Into Ulaanbaatar

The sun came up at 4, waking me up fully. The hard as a rock mattress didn’t help much, either! I did manage to doze off from 5 to 6 am, but that was about it. Clayton was awake by 6 as well so we went into the hall to talk. We used some of the hot water from the samovar to make coffee and tea. The restaurant car opened at 7:30. When we crossed the border, the Chinese restaurant car was removed and the Mongolian one attached. The Mongolian car is so beautiful! Since food was no longer free, we had the car to ourselves. We had coffee and omelets and were able to pay with Chinese Yuan. I was curious about how we would pay since we did not yet have any Mongolian tugriks yet. As a pleasant side bonus, the Mongolian waitress spoke English.

The scenery had definitely become more barren during the night. Of course, we were crossing the Gobi desert, so flat and deserted should be just what I should have expected. We started to see large herd of cattle, horses, and sheep along with the occasional carcass. Others claimed to have seen gazelles and yaks, but I did not spot any. I did spy a lone wolf. And camels!!!

We returned to the restaurant car for lunch. Though the menu is fairly large, our only choices turned out to be chicken, beef, or pork. We opted for chicken; it was fine. Everyone else in our group brought along cup of noodles and so ate in their cabins.

We were due to arrive in Ulaanbaatar at 2:35 pm. About an hour before that, we were directed to strip the sheets off of our bunks and fold our blankets. We spent the remaining time looking out the window. As we got closer to town we were able to spot signs of civilization including Gers (what you might call a yurt).

Our group was met at the station by Nemo (most likely not his real name), our guide for the next few days. We put our luggage in the bus that was waiting for us and then were taken in to a building to get some local currency (tugriks). We were able to get rid of all of our remaining Yuan and got enough tugriks in return that we would not need to withdraw any additional cash. This is a good thing because tugriks are worthless outside of Mongolia so we really didn’t want to have too much.

Rather than the free afternoon that the itinerary promised, we were taken to a museum. We left Beijing a day later than originally planned and so rather than drop anything from the itinerary, free time was removed. Not a big fan of this plan!

Ulaanbaatar is a big city at 1.2 million. This is a third of the population of the entire country! Pickpockets abound and so we were warned to be extra cautious with our personal goods. Unlike most Asian cities we have visited, we did not see any motorcycles or scooters. There were, however, many, many Toyotas. Mongolia has a deal with Japan. Japan exports their used cars at bargain basement rates; the locals snap them up. Driving skills here are pretty horrendous. Nemo told us the locals drive cars as if they are riding horses. Perhaps that is why you don’t see motorcycles – they are too scared to drive with the cars!

A modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet is used here. It has 35 rather than the standard 33 letters. Although it looks like all of the signs are written in Russian, they are not. The letters are pronounced differently in Mongolian. Mongolia also has its own script which is incredibly difficult; it resembles Arabic in a way but is written vertically in columns as opposed to horizontally. Now that the soviets no longer control Mongolia, students are once again learning to write in their own script. Older Mongolians speak Russian but the younger generation is taught English instead. Sixty percent of the population is Buddhist. The remainder practice Shamanism, Christianity, and there are some Muslims as well.

When we reached the museum, we crossed over the traditional threshold that keeps out those nasty evil spirits. We were told that if you trip over the threshold on the way in that it is considered good luck, but on the way out it is bad luck. So, rather than have bad luck, you should go back in and come out again to reverse your fortunes.

Tsar Nicolas II sent his architects here to build a copy of the winter palace. This is where the museum is housed. The outside resembles the winter palace and the interior is designed in the eastern style. In order to take photos, a special ticket needs to be purchased. Our ticket didn’t include that feature, so no pictures of the interior. We saw beautiful costumes and furniture that belonged to the last emperor of Mongolia. As we toured, Nemo gave us information on local customs. Traditional Mongolian clothing has extra long sleeves which are used to tuck your arms into on cold winter days. And yes, it gets pretty cold here! It doesn’t snow much (10 to 20 cm/year) but the temperature drops to 30 below! Mongolian boots are quite beautiful. The outer boot is tooled leather; the toe curls up at the end. The inner boot is made of felt so when coming inside, the outer boot is removed and the inner boot serves as a slipper.

We were shown something called a punishment bowl. The traditional Mongolian drink is fermented mare’s milk. If you show up late to a party, you are forced to drink a bowl full of the nasty stuff so that you can quickly catch up with how drunk your friends are. How big a bowl? Three liters is the smallest size. Nemo claimed that he has a monk friend that can put away 25 liters! A thimbleful would be too much for me.

We went back outside and had a few minutes to take pictures of the Gate of Eternal Peace and Happiness before heading to our hotel.

Because we were attending a cultural show tonight, we only had enough time to drop off our bags at the hotel before walking about a half an hour to where the show was. The show started at 6 and lasted a little over an hour. It was a production of music, dancing, and a little contortionism. The costumes were incredible; the musicians were all very talented, and some of the singing was beyond belief. The female singers didn’t impress me much. It wasn’t a lack of ability; I just really don’t like the eastern style of vocal music. That being said, I was completely blown away by the male vocalist that did Tuvan throat singing. He could sing more than one note at the same time. The lower note was very raspy and deep; the upper resembled whistling. I cannot for the life of me comprehend how this is done. Look it up online and listen to it. Mind blown.

The only true negative to the performance is that rather than having chairs to sit on, we sat on stairs for 70 minutes of performance. It was exceedingly uncomfortable.

We (incorrectly) assumed dinner would be immediately following the show. Instead, we walked about 20 minutes to the town square to take pictures of the statues and buildings there. I had left my camera in the hotel room since I assumed we would be either watching a performance or eating, neither of which require a camera. We were given 15 minutes to take pictures. By now, I was faint from hunger. Clayton had a serious case of the crabbies. We really wanted to eat and get back to the hotel. The few hours of sleep I had on the train was just not enough! We walked another five or ten minutes before reaching the restaurant.

The food was traditional Mongolian. If you have eaten at a Mongolian grill, you have not eaten true Mongolian food. My guess is that Mongolian grill is an American thing and has very little (if anything) to do with authentic cuisine. These people are serious meat eaters! Mutton, horse, beef, goat, camel, and yak are all common meats consumed here. I saw a roasted sheep’s head being delivered to a neighboring table. The quantities of meat on the plates was enormous. One of the guys at our table ordered lamb (actually mutton); I jokingly asked if he had ordered dinosaur leg. They were that big! The pictures in the menu gave you no idea of just how massive the serving sizes were. Clayton and I ordered side salads as a main course and we both left quite full.

We were exhausted and so didn’t wait for the rest of the group. Svetlana ordered a taxi for us so we headed back to the hotel to crash. One quick side note: we saw very few taxis in Ulaanbaatar. Another couple tried to get a taxi after we did and were unable to get one!