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Neither not particularly

Day 1: Ulaan Baatar / Capital of Mongolia

Our first impression of Mongolia was the inability of anyone at immigration to crack a smile. I tried smiling at the lady suspiciously eyeing my passport, to no avail. She probably thought I had some kind of facial tic, because I kept smiling and she kept frowning so I kept smiling and she kept frowning until it got really awkward and she finally stamped my passport.

Nor did the ladies standing at customs give any indication that we were human, neither pointing us at the red line nor the green line. I think we could have gone through either and they wouldn’t have acknowledged our presence, but Rick said ‘if in doubt, green’s always better than red’ so we chose green.

We reached the hotel and all the lights were out. In fact we didn’t even realize we were at the hotel until a series of back passages took us to the lobby. Still no smiles from the hotel staff, so we were getting a bit worried about Mongolia. Admittedly we didn’t get there until 1am, after a brief scare with missing baggage (Rick’s, not mine, as I had everything in carry-on).

We’d signed up with a travel company to do this portion of our trip, which in hindsight may not have been the best idea. Still, the next morning we met our first guide, Eric, downstairs for a tour of Ulaan Baatar. Fortunately he was very smily.

Ulaan Baatar is what I would describe as a ‘neither not particularly’ city. It is not particularly remarkable nor miserable, neither new nor decrepit, not particularly dirty nor particularly clean. The people are neither effusive nor rude, the city is neither modern nor ancient, it is not particularly interesting nor completely lifeless, it is neither smog free nor polluted.

Eric took us to a few local highlights. First, a monastery. There we saw many people praying and carrying tubs of melted butter. Apparently the gods like butter, which I can completely understand. The gods also like you to walk backwards when leaving places of worship, usually under low beams and over concrete steps. I take from this they also like concussions and broken ankles as I nearly suffered both. Perhaps the gods have a sense of humor.

There are many grades of monk school, from young kids to PhD level. We saw loads of small children in red and yellow robes with bowls of fermented mares milk in front of them. They looked very earnest about their prayer, probably to the tune of ‘please God, don’t make me have to drink any more fermented mares milk’.

The written language is very interesting. Up until the 1920s the form of language used was called ‘Altai’ and is character based. This was used in both Mongolian and pre-Turkish script, as well as some early Korean and Japanese. After forming an alliance of sorts with Russia, the Soviets instilled communism and forced everyone to become literate using Cyrillic script with four letters added for good measure. Communism was dissolved in 1990 after 70 years and the Russians all left. There is no love lost between Mongolians and Russians, purging monks tends to do that, although the literacy rate did rise from 2% to 96%, which is probably what happens if the alternative is being shot.

Besides Russia, Mongolians also appear to be less than enamored with China, who they have had a long history with. In fact, the only country the Mongolians appear to not hate is Kazakhstan.

We used taxis to drive around the city. It is very confusing, because they aren’t marked, so you never really know whether you’re getting into a car driven by a cab driver, a soccer mom, or an ax murderer. The cars are imports from Japan and Korea, so can have steering wheels on either the left and right side of the car.

We went to the national history museum, which was museum-y and then to a type of dancing entertainment where the men had both extraordinarily high and extraordinarily low voices and made sounds I would not have thought possible from a human body. For instance, one man sounded like a horse and another like he was as playing the didgeridoo. The highlight of the act were two beautiful female contortionists who smiled bizarrely throughout and culminated in them putting two-foot stakes in the ground, covered by what I think were socks, then putting their mouths around the socks and lifting themselves up so that they were upside down on the stakes, arms and legs in the air, held up only by their mouths. Yeah, you had to be there.

Lunch was interesting. I am either going to get very fat or very skinny here. We had read ‘the food in Mongolia is not as bad as you might think…partly because your expectations will be low’. I wish I had not read that because my expectations were just slightly higher than rock bottom. This was a mistake. Basically, everything is mutton. Mutton with copious mountains of fat. We were served a huge bucket of it. I had one bite and couldn’t go any further. It reminded me of the goat meat episode on my wedding day, except that here I have given up trying to be polite. The problem is, I’m not a huge fan of most vegetables either, which leaves potatoes. I don’t know if it’s possible to overdose on starch, we shall see. At the least I’ll get scurvy, protein deficiency, or both.

At this point I think our guide was running out of things to show us, so he took us to a supermarket and a department store. These were extremely similar to the supermarkets and department stores we see at home except that everything was made from cashmere, including the electronics.

Looking forward to getting out of the city tomorrow.

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