Ulaan Baatar

 The Flower Hotel isn't bad. Formerly the Altai, it was recently refurbished with Japanese investment. After all the grubby-looking places in Russia it was very welcome – light colored walls, bathroom fixtures I could recognize, and even an apology (in Japanese and English) that you need to wait a minute before hot water comes out of the tap. It wasn't the Hilton, but it was nice. During the train trip I realized that I was so exhausted the ground was spinning around under me. This was probably the lingering effect of train lag, or going through 5 different time zones. In any case, I crashed out on the bed and woke up 4 hours later feeling much better. After that was the cleanup from the train ride – a very thorough shave and shower.

As before, I hired the person who drove me from the station as a tour guide, though it was after I couldn't locate the very nice tour guide I had met on the train. As my guide and I walked out of the hotel, we met a bunch of goats. I was surprised, since the hotel was in a neighborhood with high-end housing and a number of embassies. Apparently, people keep animals around the city, and the animals eat the grass on the side of the road. I know that when Kublai ruled China he didn't want to forget his nomadic origins and lived in a ger outside the palace, but I didn't realize that this was a 20th century sentiment as well. The ger in the front yard of my hotel might have served as a hint.

We walked a little farther, and ran into two little kids who looked about 7 years old. They looked at me and reasoned that I wasn't Mongolian. They reasoned that I wasn't Russian either, and yelled "Hi!" and started laughing hysterically. They kept yelling "Hi", "Bye", "Hi", "Bye", and thought it was the funniest joke in the world. So I waved and smiled and laughed back, which became a habit on the Asian leg of the trip. It seems that everyone is learning English with great enthusiasm, and they love to try out what they know on foreigners.

My tour guide had taught herself English during the time that everyone was learning Russian, and she had done quite a good job. Mongolia had been very closely associated with the Russians, and they were extremely lucky not to have become a part of the Soviet Union and lose their culture. Tuva, which shares a lot in common with Mongolia, was annexed by the Soviet Union, at which point, by strange Stalinist reasoning, it was known as the Tuvinian Autonomous Republic. 

As it was, Mongolia lost at least 10 per cent of its population. Buddhist lamas (who accounted for 10 percent of the population) were taken out and shot, and people were executed for all kinds of reasons. No one seems to talk about it today, but everyone must have lost someone at that time. My tour guide explained that even though there were horrors, the good effects were almost universal literacy (in Cyrillic), university education, and togetherness with the Eastern bloc, which meant an entry into the 20th century. Mongolia was very happily looking toward the West at this point, and I had read the week before that the American government had heartily endorsed trade with Mongolia.

That morning we went to the history museum. There were all kinds of artifacts, from pre-history to the present. There were costumes from all over Mongolia, and I saw art students carefully making sketches. Their teacher, a traditionally-dressed Mongolian painter of Russian descent, is a nationalist and a well-known local character. Now that Mongolia is independent, people are un-rewriting their history, and history is a subject of keen interest. For instance, under the Russians, it had been illegal to talk about Genghis Khan, since the Mongols ruled Russia for 350 years. Now, it's impossible not to talk about him. Genghis Khan is a national hero. Not only does he appear on currency and postage stamps, but his face is on Christmas cards, and he even has a brand of vodka named after him. I picked up a copy of the Mongol Messenger, the English-language paper, which listed "The 25 Most Influential Mongols of the Millennium". Who was number one? Not very hard to guess. So, in the museum, here he was, larger than life, sitting on his throne and covered with skins.

I got to show off all of the reading that I'd done for the past few years. I was pleased to recognize all the khans, and could identify a picture of Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, the madman who thought he was the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. (He took over Mongolia with his White Russian army and massacred thousands of people for no particular reason. The Mongolians had to call in the Bolsheviks to get him out, so indirectly he made Mongolia the world's second communist country.) There were other questionable characters on parade as well, but at least they were there out in the open.

We then took a taxi (actually, we flagged down a private car) and went to the Bogd Khan's palace. The Bogd Khan was a Tibetan lama by birth, and the Eighth Incarnation of the Living Buddha. When Mongolia became free of China in 1911, he became king as well. The palace was part temple and part treasure-trove. The Bogd Khan had his own private zoo, and drove the only automobile in Mongolia. I haven't made up my mind whether having a rich king would be a source of pride or an added insult to the average poor Mongolian, but the Bogd Khan had decided for himself what was best. He was also very venal, with a fondness for 12-year-old girls, and whether it was sincere or politically expedient, he was very friendly with the Mad Baron. In short, a wonderful portrait emerges of this man, though my tour guide defended him as a lama and king of a briefly independent Mongolia.

