Ulanbator 2015: Old guys playing chess in the
Chinggis Khaan Square plaza.
Greetings from Ulan Batar
For weeks now the international news has been dominated by the Middle East refugee crises forcing me to recall the young man I met on a bus ride in southern Turkey two and a half years ago. His family had scraped together enough money to finance his self imposed exile and assigned him the responsibility of helping his female cousin leave the country as well. (Islamic custom requires traveling women to be accompanied by a male relative.)
Alan turned out to be a Kurdish refugee and spoke excellent
English as well as Kurdish, some Turkish and Arabic. On the
run to avoid military conscription by a Syrian government
few in the Kurdish community love, he freely shared his
views about the civil unrest in his birth country which has
never recognized his Kurdish identity and continues to
marginalize that community. Intelligent and articulate, he
worried about being called up for the draft when he turned
24 the following year. Little did I know at the time that
what I learned from him would so dramatically foreshadow the
mass exodus of terrified people from that region a couple
years later. But, this is a story about my experiences in
Mongolia so back to that.
China, 8 September 2015: Off and on for the past month I've been studying reports other people have written about the logistics of getting across the border between China and Mongolia. Some made it sound simple and others a nightmare. I'd chosen the overnight sleeper bus thinking the daylight parts of the trip might be more interesting than flying... but not really being certain of many details beyond the fact that Americans no longer require a visa to enter Mongolia and that no one is allowed to walk across the actual border. All the uncertainty guaranteed I'd definitely have an "adventure!"
With a land mass about the size of Alaska and a population of around 3 million, nearly half of whom live in the capital, Mongolia is mostly empty grazing land where roaming nomads retain their ancient culture and continue to live as they have for millennia. But, walking the streets of Ulaanbaatar you wouldn't know it. Modern civilization has now permeated every crack and crooked cranny. An integral part of China until 1945, the Soviet Union forced China to grant independence to Outer Mongolia in exchange for assistance in fighting the Japanese invasion. The Soviets then moved in and established hegemony over the region as is evidenced by most signs still using the Cyrillic alphabet... and empty vodka bottles in the gutters.
I left the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tianjin at 09:00 and caught a fast "bullet train" up to Beijing and then a subway ride to a stop near the overnight sleeper bus lot hoping to catch a 16:00 departure for the Mongolian border town of Erlian. At the bus depot lot sat many sleeper buses, each containing 40 berths. Sleeping spaces are about 24 inches wide by 6 feet long... very cramped! The narrow isles separating the three rows of "beds" made it difficult to get in and out and nearly impossible to move up or down the isle with body parts of sleeping passengers protruded into the skinny isle cluttered with passenger's shoes. (Muddy ground at rest stops made it essential to remove shoes each time we got back on the bus - storing them in a provided plastic bag. The required juggling act tested everyone's agility! ... but, especially mine.) Over night sleeper buses also carry cargo... a lot of cargo, making me think cargo revenue must be a major part of the operation. My selected bus actually left an hour and a half late at 17:30, not unusual, I am told.
Hours into our journey a sharply swerving bus jolted most sleepers awake. I'd been sitting up with my seat belt buckled and grabbed a glance at what had caused the urgent action by the driver: two black-tailed gazelles bounded off the highway, missing a collision by centimeters.
At one of our rest stops three young Mongolians invited me to sit with them and shared a bit of information about their country... and taught me my first words of Mongolian: "Bye Yal O'da" for "thank you." In trying to learn the unfamiliar tongue twister, I began asking other Mongolians for their pronunciation and heard: "Bye Yal Da" "Bye Yitl Da" "Bye Etl Da" "Bye Ar E'le D'" and finally, "Bye Arl Deh." Native speakers add a little trill sound before the last syllable which complicates the pronunciation. Making conversation I asked the young guy what might be the most unusual thing about his country a visitor could learn. With a mischievous grimace he asked me if I had ever heard of the Mongolian Death Worm. "What's that?" I asked. Before he could say much more than "Look it up." we needed to return to the bus. Later, I did look it up and discovered the creepy thing, though rarely seen might actually be real!
A few hours out of Beijing and now in Inner Mongolia, the excellent multilane highway changed into a bumpy two lane road for the rest of the trip. As dusk descended we began seeing large, life size bronze sculptures of various dinosaurs erected along the highway, sometimes integrated among the towers of expansive wind farms. There have been numerous massive paleontological finds of dinosaur bones in this region of the world, making it justly famous. In the vicinity of our destination is a dinosaur theme park I understand, though I saw nothing of it.
