Greetings from Mongolia!
Well this morning, after a relatively uneventful train ride and 6-hour, dual border crossing, Ed and I arrived in Ulan Bator (also spelled UlaanBaatar for the benefit of tourists). The city is different than Ed described it to me a couple main reasons, but other than that is pretty much a classic capital of the 3rd World. Some changes have occurred since Sixer was last here (4-5 years ago), the largest being that several very modern buildings have gone up. The tallest construction in Ulan Bator had been, for the longest time, one of the few hotels here (at no more than a dozen stories) but some of these new "skyscrapers" reach 30 stories or so in height. Our guide this morning shared Ed's opinion that UB (as expats call the city) is growing too fast and needs to slow down. But this is all stuff I will talk about in greater detail in the second half of this message, first I have to discuss our last 24 hours in Russia.
So, Ulan Ude. Capital of the Buryat Republic (an unofficial "country" so named because of the 3 million Buryats - semi-Mongols - who inhabit the region). The area is home to the only Buddhist monastery in Russia and also the largest concentration of Russian "Old Believers" (who I previously mentioned...I think). The city itself is pretty nice and the hotel was a definite step up from the 4'x4' cubicle/bedroom/bathroom Edward and I had previously shared in Irkutsk. Our guide, who's name I never fully caught as it seemed to be about 18 syllables in length, was a very nice young woman (22 and freshly married) who was a native to the region. Our driver, who's name I do remember (Andrei) was equally nice and both were fluent in English. They picked us up (after letting us have an all-too-brief nap) and took us out to the Datsan Monastery. This place is home to the famous Khambo Lama who "died" in 1927. As the story goes he was teaching a class one day and asked his students to begin singing a death prayer for him. They refused and he ordered them all to leave. After sometime they decided they should go back and when they re-entered the room they found him dead, sitting in the lotus position. He had left a will that requested he be exhumed from his grave in 30 years' time (it also had a few eerily true prophecies). At any rate, they dug him up in 1955 and to everyone's shock it was discovered that he had not decomposed at all, in fact, apparently he still looked "fresh". So, they reburied him (or something to that effect) and then in 2002 they yet again disturbed his resting place. Again...he looked as though he hadn't aged a day and was still totally fresh. Scientists (of course) descended on the scene and took samples of his hair, blood, skin, nails etc etc; to their shock...he was still...sort of...alive. His skin cells have remained alive and continued to regenerate and apparently his blood is ever sssoooo sloowwwwlllyy moving throughout his body. Buddhists believe he has reached some sort of outer stage of Nirvana and will reawaken some day to pass on his wisdom before finally achieving the ever-sought-after-but-rarely-attained state of a band from Seattle in the early 90's.
Regardless of that whole story that Datsan Monastery was a beautiful, albeit cold, place to visit and both Edward and myself were struck with the beauty of the open countryside which stretches out from Ulan Ude. Our guides then drove us out of the city about 90 minutes to a small village of Old Believers. But we weren't there to see the village, we were there to see the villagers. We were taken into a home (this was clearly prearranged) and fed a traditional Siberian meal by an old couple (80 and 77) plus their lifelong friend (who had the hots for Ed). The women were once in a travelling folk band which performed the traditional songs and dances of Russian old believers...they were veritable rock stars. They welcomed us in and began doting on us like...well...grandmothers. They insisted we eat everything and would not take "No, please, I couldn't possibly, I'm so full" as an answer to their continual attempts (or rather successes) at refilling our plates/glasses/cups. They also insisted on toasting to something or another every 2 minutes. Can you guess what they toasted with? That's right ladies and gentlemen, vodka. And do you know who had to drink this vodka? All of us. And do we all remember the story I told about Edward, myself and this vile five-letter word? Yeah...nearly threw up.
But, thankfully we discovered you can simply take a tiny sip and it isn't necessary to drain the entire glass each time. Thank. God. However, they were absolutely amazing and hilarious people. They spoke NO English and we spoke NO Russian (well OK, we have a few handy phrases) but somehow we managed to laugh the entire time (translators help). They insisted on getting us matched up with good, local women for marriage and that there should be no delay. They had, as I mentioned, a great sense of humor. The two women asked if we were brothers and jokingly I responded, "No, I'm too handsome to be related to Ed." This was translated and the ladies looked at both of us and replied, "Da", then fell about laughing and kissing Edward to make up for it. I took a photo about a second too late of one of the ladies planting a big kiss smack on Sixer's lips...I thought this was HILARIOUS...until she gave me the same treatment.
