Transsiberian, Day 14: Sightseeing in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Around 5am I wake up to the sound of rustling and I open my eyes to see JC layering on all of his clothing. I realize it’s very cold in our ger and I fear that we have another dead fire on our hands. JC gets back into bed and I frustratingly think “why would you not feed the fire if you were so cold!”

Meanwhile, someone is snore-humming, and I think it’s Kevin based on the direction but then realize it’s the driver.

During the day it was -15*F (-26*C), but at night it dipped below -20*F (-29*C). Thankfully our ger wasn’t that cold, but it was chilly. I get up and open the stove and am grateful to see glowing embers looking back at me. I toss a handful of logs into the fire and drift to sleep to the sound of the crackling flames and the snore-humming.

Around seven I wake up again because Calvin is getting dressed to look at the stars. Are you drunk? Get back to bed; it’s freezing out! I tell him about having to feed the fire and in the meantime get up and feed it again. He hears the snore-humming quicken in pace and in the darkness I hear him say “Is the dude having a bad dream or something?” We muffle our giggles, and I return to bed as Calvin steps outside.

My alarm goes off at 9am and I feed the fire again, but it’s not nearly as cold as it was in the middle of the night, thankfully. Everyone in the ger wakes up, and when the driver leaves, we all complain about how we’d all have frozen to death in our sleep had I not rescued the fire this morning. JC complains that he never got bedsheets and was super cold, but in the daylight he realizes he was just sleeping on top of them. We joke about the driver’s breathing, and how it was a deep throaty hum, unlike any snoring that we’ve heard before. Also, as the rest of the group joins us in our ger, I mention that we shouldn’t feel guilty about waking up the driver as he literally had twelve HOURS of sleep. He slept an entire half day. Waking him for thirty minutes to poke a fire is not something to feel guilty over.

We meet Mihaela, who arrived in the middle of the night to the small ger, and who will be joining us on the trip from this point forward. The little girl appears in the doorway once again, gesturing "food" with one hand and pointing “four” to the small ger and “four” to the big ger.

Breakfast is accompanied by more green tea, and the food is fit for the setting: hot and hearty. We’re served a slice of toast with blueberry jelly, a slice of toast with a tomato-mushroom-meat-bell pepper mixture, a coleslaw of cucumbers and tomatoes, one hard-boiled egg sliced in half, and a shortbread cookie, some of us with pink ones, some of us with yellow.

We pack up and head out, off to sightsee before our train to China this evening.

We head off in the van after saying goodbye to our host family with lots of “Bayerla”s spoken. The trip is a bumpy one, as we find ourselves on what can’t possibly be a road, but rather a flat snowy landscape with tire tracks from previous adventurous drivers. Mihaela and I are sitting on the bench facing the back of the van, so we don’t know what bumps are in store, and we let out collective nervous laughter at the jostling that sometimes feels like the entire van is going to topple over.

Our first stop is a massive stainless steel sculpture of Genghis Khan. Outside of the monument is a family of stray dogs with puppies that distract us for a bit. They’re like ducks in a pond, following you once they see your hand go in your pocket or purse. To the left is a series of life-size horsemen from the Khan dynasty.

The main monument is a huge structure. We get tickets and an English-speaking guide tells us a little bit about it. It’s the tallest horseman statue in the world, and it’s created from 250 tons of steel. It faces east, where the sun rises, and where Genghis Khan was born. Inside the museum, there is a 9-meter-tall giant Mongolian boot, which is the biggest Mongolian boot in the world, which I think is oddly specific to mean anything.

In the basement is a small museum lines with paintings of the Khan dynasty. Some ruled for as little as three years, and some ruled as young as fourteen years old. Yet all the paintings portray them with full Mongolian mustaches. Whatever was in the milk back then must have forced some pretty early puberty on this family.

After grabbing some postcards, we all get in the car and head off to the Bodh Khan Winter Palace, one of the few structures not destroyed by either the Mongols or the Soviets during either takeover. I am not super impressed, since I just don’t know enough about the history to care. We look at some buildings, but my favorite part is inside the museum, there is a ger covered in over 150 leopard skins. Now that is luxurious. Awful, yes… but luxurious.

We go to the Chinggis Square in Ulaanbaatar, which has yet another Genghis Khan statue in the middle, next to a massive Christmas tree. We walk from there to lunch.

We eat at a place called Modern Nomads Mongolia, and we order a few items that are to be shared family style. We are sure to not repeat the Irkutsk incident, so we err on the side of caution. I order something called “friendship” which ends up being a ten-inch pizza crust piled high with mushrooms, feta cheese, sausages, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, broccoli, meatballs, and an omelet tied into a flower on the very top. Would you be my friend if I shared this? I bet you would. This unfortunately arrived last, after we were beyond full from other soups and dumplings and meat buckets (yes, wooden buckets of meat), but I think it arrived last because it took a boat to get here. That boat’s name was the Friend Ship. (Get it? I made that joke at the meal and Mihaela loved it but she laughs at everything.)