After ten hours of travel we pulled off the highway onto the sands of the Gobi Desert where the drivers rested for a couple hours before continuing the trip. We reached Erlian about 07:00 where everyone quickly made deals with the numerous cars and vans waiting to take people across the border. Not understanding the protocol nor speaking much Chinese... nor Mongolian, I missed all the obvious transportation and ended up with an opportunist who convinced me to take his ride to the border for 20RMB (about $3) while jabbering pidgin English liberally sprinkled with "jeep," "20Yuan," "50Yuan." Thinking he offered the complete across the border transportation service I agreed only to discover his service ended at the curb a hundred meters from the border where a half dozen others waited for the 08:00 official border opening, and for someone to offer the actual trans-border service.
Shortly after 8AM a white van stopped and offered eight of those of us still waiting, a ride for 50Yuan, which I grabbed. This guy it turned out, had problems with border formalities on both sides and ended up being detained fifteen minutes at each of the two immigration posts... while we waited I asked some of the others if they had ever heard of a Mongolian Death Worm; none had. Eventually, he got his immigration problems straightened out and we completed the trip into the Mongolian border town of Zamyn-Uud (short video) arriving there at 09:40.
Mongolia, 9 September 2015: Many banks in the compact commercial area near the train "station" offered currency exchange so I converted about $50 worth of Chinese currency into Mongolian Tugrik. The train north to the capital would leave sometime in the afternoon and would not arrive until the next morning, meaning I'd pass whatever views there might be in the dark. A better option would be making the trip using the highway. A big modern bus would be ideal, but none were immediately in sight.
So, I walked the town while trying to figure out my options, stopping long enough to grab a fast food breakfast of egg salad, meat filled bun and orange "cool aid," all for about $2.50. Fed and watered I started searching in earnest for a ride up to Ulaanbaatar... some 700 km distant. A variety of "taxi" service touts milled about offering rides for 50K to 60K Tugs, about $25-$30.
A local older Mongolian couple about to leave for the capital offered me a ride for 50000 Tugrik... about $25US and indicated they were leaving "now!" in contrast to the taxi guys who indicated a two hour delay. I accepted their proposition thinking the trip would take only 2 hours, and then later realizing the 700 kilometer trip would require closer to eleven or twelve hours!
They spoke no English and I no Mongolian, but we still managed to have quite lively "conversations" with situation and voice intonations providing the critical meanings. Before we could start "now" the wife needed to return to their apartment a block off the main street for a "few things," something I learned from a cell phone translation service provided by the couple's friend. Twenty minutes later snug in my front seat next to the driver and we were on our way in their late model Peugeot sedan.
The wife, determined not to waste the whole day stuck in the car traveling up to the capital, started a series of endless catch up calls to girl friends. Her screeching and loud laughter on the cell phone two feet behind my head eventually began to drive me crazy. After an hour when I could take no more and unable to think of a better way of communicating my distress I started quoting Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in English, loudly. When I finished my performance, she and her husband had a quiet conversation and then, she handed me her cell phone and her friend on the other end who speaks good English asked me what I wanted to say to the husband, thinking that must have been the purpose of my monologue. So, I told her honestly how the wife's non-stop screaming right behind my head gave me a headache and passed the phone to the husband's waiting hand. After he listened silently and returned the phone to his wife I noticed more civilized, calmer phone conversations with the husband now participating occasionally. I suspect the poor guy seldom got a word in edgewise with his chatterbox wife and might have appreciated my saying what he couldn't.
She had her husband stop a half dozen times to visit briefly with friends or make deliveries along the way, delaying our arrival by nearly two hours! However, that did provide opportunities for me to study the sites more leisurely, which the husband seemed eager to point out... even stopping a few times for a better look at something or for photos. As we travelled I saw many yurts or gers (Mongolian) and large flocks of goats, horses, camels, cattle and other livestock. One "cowboy" used a motorcycle to herd his cattle parallel to the highway, but many horse and camel herds appeared to be unattended and may have been among the wild ones discussed in the literature.
Early evening my hosts stopped at a small highway cafe and announced by gestures and "Eat!" we would take a break, not unexpected as he had been driving non-stop all day. I ordered another egg salad plus a bowl of meat stew and a yogurt-like drink from the picture menu. They ordered drinks, a bowl of soup and opened a package brought from home which contained home baked bread and a large quantity of beef chunks and vegetables all dumped into another large bowl provided by the restaurant.
