been really tired or was it just the soft bed and fluffy pillows?
Having opened the windows to get some fresh air in, I showered and tidied up the room before going for breakfast. Everything was on offer from a full English, no black pudding, or the American equivalent right through to noodles and a variety of local delicacies. I had a bowl of fresh fruit, bacon & chicken, then some bread with New Zealand butter and strawberry jam, also two large glasses of orange juice plus some coffee – an elegant repast as my Aunt would say.
Back in my room I took off my shoes and had ½ hours snooze before packing my rucksack and heading out. It was difficult to buy any still water as all the shops and stalls sold was Lemon Water. I then tried to find the internet café listed in the LP guide, but the only thing there was an empty shop. Looking around I saw a sign that said ИHTEPHET – internet in Russian, so I investigated and sure enough it was an internet outlet in a basement where lots of locals were playing games on-line.
Having answered by e-mails I walked across the Peace Avenue to the State Department Store, a five storey building where you could buy virtually anything you wanted; there were lots of Western goods on sale including a 120” plasma TV. Up on the 5th floor were lots of counters selling a wide variety of freshly cooked local food – there are no McDonalds or KFC’s in Mongolia and long may this continue.
Having got some food and drink I sat for 1½ hours writing postcards and people watching. I then went down to the ground floor and into the supermarket where I bought two lovely looking fruit tarts and a large bottle of water. The Belgium couple whom I have first met in Yekatrinburg and then again at Lake Baikal were stocking up as they were leaving for China tomorrow morning. The amount of different food and other goods on offer would put the average supermarket in the UK to shame. Lots of local alcohol on sale including over forty types of vodka, but not a wide variety of whisky which I found surprising, however plenty of Gordons Gin.
As I walked back to the hotel it started to rain, so umbrella up and walk faster. When I was back in my room I took off my damp clothes which I hung over the bath and the continued to write more postcards while watching BBC World and drinking nearly two litres of coke and water; I’m off to the toilet quite often, but my urine was clear so I am not dehydrated, however I am a kilo heavier than this morning.
Having showered and dressed in smart clothes for the first time since Berlin, I went up to the Edge Bar which was on the 17th (top floor) of the hotel where the views over the city were amazing even though the smoke for the power station chimney is still black and going virtually horizontal. There are low hills on all sides, so the city has spread out along the valley bottom. I ordered one of the local light coloured beers and some food which I charged to my room and carried on writing cards.
There are lots of different nationalities in the bar including a very loud American at the next table, but thankfully he soon moved to the other end of the bar. It got quite cool as soon as the sun went down and looking down into Peace Avenue the traffic is still heavy.
When I went back to my room it took some time to drop off.
Sun 16 Jun ’13 – day 36 Today is the start of week six of my trip and day one of the Cox & Kings tour.
Having got up showered and prepared the laundry for dispatch it was time for breakfast where I had the same as yesterday so I am ready for the off.
At 09:45 hours I went down to the lobby to meet the others who will be part of the tour group and am very pleasantly surprised to find that there will be just three others in the trip; David and his German wife Chris plus Vanessa.
Ankhaa took us to the Gandan Khiid (monastery), an uphill walk from the hotel but it was not far, and explained that this was the only Buddhist monastery kept running during the period that the country was run by the communists.
It is now being rebuilt, refurbished and extended after years of neglect and is the principle Buddhist place of worship in the country. There were crowds of people around predominately locals with the elder generation in traditional costume and often helped by their children who were wearing western clothes.
Through the entrance where prayer wheels and chiming wheels were being turned three times, people smelt the incense, and in the Prayer Room the monks were carrying out their four hour chant, from 09:00 to 13:00 hours daily; this is led by a senior monk and was mostly done from memory. People were leaving gifts of money and food and the Head Monk was blessing them and especially babies as they left.
Our driver whom we called Wednesday because we couldn’t pronounce his Mongolian name, Lkhagvaa, properly took us back into the city in the mini-bus that will be our transport for the trip. Ankhaa did a running commentary as we drove along and we then stopped for lunch at a Mongolian restaurant. The meal was cooked on a metal plate that had been laid on top of hot coals and as there was enough food for a full-blown dinner; we all said that it was far too much.
Following lunch we drove to Sűkhbatter Square were we took photographs of all the various sights. The museum we were scheduled to visit was closed for refurbishment, so we went to the National Museum of Mongolia instead. I am not generally a fan of museums, but this one showed human habitation in the country through the centuries, from pre-stone age right up to the modern day.
As David and Chris wanted to get some ‘stuff’ from the State Department Store and I wanted to go on-line we went our separate ways while Vanessa was taken back to the hotel. Having replied to my e-mails I got back to the hotel just as the thunder started, then had a snooze for an hour before showering and going up to the Edge Bar for drinks with Vanessa. We couldn’t go outside as the heavens had opened.
Having met the others in the lobby we all set off in the mini-bus for the tourist meal with traditional music. Thank heavens there was not too much food. The music was provided by a four piece male band in traditional costume who did ‘throat singing’ and they would go down a storm at somewhere like the Edinburgh Festival or Glastonbury.
Back at the hotel we all went to the Edge Bar for a last drink and back in my room I set the alarm and went to bed.