By Jordan Karasek
(Not that we have any personal experience in this or anything)
The Trans-Mongolian train bound for Moscow left UB’s station at 3:22pm, and we ended up arriving at 3:30. Fortunately, the train people were very accommodating. Here’s step-by-step what to do:
1) Miss your train and have a minor freak-out moment
2) Ask the ticket people and hear you have to wait for the next train that comes six days later.
3) Have another minor freak-out when you remember your Russian visa was only for specific dates, and we had to catch the train we just missed today.
4) Be led us over to the information office where the Mongolian train officials discuss amongst themselves what to do, stamp our tickets, and look at passports.
5) Gesture driving to catch up to another station, and then have about 3 or 4 taxi guys willing to drive us to the next station for a small fee, of course.
6) The station people call some numbers and looked up some charts to find out that it would arrive in Darkhan at 8:14 pm, where we could pick the train up.
7) Find out the trip will take 3 or 4 hours by taxi and cost $90.
8) Have another minor freak-out moment when realizing how much money that is but how you don’t have any choice.
9) Because you have only 4,000 tugrik in your pocket (about $1.75 USD), hunt for an ATM.
10) All 5 of the ATMs at the train station will probably be out of money, so jog about half a mile to a bank and pull out the cash.
11) Return to find the station police putting your bags in a taxi while your wife looks around frantically for you.
12) Thank everyone profusely in a terrible accent, hand over the cash, hop in the taxi, and wait for the other two seats to be filled.
13) Have another minor freak-out moment when you realize it’s 4 pm, the train arrives at 8:14, and it’s a 4 hour drive on icy, remote roads. Mime that you need to go fast.
14) Pick up two other people, start out across traffic-congested, icy Ulaan Baatar, and just pray.
15) At about 5 or 5:15 you’ll hit the edge of the city and keep going through the countryside.
16) Thank your driver when he picks up speed and passes slow-moving trucks on the steppes.
17) Arrive in Darkhan with at 7:15, lug our bags through the snow, up the icy steps, and inside the train station where everyone stares at us.
18) Show our tickets to the station agents, get them stamped again, and wait.
19) Train pulls into the station 20 minutes early at 7:53
20) Show passport and tickets to the provodnitsa, the car attendant, and find your compartment.
21) Once on the train, the guilty spouse apologizes to the aggrieved spouse for being the reason you missed the train in the first place.
22) Because you reach the train and all is well (besides missing 90 USD), the aggrieved spouse relaxes and stops thinking about murder.
In summary: If you miss your train,
Enjoy the snow-laden landscapes! It’s easy to look around and see closed tours and gers in the winter and feel a little discontent about your seasonal choice, but just remember—you get to see Mongolia in a time few travelers ever do. And you’ll be able to say you braved -30 degree C weather and survived it.
Mongolia technically has three cities, but Ulaan Bataar, their capital, is by far the largest. With a little over a million residents, it houses about 40% of Mongolia’s population.
Ulaanbaatar means “Red Hero” in Mongolian and is the capital city of the country. Created in 1639, it’s not the traditional, historic capital. It was only named Ulaanbaatar in 1924, after Mongolia got it’s independence back from China (in 1911) and embraced Communism from the Soviet Union (in 1921). Very few historic buildings are left in Mongolia—at it’s beginning, it was little more than felt and sheepskin gers, later the Chinese and Soviets destroyed many of the 19th century buildings. Still, UB is a thriving metropolis today, and surprised us by how crowded and energetic the city streets are (even in the beginning of winter!). We bundled up as best we could and hit the streets, ready to see what the capital of Mongolia had to offer.
Naran Tuul, Monglian for “black market” is a local, outdoor market where one can buy anything, from carpets to snow shovels to wool socks. Jordan and I went to the market as soon as it opened, ready to shed our tennis shoes for real snow boots.
We had been told that pickpockets and thieves prey on tourists in the market, but I think we went early enough that it wasn’t crowded and distracting. We didn’t have a problem. Although the market officially opens at 9 am, not all stalls were open until about two hours later.
It was -25 degrees C, and we shivered and stuttered through negotiations with the sellers. Our guidebook didn’t say whether we could bargain or haggle, so we didn’t at first. But by the end, we realized that a little bit of bargaining was okay, and I got discounts off the named price. We searched around and found all sorts of winter gear—perfect for what we needed. Although you can buy traditional boots, sellers also have more modern footwear to choose from.
The curled toe in the traditional boots helps keep heat in during the winter, we learned, and is a good way to keep feet in stirrups when riding over rough terrain. Another added bonus is that the curled toes make footprints faint. When China ruled Mongolia, until 1911, they imposed harsh penalties and imprisoned many innocent people. The traditional boots helped mask the path of escaped prisoners during winter.
Jordan and I bought three pairs of boots—one snow pair for me, one more traditionally-styled snow pair for Jordan, and one sleek, modern leather boots just because they were cheap. We kinda overdid it on the boots, but there were such good deals I kinda couldn’t help myself. We spent 119 USD total on boots.