One taste of the ultra spicy stew convinced me to forgo any possible nourishment value and I set it off to the side fanning my mouth to explain. The wife gingerly tasted it and deciding the restaurant should be made aware of the situation took it back into the kitchen where I watched an energetic discussion proceed. Eventually, she returned without the dangerous stew carrying two bottles of soft drinks, handing one to me. The whole episode only cost me $8.50 which I considered a cheap and entertaining cultural experience.
As we got closer to UB they called the "translation service" English speaking friend and taking no chances, I let her know I wanted to go to the best hotel near the center of the city. The friend determined the best hotel in the CBD would be the Shangri-La and instructed her friends to drop me at the closest intersection. We finally arrived at 11PM and I looked forward to collapsing in exorbitant luxury. After two full days of globe trotting without any real sleep, an outrageously expensive 5 star deluxe hotel did not feel like an extravagance for anyone boasting so many years.
Once settled and
with time to review the past days activities I realized my
taxi service had not taken the most direct highway route up
to the city. His wife had friends "just a little out of the
way" and he adjusted our route to please her. The alternate
route may have added an hour or two to our travel time, but
gave me the added benefit of seeing more of the rural
settlements, ranch sites, isolated yurts and vast grazing
lands of the Steppes. Saint Serendipity had intervened
Ulaanbaatar 9 Sept 2015: The rack rate at the 5 star Shangri-La Hotel is $250++ or about $287. With pleading and negotiation and an assistant manager's understanding I got it down to $200++ or $230 including tax, still a budget buster. When I explained my situation he approved a late 16:00 checkout the following day so I'd have more time to find alternative accommodations compatible with my budget. The Shangri-La is deluxe in every way including an excellent selection of dishes in the morning buffet, though with my clocks set wrong I arrived ten minutes before the scheduled 10AM end of the breakfast time and all the goodies were whisked away before I had time to savor them.
Immediately after breakfast I went hotel shopping and selected the $83 per night Platinum Hotel for my second to forth nights where a very personable receptionist distracted me from noting telltale details of pending disaster. That she works 24 hour shifts should have been an ominous clue that things in this hotel might be irregular.
No complimentary water included and no prices on mini-bar contents: if you want bottled water you pay for it... if you can determine it costs $1.25 per bottle which I learned later. I complained and they promptly brought me six bottles gratis. The room itself is large and nicely laid out; the bathroom has a walk-in shower with plenty of hot water.
Even before the second night, after tolerating intermittent electrical outlets I knew I wanted to find something better and eventually discovered a reliable Ramada Inn with uncomfortable room rates of $130 per night. Hotel Nine at $83 also looked very good with a room layout like the IBIS chain, and the extravagantly priced Blue Sky Hotel looked excellent, but with a rack rate of $170. Finding a comfortable and affordable lodge has distracted me from my main objective of experiencing the "real" Mongolia. To make matters worse, I seem to have picked up a cold virus, probably from that cold room in the Platinum Hotel. My scheduled return flight to Bangkok on 23 September feels a long way off and I've repeatedly considered ending this nonsense and returning early.
During all of my many walks I have remained alert to rural people in their traditional garb, but see few on the streets. One morning I discovered a bus unloading people gaily dressed and one of the guys approached me to inquire of my interest... and to practice his already good English I suspect. They were a part of a city government delegation attending an international eco-tourism conference and naturally many wore their finest dress up outfits. I snapped a few photos, but hoped there would be better opportunities before I left. There were.
Several blocks up the hill behind the Ramada Inn is the Megjid Janraisig Temple in the Gandan Monastery and Buddhist center. On the day I visited, a big formal wedding presented many opportunities to see and photograph people of all ages wearing their finest formal traditional clothes. As both professional and amateur photographers dashed around to capture once in a lifetime pictures, no one noticed the white haired foreigner snapping away. I got some great pictures during the hour I spent there, including a couple of the monks in their colorful robes.
The only American fast food restaurants I found are a number of KFC fried chicken places and they are spectacularly popular here. The one near the Blue Sky Hotel is particularly appreciated by both foreign visitors and locals alike... especially the ones looking to grab a free handout. Every other time I stopped there for lunch one or another of the loitering street kids watched me from outside a window and dashed in to grab any food I'd failed to consume the minute I'd started to leave the table, this despite restaurant staff constantly trying to discourage such behavior. Out on the streets I am experiencing a lot of careless pedestrian bumping and even more public spitting than in China.
There aren't many commercial taxicabs in the city, but that has been remedied by the informal custom of anyone not in a hurry seeing someone flagging will stop and provide transportation at the commercial taxi rate: 1000MNT ($0.50) first km, then 800/km. While I watched no one waited more than a few cars passing... a very efficient system! Gasoline costs a little over $1/liter, about the same as in the U.S.