Along with the resurgence of interest in history, there has been a resurgence of interest in Buddhism. Mongolians are very happy that Richard Gere has given Tibetan Buddhism celebrity status. After the Mongol Empire quieted down, the Mongols took on Yellow Hat Buddhism from their close allies, the Tibetans. They became increasingly religious, and under the Manchus, Buddhism was encouraged because it kept the Mongols quiet. Families were pressured to give at least one son to the monasteries, and a substantial part of the population was involved in religion. Later, I would visit a Buddhist art museum, devoted to the 17th century sculptor Zanabazar, and also the Gandan Monastery. The monastery had a temple filled with chanting monks, and also a 30-meter-high reproduction of a Buddha statue, the original having been sent to Leningrad and turned into bullets. I don't know anything about Yellow Hat Buddhism, but it struck me as perhaps a bit more worldly than other forms.

After the palace we went to the Post Office. I had heard that Mongolia makes some beautiful stamps for the international market, and what better place to send someone a post card than from Outer Mongolia? I looked at hundreds of different stamps, from trains that aren't found in Mongolia, to fish that aren't found in Mongolia, to dinosaurs that are no longer found in Mongolia, to Genghis Khan, lately found all over Mongolia. While I was looking at post cards, a European woman walked in. I was kind of curious about what she might be doing in this part of the world. I looked at her and looked at her package, which said, Cupar, Fife on it. She very purposefully ignored me, as if to say, "I'm not a tourist", said something in perfect Mongolian to the woman at the counter, left her package, and walked away. I've given that look before, but never received it.

After the Post Office, my last remaining wish was to eat local food. I had heard all kinds of dire things about Mongolian food, especially the tea they make with butter and salt. I also heard terrible things about the boiled mutton, and that everything, even the money, was permeated with sheep fat. It was unanimous. Every book I read said to avoid the food at all costs or else, which of course, piqued my interest. I asked my guide whether we could stop somewhere and eat something. She thought that at best I could find something to bring back to my hotel, explaining that most people ate at home, and modern people ate very Russian types of foods. As we walked on the side of Sukhbaatar Square with her telling me I'd never find anything, I saw a sign that said "Food".

Half the store was a fancy grocery, but the other half was exactly what I had been looking for – a canteen with zero atmosphere – the last customer's meal on the tablecloth, florescent lights and happy-looking people. We had milk tea, which turned out to be quite all right, and buuz, which I still think about. Buuz are round, lamb dumplings, and look something like the steamed buns you get in a Shanghai restaurant. They were absolutely delicious, and I ate about a dozen of them. I was stuffed, and the bill for the two of us came to 1000 tögrögs, or about a dollar.

The next day, we took a car and went to visit a woman who lives in a ger. A ger (the Russians call it a yurt) is a round, felt tent that is the traditional Mongolian dwelling. Some of the traditional people take in foreign visitors as a way of helping with the bills. There are also ger camps for tourists, and that's where the Australians I met on the Irkutsk train were going to be. We drove out of Ulaan Baatar, and very soon found ourselves in the mountains and the snow. The scenery was awesome, and I found myself asking to stop the car so I could jump out and take pictures. It was stark and beautiful. There were rocks that remind you of things, trees, sky, snow and nothing else. We somehow managed to stay on the road most of the time, and I must say I'm happy that the car had no major problems. It would be a shame to have to walk for days in the middle of nowhere in the snow.

The settlement was a group of 4 gers on the side of the road, with no apparent reason for their being there, as opposed to anywhere else. We left the road and made our way down. All through the car ride, I studied up on the pleasantries of entering a ger. Since Mongolian isn't a very practical language to know, I hadn't really felt like spending a lot of effort, but here it might be important. Apparently, it's bad manners to knock on the door of a ger, and bad manners to step on the threshold. There's a men's side of the interior and a women's side. To enter, you yell out to the host, "Would you please call off the dogs?", which is sensible for anyone who doesn't want to be torn to pieces. You want to tell the host you're there and you're not sneaking around. Much of the tradition of the nomad has to do with trust and politeness. Nomads will extend hospitality to anyone who asks because conditions are harsh, and they will not ask anything about their guest until the guest volunteers the information. I also heard that a small number of Westerners had taken advantage of the situation, and were living off of people who were much poorer than they were.

In any case, we reached the ger, my tour guide knocked on the door, in we went and all sat on the women's side of the ger. So much for tradition. My hostess was nice. She lived in the ger with her youngest daughter, and spent most of her day preparing various foods and doing housework. I imagine that she was in her 50s. She sat us down and gave us fried biscuits and butter fat, with milk tea. The tour guide told her that I had come from England. She asked whether England was also cold (no it wasn't), and then returned to local gossip with the tour guide. I didn't need scintillating conversation anyway – it was just enough to be there.