For the rest of the winter gear, such as hats, scarves, gloves, and wool socks, we spent a total of 36 USD. I couldn’t believe how cheap it was! Some of it was likely made in China and is of low quality, but I didn’t have to pay importing price that Americans do for the same goods.
The State Department store is UB’s largest and grandest department store, and is practically a tourist attraction in and of itself. Built during the communist days, the government-run department store offered the best UB had for its residents. When the communist government slowly and peacefully transformed into democracy, the store was privatized. Today the 7th story building looks drab and Soviet on the outside, but has the loveliest and brightest Christmas displays in the whole city. It has a grocery story on the bottom floor, which Jordan and I went to for buying food for our Trans-Mongolian train trip, and everything was moderately priced. We even found lots of imported Western items—things we never saw in Korea! Jordan and I salivated over the rows and rows of fresh bread to choose from. We hadn’t seen that much (or that quality) of bread in over a year.
Sukhbaatar square is the center of the city. In the middle of the square we were surrounded by a giant Chinggis Khaan statue, a Mongol warrior statue, Parliament house, and several state museums. To our south were small skyscrapers and hole-in-the-wall coffee shops. Although Mongolia is now a democracy with presidential elections every five years, a few things are still state-run, like MIAT, the airline we flew into the country on.
Our last tourist stop in the city was the National History Museum. Tickets were cheap, but the camera fee was more expensive than the cost of admission. Still, Jordan paid it because he wanted an easy way to document the history we’d learn. The first floor was Neolithic and prehistoric, and I don’t really understand those eras. I was still having a hard time piecing together the different dynasties and how the Golden Horde was different than Attila the Hun and who exactly the Manchurians were. In China, they seemed to suggest the Manchu dynasty had strong ties to Mongolia. But in Mongolia I was told they were Chinese. (And who exactly is Chinese? Who decides? Is it based on where the group lived in medieval borders, or present-day borders, or does it have to do with a broad ethnic grouping? And who gets to decide who does and doesn’t fall into the ethnic group?) Anyway, besides these rather existential questions, we had an excellent time on the upper floors.
Mongolia has around two dozen ethnic groups in the country, though most can all be labeled the umbrella term “Mongols” (not the Kazakhs though, they’re Kazakhs, not Mongols, even though they’ve lived in Mongolia for 200 years). I loved looking at the official and traditional clothing of the ethnic groups over history. Obviously, most don’t wear these today—the Kazakhs we met were wearing fleece pullovers and ski pants with fake North Face boots—but Mongolians do pull the clothing out for special festivals and holidays.
Look at this amazing clothing that Chenggis Khan’s children would’ve worn! Jordan and I stared at the colorful clothing, realizing how little information we’d known about the Mongol Empire. Most Westerners know the name Ghengis Khan (but not Chenggis Khaan, his real name and title), but only see his as an effective barbarian intent on maiming and killing his way across Asia. In fact, I think the only depiction I’ve seen of Mongols is in the Disney movie Mulan, where they’re the evil bad guys. It makes sense, of course. The only reason Westerners know about Ghengis Khan and the Mongol Empire is because the Chinese told us about him, and they were enemies. Of course they’d paint him in the worst light possible. So looking at the elaborate jewelry and clothing, much that had been transported along the Silk Road, we realized how incredible the Empire really was.
Elsewhere in the museum we got to see a tradition ger set up, as well as timelines for the Khaans to understand how history played out. The last floors told about Mongolia’s communist days (all broad brushstrokes, mostly highlighting the good things communism brought the people—like a 98% literacy rate) and heralding the smooth transition to democracy (it wasn’t that smooth, but they made it).
UB has other museums and the lovely Gandan Monastery, where Yellow Hat Tibetan Buddhism is practiced, but we didn’t have time to see all of that. We had to catch a train to Russia that afternoon!
After our incredibly eventful and frustrating day in a taxi scam, Jordan and I had tentative hopes for the day tour we’d booked. But it went well! It far surpassed our expectations, and we happily tipped both guide and driver at the end of our day.
Our first stop was in UB, a monument to the Great Patriotic War, more commonly known as WWII. It’s a nice hilltop monument, about 600 steps to the top. Crafted to represent a Mongolian fireplace and the bond between Mongolians and Russians, it commemorates those who fought side by side during the war. It also had a great view of the growing city.
In winter air pollution is particularly bad in UB, mostly because of the cars driven on too-small roads and nomadic families burn lots of coal when they settle on the ouskirts of the city during winter. Over a million people live in UB, and almost every single one has a car. We were surprised to see the roads crowded with Toyota Priuses—by far outnumbering every other car on the road. Our guide mentioned that it’s easy to get a second-hand Prius from Japan for only about 7,000 USD.
Next we traveled out to the east about an hour to the famous Chinggis Khaan statue near Terelj National Park. Chinggis Khaan is the proper way for saying Genghis Khan. He is the most looked up to figure in Mongolia. Though there have been others to unite the nomadic tribes of the steps of Mongolia, Chinggis Khaan is the most revered. He is typically thought to have been a total barbarian but was in fact a noble ruler. He was brutal in battle and conquered land from Korea to Poland with his Horde (that comes from the word ordu, which means court). Scholars estimate the Mongolian invasions killed up to 40 million people, most heavily the Chinese and Iranian/Iraqis.
