Mutton or horse meat?

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July 27th 2010
Published: July 26th 2010
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Getting to Ulan-Bator was one hell of an experience! It was too late to book a direct train ticket to UB so I had to take a slightly longer route. I was incredibly lucky though there was a Mongolian guy staying in my hostel who spoke perfect English, Mongolian & Russian. I just followed him the entire way!

Part one of the trip was a night train to Ulan-Ude. I went for platzcart again since it was totally fine the last time. Huge mistake! The last train I was on was a Firmenny train so even 3rd class is a reasonable (and air-conditioned) standard. None of the windows were open this train was like an oven. Approximately 2 minutes in the carriage and I was ready to be hosed down with disinfectant. I now completely understand Lonely Planet’s refugee camp comment. If anything this was an understatement on their part. It was one of those spooning my backpack, passport down my pants don’t you dare try to rob me nights. On the bright side this far into the journey I’m barely human anymore so the night didn’t really bother me.

There’s a direct bus from Ulan-Ude to UB but it’s usually booked up and this was no exception. Ulan-Ude’s main claim to fame is being the location of the largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world. As impressive as this was I was not looking forward to the prospect of being stranded in a Siberian backwater. Luckily I had my Mongolian tour guide so we were straight on a minibus to the border. Nothing being simple in Russian you can’t cross the border on foot so we had to hitch across. It’s pretty standard though everyone has to do it.

It was a painfully slow border crossing and I just could not wait to get out of Russia. It was such a relief to get stamped out! Then in the middle of no man’s land the car broke down and we had to physically push it to Mongolia. Once across we were still 500 km from UB. The easiest way to get there was by taxi and it only cost about €13! Stopped for food on the way had a fantastic, really cheap meal which was great after all the food in Russia which generally manages to be both expensive and shit. The only downside was the
Sunrise PlatzcartSunrise PlatzcartSunrise Platzcart

The beauty of lake baikal vs the disgustingness of platzcart
Mongolian tea they served with it. Mongolian tea is the same as normal tea except instead of sugar they use salt! I’m all for cultural diversity but that’s just wrong.

After that epic journey I decided I was definitely taking the easy option and joining a 3 day tour to see some of Mongolia. But when is anything easy? I asked about joining a 3 day tour at about 10:30am. The guy said a group had left early that morning and that there might not be another one for a few days but I could still catch a bus at 11:00am and catch up with that group. Sounded straight-forward. I had 30 minutes to find an ATM, pay for the tour and get to this bus. I just made it then after about 5 minutes on the bus it hit me that I was on a public bus in Mongolia with absolutely no idea where I was going. 2 hours and several phone calls later I found the group.

The tour guide had very good English but this was her first non-Mongolian tour group. She got an Irish guy and two Scots. Talk about bad luck! The trip went around Terelji National park which is just outside UB. Both nights we stayed in Ger tents with Nomadic families. The food was an experience. Everything is cooked over manure so let’s just say there’s a distinct flavour to everything. Also the first dinner was effectively every last internal organ of a sheep. It was blatantly a set up though. The driver kept telling us how delicious the dinner was going to be! Evidently all westerners react the same way!

The second night we stayed with a Kazak family. In Kazak culture it’s incredibly rude not to finish your food. I was absolutely dreading dinner. There was more salty tea but thankfully it was just noodles and breakfast was similar to rice pudding.

The last day we experienced the unusual combination of both horse riding in the morning and then eating horse meat for lunch. The 3 hours of horse riding was a shockingly painful experience. Karma for lunch no doubt) At the start the horses were just walking but they’re seriously wild and towards the end it was like the grand national. One of the Scottish guys nearly ended up being thrown off the horse!

I had about half a day to wander around UB before catching my train. It’s the archetypal developing city too many people, too much pollution and increasingly too many cars. Throw in the Soviet era architecture and it’s easy to see why some people consider it the lowlight of an otherwise beautiful country. It’s an interesting city none the less. The influence Russia once exerted is quickly being replaced by China but signs of the country’s past are everywhere: grey apartment blocks, soviet murals and even a token statue to Lenin. Even the language uses a slightly modified version of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

Unfortunately there’s not much of the city’s ancient past left standing. The winter palace is impressive although quite shabby and run down. Gandan was one of the few monasteries in the country to survive the communist era. It seemed quite nice wandering around the courtyard but nothing amazing. I walked into the main buildings and one of the staff told warned me there was a $5 fee for taking photos. I almost laughed. I thought there was no way it could be worth it so I just put my camera away. Then I walked in and there was a gold Buddhist statue at least 4 storeys high! I managed to get one sneaky very poor quality photo.

Mongolia’s definitely a country I’ll return to. Next time though I’ll probably bring along some extra strength chilli sauce to mask the taste of the food!

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