The #7 public bus goes out to the airport and I rode the entire route. Then, Ramada Inn reception staff told me the #9 also goes there. The fixed fare for all bus routes is 500 Tugrits, about 25 cents. The displayed bus numbers confused me until I finally figured out that the "4" preceding the actual number is a Mongolian symbol for "bus number!" So, "4"7 is bus number 7. Busses often are crowded and seated able young people only rarely offer their seats to the feeble or disabled. So, when on one of my rides on a crowded bus a young man of perhaps seventeen graciously stood and motioned for me to sit down, I naturally tried to show my grateful appreciation with smiles and gestures. He appeared unmoved as if this was nothing unusual for him, but another young man watched the entire drama with a peculiar interest I could not decipher.
Most bus drivers perform their jobs proficiently, but one I got seemed to be taking a mountain of frustrations out on his vehicle and its hapless passengers. Every stop caused passengers to lurch, all grabbing for something solid. Resuming the run after a stop started with a fearsome jerk and shifting always produced an awful growl. How the guy ever got this job is beyond me... and how he keeps it is criminal.
Along the bus routes out to the airport is a remarkable shopping mall - museum. Recently built, the Hunnu Mall is still only half occupied, but the entire central ground level floor is home to a half dozen actual dinosaur skeletons. Signs around the perimeter identify the Mongolian Academy of Sciences as responsible for the display: the Institute of Paleontology and Geology specifically. Uniformed "museum" guards monitor visitor/shopper activity in the mall. What a great idea! The reassembled dinosaur skeletons are displayed complete with scientific explanations in both Mongol and English.
Many buildings show signs identifying them as "supermarkets." Checking several I find only a collection small specialty shops carrying a limited range of products... and none with the groceries and produce the rest of the world associates with a supermarket!
Because a roundtrip flight from Las Vegas to Bangkok only costs less than $300 more than a one way flight, I booked that to provide a backup in case the potential Tran Siberian rail trip didn't materialize. I did the same thing for the BKK to PEK flight for the same reason and still have the return leg ticket. I've now decided to forget the Russian possibility and will be heading back to Bangkok when I leave Mongolia. Daily $200 one-way flights to Beijing means I can use the 23 September PEK-BKK return flight still available to get back to Bangkok from Beijing. Is that confusing, or what?
After 3 agonizing days in the Platinum Hotel I moved over to
Ramada Inn which promised more value for the budget
busting $130 room rate. I enjoyed the room and superior
breakfast buffet for seven nights until various little
irritations prompted me to reconsider the more expensive 5
Blue Sky Hotel.
On my previous visit to check out the Blue Sky Hotel I didn't try very hard to make a deal because the rack rates suggested it would be futile and the Agoda booking agent also suggested rates were bound to be well above my financial comfort zone. This time I abandoned caution and plunged ahead with a proper inspection and vigorous negotiation thinking for my last two nights even the listed $170 per night in a five star hotel like the Blue Sky might make sense: like an elegant frosting on a tasteless cake. The room I saw could not have been better and then discussing a rate for two nights with the young lady behind the reception desk my spirits soared. She indicated the room I had seen could be booked for $144 per night net! Questioning her closely she wrote on a slip of paper, $144.20, only $14 more than the Ramada. As I still had the $170 room rate number burned into my brain, her offer sounded like a bargain.
I immediately made a reservation in this lavish house for my last two nights in Mongolia. As she entered my passport information into her reservation system she answered my previous question noting I would find the included buffet breakfast excellent. Located in the very middle of the central business district and across the street from the main city plaza, the location could not be better. I now wish I had been more persistent with my earlier enquiries.
Terremoto!: While I lay in my Ramada Inn Hotel bed nursing a week long cold, a massive 8.3 magnitude earthquake hit Chile. The resulting tsunami raced across the Pacific and up and down the west coast of the Americas. At the same time an earthquake of an other kind shook the American political establishment as more than a dozen Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency savaged one another during a vicious televised debate, the first of several. To my amazement none of the Republican candidates paid much attention to what I consider the most critical issue of our time, the obscene misdistribution of wealth and inherited privilege. Of all the candidates this election cycle Democrat Bernie Sanders seems to be doing the best job of focusing attention on this issue. Realistically, he doesn't stand much chance of being the party's nominee in my opinion, but an 8min video produced by his campaign deserves to be shown to all presidential candidates for comment. If you haven't seen it, take a look here and then try to learn what your favorite candidate would do about the situation, if elected.
