A first glance
Ulaanbaatar Travel Blog› entry 2 of 19 › view all entries
We’re both exhausted when we land in Ulaanbaatar. It’s five in the morning and the sun is rising, but since we barely had a wink of sleep during the flight, we could do with a few more hours of shut-eye.
While the plane is taxiing from the runway to the airport, it’s obvious that the only international airport of Mongolia is tiny. There’s only one gate so the other plane that is boarding has to leave before we can get to it. There’s also only one arrivals hall and one luggage carousel , but that’s actually very convenient when you are in the state we are in :D. As soon as we have our bags we walk to a young man that is holding up a sign with our names.
We’ve booked a two-week tour with the Dutch travel agency Tiara Tours. They have a contract with a local agency, Gardi Tours (http://www.garditours.com/) which means our fellow travellers will be from all over the world. However, once we’ve met the man who was holding up the sign (his name is Anar and he will be our guide), we find out that we were the only ones who booked the trip and that we’ll therefore have a private tour. We need a moment to get used to this idea, which seems very posh to say the least, but we’re convinced we’ll have fun either way.
We follow Anar across the parking lot of the airport and we pass several shiny modern jeeps, but luckily he stops at a dilapidated old Toyota bus.
Agi doesn’t speak any English, but I immediately love his toothless smile and his welcoming gesture towards the wobbly bench behind the divers seat. While we take a seat, he folds up a towel and lays it on his head. He then steps behind the wheel and starts to sing a Mongolian song.
When Agi leaves the parking lot, Anar explains that we’ll have to take a longer route to our hotel because the main road to the centre of the city has suffered so much damage during heavy rainfall a few weeks ago that they closed it down. It doesn’t matter to us, it just means we’ll have more time for a first look at Mongolia.
The road we drive on is paved, but with a lot of holes in it and it is very hot outside, even though it’s only half past six in the morning (which is probably the reason why Agi has a towel on his head). There’s no air conditioning in the bus and the bench we sit on is pretty worn down, but we love it all. We’re on the road again, and this is all part of the charm of travelling.
Ulaanbaatar looks like a disorderly, oversized settlement with boxy Soviet apartment buildings, shabby houses, small shops, hole in the wall restaurants and modern office buildings. The millennium has obviously also hit this remote corner of the world. Streets are full with modern cars, countless people are walking around with mobile phones and everybody is wearing western clothing.
We stop at a small, ragged hotel and while Anar checks us in with a listless receptionist, I read a sign on the bulletin board that says that because of maintenance in the district, there is no hot water available. The contrast between the lack of hot water and the Louis Vuitton shops, the mobile phones and Hummers is incomprehensible and hilarious at the same time.
The local tour operator that organises our trip through Mongolia is based in this hotel, so all breakfasts and dinners are also included. It’s now a little past seven in the morning, so we are send to the hotel restaurant where we find two young girls who are captivated by a soap on television.
As soon as we have eaten the very questionable breakfast we go to our room for a couple hours of sleep. The room is spacious and reasonably clean (and the water is indeed ice cold!). The mattress on the double bed is, like most beds in China, quite hard. It doesn’t matter though, we sleep like babies anyway.
At noon Anar and Agi are at the reception again to pick us up for a first real look at the city. They take us to the Gandan Monastery, the biggest and most important tourist attraction in the entire country.
After 1944 the monastery was the only one to be restored, after which it became a ‘show monastery’ for foreign tourists to show the history of Mongolia. This lasted until 1990, from then on Mongolians were allowed to be Buddhists again.
The Gandan Monastery consists of several different buildings, and even though they look a lot like the temples and monasteries we saw in China, it has been a long time since we seen those and we enjoy walking around while we admire the architecture. The courtyards are completely covered with pigeons, because local visitors consider it a good deed to feed them.
Next to the several temples, a library and rows of large prayer wheels, there’s also the large white building called Migjid Janraisig Sum. It contains a 26 meter high statue of Migjid Janraisig. The statue has been finished with a layer of gold and it is hollow on the inside. Inside the statue there are 27 tons of medicinal herbs, 334 sutras, 2 million scrolls with mantras and a ger with complete interior. I get the herbs, the sutras and mantras, but the reason for the ger is a mystery to me, and unfortunately Anar also doesn’t have a clue why they put it in there.
Once we’ve seen everything the Gandan Monestary has to offer, we have lunch at BD’s Mongolian Barbeque, which is an American restaurant chain and their interpretation of the Mongolian kitchen.
Anar joins us for lunch, which we enjoy a lot. This way we can learn more about Mongolia and its people. Anar doesn’t look like a typical Mongolian though, his skin is a bit too white, his hair isn’t black and he has an eastern European look, but his eyes are definitely northern Asian. I’m pretty sure he has an interesting background of which we might hear more during our trip.
After lunch we visit Sukhbaatar Square. This large central square has been named after Damdin Sukhbaatar, who declared Mongolia independent of China in July 1921. In the middle of the square there is a large statue of him on a horse.
In 1990 there were the first demonstrations on this square, which eventually led to the fall of communism in Mongolia. Today the square is used for ceremonies, concerts and an occasional demonstration.
Around the square there are many modern buildings that house banks, the state opera and ballet theatre, the Mongolian stock exchange and some museums, but the most noticeable building is the contemporary government building. It’s entire front is dominated by a huge statue of Genghis Khan that seems to overlook the entire nation from this spot. He is flanked by statues of his two most important predecessors: Ogedei and Kublai. Statues of the two most famous Mongolian warriors, Boruchu and Mukhlai, guard the steps to the monument of Genghis Khan.
While dark clouds gather above our heads, we walk to the nearby National Museum of Mongolian History. The first floor of this excellent museum shows items of the earliest period of Mongolia, the time of the Huns , the Uygurs and the Turks. The second floor shows the unique Mongolian costumes of different ethnic groups and regions in Mongolia. The third floor is for the biggest part about the legendary Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes, the rest is about Modern Mongolia. There was the struggle for independence, communism, the revolution and eventually democracy since 1990.
By the time we leave the museum it starts to rain, within minutes the heat disappears and makes place for a more bearable temperature. It’s late in the afternoon and we have some time before dinner which we spend in our hotel room, reading a book.
At seven we are expected for dinner, and two young women who keep one eye on the television in the corner serve us a salad with pasta and a few feeble leaves of lettuce. As soon as we are finished and we’ve put down our utensils, the next course arrives (which is quite an accomplishment given the fact that the women are watching television and continuously checking text messages).
Rens manages to get one of the waitresses to our table and asks if they happen to have mayonnaise (it’s a Dutch custom to eat mayonnaise with fries and Rens is a big fan of this combination). To my surprise the woman knots and walks to the kitchen.
‘Wow, she understands English!’ I whisper to Rens, who is equally surprised of this fact.
The woman comes back and puts two small bags of ketchup on the table and leaves again.
‘Oh, well. Close enough,’ says Rens while he starts to eat. He takes a few bites, takes a moment to think and then says, with a face as straight as can be while imitating a Dutch cook from television: ‘I always thought that the fries we had India were the worst we could ever have.
I snigger and try not to laugh out loud. The food isn’t fabulous, but not that horrible either. We empty our plates and within a second the table is cleared again. While we wonder if there is also a dessert, the waitress returns to our table and then holds two chocolate bars called ‘Jelly Bars’ in front of us. ‘Interesting choice,’ says Rens, who is obviously not yet tired of imitating the cook from television. He takes a bite, chews, and then says ‘Ah yes, nuclear substance wrapped in second rate chocolate. Lovely.’ This makes me laugh so hard, tears end up running down my cheeks.