21 Days In Mongolia

Day 1:

It had been a particularly rainy August so it was great to finally leave a wet England behind and board a plane to somewhere else – anywhere else really, so long as it wasn’t raining. Earlier in the week, Bee (the cat) was sad to see us getting ready to go and she wouldn’t get out of our ruc-sac liners in order to let us pack.  However, we boarded a plane on Saturday August 21st 2004, from London Heathrow to Ulan Bataar via Moscow, which didn’t arrive in UB until the follow morning – Day 1 of our 21 Days in Mongolia.

There were many westerners on both flights, but Aeroflot lived up to its reputation and neither plane journey was particularly pleasant. Andy asking for extra leg room on the first flight from LHR to Moscow; this meant that we were put on the back two seats of the plane – this may seem all well and good, apart from the fact that it only meant that we had to get passed everyone whilst getting on and then off the plane, we were served our food last, but most importantly we were sat next to the 5 toilet cubicles at the back.....which meant a journey with a smell....and that wasn’t a pleasant smell.  Oh and I forgot to mention....the seats were no different from any of the other seats on the plane and there was absolutely no extra leg room with our seats compared to any other!!

 It was interesting to see that there was no carpet beneath my feet, so the electrical cabling was exposed...I don’t think this was the case for most other people fortunately.  What I found amusing was that the flight attendants (I must be politically correct here) were very severe and you would never cross them. Most were in their 40’s I would say.  Perhaps that is what we need on other airlines what with air rage now the going concern.

I thought it was sweet that Andy was surprised at how easy it was to navigate through Moscow airport in order for us to transfer on to our Mongolia bound flight....I think he thought all the directions etc would be in a different script and we wouldn’t know where to go, even though I had assured him that with it being an airport, everything would be in English too....well at least the important stuff and it was.

Before I left, I had been told that Aeroflot were now much better than they used to be as they had to conform to International plane standards in order to be allowed in to the airports, but that it was the internal flights or flights from Russia to "under developed” countries that you may need to be aware of...ie the flight from Moscow to Mongolia! However, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this flight was much better than our flight from LHR. The food was better and overall the 6 hours from Moscow went quicker than the 4 hours from LHR.

In the transit queue we had been trying to work out who might be doing our tour....but it turned out that we didn’t spot any of the people we met when we walked off the plane were met by a driver and 4 other travellers that had been on our same flight and were going to be doing the same tour as us: Diana, Linda, Chris and D.  We arrived in UB about 9am and it was kind of what I was expecting – a city that was dirty (in comparison to UK) – but a kind of dust dirty rather than rubbish dirty, it had that pollution smell to it, but nothing like India.

After checking in to the hotel that ImTrav had booked for us and where we would meet the others later, the group of now 6 decided to hit UB in search of sights and excitement – well at least sights.  Diana, being the fit one of the group (I could tell this already) lead the way and at least four of us brought out our Lonely Planet Mongolia books, which was rather funny – obviously one of, if not the only guide book on Mongolia.

Ulan Bataar is home to over one-third of the country’s population, so it was a busy place and as we walked along to the State Dept Store, which I am guessing is the ONLY department store in Mongolia, in order to change our money, we walked by guys playing pool on the street, a live wire hanging down from a telegraph pole and all over the city it appeared that a lot of building work was going on – to modernise the city. Apparently so much has happened in the last couple of years. The amount of goods you can now buy in UB has increased no end and there are many imported food goods. We found this out in the State Dept Store, where there were 6 floors of everything, from food on the ground store and then up to electrical, clothing, souvenirs and the lighting section.  It was very strange to walk in and see a store that appeared so modern and up to date on the inside (I even found myself looking at one of the new fridges they were displaying, due to the new kitchen we were having fitted at home).  Apparently though it is the more "well-heeled” Mongolian who would shop in here.

What was great was to see that we could stock up on wet wipes and buy all sorts in the food dept – including Cadbury’s chocolate, which was much cheaper than in England even! Food looked really cheap – but we still knew that this wasn’t going to be the range on offer once we got on the road. The 6 of us tried to decide how much money we thought we may need to change. Andy and I decided to change $100 between us as we thought that would be fine – at least until we spoke to our tour leader and he gave us an idea of what we may need to spend.

