Distance travelled: 6730 miles
Date: 11th-16th July
Coming into UB was a bit of a shock. We had spent hours travelling past the most amazing, unspoiled countryside, and suddenly come into the sprawling monstrosity that is the capital of Mongolia. There are only around three million people in the entire country (making it the least densely populated on Earth), and by last count a full third of them live in UB. While not particularly big by world standards, it makes up for it by spreading itself over 26 kilometres.
I had booked myself a guesthouse from Irkutsk, but I learnt that finding anything in UB is next to impossible, unless you happen to know where it is in advance. Which, of course, I didn’t. After close to an hour of fruitless searching I decided to give up. Thinking back on it later, I probably did find it. At least, I found an unmarked door in an unlit corridor of a tower block. There was no indication that it was the right place and no one answered my knock, but in Ulaanbaator, this turned out to be normal.
I decided to try to find another place, and had been given a business card with a map on it at the station, so I thought I’d try my luck finding that one. After wandering for a while in what I hoped was the right direction, I was approached by a taxi driver. “What the hell”, I thought “it’ll be expensive, but at least I may be able to find it that way”. I showed him the card, and he laughed. Pointing behind me, it turned out that we were standing at the state department store, with the guesthouse about a hundred meters behind it. Fortunately this one had a sign.
The guesthouse I ended up in was called Gobi Bear, and had only just opened. I was the second guest to have ever stayed, although thankfully others arrived there later. You’d think that this would mean everything would be new and clean. Not so much. But I never spent that much time there, and the people were really friendly, so it worked out pretty well. I didn’t stay long that morning, just long enough to have some breakfast, as that Monday marked the start of Naadam. I’m going to write about that in a separate post, so I’ll skip over it here. Most of my time was taken up with the festival, so I guess this will be a shorter post.
I wandered up to this memorial on the first evening in UB, as it overlooks the city and I though it would have a good view. I was wrong. When I described the city as a sprawling monstrosity earlier, I wasn’t kidding. Huge Soviet style tower blocks dominate the center, and unattractive houses in various states of disrepair stretch almost to the horizon. Some of the center is actually quite pretty, but from up here it fades into the background.
It sits at the top of a hill, 300 steps high, which doesn’t sound like much, but is tiring in the heat of the day. Fortunately, they sell ice cream at the bottom.
The memorial itself is charmingly described in the lonely planet as “a masterpiece of socialist realism”, as it’s dedicated to fallen and forgotten heroes. It was gifted to the country by the Soviet Union, as a way of thanking the Mongolian people for their assistance in the second world war.
The monument consists of a wall running in a ring, guarded by a stone torch-bearer. Within the ring is a mosaic of the workers, soldiers, mothers and farmers that the monument is dedicated to, and the outside is covered in bas-relief of communist leaders. And graffiti. Lots of graffiti. I don’t know whether this is a minor act of rebellion against those leaders, or whether it’s just because it’s in a prominent location. Maybe both.
I actually started and ended my time in UB with a trip to the memorial. The second time was around half eleven on my last night, when I was accompanied by a couple of girls who worked in the hostel. They had invited me up there before we went out to a club. To their credit, the memorial is far, far nicer at night. It’s beautifully lit up, and the lights of the city twinkling below you are immeasurably more attractive than it is during the day. In particular, there is a TV tower that, instead of just a blinking light as we would have in England, provides the city with a veritable light show, glowing every colour of the rainbow, and pulsing like a fruit machine on acid.
Or, to give it its full name, Gandantegchenling Khiid. In Mongolian, Khiid means monastery, and Gandan is the largest and most important in Mongolia. It was moved to its present location in 1838, and grew over the next century to include nine datsans, or institutes, and a library, and it was home to around five thousand monks.
Then came the Soviet purges in 1938. At the time, a full third of the population in Mongolia were monks, and these were slaughtered in their thousands, or else jailed or forced to join the military, a particularly difficult punishment for a monk. The temples and monasteries were largely destroyed, although some survived as museums. Gandan was reduced to four temples, and these were saved by virtue of being converted to homes for Russian officials and stables for their horses.
In 1944, it seems that the Russian government relented a little, as a petition from some surviving monks led to the reopening of the monastery. However, it was under the strict eye of the communist government, and it wasn’t until the democratic revolution in 1990 that the monastery was reopened. It now has ten datsuns, and around 900 monks, largely brought in from outside Mongolia.
Most of the temples and institutes within the complex were your standard Buddhist fare. They tend to consist of a large, single story, squat building. Inside are rows of benches running front to back, and there is a shrine to Buddha or a Bodhisattva or an otherwise revered person, with offerings of food, drink and small value notes. Incense is burning, and either smells like scented smoke, or an incense that I can’t name, that is sweet, heavily musky and slightly cloying. It’s very peaceful and serene, although this is marred slightly by the large numbers of tourists with me. The different temples are mere variations on a theme. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there were important differences, but I think you need to know rather more about Buddhism than I do to fully appreciate them.
Many of the Buddhist temples that I would come to visit later were far more impressive, and I couldn’t help feeling that I was seeing shades of its former glory, which gave the place a slightly sad air.
However, there was one temple that really stood out. Janraisig Datsan. This one is an imposing structure, and one that has become a symbol of Mongolian independence. Built in 1911, it is a temple for the veneration of Janraisig, the Bodhisattva of compassion. It houses a statue 26.5 meters tall, made of bronze and gilded in gold. Obviously the Soviets took the original, melting it down for the raw materials, so this one is a replica, built in 1998. The statue is hollow, and filled with incense, scrolls, and an entire ger: furniture and all.
