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August 21st 2019
Published: August 21st 2019
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Day 24 to 26 of 80

Small mild panic on Monday morning as we arrived early at the station to find our train not listed but train times either side of ours were. Unable to find an english speaking railway person, we started to wonder whether there was something up with our train. But a more thorough search of the station showed a side room listing the long-distance trains, including ours. Phew.

Ulaanbaatar is around 500 km from Irkutsk, as the crow flies. Regrettably trains don't fly so by the time it has travelled 150 km from Irkutsk to reach Lake Baikal which is only 70km south, taking 3 hours in the process, and then overshot to past midway along the southern shore for a stop at Ulan-Ude, where the Trans-Mongolian splits off from the Trans-Siberian, we did around 1200km on the train to get to Ulaanbaatar. With a border crossing out and one in too, no wonder it takes nearly 24 hours.

We were lucky to catch a glimpse of the tourist Lake Baikal circum-lake steam train, a fine specimen of over-sized Russian steam transport, like those we had seen on station duty at some of our stops across from Moscow.

We had some good views of the lake, certainly better than last Friday's sodden sojourn. Turning southwards away from the lake towards Ulan-Ude the landscape began to change - drier land, though a lot of river cutting through, the occasional herd of cattle, looking miles from any habitat either side of the train. And a distinct increase in agriculture, though still a lot of potatoes!

Plenty of birdlife - herons, ducks, geese and magpies by the hundreds - but still bugger all 4 legged.

As we said above we, as in the whole train, had to negotiate both an out, of Russia and an in, to Mongolia, border crossing. The train timetable had allowed 110 minutes for the former and 105 minutes for the latter.

At the former we were allowed off the train for 10 minutes, rather like a prisoner is allowed a daily walk in the exercise compound. Then, once boarded, we were subjected to 4 separate visits. Firstly, a surprisingly friendly immigration lady came round to collect our passports, doing a visual check that we matched our photos - Pip, "sans lunettes" - before walking off with them. Then, an even friendlier customs man. He asked us to open our rucksacks, gave them a cursory non-invasive look, a glance around the cabin, looking for more, followed by that smile that means, to us "Bloody heck! Is that all you've got." At some stage a sniffer dog was also walked past, but thankfully our 1 day unwashed was insufficient inducement for it to sit at the entrance to our cabin

5 minutes later a totally unsmiling gentleman, in black, arrived with a torch and proceeded to search every orifice .... in the cabin!! Now, now you and your thoughts. We were made to stand in the corridor.

Passports returned and the train resumed on time.

30 minutes later, after passing a shocking great sign saying "Welcome to Mongolia" (no, not really ), we had the in procedure, somewhat more friendly overall and quicker. Though the Mongolian equivalent of the black-outfitted Russian expected us to do the heavy lifting of deconstructing our cabin. And, as to what or who he thinks we would have hidden on the 30 minutes between stops, who knows!

So bed wasn't until around 00.30am, and brief, as the train arrived at 06.50.

By the time we woke up the landscape outside had really changed. Gone were any signs of forest, and hardly any water either, just rolling grassland stretching to the distance. But then we were around 1400 metres up - Ulaanbaatar is at about 1300m and surrounded by higher ground. A taxi got us to our hotel by around 07.15, but even at that early time we were allowed to check in. In fact we were that early that we were able to rest up for a couple of hours before sneaking a cheeky hotel breakfast - well, we will be gone before service time on Saturday morning.

Ulaanbaatar was originally, 380 years ago, a movable monastery rather than a single physical location, only putting down permanent roots and buildings in 1778. It was part of Manchu until independence in 1911. At that stage the city was called Niislel Khuree. There was a People's Revolution in 1921 and the city renamed Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero) in 1924. This was also the year of the First Constitution and the People's Republic of Mongolia established. That authoritarian government (communist) resigned in 1990 and the current democratic Mongolia established in 1992.

