Ta da! I’m in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, finally back in civilisation after nearly a week on the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Express and then two days at the Elstei ger camp (staying in traditional Mongolian tents). The concrete, noise, grime, unfriendly people….wouldn’t swap it for the world.
So where to begin…Our stay in Russia ended and we boarded the Trans-Siberian Express (only becoming the Trans-Mongolian past Ulan-Ude), which whisked us away from Moscow and its taciturn, ursine inhabitants and plunged us into the heart of Asia. Watching an entire continent pass by your window is a pretty indescribable experience; I spent vast amounts of time poring over a map and marvelling at the distance we were covering. There are so many standout moments from that period, although perhaps my fondest memory is of counting down the miles until the Europe-Asian border in Russia, and everyone pogoing around like maniacs when we passed the magic 1777km from Moscow mark. It felt like New Year’s Eve, except this was once in a lifetime and not once a year.
Some points about the train, then: I felt like we were totally separate from the rest of the world; that time stood still while we were on there. It was mostly great fun, although the bit in the brochure about there being showers on the train is b*llocks. Foodwise, of course, it was a case of simply eating to stay alive. Having said that, the restaurant car was fabulous – literally, opening the carriage door and going in was like stepping into another world, or more specifically, a timewarp back to the 70s. As if that wasn’t entertainment enough, the waiter was essentially a Russian version of Lurch, with a shaved head. Frightening enough to look at, and he completed the impression by making a pointed show of wielding a cleaver approxiamately the size of Mars, which he used to slice……..bread. Riveting stuff.
There’s far too much to say about Mongolia, so I will attempt to sift through all the information and present you with just the tastiest bits (think of it as a journalistic version of delving through the bowl of Lucky Charms in order to find all the marshmallows).
Firstly, a health warning – the most important one and the one that all the guidebooks e.t.c. fail to provide, which runs thusly:
***Mongolians drive like utter lunatics***
Not least of all our bus driver, who in addition to this congenital national defect, also clearly had a screw loose. Whilst driving us to the camp, he decided to start driving halfway off the road and halfway on it, with the side of the bus about half a metre away from the ditch, which led down into the steppes. It wasn’t even because there was another vehicle approaching and he needed to give it room, he just seemed to suddenly be possessed by these homicidal urges. Imagine Nemesis at Alton Towers, except without seatbelts, and you will come close to knowing the abject terror I was feeling.
The camp itself was unbelievable; miles from anywhere, surrounded by the hills and basins of the Mongolian steppes. On the first afternoon we were there, I climbed up to one of the tallest points – hard work, but once I was there it felt like I was on the roof of the world. A truly unforgettable moment.
And so, to Ulaanbaatar. It’s a bizarre place; no homogeneousness to the look of it at all. It’s a mixture of Soviet buildings, crumbling apartment blocks, brand new offices and hotels and traditional buildings. It has a peculiar charm to it, however, although this is spoiled somewhat by the people in the city. Granted, hardly any Westerners come to Mongolia, but I was not prepared for quite how much people stare – and not just looking for a bit, but actually watching you until you’ve walked past, and half the time turning their heads so they can keep looking. People walking past in the street, passengers in cars – they all just gawp. When you walk into a restaurant, pretty much every eye is on you. It’s completely bizarre, and I oscillate between finding it amusing and unsettling.
Next stop: China, and the mysteries of the Forbidden City.
Another quote from Jeremy, said whilst looking through the Mongolian phrasebook for the word for ‘restaurant’: “Ah, here we are – ‘I challenge you for your daughter’ – no…”
Finally, a few personal messages:
Eva (monkeyface): Thanks for the contact details, hopefully won’t need them in an emergency but cheers for the thought! Miss you loads!
Tara: Stay strong, it’s only a couple of weeks 😉
Jenny – Shut it!