One of the coolest parts of visiting the monastery was just watching the monks. The trainees were hanging out, playing games, running around and showing off their phones; being children and teenagers in fact. The older, more senior looking monks were sitting quietly, with an air of supreme serenity, and the guys in between were mostly looking pissed off that it was so hot.
A Strange Occurrence
Something odd happened to me on leaving Gandan Khiid. Now, I’m not entirely sure what was going on, even now, so I’ll just tell you what happened and you can draw your own conclusions.
So, I’m leaving the monastery, and walking down the main road leading down into the center of the city, when I’m stopped by a slightly portly man, looking a bit dishevelled. He tries to talk to me, but his English is poor. He gets as far as “I’m worried”, then gives up and starts stroking his throat. Clearly at this point he wants some money, but I’m not going to help him out. He keeps reaching into his pocket and stroking his neck, so I start to wonder, “is this a mugging?” It’s around 11am, and there are people around, although now I come to look, there are no westerners, and none that look like they would help. But still, probably not. He manages to get on to “want money, you give money”.
As I’m about to start making my excuses, another man comes over and says something in Mongolian, while slightly backing the first guy off. “Ok”, I think, “cool”. Then he pulls out a knife. Not a particularly big one, but still. Knife. Shit.
I weigh up my options. They seem pretty limited. I doubt I can outrun him, and I’m not going to fight a man with a knife. He pulls up one sleeve to show me a tattoo in what I have to assume is Mongolian, and flashes me a humorless grin. “Crap”, I think, “this doesn’t look good”.
Then, he locks the knife, and offers it to me, handle first. I take it, because clearly I want to be the one holding a knife here. “Very good” he says. “Sharp”, he adds, slightly hopefully. “Um, yeah, cool knife man. Very nice. Er, here, have it back”, I say, closing it. “I don’t really want it though, sorry. I think I’m just gonna go. Thanks though”, I add. I wander off feeling rather confused, and they follow for around ten paces, calling to me to stop. I keep walking.
So, beggars, unenthusiastic knife salesmen, or the most inept muggers ever? I guess I’ll never know.
The food. Oh man, the food. It was so good. Or at least, the more normal stuff was amazing. There is a lot of traditional Mongolian food that relies on fermented milk, and that’s pretty nasty. More on that later though. The standard fare is large amounts of meat, typically beef or lamb. There is one dish which is still the best thing I’ve eaten while away, and bear in mind that this is written after travelling through China.
These are dumplings, and really good ones. Filled with beef, and a creamy sauce, they were simply amazing.
The Natural History Museum
Now, I know the natural history museum in London fairly well, so I was not expecting the Mongolian counterpart to hold up well. Perhaps it was the lowered expectations, but it was actually pretty cool. It helped that it was free. At least, I didn’t pay. I’ve been told that you have to pay, but I didn’t see a ticket office, and wasn’t stopped either.
The main attraction, as in London, is the dinosaurs. The difference is in Mongolia they’re local. The Gobi desert in the south is a world-renowned location for paleontology, and much of the fossils have been brought in from expeditions there. The star of the show is definitely the Tarbosaurus, a large theropod (think T Rex, but smaller and with arms that it can actually use). I wasn’t allowed to take any photos, so this was the best I could get.
The other really cool part of the natural history museum was their taxidermy work. To be honest, their skills could use some work. The animals looked in turns terrified, perplexed, plain mental, or as if their limbs had a mind of their own, and had each been frozen in the midst of a complicated and entirely individual dance. They were great.
The main square in UB is Sukhbataar, named after the revolutionary hero.
The square is flanked by old style government buildings, new glass and steel skyscrapers, and the major museums of Ulaanbataar. It’s the centre of the city, and the most attractive part.
Going out in Ulaanbaator
My final evening in UB was spent going out, as mentioned earlier. After returning from Terelj (of which more in a later post), I almost immediately went out to a traditional Mongolian show. Or tried to. I was taken out by a girl from the guesthouse to a theater nearby. After paying and being seated in a deserted venue, we sat and chatted for around an hour before being told the show was cancelled. I suspect because no one else turned up. We then walked over to the other side of the city, stopping every few hundred meters to ask for directions, and found ourselves at another theater. This one was much smaller, and packed. We were unfortunately pretty late, so missed the first few acts.
What I saw was really cool though. There were dancers, musicians, throat singers and a contortionist.
After the show we walked back to the guesthouse where I met up with a different pair of girls who were to take me out to a club. Clubs in Mongolia are a slightly strange affair. They don’t open until around midnight, and consist of a small dance floor, and huge amounts of seating around it. The one I went to also had quite a few metal poles in the center, so perhaps it serves as something else during the day.
The girls that had invited me didn’t want to go and dance. In hindsight, I think they were trying to show me the life of the city, and weren’t really interested in going themselves. I sat and chatted with them for a while, then went and made some new friends on the dancefloor.
The music was fairly standard western fare, although the dj included some pretty weird mixes. On the other hand, vodka was a pound for a double, so I wasn’t complaining.
We got back to the guesthouse around half two, and I had to be up at five to have enough time to get to my train. Predictably, I slept in, and had to get a taxi to the train station. I’m glad I did, it was quite an experience. In Mongolia, basically any car is happy to work as a taxi for a fee, so the quality varies wildly. The man who stopped for me was quite the boy racer. I was treated to hand break turns, running reds and going double the speed limit. It was a lot of fun, and at that hour of the morning, relatively safe. Skidding into the train station car park, we were shouted at by the policeman on duty. I left my driver to face their wrath, and threw down all my remaining togrog onto the seat. It came to about 40p, which was around two thirds the going rate. Not a good start to the day for the driver, I think.
And then I was back on the road, on my way to China. There are to be a couple more posts on Mongolia before I write about that though.