Break 3 – Ulan Bator

Day 13:
29.10.2009 (Thursday)

We arrived in Ulan Bator (also known as Ulaanbaatar) early morning around 0730. We had arranged to be picked up by the hostel, which is a free service. This time they did turn up. We have arranged to stay in UB Guesthouse. There were a few people from other hostels on the platform trying to attract tourists to stay with them. Unfortunate for our hostel, they only managed to get us.

Anyhow, we were quite happy with this guesthouse. We were given a brief introduction of the city centre and a map. The hostel is quite big and clean with lots of toilets. It is located in the city centre. The hostel management is also very friendly and offers lots of help in terms of train and local tour service. We booked a tour to go to the nearest National Park to stay with a local nomad family. We wanted to experience sleeping in a ger.

After settling in and washing up (must take a shower and wash my hair after 2 days on the train!), we headed out to town. First stop we went to the Mongolian Museum of Natural History to see real dinosaur bones. Apparently this museum features many dinosaur fossils and meteorites found in Mongolia. The museum is quite old and the only interesting exhibit was the dino’s bones. We had to pay extra to see the dino’s bones AND to bring in a camera… After we paid then only we realised we were not allowed to take pictures in the dino exhibition. What a scam!

After the museum, we walked to Sükhbaatar Square, the central square of Ulan Bator. We were lucky to witness some kind of local ceremony at the square. There were lots of people and a section of the square was fenced off. We didnt stay long to see what was going on. But we figured someone important was gonna turn up and pay respect to something.

By then we were already hungry and started looking for a local restaurant for lunch. It was a failed attempt. After walking for half an hour, we ended up at a Korean restaurant and had a big yummy lunch. The Korean lunch reminded us of time spent in Seoul back in 2007.

Our next destination after lunch was Naran Tuul (AKA Black Market). We read from the guide book that they sell camels in that market. David being a fan of visiting market, there is no way we’re going to miss the opportunity to see people selling camels. Naturally we got lost on the way to the market, not knowing how to speak and read the local language. In the end, we took a taxi there and realised we were being cheated (taxi driver charged us more than the average price as informed by the hotel receptionist). Then to get into the market, we have to pay entrance fees. The entrance is guarded by local woman who stands at the entrance and collects money. Again we were tricked into paying 5 times more than what the local pays. Although the amount may be insignificant, I just dont think it is right to take advantage of tourists!

Anyhow, my mood didnt get any better once we got in. The market is huge but mainly sells household items. We knew we had to becareful with our valuables in Mongolia because we were constantly being reminded by the hostel management about rampant pickpocket incidents. But we were caught by surprise when Dav and I were blocked by a group of men in the broad day light in the market. I managed to escape by avoiding the cart used to block my passage but Dav was not that lucky. He was surrounded by the men and he heard his pockets being opened as the opening is secure by velcro. He managed to breakthrough the crowd after a few minutes and  didnt have anything in his pocket. So it was ok.

You can imagine I got even more paranoid after that. So we didnt stay long. After another half hour, we headed back to hostel to rest before we meetup with an ex-colleague for dinner. It was a coincident he was sent to Ulan Bator for work when we were there. We went to a local restaurant and catch up over dinner. I have not seen this ex-colleague since I left E&Y. Although we were not close, it was nice to catch up and get some tips about Mongolia from him as it was his second trip to this city.

Tomorrow we will be heading to the National Park for our one night stay in the ger. So we have to pack our bags as we’re leaving first thing in the morning.

Day 14:
30.10.2009 (Friday)

We started our journey to the Gorkhi-Terlj National Park at 9am and reached around 1030 after a stop over at a supermarket to buy some snacks for our overnight stay.

The national park is totally not what I expected. I was hoping to see green … (trees, grass) like a rainforest. What we saw was totally different. I felt like we’re in a dry barren land. It was all brown and if there’s a patch of grass, the grass is also brown in colour. While driving to the camp site, we saw lots of tourist camp site which offers ger accommodation. I think we paid for a good accommodation. We’re living with a nomad family. The site has 3 gets and it is located at the edge of a mountain. It has fantastic views. The only small complain I had was the fact that the toilet is located down the hill from our ger. Every time after a toilet visit, we have to climb up hill to go back to our ger. So tiring!

While we’re here, all meals were provided by the family and the package also includes horse riding for 2 hours. The food was quite yummy, simple and delicious. For lunch, we had rice with mutton and potatoes. For dinner, it was stew mutton with potatoes and bread. We figured potatoes must be a common food in Mongolia.

After lunch Dav went horse riding while I sit around and read my books. I’m not a big fan of horse riding, so I opted out. He totally enjoyed it and go to know the family’s son a little better. He was even invited to a nearby relative’s ger to have tea and chit chat even though they don’t speak English.

Besides horse riding, we also walked around to explore the area. Up and down the slopes, looking and discovering new scenery and taking lots of pictures. One of the thing I really like about this place is the quiet environment. All you hear is the noise we make and nothing else.

When we arrived, all we were told is that the driver will come back the next day to pick us up around 1000. There was no introduction to the national park, no mention of history or geographical information about the location. There was also no introduction to the family we’re living with, no explanation of what to expect. NOTHING! So we have to figure out what to do ourselves and try our best to communicate with the family as they dont speak English. At one point we were not even sure whether we’ll be served any food as it was past 1200 but of course the lunch was served late. It would have been nice to get some sort of description of the national park….

At night quite naturally we were not able to do much as it is all dark and the temperature starts decreasing rapidly. The only thing that kept us warm was the fire in the middle of the ger and we have to constantly feed wood into it to maintain the fire. Besides the fire, luckily we took with us a sleeping bag, loaned to us by the hostel management. I have to admit, we were still freezing even with 2 layers of blanket on the sleeping bag. I’m not sure if I want to repeat sleeping in a ger in the cold in the near future.

We spent the whole night chatting and telling stories to each other.

Day 15:
31.10.2009 (Saturday)

We didnt have a good sleep as it was freezing cold in the ger. When the family realised we were awake, the father came straight in with woods and started the fire for us. I stayed in the sleeping bag until it was warm to get out. It felt like we had been sleeping in a freezer!

It wasnt long after breakfast our driver arrived to bring us back to the city. It was quite amazing to see the whole national park lighted up by the moon yesterday night. It didnt need any lights and you can still see the outline of the surrounding mountains. It was quite a good experience except for the cold.

Back in the hostel, we managed to get back the same twin room we stayed in. We rested for a while, did laundry and checked our emails before we head out again. We decided we had to try Mongolian BBQ before we leave and got a recommendation from the hostel owner. He was very nice, he even offered to drop us at the restaurant as he was going out too. Luckily we got a ride because it started snowing heavily as we started our journey.

We ate at bd’s Mongolian Grill. It is an American BBQ buffet chain which we only noticed after we started eating. The food was only so so but we get to select the meat and the sauces for it to be cooked on the spot.

After lunch we went to Gandan Monastery, which is only 10 minutes walk from the restaurant. It was still snowing when we walked to the monastery, it was quite slippery but fun. It was a pretty sight to see the monastery covered in snow. This is the largest and most important Tibetan style monastery in Mongolia. It features a 26.5-meter-high statue of Migjid Janraisig, a Buddhist bodhisattva also known as Avalokitesvara. The statue is surrounded with turning bells just like those in Tibet.

Next we slowly walk back towards the hostel. On the way we stop by the State Department Store to look for some souvenirs. But we didnt buy anything except for a bottle of Mongolian vodka. We ended our day with a pint of Mongolian beer in a pub.

Click to read on: Train journey 4 – Ulan Bator to Beijing


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