I started reading about Mongolia on the long train ride west from Vladivostok. So far, I had considered it as just another country but now I realize how different it is. I’m a bit shocked and don’t have a concept yet. The guidebook contains information like “how to drive a jeep”, “how to repair a jeep”, and “how to buy a jeep”. It was written by a representative of Mercedes Benz in Mongolia but he recommends the Russian jeeps, they are easy to repair and spare parts readily available. I give you an excerpt about how to traverse deep rivers: “it is better to face the inevitable and open all the doors of the car as you enter the water. This allows the flow of the river to easily pass the car. In this the front-seat passenger also has to fulfil an important duty.” Well, I was expecting something more normal, to go around with buses and trains but now I realize that this place has next to no tarred roads. Only the road running along the railway from Russia to China is paved, oh and three years ago the 365km to Kara-Korum were paved as well.
I meet a young girl at the train station and she offers accommodation at the home of her family. Let’s check that out. They have transformed one room (out of two) in their flat into a dormitory. Space is scarce but the atmosphere is warm. My first day is spend entirely talking with travel agents and other travellers. The small foreign language bookshop is great to meet other people. I soon realize that I have two options, either stay in Ulaanbaatar only or take a jeep tour to see anything else in the country. My problem is financial, it is not that I cannot afford the tour but I don’t have enough cash with me. To my great surprise I cannot get money, the ATMs only work with visa credit cards and not with my normal bank card. I tried all three ATMs that Mongolia has to offer. A swiss traveller helps me out, he lends me 180$ to join the tour that he is on.
The tour was amazing but I cannot properly reconstruct where we went. West to Kara-Korum the old capital of Mongolia (near the modern-day town of Charchorin), besides that, we visited some other places but as there are no proper roads and no signs I never really knew where exactly we went. The driver, a highly respected function in Mongolia is supposed to be a mechanic and navigator as well. We usually followed dirt tracks, time and again we come to crossroads where the driver has to know which way to go, there are no sign no nothing. We visit several small monasteries and Kara-Korum has an impressive wall and several temples but being a nomadic society, these are only things that remain. The attraction is the landscape, very beautiful in its scarcity. We stay in yurts at tourist camps but otherwise we get a good introduction into Mongolian life. We see a family that just started to dismantle their yurt, twenty minutes later the yurt is gone, all the furniture standing in the open, soon all will be on the tractor trailer (modern times). Mongolians are extremely helpful, a man stands on the side of the road with his motorbike, of course our driver stops and spends an hour helping him. Nature forces people to stick together, in wintertime a breakdown like this could be deadly. The same goes for hospitality, if you come to a yurt somewhere in the middle of nowhere and ask for food and a place to sleep you will not be rejected but welcomed with open arms. We try this ourselves and stop at a random family, they ask us inside and offer us bread, cheese, salty milk and tea. The best they have. Inside, the yurt is sparsely furnished, there is a small cupboard and that’s it, the walls offer plenty of opportunities to hang things and carpets provide insulation. Some mattresses are lying in a pile to be spread out for the night. Life is hard. After an hour, and after we enquired how their sheep and cows are doing, we leave. Unfortunately, some tourists take advantage of this. They just hire a driver and when night comes let him stop at some yurt to get food and a place to sleep. Having no guide, they cannot even speak with the people and sometimes not even with their driver. Ovoos, piles of stone, often with prayer scarves attached dot the landscape, one afternoon our driver is obviously in a hurry, he goes faster than usual, stops at an Ovoo, jumps out of the car and throws some money on it to ensure a safe journey. Our guide speaks fairly good English, but she does not have much information about the places we are visiting. On the fifth day, we come back to Ulaanbaatar.
The buildings of Ulaanbaator show the strong influence of the Soviet Union. The train station, museums, theaters, it is all the same style. A big Soviet war memorial graces a hill close to town. Mongolia declared its independence from China as the Qing dynasty fell in 1911. By 1921, a communist government that was closely aligned with the Soviet Union emerged. Little known in Western Europe, in 1939 Soviet soldiers prevented Japanese forces of conquering Mongolia. Later on, the strong connection with the USSR served to prevent Chinese claims to Mongolia.
The Gandan Temple with its massive 26.5-meter-high statue of Avalokiteśvara (no pictures allowed) impresses me. Plenty of small kids are being trained as monks. I head to the cinema in the afternoon, several film posters are shown outside, it turns out I am the only spectator and therefore I can choose what I want to see. I opt for “The Time Machine”. Ulaanbaatar is not a big city, heading out one soon comes to areas that can only be described as rural. Small plots of land are fenced in, no houses are standing there but yurts.
Time to move on, China, I’m coming.