21 Days In Mongolia

Day 20:

The night was pretty warm although the morning was cold and when we got up we had to make sure that this time, the tents were swept, clean and rolled particularly well as it would be some time before they came out again.  Eggs for breakfast and then the ultra cleaning of the pots, containers and utensils….not a nice job for those that ended up doing it.  We finally left camp at 9.30am as we only had a 2 hour drive back to UB.  Cloudy with a spot of rain – this was unfortunate as it had been so bright for the majority of the trip and had lived up to its reputation as "The Land of Blue Skies”.

We hit the tarmac almost instantly and it felt luxurious, although even the relatively smooth road felt like a rough side road in the UK.  The group discussed what they would like to buy from the black market or State Dept Store ( Mongolia’s only department store) when they arrived back to UB.  It was also humorous to know that many had "held out” and had not had to "dig any holes” the day before, as they were hanging on for a western toilet at the hotel.

As we drove along the "suburbs” of UB and passed the gers that made up the outskirts, the familiar smell of fumes and dirt hit us, we were again in awe of how driving can result in getting anywhere.  We noticed the women street cleaners, standing in the road sweeping the dust from the middle of the road…but to where?  Trucks and motorbikes battled for space.  Suddenly there were scores of people and we had only been used to a few.   It didn’t take us long though, before we were familiar with what is really our normality of hustle and bustle.  However, driving in UB was rather like driving in any developing country and it was more a case of battle than driving.

It was good to turn in to the side street and recognise the hotel entrance to "White House Hotel”, to experience that feeling of completion, a holiday well done.  It was overcast when we piled out of the van, but after about an hour the sun came out and the group decided what they were doing. 

Those going home the next day (10 altogether) wanted to fit in lots of things, but what seemed to be on the top of everyone’s list, was to buy North Face Jackets or wind stoppers from either the State Dept Store or the black market (roughly the same price but the market offered more choice).  Others visited the monastery and bought souvenirs.

Andy and I wandered down the street, by the boys playing pool on the open road side and the men sitting on the makeshift kerbs with bathroom scales.  We saw the "public telephone stands” which are basically men and women in the dust ridden streets, holding a typical house telephone in their hands (as obviously many homes do not have telephones). They are apparently either radio or very basic satellite phones.

We made it to the store and ended up buying Andy a North Face jacket and also 3 windstoppers for myself, Andy and Andy’s dad.  The windstoppers came to about £13 each – a bargain. 

Every day articles, food, clothes etc did appear to be very cheap in Mongolia. Even imported items appeared cheaper than they were in their original countries (e.g. Cadburys chocolate).  Obviously it was all relative, but it was great for the short time visitor.

We went back to the hotel and finally experienced the long awaited hot shower.  It was bliss.  To wash the layers of dirt off, that had built up over 3 weeks felt good.  Although there had been a couple of opportunities in freezing lakes and rivers, hot water always seems to help when washing…  The feeling after washing my hair was great and then I came out of the shower and dried myself and got changed, all with space around me rather than on bended knee in a tent.  It was worth waiting for.

At 7pm it was time to re-group for one final group meal.  Photocopies of e-mail and home addresses were exchanged and we were given back left over food kitty money.  For some reason this was about $30 each so suddenly Andy and I ended up with 60,000 togrog again!  On the way to our meal we called in to the exchange booth at the store and changed it to dollars.

The goodbye meal included everyone, all the group, drivers and Solongo.  It was Solongo’s birthday the next day so we had a surprise cake for her, we also had all clubbed together and bought her a backpack.  Solongo was overwhelmed with her "party” and gift and made a lovely speech about what an impact this summer had made on her life and how 12 weeks with Paul had meant he had become a very important man in her life.  For her, a Mongolian English student about to enter her final year at university, she had experiences to last her a lifetime, something many westerners take for granted.  We had the money and opportunity to travel and therefore experience various cultures, Solongo had had to wait until we came to her and she had experienced us on such an intense level as she was thrust in to our company in the wilderness for 3 weeks with no real means of escape.  Solongo undertook 4 trips, all of a 3 week duration and back to back and she loved every minute of it. 

Final goodbyes were exchanged. Some went on to a local disco, Andy and I went to bed.  Promises to keep in touch were made; whether they will be kept….only time will tell.

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