Ulan Bator and the Mongols
The post title sounds like some college radio band. I like it. We got into UB (it’s sometimes written as Ulaan Bataar, Ulan Bator, Ulaanbataar, etc so I’ll just abbreviate) yesterday at 1pm after a 30 hour train ride. Because the rails in Mongolia and Russia are not the same size as they are in China, we had to stop at the border and change “bogies” which are like trucks on a skateboard — wheels, suspension, etc all in one. This process took quite a long time, but it took even longer for the Chinese to collect and photocopy our passports. The Mongols repeated this process, but were far quicker. The Mongolian border guard was very suspicious of me, because I look nothing like my passport photo. I have short hair and no beard, whereas now I look like a vagrant. The entire border crossing lasted 4-5 hours.
Being sandwiched between China and Russia, the Mongolians appear to be a mixture of the two cultures. The people look like Chinese, but many dress like Russians. This is especially apparent in the women, who wear very stylish clothes and makeup. It’s quite nice, since most of them are more attractive than Chinese women. The Mongolian language is written in Cyrillic, as is the Russian language, but it is distinct from both Chinese and Russian. The main reason for all the Russian influence is that in the early 1900s when Mongolia declared themselves separate from China (which was involved in a bloody and ruthless civil war amongst warlords, Japanese, and the Kuo Minh Tang), the Soviets gave them quite a bit of assistance in westernizing. I don’t think that Mongolia was part of the USSR, but it was certainly very closely aligned with it.
When we arrived in UB, we were met by someone who was taking passengers to the UB Guesthouse. Since we planned on staying there, we hopped into the minibus and were off. While we rode, the woman pointed out a few of the local sites, like the Gondan monastery, the permanent circus, the post office, the Russian embassy, etc. She speaks very good English, as do many people here. I have yet to see a sign which has been butchered in English the way that they were in China. When we arrived at the hostel, we found that it was in a block of Soviet-style apartments (nearly the entire city is like that) and occupied a couple of apartments. This is how several hostels were in China.
When we entered, we were invited to take our shoes off and put on a pair of the large collection of slippers available. Then Bobbi, as she introduced herself, went over some of the basics: “Be careful when you go out at night, there are a lot of pickpockets and bagslitters here. Please remove your shoes and wear sandals around, it makes the floors much easier to keep clean without all the snow and dirt being tracked in. Dorms are $5 per night and you may pay either in US Dollars or in Mongolian Togrogs (1200 to the dollar). We offer tours to go to the National Park for an evening or two and stay in a ger (pronounced gear). The Internet is free, breakfast is included, we have lots of DVDs to watch and a kitchen that you may use at your leisure.” This has been the best hostel we’ve been in on our trip, not just for the amenities, but also for the sense of family that you have when you’re here. There are Peace Corps Volunteers constantly trooping through on their way in and out of the countryside, as well as several other visitors. The place is fairly small, so you get to be friends quickly.
We met an American who has been teaching English in Japan and an Englishman who is going the opposite way we are across Asia. The four of us headed out for a drink at around 8 and ended up having quite a good time and quite a few more than we’d intended. We began at a place called London Pop, a “Whiskey Bar and Jazz Club” the sign proclaimed. They had plenty of whiskey and jazz memorabilia, but they were playing Mongolian pop instead of the promised jazz. It was a nice place, but we decided to move on. We went to a place called the Santa Fe, which has the silhouette of an American Indian in a headdress and a different beer on tap. We ended up the night at a place calling itself an Irish Pub that in no way tried to be Irish. But there was a Mongolian band on stage playing live music, which was nice. The only other westerner in the place was a German guy who works for the Mongolian National Park Service. He was quite friendly.
We left at about 1am as they were closing the place up and walked home. On the way, I decided that I’d try and practice the few Mongolian phrases that I’d gotten out of my guidebook. I was saying “Sayn bayna uu” (Hello) to random people on the street. Some returned the greeting and smiled, others ignored me. This is as I would expect; a mixture between the Russian and Chinese attitudes. One guy was out walking his dog and we began talking. I know no Mongolian and he knew no English, so our most common language was actually Russian! I am up to lesson 9 on the Russian learning and have learned how to introduce myself, ask a woman for a drink at a restaurant and at my place, and have learned how to get rejected. Not much of this helped to talk with the dog walker. However, the vodka he was carrying inside his jacket did help out quite a bit. We fairly rolled with laughter as we spoke gibberish to each other, neither understanding and neither caring. We finished the bottle at about the time that I had to make the turnoff to go back to the hostel. We said “Bayar Tai” (Goodbye) to each other and went our separate ways.