More adventure: My departure day in Mongolia unexpectedly became the first day of another adventure. For a start, the 12:50 departure time failed to take into account the possibility of high gusting winds, a short runway and a heavy airplane. "The international airport faces frequent closures because of strong winds..." As the scheduled departure time came and went the display board departure time for our flight remained unchanged while that for the other four afternoon flights switched to "delayed."
The airport's single departure lobby filled with waiting passengers for many flights. Information, even in Chinese for the Air China flight became an unavailable commodity. "Check with the airline office." echoed the mantra of all harassed airport staff who had no information. The distracted agent in the small Air China office repeated: "We have no information about the delay. As soon as we know we will update the display board." in Chinese, Mongolian, French and English. The poor lady looked exasperated by her impossible situation. Some of us noted the similarity of our chaotic terminal lobby with those shown on TV during air disasters and wondered aloud if something terrible had happened to one of the planes using this airport.
An hour after our scheduled departure time the 12:50 time display changed first to "delayed" and then to 19:00. The five hour wait began. Some people chose to return to their hotels downtown with the admonition to be back in the airport by 5PM. Having converted all my Tugrik back into Chinese RMB I had no local currency with which to buy food and started pestering the Air China people about getting something to eat. "Yes, yes." they assured me in English, but an hour passed without any obvious food delivery activity... despite the fact that the delayed Mongolian Miat Airline staff scurried around with food carts making sure their stranded passengers didn't starve.
Eventually the Air China people did bring us some drinks, a sandwich and a small salad; just adequate to make sure we would remain alive to eventually board the delayed flight. During the six hours waiting time I checked the wind situation and noted trees outside were indeed whipping around energetically confirming the high wind conditions. When 19:00 arrived the winds had calmed considerably... thankfully!
The six hour departure delay meant a late arrival in Beijing. All of my contingency plans assumed many daylight hours and the late night arrival meant some serious replanning would be necessary. There are three terminals in the Beijing capital airport. The flight from Mongolia arrived in Terminal 3 and my Bangkok flight at noon the next day left from terminal 2... where I would find all the "walking distance" hotels according to my research. A frequent shuttle bus service connects all the terminals and several deluxe hotels close to the airport have their own airport shuttle services.
My first option required finding the direction to the cluster of "walking distance" hotels, but at eleven PM that proved complicated as only eager hotel touts still loitered in the terminal area and naturally could provide information only about the places they represented. I did learn that in the basement of Terminal-2 itself is a small "by the hour" group of sleeping rooms where I inquired about availability only to discover from the sleepy young lady at the reception desk that the hotel was: "Auh fuhl." Period. No discussion.
Now resigned to paying big money for my single night at this brief stopover I hopped on the big hotel shuttle going to two deluxe hotels including the 5 star Hilton Beijing. Arriving there I found it fully booked! The reception staff called around for alternatives, but at 11 PM found nothing... "regrettably." So back to Terminal-2 to try again for the "walking distance" hotels... or a place to "sleep" in the terminal where I saw others doing the same thing. Now close to midnight, finding nearby hotel directions in English proved increasingly difficult and I started looking for a comfortable bench. My search took me by the "Auh fuhl" sleeping room lobby where I noticed two young men registering. Pausing at the door I commented: "I see you were able to get a room. When I enquired earlier they were fully booked."
"We just got here and they have room. I think they have another one."
Looking at the receptionist, she nodded. "Only a bed. No bathroom." she confirmed. "I'll show you." When she had finished getting the boys settled in their room she walked me a few feet to the simple sleeping chamber.
All I saw was padded horizontal and thought: "That beats trying to sleep curled around arm rests on cold waiting room benches in the departure lounge!" The posted rate for renting one of these rooms for up to 24 hours is 300RMB or about $47 (With bathroom it is 480RMB). "I'll take it!" I blurted out without further debate. A couple hours later in the wee hours, needing a toilet I discovered the nearest terminal restroom to be quite some distance from the sleeping rooms. Only later in the morning did I notice one almost next door to my room!
In this part of the terminal near the sleeping rooms are many western fast food restaurants, so I had no trouble finding something to eat the next morning before my 12:10 Bangkok departure time. Still suffering from cold symptoms and knowing I'd be tired on arrival in Bangkok, I booked a room in the 5 star Sukosol Hotel for my first two nights back in Bangkok while I had access to the Internet. In the past it has been a great value.
Fred L. Bellomy
Ulanbator 2015: One of the many paintings of horses seen around the Ramada Inn Hotel; this one hanging in the dining room with the breakfast buffet service.