21 Days In Mongolia

Day 2:

Got up, realised our Day 1 clothes were already filthy and disgusting so put on something different (we knew we wouldn’t have this luxury later on).  Breakfast was good – eggs, yoghurt, bread, cheese, orange juice etc – your typical continental breakfast really. 

At 10.15am we decided to meet with D, Diana, Linda and Chris again to go visit the Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan so we set off and ended up walking down a fuel infested motorway type road in order to get there.  What was quite funny however was that the taxis are really cheap in Mongolia, at about 200 TG per km and don’t even have a starting charge – but we still chose to walk amongst the fumes!

When we finally arrived, a few km later, we paid the nominal entrance fee and entered in to a palace that was built between 1893 and 1903 and where Mongolia’s last king lived for 20 years. Unlike many monasteries, temples etc throughout Mongolia, the palace was spared destruction by the Russians and turned in to a museum.  Unfortunately Andy and I have become rather blaze about palaces, temples and monasteries etc I think we overdid it all when we visited China in 2000 and Thailand in 97/98.  However, it was enlightening to see the enjoyment on the faces of the others who hadn’t been to China, as the wooden rooms and the faded colours represented the typical Chinese layout where courtyard followed courtyard.

In the grounds of the palace, which all in all was probably only about 1000sq metres was a traditional ger, which was the palace’s gift shop. At first we were a little wary about going in as this was our first ger – even though it was a shop! We had read so much about ger etiquette etc – even though that applied to gers that are homes, but it made me worry in case I did something wrong and people inside were almost whispering.  Andy and I bought a material ger to hang on our Christmas tree so that we could keep up the tradition of buying Christmas tree decorations from each of our travelling destinations.

In the building next to the "ger shop” there was a ger which was lined with 150 snow leopard skins. We asked the curator to open the ger for us so we could see inside - it was very ornate inside (well as ornate as a ger can get). Apparently the last king (The Bogd Kahn) had a fondness of animals and there was a great varied collection of stuffed animals inside the building from an armadillo to lion.

When eventually we ventured out of the palace, Linda, Dee, Andy and I decided we wanted to go to the "Black Market” or central market as it is also known.  Having been warned of the dangers of pickpockets in the market – we donned our day bags on the front of us, hailed a taxi and went off. Diana and Chris decided to go visit the museums and monastery.

The black market could only be described as "massive”. If you think of the biggest market you have ever been to in the Western world and then multiply it at least 50 times you may get an idea of the size of the place. You could buy anything there –but we were looking for gloves in the first place (we later found this was the only item you couldn’t buy at the black market – wrong season apparently J ). All items were grouped together.   Therefore if you wanted a new bag (whether it be a holdall, handbag or suitcase) you just wander over to the bag section and take your pick from the scores of bag stalls.  We all halted by the coat section as Andy thought my packed rain coat wouldn’t be warm enough for me later on in the trip (he turned out to be right).  I was rather taken aback by the fact that we could get a North Face jacket (with zippable inside fleece etc) for 30000tg (£15). The jackets looked and felt like the real thing –they were made with North Face linings where the branding was ingrained on the material. I was happy with my purchase and so we then wandered in to the food hall where our wrinkled noses found us by the meat section and then later in the "white foods” section.

By this time we were getting hungry and so we thought we would stop for some food and we wanted local food. We popped our heads in to two or three cafes that lined one of the buildings that housed the food section. We finally found a place that had a spare table (it wasn’t as if we could easily ask someone if they were going to be long and therefore whether it was worth waiting for a free table – because no-one spoke English and we certainly didn’t speak Mongolian). The girl in the café approached and I pointed at one of the meals they had showing behind a glass case. She nodded and 4-5 minutes later bought over one plate and four forks for us to share. It was really tasty. So we then thought we would be a little more adventurous and try some dumpling thing that the guy on the next table was eating. We asked for one each but then we were told (via sign language that they didn’t have any more). We opted for going for another "meal” from behind the glass case (these were just for show, they actually cooked it once we asked for the meal). This meal was just as tasty so after this we paid up (it came to all of about £2.50) and then we ended up telling the waitress to keep the change. She was really happy (but it only came to about 10p).