Next we were off, with leftovers in hand, to the Gandan Monastery. Again, I don’t know too much about it so I can just tell you there were lots of pretty religious buildings with those spinny things that you hit for good luck.

We make a trip to the grocery store to stock up once again for the train ride. It was located in the State Department Store, so there was essentially a department store and Pizza Hut right inside. We all split up for 45 minutes to shop on our own. I went straight to a salesperson at the department store to ask if she spoke English and she smiled but said no. then she proceeded to tap the shoulder of every passerby, whether they were a staff or a shopper, to ask them if they spoke English, all of whom said no. I appreciated her friendly efforts, but I guess I was on my own to find out where to send my postcards.

I entered the grocery store and thought about what I wanted for my train meals for the next 30 hours. It’s hard to plan something like that when you just have no idea what you’ll have a hankering for. I first grabbed some bulk almonds for a healthy snack, before realizing that I honestly had no clue what to eat for meals. I gave up and did the old standby: peanut butter. I grabbed a jar of Jif, because I didn’t want to mess around with the America’s Best brand that I have never heard of as an American, or the organic one that was just peanuts and had a layer of oil on top that I knew I wouldn’t be able to drain on the train, and mixing would be a disaster.

I always have a sweet tooth, so I got some extra dark chocolate bars for a slightly healthier sweet option. I was impressed by the amount of organic options available at this place, too. I realized that I may get scurvy on the trip so I opt for some organic pear fruit cups.

All that was missing was drinks. I got a giant bottle of water and some juice, and since I wasn’t with the rest of the group, I didn’t know if they already got alcohol. I go to the vodka aisle and have several options for local vodka, one of which is a pretty sweet looking bottle of Genghis Khan vodka. However, it’s more expensive than the plain “made in Mongolia” vodka, so I just get the cheaper one.

I go to check out and the woman tells me something in Mongolian about the almonds and I think it’s that I needed to weigh them. I didn’t, so she just throws them side. No almonds for you. As I get my money out, she picks up the peanut butter jar and examines it, probably because she didn’t even know the store carried it. But you do, and this American sniffed it right out.

I still have time to kill and cash to use, so I go upstairs to the clothing section of the department store to look for some Mongolian wool socks. It was the ultimate language barrier test. I went to the section with nylons and found some salespeople. I pointed to my socks, and the woman assumed I wanted nylon socks. Then I pulled out my trusty Point-It guide and pointed to a sheep, then my socks again. It clicked and one clerk spoke Mongolian to the other, and she grabbed a basket of socks labeled as 100% Mongolian wool. Perfect! She wrote the price on a tiny piece of paper and I handed her my card, but then she indicated that no, I had to do something else. Basically I take a tiny piece of paper over to the cash register without the products in hand, pay for it, then return the receipt to the sock department to retrieve my socks. It was definitely out of order from what I’m used to.

Eventually around 6:30pm we meet up at the van. Calvin brings his friend Shirako, a local, to join us. Austrian Kevin is supposed to join us, but he hit traffic and is unable to come. We end up eating at a North Korean restaurant. This is as close as you can get to Pyongyang without traveling there. The place is run by actual North Koreans who are here to specifically work here and nowhere else. Photos are not allowed inside. You need to be wary of your conversation topics because the whole place is probably bugged. Calvin said it gave him chills, reminding him of all the restaurants in North Korea. The only drinks available are those from North Korea. Calvin recommends the beer, and everyone who has it says that it’s surprisingly good. The whole experience is utterly fascinating.

LaiYuen continues to impress with her language skills, first with the German she spoke with Lukas and Kevin, the English she speaks with us, then the Mandarin on the train, and now the Korean she busts out. All of this on top of her native Malay…this girl is a language powerhouse. She helps us order and we get a very small meal as we aren’t super hungry.

Time escapes us and we have to rush off to the station, so we pay our bill and hurry off. Shirako takes my postcards and promises to send them off for me. Thanks, dude! In the parking lot of the station, one of the bags of leftovers starts leaking but my trusty supply of plastic bags saves the day. Mongolian train beef for everyone!

We run to our platform and get settled in. Mihaela, LaiYuen, David and Taylan share one room while JC, Calvin and I bunk with a Mongolian man named Batsukh, who I’d guess is in his fifties. This is probably the crummiest of the trains so far, without even a tablecloth on the window-side table, which looks like it hasn’t been wiped down in a month. The bedsheets are…well, good enough, but I have my sleep sheet so I don’t care. Also the hallway occasionally feels a bit hazy with smoke from the coals they are feeding into the fire.

We all hang out in the Mihaela/LaiYuen/David/Taylan room, despite Batsukh being absent almost any time we return to our room. We eat cookies, we chat, we drink, we watch Calvin drink too much, we play ‘never have I ever,’ we have impromptu karaoke to Aerosmith’s “Don’t want to miss a thing,” we hear the train conductor next door pound on the wall to make us quiet.

We go to bed near midnight.

(72 hours since last shower)