We were there for a couple hours and shared a great deal with this elderly yet lively trio. The women sang us several songs and we were forced to perform one in return. Had we had a guitar Ed and I would have sung "Way Over Yonder (in the Minor Key)" written by Woody Guthrie and performed for the first time by Billy Bragg. But, since we didn't have one of those handy we had to settle on "Happy Birthday", which was fitting given that Anatoli (the man) was turning 80 in a couple days. For the record he was not apart of this folk band, he was a soldier. He actually reminded me a lot of Grandpa (Harold), though I don't think Grandpa ever drank as much vodka in his life as Anatoli did in two hours.
As the afternoon waned we said our goodbyes, took some photos, dodged and then succumbed to several kisses and headed off on our way back to Ulan Ude. Our day finished with a brief walking tour of the city and with Edward and I passing out at around ten (for the record we had gotten NO sleep the night before, no good reason, just hadn't slept). The next morning provided for some entertainment however. After waking up at oh...ten, we attempted to exercise. The fitness room of the Geser (pronounced Gezzer) Hotel was located deep in the bowels of a Soviet Era basement/bomb shelter. As we were led into the low-ceiling-prison of the hotel Ed remarked that every time he goes somewhere like this he's worried he'll wake up in a bathtub of ice missing a kidney. The fitness center which we were both excited to use was...well...not really a fitness center. Yes, it did have a weight machine, but it didn't work. Yes, it did have an exercise bike, but it broke as soon as Ed sat on it. Yes, it did have a free weight bar, but it totalled about 15 pounds. We gave up on that really fast.
But that was not the excitement of the morning, no no, that came later, when we went to catch the train. Before I go any further let me just state that the word "excitement" should never be used in the same sentence as the phrase "to catch the train", but you will note, both that word and that phrase came in the same sentence. Everyone on the same page? Ok great, here goes. So we got picked up at the hotel but left a little late as we needed to eat breakfast, or rather lunch. The hotel was exactly 200 meters from the train station so it wasn't like needed the 15 minutes to get there. Which, we didn't. We had plenty of time to catch a train by the time Andrei pulled up in the parking lot. We got out our luggage and our several shopping bags of valenki boots that we'd bought at the factory there and began a slow walk to the terminal. Our guide (who's name I never caught) told me to give her the tickets and she would go find out where the train was. Andrei, Edward and I, in the meantime, casually strolled through a tunnel and out onto the platform. The only train there was two tracks over, but this was no big problem as the tracks run sequentially without platforms so one could simply walk over the tracks (as about 50 people were doing). But...the lady and our tickets were not with us so we had to wait. No problem. Until a new train came along and cut us off from our train. For the record, the scheduled departure time was 1:30 pm local time and it was exactly 1:28. Now...where was that guide of ours and more importantly...where were those tickets?
She came around the corner (having learned nothing of the train) but managed to stop and listen to the intercom, which was informing us that the last call had been made for train 6 to Ulan Bator on Track 3. It was now 1:29. Shit. The good news: there was an overpass that one could take to get to Track 3. The bad news: one had to go around the building and up an obscene number of stairs to reach it. Also for the record, this overpass had been built under the impression that the QE2 would sail under it, not a 12-foot tall train. I have never run so fast in my life while carrying two pieces of luggage. The four of us literally sprinted out through the tunnel, up some stairs, into a building, up some more stairs, through a pair of doors, past some slow moving group clearly going nowhere fast, up some more stairs, along another tunnel, up some more stairs, across the overpass, up some more stairs (which were there as a final insult) and then down a long haul of icy stairs. Every door on the train was closed save ours and the provodnitsa was frantically waving us towards her. At this point we had run a couple hundred meters while breathing in 5 degree air. I could barely see. Ed almost had an asthma attack. BUT....we made it!!! Literally threw our bags onto the train and leapt aboard. I was hanging on to the side, throwing our tip at the guides as the train began it's lurch forward. To put it mildly, as Edward did, that was close.
Our provodnitsa was a lovely lady who thought the whole thing was hilarious and was ecstatic at the arrival of the "American boys". She spoke no English but somehow we managed to have a few conversations over the time we were aboard. The trip was pleasant, except for one some people stole my iPod while Ed and I grabbed water (you can't lock your cabin and they found my iPod under the sheets). The border crossing itself was extremely long...and so was the second one. Because yes, Russia, it is totally necessary to search people leaving your country and scrutinize them as though they were wanted criminals...Mongolia was fine but slow because, well, everything in this country kind of is.
