Ulaan Baatar

Gobi Desert

Hi Mom!

Remember when I called you from the post office in Ulaan Baatar? The conversation was short, and I probably sounded distracted. Here’s why:

day 227

Mongolians are a pretty friendly lot, kind of subdued for the most part, and not particularly prone to forming hordes, as far as I could tell. But just like any society, there’s a lower crust, and Claudia and I met a number of its representatives late one evening at the Ulaan Baatar post office, where we were making a few last minute phone calls before heading off to the Gobi.

Remember during our phone conversation when I said, “Actually, hang on a sec…” and put the receiver down?

Claudia had felt something, looked down, and saw an arm up to its elbow in her bag, searching for goodies. She yelled “HEY!” and I looked up just in time to see the guy attached to the arm spin around and duck into the adjoining phone booth. I dropped the receiver, looked over into the next booth, and saw him banging numbers on the keypad, with the receiver still on the hook.

“Check your bag.” I said to Claudia, following the guy out into the lobby.

She was on already on it. “Everything is here as far as I can tell.”

He had nothing in his hands. I came back into the booth and picked up the phone. “Yeah Mom, we’re having a wonderful time here!”

Another two of the guy’s friends walked up to us, fully baseball capped and bandana’d. At that same moment you said, “And what about the Ukraine? Did you reconnect with your ancestors there?”

“Yeah uh…”

They stopped at arm’s length, looking first at Claudia’s bag, then up at me.

“Kiev was… nice.” I cracked my knuckles against my waist and stared back. “Really friendly people there ah, much more open than Russia.”

They stood there for a few minutes while I told you about Kiev and asked how the dogs were doing. They spoke to eachother in Mongolian, I think trying to decide if they could take me on. Then they walked away, and a moment later the phone card ran out.

So, sorry if I sounded distant! Next time I’ll call from a less distracting place, and I’ll not call so early. You sounded sleepy.

day 228

Claudia and I visited Naran Tuul (the “black market”), the wildest, loudest, most lawless flea market I’ve ever seen. Here’s what the Lonely Planet has to say about Naran Tuul:

The market is notorious for pickpockets and bag slashers so don’t bring anything you don’t want to lose.

Oh, good! All we brought were bags, a high-end Nikon camera, money, credit cards, and passports. Disembodied hands kept snaking out of the crowd and reaching for Claudia’s camera. She held onto it tightly.

Don’t carry anything on your back, and strap your money belt to your body. If you feel a group of men blocking your way from the front, chances are their friends are probing your pockets from behind.

Well, that certainly explains the big guy who kept annoyingly stepping in front of me, and how immediately after I got past him, the 4000 togrog I had in my pocket were gone.

Some travellers have had rocks thrown at them for taking photos at the market.

I occasionally found myself playing the “Oh, how much is that?” game while Claudia Candidly Clicked from a Corner.

Sometimes people yelled at Claudia for taking pictures, but sometimes people smiled.

Also, we went on a Sunday.

Try to avoid Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when the crowds can be horrendous.


Quick Overview of Traditional Mongolian Cuisine

Combine the above in many exciting ways! Wrap dough around mutton and you have buuz, a sort of Mongolian dumpling. Cut dough into thin strips, drop into water left over from boiling the rice, add mutton, and you have shool, Mongolian soup.

Put little bricks of refuse plant parts into the same dirty rice/mutton water, add a dollop of yak’s milk, and you have tsai, Mongolian tea: not too bad once you get used to the floating globules of fat.

FUN FACT: Mongolian barbeque doesn’t exist anywhere in Mongolia, except for one tourist restaurant in Ulaan Baatar that caters to folks who step off the plane and proclaim, “Hey hey, show me the Mongolian barbeque!”

Erik, October 2005