Ulaan Baator had many names throughout its history. The Camp. The Big Camp (surprisingly). The Biggest Camp (now I’m taking the piss). The current one means The Red Hero, to celebrate the Soviet takeover of the country (I bet some would be happier with “The Biggest Camp”). You know what they say about certain dogs. It’s so ugly it’s endearing. That goes for UB. It’s exceptionally ugly, there is wild construction going on everywhere, but the traffic in the city centre will still occasionally stop, because there is someone leading a herd of horses or goats across the road. The atmosphere is great, and people – except for a couple of incidents – are lovely.
I arrive to my hotel at 6 am absolutely shattered after having slept 3 hours in last two days. The hotel is OK, although somewhat far from its “Elegant” name, that is unless you consider golden wallpapers elegant. To be quite honest, the hotel is downright dodgy. Not dodgy dangerous, but I am quite convinced, judging from the gentlemen in suits and ladies in all sorts of attire (and creepy characters hanging around the reception), that the place normally works as safe haven for encounters with the workers of the night. In fact no one shows the slightest interest in my passport. The hotel must be renowned for maintaining anonymity. I sleep until midday and meet Lenka, the Slovak girl travelling alone I met on the train, for lunch and we plan to explore the town, starting from the dinosaur museum. Unfortunately, most of Mongolia’s many dinosaurs can be seen in major natural history museums around the world. The two complete skeletons on display in Ulaan Baator have returned “home” from New York only several years ago. At the end, the entire concept of a museum is based on theft, and more often than not the thief treats the artefacts better than their rightful owner. We visit the (empty) Gandantegchinlen Monastery and the State department store (I need to buy a local SIM card), which is for some reason listed among the city’s top attractions on TripAdvisor, but it’s just a sad post-socialist shopping centre. People who write on TripAdvisor must be out of their minds.
Dinner: absolutely priceless scene where I try to explain to the waiter that I would like to have my steak blue. Judging from his expression, I am a bit worried that he is going to bring the meat painted blue (actually I am a bit hoping he will, just for a laugh), but the steak turns out perfect. I return to my hotel reasonably tipsy and tired, unfortunately there is a huge karaoke session going on just under my room, and some of the participants are clearly convinced to be the reincarnation of Whitney Houston. I was a bit suspicious when the receptionist insisted to change my room without me asking for it, but I could not be arsed to repack at 2 am. Well, I should have listened. At least it sounds like the people are having fun.
I meet Lenka again in the morning, and we just wander through the town aimlessly. Actually we have half a plan to make it to the city’s stadium, where some sort of a naadam is taking place, but we never make it there (and I will learn eventually that the whole thing was just chanting for hours and hours, and I am certain I could not go through that). We have lunch in the only restaurant we manage to find open on a sunday, which is a dodgy self-service hot-pot place, where you can choose from heaps of colourful things of dubious character to put in your soup. It turns out ok, no one is sick. We check out the Beatles monument outside the Department store, which is another so-ugly-it’s-pretty statue in the middle of what looks like a construction site (but no one protests when we walk in there). It’s a concrete apple-shaped thing, sporting bas-relief of the Fab Four from one side, and a statue of a young man playing guitar from the other side. It commemorates the habit of young people in the 1970s to gather on the starcases of big buildings and listen to western music smuggled into Mongolia from Eastern Europe. We later visit the Choijin Lama temple complex, just a short walk from Sukhbaatar square, hidden between the city’s newly (and savagely) built skyscrapers. The museum is empty, because all the tourists are at the stadium to watch the monks chanting. Out of the three temple complexes in UB, this one is the most interesting. You can see a nice collection of ritual masks, “The Wheel of Time” – a beautifully elaborated 18th century statue in casted bronze representing the passing of time (and actually one of the oldest artefacts visible in UB. I still need to get used to the fact that not many things around here are alder than 150 years). There is a very interesting painting representing a buddhist idea of hot and cold hell in one of the temples.
We spend the evening in a place called “Czech pub”, except for a couple of photos of Prague on the wall, these is nothing Czech to be found in there – not even beer. However, being the only clients of the bar, we take over the music production and educate the two poor bartenders about Czechoslovak socialist pop. Strangely, they don’t look too happy about it, but their english is too poor to protest.
Upon my return to the hotel, the receptionist repeats her rather threating offer of the free upgrade, which I gladly accept this time. The room is not much different, but at least it’s 4 floors above the hellish karaoke room.
Jimmy, my sparring partner for the Mongolian trip arrives at 7 am. I have a massive hangover, for a change. Me and Jimmy met at the university, when he was doing his exchange programme in Prague some 13 years ago, and we haven’t seen each other since. Now we decided we would travel Mongolia together. We meet out driver Tsogtoo (age: 32, English: 0) and we go shopping for the 15 days of camping. I think we have too much alcohol and not enough food, but at least I make sure we have enough toilet paper and wet wipes.
We ask Tsogtoo to drive us to the Genghis Khan statue some 40 km out of UB. It’s the biggest mounted statue in the world and it’s incredibly tacky. Like tiny men with big cars. You look at them cruising in huge expensive beasts and you think: do you have some kind of an issue? Anyway, apart from being enormous, the statue is otherwise uninteresting (although probably a must-see, what else would you do in UB on the third day), so we make your wake back to town and ask to be dropped off at Bogh Khan Winter Palace which is another temple complex in the southern end of the city centre, more majestic than Choijin Lama from the outside, but with much less interesting interior.
This evening we have the only unpleasant encounter with the indigenous population. As we are walking back to our hotel from dinner, a very drunk (or high, most probably both) man approaches us shouting something that doesn’t sound exactly like “welcome to Mongolia, dear travellers”. We try to ignore him for a bit, but he insists and becomes more and more physical, so I grab Jimmy and we cross the busy road and fortunately, the guy does not follow.
That’s our sojourn in the metropolis over, as we are heading to the step on the following morning.