He was raised as a nomadic hunter who lived a hard life. When they were young, his wife, Borte, was kidnapped by a rival tribe and held for eight months before Chinggis rescued her. Later, when he became Khaan, he saw how this common practice of abduction divided the many nomadic clans and he sought to rectify that and unite them. He raised a small army of horsemen and started conquering group after group, killing their leaders and enveloping the people into his own clan. He forged a great Mongolian Horde that provided many rights to his people, established the largest most extensive trade network of the time from modern day China to Syria and Turkey in what we know as the Silk Road.
According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, he was one of the first to allow diplomatic immunity to foreign emissaries and treated them with respect instead of killing them like was common in his day. The Mongolians under Chinggis Khaan flourished not only in war and trade but also in art. They embellished pottery, instruments, clothing, saddles and much more.
The 40-meter tall statue faces the lands that he grew up in, also the direction of where he is believed to have been buried. The men who buried him were killed when they came back so nobody would know his burial location. The statue itself is where legend says Chinggis Khan found his famous golden whip before he became the great Khaan. When he died his empire was divide primarily amongst his four favorite sons. In fact, the famous Golden Horde was ruled by one of the Great Khaan’s sons in northern Mongolia and parts of Russia. The Mongolians slowly splintered into smaller hordes over the 1200s. One of his grandsons even founded the Yuan Dynasty in China and took on many Chinese customs. The great empire of the Mongols, descendents of Chinggis, fought for power until eventually the clans reverted back to their previous cultures in areas like Russia, Kazakhstan, and China.
In 2006 a wealthy Mongolian businessman decided to build the monument to increase tourism and encourage Mongolians to appreciate their history. The complex has the largest traditional leather boot, made out of 40 cowhides. In the basement is a small museum and a lift to the top of the horse’s head. It’s like 7,000 MNT to get in but it was included in our tour. They also showed us a video of how they built the statue and the plans they have to develop the area into a cultural center complete with tourist gers to stay the night in and traditional Mongolian shows, demonstrations, and activities.
After that, we headed into the Terelj National Park and had lunch with a local Kazakh family. They are nomadic and move their herd around Mongolia in search of good grazing grounds. They move about four times a year and usually spend the winter in Terelj. We had a very flavorful meal, which is not usual for Mongolian food, I am told, but this was good. Our host made hand-shaved noodles, beef, carrots, and potatoes complete with bland bread cookies and Kazkh-style milk tea. Milk tea is a big thing in Mongolia, which is exactly what it sounds like: heavily salted tea steeped in milk.
The tradition table, painted bright orange, has symbols for life and prosperity painted on it.
Their winter ger is one room, with plaster walls in a circle, just like their tent summer ger, with a heater in the middle. Outside were more square buildings like barns and outhouses.
I had about 15 cookies, 4 bowls of the pasta mixture, and 3 bowls of milk tea. We talked a little with our hosts (through our guide as translator) and admired their toddler. I was surprised to find that they have wifi and great radio in the winter house. The father/husband found out we were American and asked about the election and if we voted. Adrianne and I grimaced and said we were in Korea at the time. After eating everything I could, we thanked them and headed off for Aryapala temple and meditation center.
The Chinese in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century wiped out most monasteries in Mongolia. The country practices primarily Tibetan Buddhism (much to China’s chagrin and frustration) and a mix of Hinduism and Animism. A few Kazakh Mongolians in the west are Muslim. This temple was built in the mid 20th century to look like a white elephant—the stairs (108, of course) are the trunk and the wings of the shrines are its ears. The center was mostly closed, so we didn’t get to hear monks chanting, but a nice monk did unlock the door so we could take a peek inside and see paintings of the spiritual protectors of Mongolia as well as enlightened beings under Buddha’s influence (similar to Christians saints). The view from the top was inspiring, to say the least. Even with the barren trees, the steppes were gorgeous.
Mongolians love horses. They were some of the first to domesticate wild horses, and the locals say that their children learn to ride a horse before they’re weaned (this is probably true). So we got a chance to do a short horse trek through the valley. We had some trouble with our horses wanting to leave the warmth of the stable, but the guide got them out. They are hairy for the winter, but shed it all in the summer. We were led like children on our horses, until we were frozen through, upon which we headed back. The horses just wanted to be back in the barn and knew the way, but it felt like a more of a ride because we weren’t being pulled along and seemed to now have some control over them.
We warmed up in one of the gers with more local Mongolians. At this point some of the details of our taxi scam came out, upon which they suggested I should have head budded, punched, or kicked they guy for ripping us off. It made us laugh and made me happy to know that it wasn’t just offensive to us but to the locals as well. We finished up and headed back to Ulaanbaatar, where our guide and driver dropped us off at the big department and shopping center in town.
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