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Published: June 11th 2010
Mongolia is one of the last vestiges of truly unspoiled natural landscapes on the planet, and that is what is drawing me. After two and a half months I'm saying goodbye to China, and the many things I've come to get used to about it. Whereas China is being transformed into an industrialized and increasingly polluted region, Mongolia is largely undeveloped and is known as the Land Of Blue Skies, as it is said to have over 250 clear days a year. This is a place for the great outdoors and adventure, of horses and Ger camps, where nomadic life is still the norm, and not the exception.
I left with Gaby, also heading to Mongolia, and together we left Beijing by way of local train, all the way through Inner Mongolia (Chinese Province) to a small border town called Erlian. The ride itself was uneventful and took about twelve hours. While on board we met two other travelers, Jarko from Finland and Alex from Edmonton. Once we arrived to Erlian Gaby and I found a room near the train station, then walked the small confines of the town and found a spot to eat. We found Alex and Jarko
at another eatery soon after and agreed to meet them the next morning to share transport across the border. Surprisingly Gaby and I found a club and had a quick beer while listening to some terrible music and seeing some even worse dancing.
Next morning we met up and after getting into an argument with a taxi driver over a fare, we got to the bus station. There we met a group of Mongolian students who were heading back home and were also looking for transport across. We followed them to a small shop area and negotiated a price for a Jeep. First the four of us piled into the back of a pickup truck and were brought to the border. Once there we were crammed into an old soviet Jeep to be taken across. There were fourteen of us sardined inside the jeep, plus all the baggage in the back. It was so crammed, we were all stuffed onto each others laps with just enough room to breath. Of course then the power at the border had to go out and we all unloaded again and waited around for a while. Many other old jeeps filled with cargo
and people were lined up. Then again lined up is not the best word or even close, as all the vehicles would scramble and cut in to gain a few lousy feet. This part of the world really needs lessons in queuing. Finally the path was opened and everyone roared through. It was chaos, the border guard was literally kicking the jeeps as they went by, trying in vain to regain some semblance of order. Stamping out of China was a straightforward process and then before we knew it we were on Mongolian soil.
Mongolia has a very long and proud history, at one point having one of the greatest empires in the world, stretching from Korea to eastern Europe and down to the Indian subcontinent. Under Genghis (or Chinggis as he's known here) Khan, the empire flourished and many laws based on common sense came to pass such as religious freedom, tax regulations, outlawing things like kidnapping and giving ambassadors immunity. To this day Mongolians proudly refer to him as the Man of the Millennium and his proudly displayed, from being on the Mongolian currency, the Tagrog, portraits of him in abundance, roads and airport named after him,
even the quintessential beer, Chinggis. Russian influence is abound here as they took over parts of Mongolia beginning in the twenties, and continuing through the soviet era, using it as a satellite state. Many older Mongolians can speak Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet (which I'm attempting to learn right now) is used in Mongolian writing. As a result of this, although having it's own distinct culture, Mongolia more closely resembles Russia in terms of language and food, even having western toilets as the norm.
Once in Mongolia, we were in the town of Zammyn Uud, really nothing more than a small village. We entered the train station, and while talking to the ticket agent some massive and stocky Mongolian shoved his way past us while we were in mid sentence and began barking at her. When we tried to intervene he got violent and shoved Jarko and stuck his finger in Alex' neck while waving around his coke bottle wildly. We had heard beforehand to avoid confrontations with Mongolians as many can be dangerous and violent, sometimes without provocation. Must be that warrior spirit in them. Didn't take long to get our first taste. Better to swallow a bit
of pride then end up in a hospital...at least this time. I then exchanged the last of my Yuan for Tagrog and we went to eat nearby. The food is way more western than Asian and it suits me just fine. Only so much noodles and rice a man can take on a daily basis. There is a lot of emphasis on meat and potatoes here and the meal we got was good.
We had a few more hours to kill in this crappy town and then we were off once again, grabbing a sixteen hour train to the capital towards the north, Ulaan Baatar. Now this WAS an eventful ride. It was an old Russian train, at least 70 years old as I learned. The soviets knew how to build things to last. The train was being loaded to the brim with all sorts of cargo and overstuffed with people. We crammed into our berth, met some fifteen year old Mongolian who was traveling home with his younger brother and friend, who turned out to be really intelligent and gave us man y tips about Mongolian culture, people, food, language, places to see, etc. Mongolians overall can speak
English way better than the Chinese can.
We could only get hard seats and killed time with eating, talking amongst ourselves and others. One big guy sitting next to us looked scary but turned out to be really friendly. Mongolians love vodka and many were drinking. Alex had a strange situation while he was trying to get some shut eye where a guy came up to him, took off his glasses and pulled at his nose while turning his first in, as though he was about to punch him. Then he just let go and kept walking. Crazy bastard. I listened to the entire audio book, Anthem during the night and we played cards for a while. Gaby taught us some Israeli game called Yaniv which we quickly got addicted too and we also played Remi. But the greatest part of this ride was staring at the amazing scenery. We cut across the Gobi desert and were mystified by the great vastness of the plains. We saw Gers, and small villages by the side of the track, horse riding, cattle herds, and even wild horses as they raced across the voluminous expanse. I only slept about an hour during
the ride (the others slept only a little more) and got to see the sunrise as well. The train pulled into the station at around nine in the morning and from there it was only walking distance to Idre's.
Idre's is a cozy and homey hostel, quite small but perfect right near the middle of Ulaan Baater. There is a kitchen and movie room within, and quite comfortable beds. All this didn't mean a damn when we got in however since we were so tired. We did walk UB for a while after checking in and got a bite to it but soon after we returned and sank into the black abyss of sleep.
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