Ulan Bator

Monday, March 21, 2011

We had another early morning today, with our 6:30 am arrival in Ulan Bator. Fortunately, the hostel we are staying at has free pickup from the train station, so when we stepped off the train, we immediately saw a man with a sign saying “Bridgit Elizabeth” (my gmail shows my full name on emails, which perhaps created some confusion). So we followed the guy to a little Hyundai compact, adding a German fellow named Max along the way. Our driver managed to stuff my bag and Cale’s bag into the trunk, and then we got in the car while he started to try to stuff Max’s bag in as well, which really did not look like it would fit. Turned out, it didn’t fit, so he put Max’s bag in the front seat and I pushed over to the middle so Max could climb in the back with us. We started laughing about how squished we were, and then another person from the hostel arrived at the car and without a second thought, hopped in the front seat with Max’s bag on his lap and started laughing and saying, “Hahah! I have baby! Haha! Baby!” Unlike, the driver, this man spoke quite a bit of English, so he pointed out some of the main sights and some good eating establishments on the way back to the hostel. He also informed us that here in Mongolia we will see more smiling people – “In Russia, they are grumpy!”

We got to the hostel and were parked in a holding room while we waited for our actual room, had some breakfast, showered, and lazed around for a little bit. We initially thought we would be leaving today for our tour to the countryside, but due to some confusion, it got pushed to tomorrow – which is probably for the best since we were quite tired. Eventually we got ourselves up and about and our first stop was the ATM so we could get some Mongolian money. There was a really neat clocktower outside the bank.

Mongolian currency is crazy. There are 1300 tugrik to 1 dollar, and as far as we can tell, there are no coins. The hostel sets their prices in USD, so we needed about $400 to cover our tour, and the biggest bill we could get out of the ATM was 10,000 – equal to about $8. As a result, we ended up with a giant pile of money. I find it particularly humorous that they have bills for 10 tugrik – worth less than a penny.

After the ATM, we went in search of lunch and decided to try out one of the places that the guy from the hostel had pointed out to us, where he said we could get a steak for 5 £. Maybe it’s because we haven’t had a decent meal in a couple days, but wow – this lunch was one of the most satisfying meals we’ve had in a long time. The d├ęcor was lovely.

And the food was delicious. We decided to order two entrees to share – an Italian steak with balsamic steak sauce, and “traditional Mongolian pasta” – noodles with pieces of steak and veggies. Both were superb and huge. The steak was especially delicious. And the total cost, including half a liter of beer, was less than $20. So far, we are definitely fans of Mongolia.

The two items on our agenda for the day (besides eating good solid meals) were visiting the International Intellectual Museum – one of the attractions Cale has been most looking forward to – and checking out the market, both of which were a towards the edge of the city, about 2km of a walk. On the way there, we discovered that Mongolians seem to consider traffic regulations as suggestions rather than rules. Many of the streets are very wide, and the walk sign only lasts 15 seconds (there’s a countdown), the first 5+ seconds of which are lost due to the many cars going through the red light. We played the “shadow the locals” game pretty much every time we needed to cross a street.

The International Intellectual Museum was really neat. It’s dedicated to toys, games, and puzzles – mostly puzzles, and chess. They had 300 chess sets, from puzzle tables that filled a whole room to the world’s smallest chess set with a board about 2” across. They also had tons and tons of wooden puzzles, most of which were created by the founder of the museum, a genius who has been designing puzzles of this sort since age 11. After our tour of the museum, we got to meet the founder who showed us a few magic tricks. He also informed us that intellectual people play while lazy, stupid people don’t like games and puzzles. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside, so you’ll have to settle for a snapshot of Cale outside the pink building housing the museum.

Ulan Bator is an interesting place. It’s a legit city with close to one million people, and complete with skyscrapers – like this not quite finished “Blue Sky” office building.

At the same time though, if you look down the streets to just past the city, you can see some pretty incredible mountainscapes.

Our guidebook tells us it’s the world’s coldest capital, and we believe it. The forecast for the next few days, even now at the end of March, includes highs in the low-mid 20’s F, and overnight lows around -10 F. Good thing our Moms stocked us up on long underwear and wool socks! (Thanks!)

The hostel we are staying at is far bigger than any of the others where we have stayed – we were informed they have 35 beds, and it seems like a well-oiled machine. And for once, we don’t feel like the only tourists in town. There are probably about 10-15 other people staying at the hostel, including at least a few other Americans. It’s kind of nice to be around other people who speak English! Our room is quite nice for the $18/night we are paying, including Mongolian felt blankets with fun patterns and even a little desk.

Tomorrow we are leaving at 8am to go on the first part of our tour, to Terelj National Park where we will be going horseback riding and staying overnight in a local family’s ger (yert). The next morning we return to the hostel, have a quick shower, and then we are off for the other 2 nights of our tour – to Karakorum and the semi-Gobi (though we’re not entirely sure what that means).

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