Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Summer 2013 - 3rd Stop: Ulaanbaatar - The Beginning

New country!!! And even though we've only completed three days of our three week stay here, we could potentially have a new contender in the best country stakes! That prediction may be a little premature as we've actually experienced very little in our short time here, but from the little snippets we've seen, we may have something very special on our hands. Tomorrow, we leave for the main part of our Mongol adventure - a 17 day tour into the wild, journeying along the Mongolian steppes, trekking across the Gobi Desert, and all the while staying in traditional 'gers' with the local nomads (is that an oxymoron?).

Ulaanbaatar itself has been great (surprising really, considering our distaste for capital cities), but the main source of our enthusiasm so far came as soon as we crossed the border. Our first day in the country was spent almost entirely on the road for our 12 hour long bus ride down from Russia. And although it sounds like a chore, it was anything but. On the Mongolian side at least. It was ridiculous how the landscape instantly flipped into endless, green rolling hills, stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction. I'll cut short the descriptors for now as I'm sure I'll need every one I can get over the next 17 days. I don't want to waste them all on our bus ride in!

But how about that for your run-of-the-mill, roadside piss stop!?

So, as for Ulaanbaatar - to sum it up in one word, I'd say... surprising. For a country with a population of less than 3 million, a lot of whom still live the nomadic lifestyle, I wasn't expecting UB to be anything special at all. But to give it credit, it can stand tall over the majority of capital cities we've visited during our time in Asia, both in terms of tradition and modernity.

I'll keep this entry quite brief because, as I mentioned, we've only had three days here - one on the road, and the other two were half spent preparing for our big, big excursion. We did get up to a few things though in our free time. The above picture is from Sukhbaatar Square, the centre point of the city and as you can see, we caught it at a great time. The Naadam festival - the major celebration in the Mongol calendar - is starting in a few days time, so all of the city's youngsters were out in force, donning their traditional costumes and practicing their dance routines.

We'll be out in the back of beyonds during the Naadam celebrations, which will be extra special as we'll be able to experience a much smaller and more intimate festival where the locals will be competing in the three traditional Mongol sports - archery, horse racing and wrestling. That's something I really can't wait to see!

And if Sukhbaatar Square couldn't get any more awesome, at the far end (I forgot to mention there's a big statue of Genghis Khan on a throne at the top end) there's a big dinosaur exhibit! Apparently, Mongolia has a huge history of dinosaur findings and at the moment they have the skeleton of a Tarbosaurus Baatar (a relation of the Tyrannosaurus Rex) on show, just until they finish building their own dinosaur museum. It of course brought back memories of the last dinosaur museum we went to in Savannakhet, Laos which was laughably shit. At least now we finally got to see a real dinosaur!

                 Savannakhet "dinosaur museum"                       UB actual dinosaur museum

In other Mongol news, I know I joked about it in the last entry, but we actually have been trying the local food quite a bit while in town. It's hard to go wrong though seemingly with Mongolian food, their national dish seems to be... lots of meat! Admittedly, one of the evenings we did pay a visit to an Irish pub but we've been very restrained while in town. We've seen at least five of them already in the city and that's without even looking.

I think it's a great name too, a nice blend of Irish and Mongol ways of life - "That Genghis now, he was a grand Khan. Ah ya, some man for one Khan!".

We also paid a visit to Gandan Khiid Monastery, twice actually, since it was pretty cloudy the first time around, and it's right in the city centre anyway. And we never realised that you had to buy a ticket to get in! Twice!

There were some amount of pigeons too in the area, and you could buy seed to feed them. It was nice and relaxing in a way, listening to all of the cooing, until every so often they'd erupt in a hurricane of dust and feathers. Not fun if you're caught in the middle of it...

And here's where we made our latest video diary, so have a look:


That's about it for Ulaanbaatar, for now at least. We'll be back here for another two days at the end of our tour, and we've still left ourselves plenty to see in and around the city.

Now, I've been very on the ball so far this summer, keeping up to date with the blog at regular intervals, but I'm afraid this is where I drift off, as electricity will be hard to come by on the road and I'm not sure the Gobi is fitted with wifi... I'll have a lot of catching up to do, so please be patient and we'll be back soon! :)

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