Saturday, 22 May 2010

Ulaan Baatar: City of honking traffic and dingy basements

I'm in Mongolia!

I actually arrived here on Monday morning, and since then, I have explored Ulaan Baatar, taled to many fellow travellers, and made a solitary 2-night foray into the woods with just a bivvy bag and a bag of food. More on that later... (Tempus fugit)

For the moment, here are some diary snippets:

I knew as soon as I arrived (or perhaps I knew long before) that Ulaanbaatar is an amazing city. When I arrived, it was raining. My train companions (2 Germans, 2 Brits, 3 Dutch) told me there was a man stood on the platform holding a sign with my name on. This man took me to a waiting minivan (the preferred method of transport here) and informed us (me and 2 different Germans who had already got to the van) that the rain would stop the next day. And it did.

Straight away there is a sense that I am properly in Asia now. The intensity of big flashy signs lining the streets; everyone seeming very friendly and eager to help; everything down to the design of the pedestrian crossing lights (presumably imported from Japan or Korea) and the doorbell of the hostel; it all adds up to a particularly (East)Asian feel. Maybe the rain helped at first, but the feeling continued.

What an awesome place! What awesome space! The mountains are constantly in view beyond the fast-appearing skyscrapers: both of these imbue the city with a lively young energy. A traffic policeman stands smack bang in the middle of a busy crossroads amongst ferociously honking traffic, either completely in charge or completely out of control.

Crossing the road here is either an art or an extreme sport, I can't decide which. People weave in and out of cars like silverfish.

And the cars stop for them. They honk, yes, but they stop. And the honking is mostly at other drivers - a lot of cutting up goes on here.

Changing American dollars into Togrogs makes me feel rich: I hand over two fifty-dollar bills and am returned a huge wodge of notes - they don't have coins here (as far as I know) and the note denominations go right down to 50T (about 3p).

One of the first things I discovered in UB was...
... a vegan restaurant! Should I drop my preconception that Mongolians eat nothing but meat? In the restaurant (where the most expensive main dish costs just over £2.50), the menu claims that the traditional Mongolian diet actually consists of 8 months a year of vegetarianism. This may very well be a biased view, but apparently there are quite a few veggie and vegan eating places around.

While I was looking for Narantuul, which is alleged to be Asia's largest black market, I accidentally stumbled into a couple of much smaller multi-storey markets, in which the stalls were based in glass rooms. This gave the space a similar feel to an airport duty-free area. Swarms of kids and many other people were busily pushing their ways in and out of the glass doors and up and down the unmoving escalators. This was clearly the place to be on a Monday afternoon. The floors seemed at first to have general themes - fruit, clothing, gadgetry, etc, but each stall held surprisingly disparate items. Washing machines were sold alongside widescreen televisions, and a saucepan seller had a sideline in silk garments - or was that the other way round? On top of the first market was a cinema, which seemed to be closed, and a selection of restaurants, all of which seemed a bit dim and murky.

In the next multi-storey small market, all the lights were off, which presumably explains the non-functioning escalators and unlit restaurants. I went down into the basement floor - fruit and sweets - parts of which were near pitch dark. And lit only by one small candle in each window, the whole conglomeration of enterprises continued its business as usual!

Why, then, was I looking for the black market? Well, one valid reason would be to get pickpocketed - this is apparently rife there (hence no camera, hence no photos). Another reason would be to search for a cheap camping stove (I had been informed these could be sourced there). But the main reason I went was simply to experience it. Narantuul itself centres on two - or perhaps three - huge buildings reminiscent of Victorian railway stations. The first I saw of it, having rounded the corner from the two smaller markets, was a slope going down into the ground below one of these huge buildings. Down there was dark too, but there were people swarming in and out as if it was a tube station. (No tube here.) I got part way down, before deciding it was too dark and so I went up and around and into the side entrance. In and around these edifices are squillions of stalls selling pretty much everything. Words now fail me to describe it accurately: I think it has to be experienced. Suffice to say there are lots and lots of stalls, with lots and lots of stuff. Had I had the inclination, I could have come away with half a cow or a bunch of carrots or bananas or a pile of shopping bags or a chimney for a ger, or anything else for a ger, or a bronze buddha (presumably imported from China), or... I have since heard a story of a couple of Israeli travellers who went to the market and bought two horses and a mule, on which to make their journey across Mongolia. (Most people go by minivan or jeep on tours organized by their hostel or other private companies) The one thing I couldn't find was a camping stove, so I kept my wallet safely tucked away.

In the hostel (run by a Mongolian family from the Gobi desert) there is a sense that everyone is either just back from or just about to embark on some amazing excursion - the Gobi desert, a ger-to-ger expedition, a horse riding trip... it is very easy to sit in the hostel and wonder why one isn't out there in the wild having some amazing experiences...

...but now I'm back from my own expedition (which was unlike anyone else's) I sort of feel more part of the whole experience. I intends to post on this soon.

It is late at night. Traffic hums outside, and travelling Aussies breathe in their bunks. Please inform me of various typos by leaving a comment, or using the contact link at the top.

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