Sometimes you come to places with some preconceived vision, and maybe for us, for Ulaanbaatar, it was an expectation of 'quaintness', but that is clearly long gone. With a population of 1.5 million it is subject to typical urban sprawl, high rise accommodation, though still on its extended outskirts a surprisingly high concentration of gers. A ger is a specific type of the more general dwelling we would automatically call a yurt back home. But it is the most common type of yurt, and 3/4 of Mongolians still live in gers.

And herein lies one of Ulaanbaatar's biggest problems - air pollution. Despite living in gers large numbers of Mongolians have migrated from the countryside to the Ulaanbaatar sprawl, but still in their gers which are coal heated in winter - and poor quality coal at that. Also, the city is powered by several coal power stations. And then this is all within the surrounding 'four hills', which traps air within a kind of basin. In winter, when everyone, ger dwellers and city livers drawing down power, are consuming coal at its peak, it is said that there are times when you can barely see the outlines of people. And this is so for most of winter, and winter lasts a long time here. (Fortunately, for Pip's asthma, we are visiting in the summer!)

Because we haven't said yet that Ulaanbaatar is the world's coldest, on a daily average temperature, capital city. Its average daily temperature is -1.5°C. Summer is barely a couple of months, and winter temperature drops to -30 / - 40°C. Brrrr. Moscow is 3rd and Reykjavik only 5th. (Incidentally in the two days we have been here it can be very warm in the sunshine, but if a cloud passes by or you walk in a building shadow the slight breeze chills you immediately).

And whilst we are quoting facts and figures Mongolia also has the world's lowest population density, at just below 2 people per sq kilometre.

Not sure how much effort is being put into tackling pollution but something we have noticed is the tremendous number of Toyota Prius Hybrids there are on the roads in the city. Hard to judge but it seems they outnumber all other cars put together. Which causes another problem....

The driving here, especially from a pedestrian's point of view, is atrocious. We have seen some mad traffic on our travels - Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh - but that has been chocker, bumper to bumper, leaving little room for daft manoeuvres. Here the traffic is busy but has room, leaving just enough gap for those daft manoeuvres. They also have scant regard for light-controlled pedestrian crossings, so you can imagine what they are like for the uncontrolled crossings! And the other Prius issue referred to above? Their electric engines are silent. You don't hear them coming. Here, being spread out more, there is more temptation for drivers to go for the 1 foot gap whether it borders a car or a person.

We took a walk in the afternoon to get our bearings. We looked at A LOT of cashmere clothing. Some of it very dashing, and at prices that seem a lot less than at home. Some wonderful wonderful colours, but even so at one stage, passing a display of fawny / beigey / browny jumpers Pip stopped to admire one because its colour was 'very goaty'. Interesting!

Paul bought a cashmere scarf. Well, he had spent last winter failing to find a scarf of any type back home that he was prepared to buy.

In an open park area, close by the State Department Store - now, somewhat repurposed, like Gum in Moscow, into separate retail concessions but more downmarket eg Next! - is a Beatles 'memorial'. There is no reference to the Beatles visiting Ulaanbaatar. Rather, it was put up to honour the youngsters who, during communist times, used to gather to play and sing banned western music.

In the evening we ate at a Mongolian restaurant. Very meat heavy, and all sorts of 'bits' of the animal too. They seem to be especially attracted to tail. And horsemeat. But the menu, in english and with pictures made it clear what we were getting. Chicken Teriyaki for Pip, though she wanted braised beef and roast apple, beef short ribs for Paul. The waitress bought a small tray with two small white squashy warm cylinders on it with our meal. Paul, as is his want, took it upon himself to venture trying one for taste. Firstly he prodded it with his fork. Fortunately, as he picked it up it opened somewhat to reveal itself as ... a heated hand cloth. 😂

An interesting aside - Mongolia is one of 8, admittedly small, countries, to have adopted the 'what3words' address system as their preferred norm. The what3words system divides the surface of the globe into 57 trillion unique 3m x 3m squares, and then allocates a random set of 3 words to that square eg the entrance to the main tourist office in Ulaanbaatar is supreme.translated.abroad. It only requires around 30000 different words to do this. There are 36 language variations, but the addresses between languages are not direct translations of each word. The Ulaanbaatar guide book we got from the Tourist Office has all addresses shown with their what3words address.