And this brings us to Ulan Bator. The name of this city means "Red Hero" and you can guess who named it that...yes, it was the Russians. The city is definitely firmly established in the 3rd world; there are chunks of road missing in the street and manholes don't have covers, there are rundown buildings in one area and surrounding the city are slums of yerts where people defecate in the street. The plumbing here can't handle toilet paper so every room comes equipped with a small bucket next to the toilet and the water for the entire city is pumped in from some Soviet designed (therefore impractical) central heating system. Ed told me a story of how during the summer the plant was closed for an annual cleaning and so the entire city is without hot water for 3 weeks...good job Soviets...good job. The place looks like it shouldn't function and to some extent doesn't; the buildings are shabbily constructed and drivers go whenever they want. The State Department Store is pretty much the only place in the whole city to buy things and it doesn't look capable of supporting the 1 million inhabitants...then again most of them are so dirt poor they can't afford anything anyways. The dollar can buy you 1400 togroks (Mongolian currency) and nothing is ever very expensive by our Western standards. Yet, many people in this country live in yert villages way out in the countryside and have no way of making a living, yet they must still buy things. As a result of this NGO's have been set up to get these "peasants" (for lack of a better word) to knit the wool caps they always knit, or make the sandals they always make, but in bulk. Then the NGO buys these "authentic Mongolian goods" and sell them to tourists in the cities. Correction: city, Ulan Bator is the only major center of any consequence.
Mongolia itself is about the size of Alaska (so over a third the size of the US) and has 2.8 million inhabitants (less than 1% of the American population) and with over a million of these people living in UB, that leaves a lot of empty space available to people. Finding someone outside of the capital is harder than finding a needle in a haystack. But it is a beautiful countryside and the people here are some of the nicest I have ever met. Everyone smiles. If you make eye contact with someone long enough on the street they say "Hello" as if you were a ray of sunshine. Everything about Mongolia seems so incredibly cultured and civilized after our 23 days with the unsmiling, oppressed Russian people. As Ed put it: "That country had so much potential until some Bolsheviks came along and decided to try The Great Experiment...and totally fucked the people." Which is true, the people of Russia, especially in comparison to their southern neighbors are terribly oppressed, even today. Their media is censored and if something gets printed the government doesn't want, they fine the daylights out of the offensive paper. The only channels people get on basic cable are all government channels which provide government-approved news. Police have total power and soldiers walk through the streets with AK-47s on their shoulders, or sometimes casually pointed at you. A passport is necessary for external travel but another one is needed for inside the country, so are driver's licences and about a half dozen other forms of ID. The police can stop and ask for these at any time and fine or imprison you for not having them. In theory every time someone goes to a new city they need to register. But to make matters worse, they have no means of making it under capitalism. The average person gets paid shit and yet are charged Western prices. Moscow is the most expensive city in the world to live in and yet only a couple hundred families capable of paying for it do in fact live there.
The Russian people hate the rich (one of our drivers spit on the ground in disgust after a clearly wealthy man went by), and they call the successful "Oligarchs". And, while many of them are definitely guilty of some crime or another, the only crime each and every rich person in Russia is truly guilty of is having an imagination. When the state privatized business after "the fall" they were the ones with the foresight or innovation to buy up stocks or create companies. It's no wonder that people don't smile there as so few of them have much to smile about. Over and over again we'd hear about how "at least under the Soviets everyone had a home". Most of the country wishes they were still ruled by Communists. There is actually a lot I can say about the Russian mentality but dinner is soon calling so I will wrap this up.
Edward and I hadn't heard English spoken on TV, or by people (except for guides and a couple tourists), or seen it printed in a couple weeks. Which, again, let me stress: isn't a problem because we need it, but it's a lonely experience to be unable to communicate with people, or hear your native tongue or read the newspaper. So, when we arrived to Ulan Bator and checked in, we were ecstatic to discover that 12 of the 20 channels on TV are in English and that there are two English-printed expat newspapers in circulation and that EVERYONE speaks English with great ease (it's the second official language here). Everyone knows we're foreign (way more obvious here than in Russia) but instead of drawing stares or bewildered looks, as we did throughout the past 3 weeks, we draw smiles and "Hellos" and cheerful waves from children. Also, after 3 weeks of eating Russian cuisine - which consists of cabbage soup, beet soup, mystery meat in everything and vodka, we were so so so so so happy to go to Millie's for lunch. At this expat cafe we were able to order a proper Greek salad, soup NOT made from beets or cabbage, a BLT, fries, a burrito, and lemon pie...heavenly. Given that Mongolia isn't known for it's stellar style of food, we have forgiven ourselves ahead of time for frequenting Western restaurants for the next couple meals.
I hope everyone is doing well, whatever corner of the earth you are inhabiting.
From Ulan Bator, I wish you all a good morning, a good afternoon, a good evening and a good night.