Something Completely Different: Mongolia

It had been a posh ride. And now for something completely different.

We pulled into the Ulaanbataar train station around 6 AM the morning of August sixteenth. A few minutes before that, while rubbing the most pleasant sleep of our train-journey out of my eyes, I (Matt) had discovered the zippers of my bag had snapped. Ever resourceful, I wrapped the suitcase in twine to pseudo-secure the main pouch and my personal belongings. The day had begun. “Shoulder to the wheel.”

We shouldered our packs and made our traditional entrance into cities: heavy-laden and completely lost. I had been communicating with a hostel owner to reserve a night’s rest. Unfortunately, we couldn’t speak Mongolian, we had no tögrög (the currency), we were cold and hungry, Dan’s laptop with the hostel’s address was nearly bereft of battery power, and we had no idea how to proceed to the hostel. It was near a post office. Where was the post office? We started walking. After an hour the sun had risen and we found an Internet connection. Surprisingly, Google maps was no help with directions, the address was merely a star on one of two unmarked roads. With that, the laptop died. We kept walking, following a grimy boulevard in the direction Dan deemed most promising to house a postal service. We walked through the city’s jumble of concrete and dirt, accompanied by a mangy mutt for a significant leg of our journey. It was cold. Only later I learned Ulaanbataar is the coldest national capital . . . in the world.

Over three hours later, we tried to ask directions from some security guards using an adapted version of pictionary. Amazingly, we communicated our intentions of finding the post office and were pointed back the way we had come. As we retraced our steps, at least eight or nine ATM machines rejected my debit card. Another two hours and I finally found a bank that could exchange a €100 for over two thousand tögrög. Over two hours later, we were still unable to find the hostel when we stopped, exasperated and starting to wear on each other’s nerves. While we rested and sized up our situation, I happened to notice an address on a building behind us, only the third I had seen during our tour of the city. It was the same as our hostel’s address. It was our hostel. Unfortunately, they were full for the night.

We walked back to the Golden Gobi hostel, the one from Daniel’s card (see previous update). They were full, too. We dirtied the hostel’s foyer before following a woman to the hostel’s overflow building, discarding our baggage, and heading out into the town. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening rehabilitating from our morning stroll by eating submarine sandwiches, reading, and taking turns on the sandwich shop’s Internet and power source. Ironically, Laura stopped there for a sandwich with her group. We felt we had earned the right to enjoy a treat, Dan a root beer and me a Mountain Dew. On a roll, we stopped at a grocery and bought a hearty tomato-based sauce for noodles. Dan cooked that back at our well-provisioned hostel kitchen and we enjoyed a few Top Gear episodes.

We spent the next day wandering the city, trying to avoid Western tourists. We walked about, half-heartedly searching for the Naran Tuul, also known as the Black Market, famous for its cheap local fare. I ended up finding a free trade shop and buying some souvenirs like a Mongol chess set and replica Morin Khuur (horse-head fiddle), the national instrument. We made it to Sükhbaatar Square at the center of the city with a saddled statue of the city’s hero Sükhbaatar, responsible for the country’s independence from China, and seated Chinggis Kahn. The city was a remarkable mix of concrete, dirt, and glass, modern development was thrown upon the grimy remnants of Soviet structures. We never ventured far from the parallel main boulevards through the city, full of jostling Landcruisers and yellow taxis. The occasional Hummer seemed incredibly natural in such a wild land. Not all city roads were paved and potholes were prevalent. At one point we witnessed flames shooting from a car’s bonnet.

Late in the afternoon, Dan stopped to search for his suddenly-missing camera. Two young men approached and indicated they had “found” the camera. We warmly thanked them and were surprised when they gestured for a monetary payment for their goodwill. Several minutes of tense debate later and Dan assured them that we were appreciative but had no money to spare. The men were less than thrilled but soon retreated, shouting curses. We continued on for a few more blocks. Stopped on the median at a main intersection, determining our route from there, I suddenly received a jolt below the shoulder blade. The young men had followed us and one had chucked a chunk of cement at me from the sidewalk. I stared them down as they continued to yell insults. We made our escape by quickly heading for a crowded marketplace. I remained a little paranoid for the rest of the evening. It was a rough city.

WARNING: The following paragraph contains material unsuitable for those prone to queasiness. Reader discretion is advised.

Dan and I decided to celebrate our safe arrival at the last night of our travels by visiting Mongolian BBQ. We thoroughly enjoyed the irony of eating Mongolian barbeque in a US franchise restaurant (the nation’s first) in Mongolia. We both ate our fill of the stir-fry buffet next to a table of French tourists. After months of living with a limited menu, my stomach was not prepared for high levels of deliciousness. I did some journaling that night before retiring to my last hostel bed of the trip. I suddenly woke at 4 AM, sat up in the dark room of a dozen sleeping travelers, and vomited hard. I caught the overflow in my hands. We’re talking a lot of Mongolian barbeque cradled against my bare chest. I’ll spare you the details but I spent the next few minutes trying to open the hostel room’s door and then that of the bathroom while my hands were full of barbeque. It took me nearly half an hour to clean up my mess, take a freezing shower, and return to bed. My last night of the trip.

Matt

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