2nd interesting aside - they make clotted cream here! But call it Urum. Same method though - bring milk to the boil, ladle, skim, separate, cool, solidify. Only here they make not only from cow's milk but from sheep or goat too. Haven't seen any scones or jam to try it with though.

Wednesday morning saw us heading for the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. Those of you who follow our blogs will know that we are suckers for a good dinosaur - reference Dinosaur Triangle in Australia and the Western Cape Fossil Park in South Africa.

The Ulaanbaatar museum was newly opened in 2013, and is particularly a celebration of one particular specimen of Tarbosarus Bataar. This fossil has history, so to speak. It was excavated in southern Mongolia, then sold and illegally shipped to the USA. The guy responsible, Prokopi, smuggled the skeleton into the States, via the UK, claiming on the import papers that it originated in the UK - yeah, as if! He paid over $1m. Mongolia argued, in the US court, that under the Mongolia Constitution it was 'culturally significant' and banned from export. They won. Prokopi plea bargained and gave up the dinosaur, which was returned to Mongolia with great ceremony. Prokopi still got 3 months jail, to say nothing of being $1m out of pocket.

And what a 'wow' example it is too. In pride of place in the entrance hall, it is so complete. It must have taken hundreds of man hours to extract it from bedrock into the clean specimen on display. Including the main display there were four halls, the newest only been open for 2 weeks. Regrettably though that was the hall with no english labelling. But most of the rest of the museum had english labelling. And, as we entered, a charming Mongolian lady, in crystal clear english, gave us an introduction to the museum.

A coffee - Ulaanbaatar really does have a coffee culture, chains and solos everywhere - and we made our way to Choijin Lama Temple Museum incongruously sitting amongst Ulaanbaatar's high rise offices.

A former working temple now repurposed as a museum, entrance, like a lot here, was cheap - 8000 mongolian tugriks (MNT), about £3. Where they do try to shaft you though is for cameras and videos. 50000 MNT (~£25) for 30 minutes for a camera. Up to 500000 MNT for video - you can do the maths. That's just yaks***.

Built by 300 of Mongolia's best craftsmen, this place looks a bit buried next to the modern skyscrapers. Inside the temples are very impressive gilded bronze statues, sculptures of major Mongolian/Tibetans, incarnations and papier maché masks. Many were very macabre indeed, lots of skulls. And as for the joint deity/female brass figures, not sure Facebook would allow us to post photos even of we had them to post. From a craft point of view the point was made that several, including large, elaborate ones were made as single pour castings. Very impressive.

We wandered further south to the Ulaanbaatar Theme Park, site of a cultural show later in the afternoon. The park is very sub-Alton Towers, with heavy emphasis on the word sub! But does have one ride that would rival AT's corkscrew - a double-loop, double-twist coaster that was proving popular with the locals. We had intended to have a round of crazy golf but the course was closed and somewhat overgrown, grass and dandelions liking the moisture trapped in the holes.

Just outside the park is a performance venue, home to the Tumen Ekh Ensemble (there's a Newcastle joke in there, somewhere, just haven't got it yet), an international award winning musical, song, dance and acrobatic troupe. The show was, mostly, very good indeed. Dance routines, multi-instrumental pieces on traditional instruments, Mongolian folk singing, a very flexible lady acrobat/contortionist ("Bet she's popular with the boys!" Pip observed), shaman mask dancing and, of course as it's Mongolia, Khuumii - Mongolian Throat singing. It's hard to describe throat singing. It's both guttural and yet sometimes operatic. It doesn't look or sound very comfortable. "Bet he needs a lot of Strepsils.", Pip observed.

Where it let itself down was a - a couple of the dance routines with energetic, recorded backing felt too modernised, and b - the melody, on traditional instruments, of western tunes eg The Can Can, and a couple of others, was an unwelcome intrusion.

But that's enough blog for now because tomorrow we are having a day "in the country" and adding that too this blog will almost certainly make it far too long.

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Was blareing out music at a volume Glastonbury would be proud of!

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