I didn’t know much about Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia before I arrived but let’s just say that I set the bar pretty low. I won’t be spending much time in the city proper as I leave on Saturday for a four month Dragoman Overland adventure that will take me through Mongolia, China, Kyrgyszstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and on to Istanbul, Turkey. I have been pleasantly surprised by a few things I’ve encountered in Ullaanbaatar. Here’s a list of a few first impressions:
1 – MIAT Mongolian Airlines
I flew from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar on a modern A380 operated by MIAT Mongolian Airlines. I had a seat by the emergency exit so there was plenty of leg room. This came as a pleasant surprise as I had not pre-booked that particular seat. The meal was about three ounces of chicken salad, two cherry tomatoes and a small dinner roll with butter. The flight wasn’t full but there were probably 150 on board. At most there would have been five female passengers.
2 – Immigration
As was the case in China, I didn’t even speak with the customs or immigration officials. I simply filled out the standard entry form while on the plane, presented it to the agent, looked into a camera as directed with a wave of the hand, and then left when my passport was stamped and returned to me without a single word. The other passengers lined up to go through a metal detector AFTER collecting their luggage but I was waved through that lineup as well. I assumed that I was being taken aside for closer inspection but nobody appeared and I walked straight through.
3 – Mick Hamilton
I’m not in the habit of being picked up at airports, much less by people waving cards with my name, regardless of how it’s spelled, but this service was offered by the guest house for an additional $15. A taxi may have been a few bucks cheaper but this ensured a stress-free introduction to the city.
4 – Me Ulyana
The driver didn’t speak English but she was able to say “Me Ulyana” in response to my “Hi, I’m Mike.” As we walked across the airport parking lot an elderly man approached us with some fliers. Ulyana put her meaty hand to his chest and forcefully shoved him out of her way. I didn’t understand what she growled at him but I’m sure it would make a sailor blush.
5 – That’s Progress
Ullaanbaatar is a modern, well laid out and apparently fast-growing city. The skyline (or what you can see of it) is littered with construction cranes. I counted at least 30 cranes during the 15 minute drive from airport to city centre.
6 – Industry
I don’t know what they make in Ulaanbaatar but there are as many smokestacks as construction cranes – and that’s a significant number. The factories and at least two power plants are in full, smoke-belching production by the looks of it. The air “quality” is on par with Beijing.
7 – What A Bargoon
The elderly Korean man who cleans up at the guest house knew that I had paid a 10% deposit online and indicated that I still owed 30,000 Tugriks. I understood the price to be $19 per night for a private room. According to the currency convertor app on my phone 30,000 Tugriks is the equivalent of US$19. I don’t know if there was a misunderstanding or if I received a 75% discount, but I happily paid $6.33 per night for three nights and received a private room with shared bath. I was the only guest in the place so even the “shared” bath was a bonus.
8 – Quick Cash
Ku, the maintenance man from the guest house, told that there are six ATMs at the nearby State Department Store and that the one on the far left works with most North American bank cards. It took a while to find the ATMs at the rear of the 5th floor but it took only seconds to withdraw 300,000 Tugriks or about $190.
9 – Well Stocked Shelves
The State Department Store was the only game in town during the Soviet era but there are now at least three “malls” within a few blocks of here and likely others in the outlaying areas. The shelves were well stocked with a mix of Asian, Soviet and Western brands. Like many department stores, the main floor features mostly cosmetics and perfume, but this one also has a very nice cafe and an Apple boutique. I felt right at home.
10 – Closing Time
While sipping an Americano and using the store’s free wi-fi, I chatted with a very nice British military trainer who works in Qatar and travels extensively in Asia and the Middle East. We later met for dinner at the Grand Khan Irish Pub. The food was great and the beer was cold, but so too was the service. They were sweeping under our feet at 10:00 p.m. and it was clear that we wouldn’t be getting another beer after 10:30. I returned to the same bar last night and watched as a waiter turned off all the TVs at 9:00. I finished my first beer at 9:15 and wasn’t asked if I wanted another. I was home in bed at 10:00. Buenos Aries or Rio de Janeiro, this is not.
Tonight (Thursday) I will meet the Driver/Mechanic, Group Leader/Fixer, and about 17 other travellers with whom I’ll be spending a lot of time over the next four months. We will spend Friday in Ulaanbaatar and then head out to Ogii Lake on Saturday. I’ll continue to make notes but I have no idea when I’ll have time to write, much less an internet connection to update the blog or Facebook. Don’t panic if I’m incommunicado for days or even weeks at a time.