Katie: We arrived into the world’s coldest capital Ulan Bator at dawn and it certainly lived up to its reputation as it was -20 oC. Our down jackets, gloves and hats kept us warm against the elements except for our faces; it was so cold that my eyelashes stuck together.
We had another hiccup with the accommodation and arrived at UB Guesthouse instead of Khonghor Guesthouse which Musha had booked us in. Awkward. The people that ran UB Guesthouse were so gracious and pointed us in the right direction.
Khonghor Guesthouse was tucked behind Peace Avenue which is a busy main road that runs through UB. The guesthouse was nothing like their website as they were under renovation and their reception was stony, but I was happy as long as I had access to a hot shower, a clean toilet and a bed.
We briefly met some noisy Americans in the guesthouse as well as Corra from the Philippines. She’s 47, desperate to go to London and on the lookout for a London husband. Anyone interested?
As it was so cold, we decided not to head out into the countryside but to stay and explore UB. We visited the palace of the last Bogd Khan (holy king) of Mongolia where they had rooms full of stuffed animals which we did not expect. We also mooched around on Sukhe Bator Square for a bit and saw many Mongolians in their traditional dress – a thick silk robe bundled and tied at the waist with a sash.
Mongolians are accommodating whenever we approached them for help, however they don’t like to queue like the British and tend to barge in front; I found myself opening doors for Mongolians to rush past before I had the chance to walk through myself. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the worst offenders, Mongolians are about 3 on the street spitting chart. Ulan Bator’s pavements are full of frozen spittle as to London’s full of chewed up gum. Yum.
Food wise, we ate 2 Mongolian meals which were very similar to the Prince of Wales that Musha took us to in London. It seems that the fried mutton dumpling is their staple snack and with it plenty of ketchup. We also went to quite a posh Thai restaurant where Phil ordered honey chicken and we had to double check with the waiter whether it was really chicken.
Although I haven’t fallen in love with Ulan Bator, I’m glad we stopped in Mongolia and it’s a shame we didn’t get to go to the countryside. I think it’s going to become unrecognisable as the skies are already filled with cranes building the next skyscraper, and everyone already has a cough from the heavy pollution.
Phil: Khonghor Guesthouse was in an old Soviet apartment block and occupied about 2 floors. The main office was being revamped so we were shown into the flat above which had 2 dorm rooms and 2 doubles.
There was a tiny window in the room but it still seemed to manage to allow most of that -20 oC in. The room was basic but effort had been made to make it useful; a tv, a fridge, safe, desk, stool and washing line were all in there but the issue was the heat. The tiny flat in Moscow was roasting, the train was heated to tropical temperatures but the Khonghor Guest House was freezing.
Their website stated that we got laundry, breakfast, free pickup and drop off at the station, Wi-Fi and a lounge. We didn’t really get any of that. Degi failed to mention, when we booked, that the place would be a building site and there would be no facilities. We were trying to use the internet in their office-cum-building site when she came in, muddled around and left without even a ‘hello’ or ‘sorry for the mess, are you getting everything ok?’
The main drag, Peace Avenue, was lined with shops and restaurants all with English names plus a couple of shopping malls. We arrived at a Selfridges-esque department store which seemed strange as your first impression of UB is that it is poor. We stocked up on essentials and went to a Mongolian restaurant for dinner. We had meat dumplings and meat with dry noodles and some dry fried bread that was a little like deep fried pitta bread. It wasn’t bad but I’d forgotten that my stomach had shrunk and we couldn’t finish the food.
We met our neighbours, some typically noisy, laugh-at-everything Americans* who were ‘in the peace corps’ and 2 women from the Philippines; Corra who was working as an English teacher and the other girl was a nanny.
*Please note that I don’t paint everyone with the same brush, there are Americans who do not fit the ‘typical American’ mould. But they do have that reputation for a reason.
The main square; Sukhe Bator Square was quite nice. Flanked by some very large and modern buildings was the statue of Damdinii Sukhbaatar; Mongolia’s revolutionary leader and the Parliamentary Buildings which were very grand and guarded by some fierce looking Mongol warrior statues.
Looking for a little history and culture we decided to go to the Bogd Khan Palace. On arrival you could see it was a walled compound with a few buildings that looked like traditional Chinese temples. We got to the ticket office and it seemed deserted but a small man in oversized guards uniform appeared and ushered us towards the front of the palace.
The entrance is very grand; you walk under a pagoda style gate towards the main doors which are huge, heavy and wooden. The guard opened a little side door for us – so no grand entrance. The inside is dilapidated, there’s no doubt that it’s in desperate need of care and attention. But you do get the sense that the last Bogd Khan, or Holy Kings, had left and we were the first to find it. The courtyard was overgrown, the walls crumbling and the paintwork faded and flaking but the artwork on display was clear, crisp and intricate. Depicting gods, battles and saviours the collection covers 4 rooms before you move to the Winter Palace which is more interesting. I was getting a little bored of Buddha imagery and so the clothing, furniture and oddest collection of stuffed animals you will ever see gave some respite.
We wandered back across Peace Bridge and saw yet another western shopping mall boasting a food court so we thought it would be a good time to get some grub. Thai or New York…Thai was cheaper so it won.
I heard that chicken was hard to come by in UB but we had to ask the waiter that the Honey Chicken I got was actually chicken. It wasn’t a chicken colour, or texture, or taste for that matter but I ate it and came to no harm. Katie had some noodles with shrimp and we had some Thai tea which was really good if not a little alarmingly bright orange.
Tuesday didn’t start until about noon when we woke then aimed for the supermarket on the ground floor of the State Department Store. Catering very well for English speakers, the supermarket has pretty much all you need and all you’ll find at home. We went on the hunt for some authentic Mongolian foodstuffs only to find it all much the same price as the imported stuff. A block of President butter will set you back about £1 and a half size of local butter (made from sheep milk, I guess) will cost about the same. Quality wasn’t an issue though; everything looked pretty good and I even managed to get a taste of some local milk which was really thick; very similar to Indian Lassi.
On the way home we spotted an eaterie where there were a healthy number of locals so we decided to have dinner there. The menu was in Mongolian with no chance of an English version – this is a plus as it means the food will be proper Mongolian. So we looked around and pointed to a few of what our fellow diners were eating. We got a prison/Thali tray of soup, rice and boiled meat, bread similar to steamed mantou, pickled carrot, and potato salad. We ordered some fried meat dumplings too. I have to say that the soup was really good; it tasted very similar to a hearty Scotch broth. The boiled meat was tasteless to the point that you couldn’t tell what meat it was. Katie loved the salads and the dumplings were good – dough parcels about the size of a clenched fist filled with minced meat and some cooking liquor, the exact same as we had in London with Musha. Everyone round about us was having them by the boat load.
I get the feeling that Mongolia is on the cusp of development boom, there is so much potential in the land for agriculture and farming; presently they import all their fruit and veg which has to be flown in for freshness. I don’t think Mongolia is the place to go off season. The countryside is the thing that you come to Mongolia for and all the transport links seem to shut down the rest of the year. Mongolians have been helpful once we’ve engaged them but most seem to be very inconsiderate – at least the city folk do. There’s no ‘excuse me’ or smiles or even holding a door open, waiting until everyone gets out of a lift before getting in isn’t heard of and red traffic lights mean nothing. I don’t get some of it – surely holding a door open for someone or giving women/the elderly right of way is just common courtesy. Having said that getting to know the traditional Mongolian life would have been great, I think the family orientated Ger of the nomads would have shown us a side to Mongolians that you don’t get in the cities.