Now that we were fed and watered it was time to take on the challenge of leaving. Any normal person (ourselves included) would think that getting back to the state department store in the centre of Ulan Bataar would be easy.  However, having wandered through some more of the market we walked towards the exit and were met by a large number of taxis – but they all seemed taken or not interested in our business. However, nearby was a local man, with a nice car who said he would take us. We approached his car and he turfed his wife out telling her (in Mongolian – but it was one of those things you just knew how to translate) that he would be back soon after dropping us in the city centre. So Andy, D, Linda and myself piled in to the car. I made sure that he understood we were only paying 250tg per km like the normal taxi and he was happy with that. Not far from the market we hit a traffic jam. Our driver tried to get around this, but it was gridlock, he took a short cut that ended in a dead end and eventually we felt so sorry for him (and his wife who was waiting for him back at the market) that we told him we would get out there. He seemed extremely grateful, so we paid our dues (which seemed so little for all the trouble he had been through (and would be in when he got back to his wife) and set off across the road. It appeared that only 2 minutes after leaving the car, the gridlock disappeared and traffic resumed to normal. We were left some way out of town and still needed to get to the State Department Store (we needed to change money before the trip in to the wilderness started the next day).

We managed to hail another taxi rather easily and Dee showed him where we needed to go by pointing to it on the map (where it was written in Mongolian). As we climbed in to the taxi, Andy (being 6ft 5) got his legs entwined with the radio holder and managed to knock it and break some of the plastic. Andy apologised and we went on our journey – that ended up being all of about 1.5 km! The taxi driver pulled up in Sukhbaatar square. We tried to point out that we wanted to go to the store, but Dee then admitted that the store wasn’t in Mongolian in the book and therefore she pointed to the square, hoping that we would be able to just ask him to carry on further down the road once we got there. However, the driver had already parked and then asked us for the money. It was at this point that the driver pointed to his radio holder and held up 4 fingers asking for 40000 Tg. There was no way we were going to pay that. After much discussion between ourselves and sign language between the driver and us, we worked out that we would pay 300tg for the journey (pence when you remember that 2000tg = £1) and then he asked for 1500tg for the broken holder. I was more than willing to pay that and felt it was very fair. We gladly handed over the money and got out in to the fresh air.

We decided that it would be a good bet to walk to the store from the square, it wasn’t far. So we made it there. When we were ready to leave, our legs were aching and we were in a little bit of a hurry by now as we had to get back to get ready to go out for the cultural show and dinner with the group again. Therefore, we decided to get a taxi from the dept store back to our hotel (we did have a Mongolian translation of our hotel to point to). We pointed to the name of the hotel in the book to the man standing next to the empty taxi. He kindly pointed down the road with a smile on his face (we knew it was only about 1-1.5km down the road in a straight line). We nodded and made to get in to his taxi and he then realised what was happening and he shook his head and laughed – he was a man just standing by a taxi and it had nothing to do with him. We all laughed and finally found a real driver to finish off our trip.

At 6.15pm we met with the group to go to the Mongolian Cultural Show which was great fun. We sat down and listened to the various musical instruments that are played in Mongolia as well as watching two contortionists who managed to pull themselves in to the most awkward of positions and the masked dances (tsam). However, the highlight of the show for Andy and I were the two men who gave us our first encounter  with "throat singing” where the voice reverberates from the gut and comes out as a warbling low pitched tune. It basically has the effect of producing two notes simultaneously, one a low growl and the other a higher whistling noise. We were fascinated and Andy was hooked from the start. We weren't officially allowed to take photos as we hadn't paid the fee, so all the pictures we did take were sneaky ones therefore some of them came out rather blurry.

Following the cultural show we walked to a Mongolian restaurant where you choose raw ingredients and have them cook it on a very large hot plate in front of you. The food was good, but I was more impressed with the £4 bottle of champagne. People thought I was mad, until they tried it themselves and then ordered it.

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