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Published: July 30th 2006
Well we made it into Mongolia, even with all the dried food Neen had stockpiled (the customs officials were a lot more interested in checking Mongols returning home than foreigners entering). Our hosts were there to meet us at the airport near midnight on Saturday and after a short drive in the rain in a van with no seatbelts and no headlights either for that matter, we arrived at our guesthouse (if ever you visit Ulaanbaatar, stay at Khongor Guesthouse). Our host Degi more than made up for any character the soviet style building lacks.
There are some great restaurants in the city and Neen remains a vegetarian, but that will no doubt shortly change! Ulaanbaatar is a relatively modern city, complete with its share of problems associated with high density living, and in common with other former communist states. It's hard to pass the street kids (some as young as 4) singing for cash or just sleeping face down on the concrete footpath. During winter they survive temperatures that reach minus 30 by sleeping in the underground heating vents (and sewers) beneath the city, although in recent years the number of street kids has been greatly reduced due to
various foreign aid organisations. There is also a huge population of stray dogs in the city, most of which are so skinny and mangy that you wonder how they survive at all. Yesterday we saw a german shepherd swallow whole an oily cloth rag that had probably been used to wipe down mutton fat or similar.
We've read lots of warnings about this city but have felt relatively safe here, despite being pushed/harrassed a couple of times by drunk guys who'd had a few too many litres of vodka. We met a British couple the other day who caught the public bus from the airport and were pickpocketed within a few minutes, whereupon another local helped return their stuff. The driver then stopped the bus and said they had better get off now if they wanted to avoid more trouble. There is a very strong nationalistic sentiment in Mongolia and it's interesting to see how foreigners are sometimes treated, probably due in large part to Mongolia's history of occupation and being sandwiched between the two mega powers of Russia and China.
Today was the opening ceremony of Naadam festival - a national holiday showcasing the "3 manly sports"
Nina in Sukhbaator Square
Sukhbaator declared Mongolian independence from the Chinese, towards Soviet rule... On July 10 a new statue of Chinggis Khan was unveiled at government house at the back of the square.
of Archery, Wrestling and Horse Riding and soon also Ankle Bone Shooting. Despite managing to buy tickets to the opening ceremony and we arrived early to find the gates locked, with large queues of people shouting various things at the many police keeping the gates. We queued for a while and after being crushed to the point of not breathing we realised it was pointless. No more people were let in, ticket or not! Later we read in the paper that a large quantity of counterfeit tickets had been produced and sold for up to A$50 (original price around $2.50!).
After getting over our disappointment we walked around and got a seat to watch the archery, in which the idea is to knock over cups about 100m away. The archers are amazingly talented, especially those on horseback. The official contest came and went and we still have no idea who won, though we did see the president fire a few of shots, much to the pleasure of the crowd and large media contingent.
Once the crowds had thinned we made it into the stadium with our useless tickets to watch some wrestling while Steve ate a Spam burger....
mmmm.... Each wrestling contest can take up to a couple of hours with most of the action seeming to revolve around leaning heavily on each other, with bursts of energy where they try to throw or trip the opponent over.
Day two of Naadam and we drove out to the horse racing field to watch the riders crossing the finish line after 25kms. Mongolians believe that it if you attend the race you will be blessed with good fortune for the rest of the year so it was a very busy day. The officials had deployed the entire police force for the 2 days, with the sole purpose of stopping cars every five kilometres, to argue about nothing and then lose interest and walk off. On the way back from the races we were stopped by a police officer and told to drive back the way we'd come (our driver, Bold, argued but the officer lost interest and walked off). No worries, Bold had a Plan B and transformed his Hyundai Excel into the Extreme Offroad Vehicle. We hammered along through the steppe, stopping only when the vehicle became bogged while crossing a very fast flowing river (much to
Along Peace Avenue, main street
Who needs a good road when you have a 4WD? Note: the overhead powerlines are used by electric buses. Like most forms of public transport in Mongolia, demand far exceeds supply.
Bold's embarrassment). The detour turned out to be a blessing as we saw some beautiful countryside and met kids from a nearby family.
The car horn in Ulaanbaatar is used virtually as a second official language. Whether someone in front of you is stopped at a red light, turning a corner, avoiding a pedestrian, overtaking, driving at the normal speed, you see friends, you see noone or are simply just driving, or even parked, there is never a better time than now to get on the horn. Some people have even gone the extra mile and hooked their car alarm up to the horn, to be that step above the rest.
On the way back into town from Naadam we found ourselves stuck in very heavy traffic due to the road being blocked for foreign diplomats making their way back to the airport. Bold was being very patient, unlike his compatriots who were having a honk-fest, each trying to outdo the other, creating a delightful cacophony. An obvious ambassador for Australia, sitting in the 4WD next to us, thought he had the perfect solution to all this and yelled as loud as he could, in his best occa
accent "stop honking your horns you f*ckin pin heads"... man, what a genius!
Mongolia seems to be tripping over itself in its rush to modernise (commercialise) and shake its communist past. Nowhere is the transition towards capitalism more rapid than in Ulaanbaatar. One thing's for certain though, Mongolian nationalism is alive and well, with 2006 being the 800th anniversary of Chinggis Khan's unification of the Mongolian feudal clans. Statues of the Great Khan, songs about the Great Khan and non-stop movies about the Great Khan dominate. Regardless of the way in which the empire was created, there is no greater hero than Chinggis himself. While the legend has been grossly romanticised, it is good to see people so proud and protective of their culture and traditions being preserved and passed on through the generations. Can't wait to get out into the countryside and experience the real Mongolia.
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