The Mongolian currency, Togrog, was great. There weren’t any coins (which always helps) although the notes did represent some really small amounts. The exchange rate to the $ was about 1200 TG  and 1975 TG =£1 so it was really easy for us to work out how much stuff was as we just used 2000=£1 as a guide.  However we got 10 and 20TG notes which is the equivalent to 0.5pence!!  Andy and I bought a packet of crisps and a bar of chocolate to keep us going before we all wandered off to " Sukhbaatar Square”. Sukhbaatar was the man who declared Mongolia’s final independence from the Chinese in 1921, but basically the square resembles one you would most likely see in Russia (but having not been to Russia I can only imagine). However it did look like a much smaller version of Tiannamen Square also.  The square is the home to the State Parliament House and a couple of museums as well as the Mongolian Stock Exchange!! 

Our first impression of the Mongolians were that they were very friendly and I didn’t feel intimidated at all about being in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language and couldn’t even guess at the signs because of the Cyrillic alphabet.  One man just came up to me to shake my hand – not sure why??  It appeared that many Mongolians have round faces – but you let your eyes wander to look at the rest of the body and the females are slim with lovely figures, but often still have roundish faces. The attire worn by all the Mongolians we saw in UB was modern. Jeans and blouses, high heeled shoes, jackets and pants...nothing that could pass as traditional clothing.  Most of the cars and vans we saw were Russian but there was definitely a hint that Japanese vehicles were getting popular.

After taking the obligatory photos of the square, the 6 of us decided to wander towards Nairamdal Park (Friendship Park) as the Lonely Planet suggested that it was quite a "photogenic place on Sundays when hundreds of children descend upon it”....and I like to take photos of people when we are travelling.  However, we must have got the wrong Sunday because we only saw about 30 children.  However we all had fun as on the way to the park, we decided to stop off for lunch. We skipped the pizza place and stopped at a restaurant that seemed a little more authentic and also had quite a few people sitting outside (always a good sign to eat where the locals eat).  Skimming through the menu at first was a bit of a struggle until we realised that on the opposite page was the explanations in English. The photos of the dishes was a great idea and in the end I went for a most expensive meal that came to 4000TG (erm....that will be £2 please). My lemon ice drink (which ended up being a couple of slices of lemon in a glass of ice) was about the same price (that’s because it was a fresh lemon – hard to come by in Mongolia)...should have gone for the 500TG soda.  One thing I had noticed already was that it was very, very difficult to get hold of Diet Coke – so it was regular coke or water for me then.  It was good, but disconcerting I suppose to see our left over lunch (as we just couldn’t eat it all) being put in a plastic bag and being given to a street person that the waitresses had started to chat to.

Anyway, on to Nairamdal Park. After about a mile walk we found the entrance and walked in to what in England would be classed as wasteland. However, this was a recreational park with a ferris wheel and a couple of other rides in it. There were plastic statues of animals and a few ice-cream stalls, so a couple of us had to indulge and have our first Mongolian ice-cream..it passed the test, although I can’t describe the texture, but it wasn’t that of a Mr Whippy J  Andy and I decided that seeing as we had managed to find the park we should have fun and decided to risk Mongolian engineering and take a ride on the ferris wheel as I thought we might get some good views of the city when at the top. The others followed and soon there were 4 in our carriage and 2 in the other. The seats were supposed to spin around when you turned the wheel in the middle, but with Linda, D, Andy and myself in one dangling carriage – I think the weight was a little too much.  At the top of the wheel, we did indeed take some pictures – but the views weren’t exactly awe inspiring.  It was strange to see what was obviously a new housing complex, which looked like a Spanish holiday resort. All in all though, it was fun and we had a laugh. It was also good to have spent some time with 4 of the group so that we got to know a few at a time rather than being thrust in to a group of 15 and having to try and remember all the names.

6pm was the arranged time to meet the rest of the group so we made our way back to the hotel and had a shower and wandered downstairs where there were 11 fresh faces waiting to meet their fellow travelling companions, with whom they would share (in very close quarters) the next 20 days.  2 of the group (Ed and Katherine) were arriving later that night, so Paul, the tour leader chatted to us for about an hour, told us what he would expect from us in terms of help and what to expect in terms of length of journey, transport, food etc. After checking travel insurance and taking kitty money for the food from us, it was time to go out for dinner with the group.

At dinner we got to know a few more of the group, Sandra, Claire and Antoinette were fairly close by so they were the 3 names I learned next. The place we ate at was just like a bar cum restaurant – very nice, I think a German couple owned it, as that was the influence.

It wasn’t late when we got back to the hotel but many of us had been up a long time and were really tired. We fell in to bed and even though there was building noise, we slept well.

Day: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13 - 14 - 15 - 16 - 17 - 18 - 19 - 20 - 21 - epi