My hostess cooked on a wood burning stove in the middle of the ger. The stove provided heat as well as cooking. When cooking, she used a large wok-like pot. When she was heating the place, she covered the top of the stove with concentric rings that she lifted on to the top with a metal hook. The stove had a pipe which took the smoke out the top of the ger. When it was time for lunch, she put the steamer in the pot, and steamed some buuz, which were delicious. Later, she made us a drink from sour milk, salt, sugar and flour called aarts, and here she boiled the milk in the pot. Still later on, she made more fried biscuits, and used the pot to deep fry. She didn't have a lot of control over the temperature, so when the bread started frying too quickly she added more bread to slow it down.

Through the tour guide, I mentioned that I was very interested in food. She asked what a did for a living. I said I worked with computers. "Oh, yes", she said, "everyone's in that nowadays". I was impressed, though maybe I shouldn't have been. She might be living in the past, but she wasn't born yesterday. Apparently, people drift between urban and rural life very easily in Mongolia, so it's not that surprising that this woman is so sophisticated. We stayed a while longer, and then left to go back to Ulaan Baator.

Back in the city, we went to the State Department Store, which was also the only department store in all of Mongolia. They have big chairs and furniture, and I'm not sure of who buys these things since apartments are small and many people live in gers. There are clothes, books and souvenirs as well. I bought two records of Mongolian music, one made in France and the other made in Germany. They were expensive, but you have to scoop things up as you see them or you might not find them again. I was only sorry that there weren't any concerts during the time that I was there. I bought a book of Mongolian art, and then called it quits since I didn't want to have too many things to drag back to London. Downstairs I bought some tea for the train trip, and was given a piece of chewing gum, which I handed over to one of the street urchins who was waiting at the till.

Everywhere in Ulaan Baatar, you see kids between the ages of 6 and 10 who live out on the street, but especially in the department store and the Post Office. This makes it hit home what a poor country Mongolia is, and how tough they're taking the changes of the past few years. These kids look like little grownups, with loose skin on their faces from living outside. You can feel sorry for them, but you also have to be careful when they're around. I hope that this won't be a permanent problem, and it seems that it won't – Mongolia is very enthusiastic about reforms, and will probably do better than Russia in changing things around.

The next day, as I mentioned, I saw the Gandan monastery and the Zanabazar Art Museum, plus the Museum of Natural History, which a treat. There was local geology and wildlife, and the bones of dinosaurs found in the Gobi. The Gobi is quite a hot spot for fossils. I wondered what it must be like to be a tour guide, and to have to appear intelligent on topics like rocks, which you couldn't give a toss about. Worse yet, there are tourists like me, who ask lots of stupid questions on issues like the formation of the area. Today the tour ended at 12:30, and since my guide had already been paid for the day, she could slip out with confidence. I walked around for a while more, checking once again the musical instrument shop that was always closed. This was probably just as well, since it would have presented all sorts of problems to travel around with a horse-headed fiddle. I found an Internet café, and for 40 tögrögs a minute, looked at my e-mail, which had died down by this point. I was on vacation. I didn't get any and I didn't write any, since it's much better to send actual postcards. I went back to the hotel and began to write voraciously. I also read another article from the Mongol Messenger (fabulous paper) that said that there had been a zud, or major snowstorm, and there were people trapped in the mountains with nothing to eat but meat.

I would have written this tract then and there, except I heard some English outside the door. It was an Australian couple, and I joined them for a drink at the hotel bar. We met some other travelers, including an Irish couple who had just come from the hotel in China where I would be staying. It turned into a night out, first looking into a Korean restaurant that was way too expensive, and then in a restaurant that could have been anywhere. We ended up in a bar where Ricky Martin was on the jukebox, and some very well-dressed Mongolian guys practicing their moves to the music. We drank too many beers and the bill was large. The group started arguing that they had been overcharged, which was clearly not true, since if you thought about it, the count was right. I ended up bailing everyone out with a 20-dollar bill and pushing them out the door. I suppose that in their travels they got burned on a regular basis, but the people here were absolutely honest. I was pretty embarrassed that they were arguing, and hoped that the bar people wouldn't think the worse of foreigners. But I did get advice about China, and didn't have that bad a hangover the next day, which was when I got on the train to Beijing.


A rehabilitated (and well-heeled) Genghis Khan. Here he is on the 1000 togrog note.