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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Ger-burbs, Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
COUNTRY FACTS Pop: 2,832,224 Area: 1,564,116 km2; landlocked Gov't: Mixed Parliamentary/ Presidential Religion: 50% Buddhist, 40% none, 6% Shamanist/ Christian, 4% Muslim View Map
Ger-burbs, Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, July 2, 2003  

Mongolia Flag ULAAN BAATAR


July 2. ULAAN BAATAR The trip from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar was another long rail journey.  It took about 30 and a half hours in total which included the Chinese and Mongolian Customs and Immigrations checkpoints. They were painless but kept us up until about 2am.  On the Chinese side of the border the train was moved to a rail house where the cars were lifted up to have their wheels swapped.  The Mongolian rail systems uses the same gauge as the Russian rail system, which is different from the rest of the world.  After the Russians were attacked by the Germans via their own railway they changed their rail gauge to a non-standard width.

Leaving Beijing we had good weather and were lucky not to have any cabin mates.  The soft sleeper on this train was only slightly more plush than the hard sleeper category but because of the extra cost the carriage wasn't full.  We waited anxiously at every stop to see if someone joined us but we ended up alone for the entire journey.  Walking through the hard sleeper carriages we saw quite a few foreigners and chatted with some in the dining car but our carriage appeared to be mostly Chinese or Mongolian passengers.  Over the course of our trip they smoked in the non-smoking areas, did their laundry in our one toilet room, and walked around in their underwear.  For some cultures the close knit traditional community life seems to extend easily into modern day life.  Even in Shanghai we saw a man walking down central Fuzhou Road in his jammies.  We hardly recognized our fellow carriage mates when the train got near to Ulaan Baatar.  The man who we had seen strutting around in his blue spandex undies was now neatly dressed in his slacks and button down shirt.  It was a transformation!

We had to wait or a good two plus hours at the Chinese border town of Erlian, while the carriages were having their wheels swapped, so we did a little exploring.  This place in the middle of nowhere only existed to serve as a border town.  Since the trains usually pulled in at  night they had lights everywhere.  The streets were lined with panels of lights that looked like stadium lights.  Lined up at street level about 20 feet apart they turned Erlian from night into day.  The town also had its share of cheesy Vegas lights to jazz things up.  And, if the lights didn't blind you the swarms of bugs that they attracted would drive you nuts.  It was a duty free town so everyone was buying up loads of fruit to take to UB. Our guesthouse in Mongolia had asked us to pick up a box of bananas so we shopped around for a nice box of fresh green bananas that would last a while. We also picked up some snacks for the rest of our train ride.  The LP book said we should be able to find money changers at the border as well but nothing was open.  

Rob wanted to see the carriages have their wheels changed but after a few attempts he gave up.  We could have stayed on the train all of the way to the rail house but they would have locked us in the carriage while the carriages were lifted and the toilet wouldn't have been accessible.  Trying to walk to the rail house in pitch black to watch the process from outside the train proved to be too difficult.  

Come morning we had hours of daylight on the train as we passed through Mongolia's Gobi desert.   Photos often depict the Gobi as a huge mass of sand dunes but, in fact, it is an expansive flatland of sandy ground that somehow manages to grow grass.  The sand dunes are only a very small part of the Gobi.  Looking out the train window it was hard to recognize the landscape as desert until wind gusts blew sand into our cabin.  Across the vast landscape Mongolian gers (yurts) were scattered here and there.

By the time we pulled in to UB around 3:30 in the afternoon it was pouring rain.  Zaya, the owner of our guesthouse, met at our carriage and quickly ushered us into a taxi.  The traffic was incredible.  We only seemed to travel a few miles to the guest house but it must have taken about 45 minutes.  It appeared that road rules in Mongolia were quite loose and since everyone was out for themselves it kept things clogged to a halt.

To keep us entertained Zaya provided us with all kinds of information on her, her family, Ulaan Baatar, and Mongolia.  She runs her guesthouse out of several apartments that her family acquired in the final distribution of land at the collapse of the Soviet period.  It seemed like a haphazard allocation of resources where people in the right place were given an apartment as the bureaucracy quickly relieved itself of the cost of property maintenance.   Not needing all of the apartments for her family, Zaya had turned them into a business instead.  

We pulled up in front of a pinkish Russian-style building that was part of a typical Soviet block of buildings, all built around a small central park.  The building was suffering from some dilapidation and the park had seen better days but Zaya was quick to comment on the sad exterior while she assured us that the interior was nice.  And, it was.  The apartment was on the first floor behind a triple lock steel door and consisted of three rooms, a kitchen and a bath.  There were no other tenants when we arrived so we chose the quiet room in the back.  It wasn't quite what we had expected since it was more of a shared flat than a guesthouse but it was very comfortable and in a very convenient location. 

