After a week in the Siberian wilderness, Ulan Baatur was a noisy, dusty shock to the system - but a chance encounter on Sukhbaatur Square changed all that
By the time I met Bagi I was close to giving up on Mongolia: it seemed to be a land of frustration at every turn, starting from the eight-hour delay as our train crossed the border from Russia. I’d left my girlfriend behind in Irkutsk, squabbled with a family of French tourists, and was stalking the Soviet-planned centre of town, sulkily leafing through my guidebook. But the book didn’t tell me that the best thing about Mongolia is the people. Which, luckily, is where Bagi came in.
I suppose I stood out a bit - a white man with a big nose, on his own without a tour guide to hold his hand. So it wasn’t such a surprise that Bagi, recently graduated from a four-week English-language course, picked me out as a candidate for conversation practice. Bizarrely, he knew less about the city than me: brought up in Selenga province - the beautiful fertile land beneath a star-studded sky we’d glimpsed through the train window as rail and river wove round one another between Russia and China - he’d come to the big city about three months before, looking for better work than his parents’ farm could offer. So we set about showing each other the city.
To Gandan Khiid, the old Imperial Monastery, a textbook display of Buddhist architecture capped by a super-lifesize gold statue of the serene one himself. All new for me, and a surprise for Bagi too - history lessons at school hadn’t mentioned it in much detail, though Lonely Planet fills pages with it. Then a local canteen: tea with salty mare’s milk and pool tables - dusty but true - on the pavement. Despite patient explanation, I never really distinguished between different types of stew, but they were all good, hearty affairs.
In the evening, Bagi suggested a folklore performance at the opera house, back on Sukhbaatur Square. It was sold out, so we tackled Mongolia’s only nightclub. We never really grasped the difference between several different types of ‘Chingiz Khaan’ beer, but enjoyed the experiment. On a stage next to an ill-spelled mural claiming ‘Elves Rocks’ (but inspired more by Tennessee than by Tolkien), local band Moon River mixed self-penned ditties with Britpop covers. A smart-set clubber used to Berlin or Paris would shudder, but the local crowd packed the dance floor. A grinning Bagi returned with a fistful of phone numbers and left with shining eyes.
It wasn’t clear whether he had a job, but the next day he had to work. ‘Go Zoonmid,’ he advised. Something about a national park, roughly an hour on the minibus. At the bus station it was easy to find the service, harder to work out a price. I wrote down a number; the driver looked, smiled, took my pen - and crossed off the final 0! Mongolia immediately won my vote for most honest country in the world.
The same kindness to visitors was waiting in Zoonmid itself. I knew the 7km walk to the park was possible on my own, but I didn’t know which way to head. In the post office, polite incomprehension stirred the clerk to take me over the road to the town hall. Her friend knew some English and would help. A few minutes of miming and diagrams, and friend calls over a passer-by, gives him instructions and sends us off. It turns out we’re going to find a taxi, where the driver, embarrassed by his tip, insists on sharing Ayrag, the fermented mare’s milk that symbolises friendship.
The national park, complete with its own small monastery museum, was a great place for walking, scrambling over rocks and pretending to be a shaman, tying prayer flags to the trees. Just keep in mind that refreshments are hard to find - bring your own from the store at the bus station in Ulan Baatur. And don’t assume that taking photos inside the small museum won’t be noticed by the staff - there’s a permit involved, and a surcharge unless you delete your precious snaps! Something uncharacteristically unfriendly.
Back in UB, diverted by the local version of a pay-phone (enterprising types bring their household telephone into the street and charge people who need to make calls), we took in the Bogd Khaan summer palace - green by design, and cooler than the city centre. Amid ghoulish statues of the heroes and villains of Buddhist lore we found a photograph that summed up the difference between Europe and this part of the east. It showed the Dalai Lama greeting the Pope. While the catholic leader frowned with gravitas, his Tibetan colleague smiled toothily, as if he was sharing a joke with his grandchildren. In Mongolia, it’s the smiles that are easier to remember.
Where to stay
Hotel Mongolia offers a reconstruction of traditional Mongolian architecture. At the budget end of the scale, Zaya’s Hostel has cheap accommodation and tours. The Ulaanbaatur Hotel, bang in the centre of town, boasts five optimistic stars but a great location.
State carrier MIAT is due to start direct flights from London to Ulan Baatur in July. Korean Air runs the cheapest London-Mongolia service at present, via Seoul.
UK citizens need a visa to visit Mongolia though, unlike neighbouring China and Russia, it’s a fairly painless process to visit the embassy and get one.