Our train arrived at Ulaanbaatar an early 0600. Yuri met his contacts, said goodbye and was off towards the parking lot. A Mongolian tour guide met Tom and Iris and they said goodbye before they where whisked off to their 4 star hotel.
I made my way to the waiting area and opened my tour book to once again look at the hotel selection. While I was weighing my options, a rather aggressive taxi driver solicited his services and tried to steer me towards a hotel he was recommending. I politely turned him down. Not speaking English, he did not understand what I said and sat down on the bench across from me and waited. After 15 or 20 minutes, I was still reading my tour book and he asked which hotel I had selected. When I told him I was still thinking, he became disgruntled and departed. He returned about 10 minutes later with his (rather beautiful) 19 year old daughter who spoke lovely English. The two then tried to sell me on their hotel recommendations.
However, part of the charm of backpack travelling is finding your own way. Finding your own way often leads into adventure and contact with the local people that most “tourists” miss. Actually, amongst some of my “backpacker” friends, the word “tourist” is a dirty word. They prefer to be described as a “traveler.” I explained that I would prefer to find my own way and asked if they had a business card or a phone number and promised to call if I changed my mind.
Outside, I found that the only bank near the train station was closed and fenced in. I would have to have my taxi driver stop at a bank on the way into town in order to obtain some local currency. I approached the taxi area in the train station parking lot and the drivers descended on my like hungry vultures. But, they were not just aggressive, they were very “touchy” and many pulled me towards their cabs. The only problem was that their cabs were in different directions and I was literally being pulled in many directions at once. I began asking what was the price to get into town? No one seemed to understand my question. One man seemed to understand me so I walked with him. Once it seemed clear that I was heading towards his cab, the other cabbies backed off after he barked at them. The tour book said that the “standard” cab fare was about 300 Turegs per kilometer; he insisted on 500. Even at 500, the hotel was no more than 4km away, or about $2 at the last rate I saw of 1000 Turegs to a dollar.
I finally made it in to town. It was still early enough that the streets were mostly deserted. I spotted a café that advertised “free internet” and breakfast. Quite hungry and anxious to check into the internet, I decided to try the “English breakfast,” and surf the net. After breakfast, I added some blogs and ended up writing through until lunch. At the lunch hour I decided to try one of the local delicacies: Goat shashlik (goat kebabs). They were quite tasty and this café (Amsterdam café) had the best coffee I’d had in a month, a sure factor to draw me back later.
After I checked into my hotel and had a long shower, I decided to go sightseeing. Just down the street from my hotel is the State Department Store. It has a grocery store on the ground floor and a 3 level department store above. The parking lot seems to serve as an ad hoc car lot and I saw several luxury vehicles offered for sale including this Humvee.
The State Department Store parking lot is ringed with eco-friendly lamps that feature both solar cells and windmills. On windy days I have seen these white blades spinning rapidly as they recharge the light batteries. Later that evening I snapped a photo when the wind had died down and the blades were visible.
A vendor who sells chewing gum and cigarettes was dressed in traditional Mongolian clothing. Over the next two weeks I would see him daily on the State Department Store steps selling his wares. Nearby, many homeless children beg for money. As hard as it is, I follow the guidebook’s advice to not give them any change as this encourages them to stay on the street. I will do as the guidebook suggests and make a donation to one of the children’s shelters.
The first thing that I noticed about the Mongolians is that many of them are very tall. Secondly, I noticed that many of them seem to have European traits; body shapes, some facial looks, etc. The Mongolians certainly look differently than the Chinese. Some do look Chinese, but some also look European mixed, and most look like a combination of Asian and Caucasian. Even the Mongolians who have primarily Asian features, their body shapes seem more Caucasian than Chinese in that they are taller, have longer limbs, and the proportions of their bodies just look “longer” than the Chinese. I took many photos of the locals and selected one that (I think) illustrates some different characteristics of Mongolian people.
Across from the State Street Store, a huge Trinitron television feeds advertisements 24 hours a day. The crosswalk in front of the jumbo screen is “advertised” by the travel book as the most dangerous in all of Ulaanbaatar. Unlike in Russia where the drivers will slow for a crosswalk or pedestrian, the Mongolian drivers seem to have little regard for pedestrians. I always play it safe and only cross when I know that I can cross without risk. The avenue in front of my hotel and the State Department Store is called “Peace and Freedom” Boulevard. It, and the perpendicular street that houses the big screen are loaded with restaurants, cafes, bars, tourist shops, clothing stores, camera shops, and all kinds of other stores. It is a main walking area for tourists and locals alike.
Ulaanbaatar is ringed by 4 mountains that offer a nice horizon view if you are lucky enough to catch them between the buildings. However, the down side is that these mountains hold the smog in – a huge problem as the locals primarily use coal-burning stoves to warm their houses and to cook. The problem is significantly worse during the cold winter months. Just my luck.
The pedestrian traffic is constant. I prefer to cross at “controlled” intersections where a traffic light or traffic cop is present. I shot the picture below near the Suukhbaatar Square. You’ll notice the H1N1 “swine flu” masks in the photo. Despite the few cases that Mongolia experienced, the government virtually closed much of the country down for more than a month – more on this later.
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