After we unloaded our things Zaya took us around the neighborhood to a place where we could change money.  Our apartment was right off of Peace Avenue, which is the main street through town, and very close to all kinds of restaurants, cafes, and the five story State Department Store (tall by UB standards).  The money changer  was an unofficial establishment but was the same place that had been recommended by a Chinese man we'd met on the train and offered a good exchange rate.  The place even took our Chinese yuan, which aren't supposed to be changeable outside China.  

Once we had some Mongolian togrok in hand we stopped at a restaurant for a late lunch.   It was a nice little place called the Winner's Cafe and served up a variety of mostly Russian influenced foods (goulash, mayonnaisey salads, etc.).  After a hot meal we stopped in at the Belgian run Chez Bernard for some desert and coffee.  It was unexpected to find such a selection of western style restaurants and cafes in Ulaan Baatar, of all places.   

We picked up some bread, cheese, and wine at the State Department Store on the way home for a light dinner.  We didn't chose the room with the TV in the apartment but with no roommates we took the opportunity to watch CNN in the front room while eating.  It almost felt like home.

July 3. UB  We woke up the next day to better weather but I woke up early with an awful stomach ache.  My stomach had started acting up the morning we were on the train but this was all together something different. I spent from 6am to about 1pm clutching my guts as I experienced frequent cramps from my stomach to my intestines.  A hot water bottle helped some but it just had to run its course.  Since our first meals in UB had included milk, cream, and cheese I guessed that some non-pasteurized dairy product was probably the culprit but wasn't sure.  I went to drink some water from a bottle we had bought at the Chinese border and noticed that there was dirt floating in it.  We drank several bottles that night and it is was possible that I got some "home" bottled water (i.e. recapped mineral water bottles filled with Chinese tap water) that made me so sick.  

Rob went out on his own to get us a cash advance and change some more money.  He was also able to find the LP book on Mongolia and Central Asia so we could do some more trip planning.   By the time he returned I was beginning to feel better and we managed to get over to the local Mexican Indian restaurant, Los Bandidos, for some food.  It was housed in another Russian apartment block behind our building and from the shabby exterior we never expected to open the door and find decoration from the American south west.  From the advertising as Mexican Indian food we were expecting Indian food from Mexico but this was actually Indian food from India.  The chefs were Indian and it was reflected in their rendition of Mexican cuisine.  As Indian food the Mexican food wasn't too bad but as Mexican food it was a stretch.  My veggie burrito was more like a vegetable curry in a crepe.  With some food in my stomach I was feeling better and Rob was forbidding me from taking anymore dairy for 48 hours to make sure I didn't have a relapse.  

We still had to deal with our tax situation and in order to get that ball rolling we located the UB DHL office.  It was a quick taxi ride down Peace Avenue and taxis in UB are fairly cheap ($0.25-$1 to get around town).  The DHL office agreed to receive the package for us so we didn't have to worry about delivery to the guesthouse.  Since Zaya had given us the address of someone in a Chinese Ministry office in UB to receive our sleeping bags from Beijing it seemed that she didn't have much confidence in the postal system.  We quickly located an Internet cafe to send our tax person the address as soon as possible.  Even DHL would take 3-5 business days to reach UB from the United States!

For dinner we tried to locate Millie's restaurant, an apparent  institution for local expats, but our LP guide failed us and Millie's was not where Millie's was supposed to be.  We had encountered her branch cafe at the UB hotel during our afternoon of wandering but our American meal would have to wait.  We settled on a nice new place called the Millennium Cafe which served up Russian style salads and a good rendition of lasagna. 

We had a flat mate arrive at Zaya's that morning, Jeremy.  I didn't meet him since I was laid up in bed but we bumped into him on our way home.  He was an Irish photo journalist, living in Moscow, that had come to cover the Naadam festival.

ULAAN BAATAR July 2-3 July 4-5 July 6 July 7-8

NAADAM July 9-10 July 11 July 12 July 13

COUNTRYSIDE July 14 July 15 July 16 July 17 July 18 July 19 July 20-21


BALDAN BARAIVAN July 25-30 Intro About Baldan Baraivan Mani Buteel Buddhist Festival The Restoration Work Another Naadam & About CRTP

ULAAN BAATAR July 31-Aug 1