Mongolia: Ulaanbaatar & Gobi Desert

March was a very busy travel month. When it rains, it pours, as they say. But in this case, in a really great, adventurous way. Over 2-week-long back-to-back trips, with just a 2-night break back in London, my job took me to Johannesburg, South Africa, Windhoek, Namibia, and a few parts of Mongolia.

London to Ulaanbaatar

Getting to Mongolia from London was epic in itself. I flew Turkish Air to Istanbul, then to Bishkek (capital of Kyrgyzstan), and finally on to Ulaanbaatar (capital of Mongolia). The entire journey door to door took about 21 hours, and I became intimately acquainted with Turkish Air’s in-flight menu. The good thing is that they feed on you on every flight, no matter how long it is or what time it takes off. The bad thing is that over 3 flights there (and 3 flights back) you end up having the same (not so great) meals over and over.

Our layover in Bishkek was only about an hour or so and it was in the middle of the night. My first impressions of this place were marred by a strong scent of urine as we walked through the tunnel connecting the plane and the terminal. I was also surprised to find Turkish-style toilets (hole in the ground type) in the restroom. Nevertheless, it was a surreal experience to be in Bishkek for an hour and to hear people speak Russian and see signs written in Russian. I bought some silly souvenirs so I could remember my brief time in this mysterious-to-me country.

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Here they are, posing in my hotel room in Ulaanbaatar. My husband lovingly calls them ‘camels and horse-things’.
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Although seemingly very basic, this toilet had an auto-flush function. 😉
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I was overly happy to see signage in Russian (middle line).

The flight from Istanbul to Bishkek was extraordinarily packed with carry on luggage. The plane was full to the brim with bags and coats and more bags , and I had to surrender my carry on to be checked in (with my precious Sony camera, but luckily it survived just fine). I’m pretty sure I saw some people with big Ikea bags on the plane – maybe people go to Turkey to shop?

I was hoping to finally get some sleep on the 4-5 hour flight from Bishkek to Ulaanbaatar, but as soon as the sun came up and I saw the scenery beneath, all chance of sleep was gone! We were flying over snowy mountain dunes of western China and Mongolia.

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A few hours to landing in Ulaanbaatar, after the sun came up.
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Finally landed!

When I finally stepped out of the airport, it was COLD! And sunny. And we sleepily made our way to the hotel.

We spent a few days in the city, made a day trip to Gobi Desert, and also saw a couple of towns on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.

Ulaanbaatar

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View from my hotel balcony.

The city itself felt like a hybrid between a modern western city and a Soviet town. It gave off a hint of being half-abandoned, with the construction of some skyscrapers halted due to the collapse of the economy with the mining bust that began in 2015.

The city is heavily dependent on coal for warming up during its brutal winters. And the settlements outside of the city are not connected to the main grid, and therefore burn coal and contribute to pretty severe pollution. I never knew what coal smelled like until I spent a few minutes outside in Ulaanbaatar. It sort of smells of heavy traffic or of benzene, and is everywhere.

But some bits of the city we visited were impressively posh and high standard. We ate at some EXCELLENT restaurants, where both the food and service was impeccable.

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Potentially the best meal I’ve had in years! Pork shoulder and delicious pasta + a pint of the local brew, of course.

I discovered Mongolian tea, which is served with lots of milk and salt, and is pretty tasty. I also rediscovered a hot drink I used to have in Russia as a child, called Sea Buckthorn. It is incredibly delicious and would be an amazing cure for a cold. I haven’t seen it anywhere in Europe or USA, though.

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Our feast at a ‘hot pot’ restaurant in central Ulaanbaatar.
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My hot pot and a glass of sea buckthorn (the best hot drink!).

On our last night we popped into a jazz club and had a few drinks while listening to local singers perform.

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A mother-daughter act (daughter is singing, mother is on the keys).

We learned that there is a big South Korean influence on Mongolian food and culture, which explains all the karaoke bars and Korean restaurants. Many Mongolians went to South Korea to find work when the economy collapsed, so upon coming back they also brought back some of the influence.

I also found that the architecture is very influenced by Soviet times. In fact, the Russians had built entire towns back in the day. I even met a few Mongolians who spoke Russian, although this is mostly older people, who had learned it back in their school days.

Outskirts of Ulaanbaatar

We did a day trip to the giant Genghis Khan monument and had lunch in a nearby town.  To be honest, that monument is not particularly my taste. Yes it is massive, but other than that, I’m not sure what is so fascinating about it. There is also a giant boot inside the building that houses the museum and the tourist point, which is catering to the same interests (the biggest!).

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The statues look pretty real from a distance ;).
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This eagle was serving as a tourist attraction in from of the statue.

Just driving through the country was an adventure in itself as we saw impressive landscapes, and every once in a while, camels, herders and gers (or yurts).

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Gobi Desert

Perhaps the most unique experience of the trip was a day trip to the Gobi Desert! We visited a Buddhist Temple, saw a lot (A LOT!) of goats, got battered by the cold winds, and visited the inside of a real ger. Oh an we also saw a rural Mongolian village and tried camel milk (which made my stomach feel awful). It was the most epic day in the history of my travels and I’m not sure what I did to ever deserve it!

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Some bad shots from the car while passing by a rural village.
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A village of about 500. Everyone has a ger in their back yard :).
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Snacks made from camel milk.
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Items on display inside a traditional ger.

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That’s it! I’m out of decent photos! On the whole, what stood out the most in Mongolia was definitely the people. I have never felt more welcome in any other country. Everyone we interacted with – work partners, restaurant and hotel staff, random people on the street – everyone was smiley, and friendly, and very kind. And very proud of their fascinating culture and history.

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