Month: March 2016

Ulaanbaatar

I had two days in Mongolia and spent one day exploring Ulaanbaatar and one day being driven around the countryside. Mongolia’s countryside is breathtaking; it’s capital city, on the other hand, is one of the strangest cities I’ve ever visited.

Ulaanbaatar has an official population of just over a million but it’s clear that people are migrating to the city at an astounding rate. The city is a strange amalgam of “ger” districts (ger being the Mongolian word for tent or yurt), soviet era concrete buildings, and new apartment block high rises. With the increased population comes the increased strain on infrastructure; traffic is a nightmare and pollution seems to be a constant fact of life.

For most of the 20th Century, Mongolia was not only isolated by geography but also politically. Allied with distant Moscow from 1924 to 1990, relations with China have only recently improved and with that has come increased investment, mainly in natural resource extraction. Mongolia is rich in gold, coal, and copper and China is their biggest customer. This increase in investment has seen an acceleration in the population shift from the nomadic countryside to Ulaanbaatar over the past 10 years.

#ulaanbaatar #mongolia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

The first thing I had to do in Ulaanbaataar was find the travel agent who issued my train ticket for my onward trip to Beijing. The instructions to their office were not very clear and the accompanying map looked like it was created using MS Paint. After about 45 minutes of wandering around, I finally found it in a run down apartment block.

With that task out of the way, I then went to check out the very fine National Museum of Mongolia. Afterwards, I walked around Chinnggis Square and the parliament building. Walking around proved to be occasionally hazardous due to the horrific traffic, poorly planned sidewalks, and lung strangling smog.

Chinggis Square, Ulaanbaatar. #ulaanbaatar #mongolia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

Misc

I saw firsthand three traffic accidents in the short time I was in the city. No surprise since driving for most people seems to be a newly acquired skill and the majority of cars are from the used car market in Japan. This means that the steering wheel on most cars is on the wrong side.

I went into a grocery store that appears to have been built twice as large than needed as half of the space was cordoned off by a glass partition. There wasn’t much in the way of fresh fruit or vegetables but there was a whole section of small Kirkland brand water bottles. Finding Costco’s house brand of water in one of the most remote places on Earth was exceedingly puzzling.

In most places, I’ve been able to quickly acclimate to the currency. The Tugrik, however, was a little difficult. I think this is due to 1 dollar equaling about 2000 Tugriks and that the numbers on the bills are very hard to read.

There are very few western style franchises in Mongolia; one of them is a Round Table Pizza. Apparently the other two are KFC and Cinnabon. Gross.

 

Dasvidanya, Russia

The train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar takes about 24 hours, the first quarter of the trip skirts the southern shores of Lake Baikal before turning south towards Mongolia.

The train on this part of my trip was sparsely populated, so even though I was in a 4-berth 2nd class car, I only had one other person in my compartment. He was a young German student from Munich who was headed to Ulaanbaatar after spending several weeks trekking along the shore and in the mountains around Lake Baikal. It had turned cold and snowed heavily over the previous days so he had decided to move on to Mongolia. I was happy to have someone around with which I could practice speaking German.

In addition to the two of us, the rest of the car consisted of 4 other people: two English tourists headed to Beijing and two businessmen, one Ukrainian, the other Mongolian.  It was unclear if these businessmen knew each other, despite the Ukrainian’s gregarious nature with all of us, our Russian and his English meant communication was limited.

As the train lumbered along the Baikal shore, snow and sleet began to fall heavily.  Despite the nasty weather, I knew I was going to miss  Russia. My visit had exceeded all of my expectations and, before I was even out of the country, I was already thinking about returning.

For tourists, Russia can be tough; there is little in the way of tourist infrastructure and the language barrier is a challenge, particularly with the added complexity of dealing with a different alphabet. Even Moscow, a city of nearly 12 million, has no official tourist information office.

When I got off the train at St. Petersburg, I was struck by the complete lack of tourist help that one generally takes for granted at ports of entry. There are no information desks, no one hawking tours, no one handing out maps, no one asking if you need a ride to your hotel; all of which I found immediately pleasant and relaxing.

This general absence of overt tourist provisions would be a running theme throughout my time in Russia. For the most part if you’re not a part of a tour group, you are truly on your own. If you need something, it’s up to you to ask or to figure it out. You may be met with indifference or confusion; but more often you will be treated warmly and graciously.  This won’t always happen but I never really cared; I don’t need a toothy grin and a “how are you doing today?” when buying a subway token or a cup of coffee.

Back on the train to Ulaanbaatar, I wandered into the dining car for one last Russian meal. The car was empty but I could hear a TV and two people chatting in the kitchen. After about 6 or 7 minutes, an attendant strolled by, noticed I was there, and handed me a menu. I was grateful for having been forced to wait as it was a last chance to enjoy the Russian scenery out the window.

Once the train pulled into Ulaanbaatar and passengers began to disembark, swarms of locals appeared on the  platform offering transportation, tours, hostel rooms, money changing, food etc. I had unwittingly passed back into a place where tourist money is more vigorously pursued and it took me a few moments to re-acclimate.

Lake #baikal from the train. #siberia #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

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