Crossing from Russia into Mongolia was the first problem I’ve had with customs and immigration – not me personally, but when one person gets in trouble on public transport, everyone is stuck, so it was not a warm welcome to the nation. Nevertheless, I eventually got off the bus soon after the border at the town of Sukhbaatar. While there is little to recommend Sukhbaatar to the casual tourist (the only thing my guidebook said about it was that it was the first Mongolian station on the Trans-Mongolian train, and the site of a long wait as the train wheels were changed), it is directly located on both the main highway and railway in Mongolia (in essence the only ones, transportation out to most of Mongolia is still quite difficult), and where a group of Peace Corps volunteers were undergoing training, including my friend Jason. I only had a day there, but staying with Jason’s host family and being able to spend time with Jason and the other Peace Corps members who knew the area already allowed me to be immersed in Mongolian culture immediately, and get a good understanding of the city and country unfiltered through a professional guide or guidebooks, and in a sense to be a native tourist instead of a foreign one. Sukhbaatar is situated at the confluence of the Orkhon and Selenga Rivers, the longest and fifth-longest rivers in Mongolia (the Selenga flows up through Ulan-Ude to Lake Baikal, so for most of the prior two travel days I had followed this river). This, as well as surrounding hilly terrain, made Sukhbaatar’s landscape much more attractive than the usual steppe or desert of Central Mongolia, and we spent much of that time exploring the hills and forests around town. I also arrived during election season, which meant seeing an overwhelming panoply of candidate advertisements that dwarfed by far what one would ever see during a US election, showing that Mongolians are truly dedicated to their relatively young democratic system.
Though convenient and enjoyable, Sukhbaatar was a detour from my original path to Ulaanbaatar, so I arrived there soon after on an overnight train. Ulaanbaatar is an interesting city: like Almaty, it is the major city of a landlocked, rural state that has boomed recently due to foreign investment and commodity extraction, but unlike Almaty Ulaanbaatar had nothing to build around from before this boom. As a result, Ulaanbaatar is a mess of high-rises and modern businesses, with its few historical sites incongruously surrounded by more recent and less attractive construction. The city is poorly organized, and traffic is aggressive but slow moving, since all roads go through the center of town. And between the dust, pollen, and pollution, it is a nightmare for people with allergies (such as myself). Yet it is still a friendly and a vibrant city that can be explored relatively cheaply, and one that features a selection of restaurants and stores that is impressive for Ulaanbaatar’s isolation. Ulaanbaatar’s attractions are a mixed bag, including some beautiful temples and intriguing museums (such as the International Intellectual Museum, devoted to puzzles and brainteasers), but others are not worth the admission fee and have limited collections given the long history of the country, such as the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan. Despite the drawbacks of Ulaanbaatar, I give the Mongolians the benefit of the doubt – they are not traditionally an urban people (even today, besides Ulaanbaatar, most Mongolians live off the land – Sukhbaatar, with a population of 20,000, is the third largest city in the country). And with landscapes like those of Mongolia, who can blame them?
Mongolia is a mixture of steppe, desert, forest and mountain the size of Alaska, most very sparsely populated. While the majority of the most beautiful landscapes require a weeklong tour, or more, due to their distance from civilization, Ulaanbaatar is blessed with a not-so-small portion of that natural beauty right on its doorstep. Gorkhe-Terelj National Park is only a two-hour bus ride from downtown Ulaanbaatar, and features stunning panoramas of mountains, rivers, and forests, as well as wildlife rarely found that close to major cities. As such, it is a popular tourist destination for locals and tourists alike, including myself. I spent two nights in Terelj, staying at a ger camp run by a local family, which also provided me traditional food (while I enjoyed the food, Mongolia does have a rather limited selection of cuisine – Mongolians are living advertisements for a meat and carbohydrate-only diet). Let me digress to talk about the ger. This round tent, also known as a yurt, is such an iconic part of Mongolian life. Even the poorer suburbs of Ulaanbaatar still feature ger as a prominent form of accommodation, and it is a ubiquitous sight on the steppe. Even for those whose wealth has allowed them to live in their own house, gers are still popular for second homes or outbuildings. My camp was marketed to tourists, so the interior was not particularly authentic – the hotel beds provided were an incongruous addition, though one that was appreciated during the cold night. And this may have been the first time in my life that I was disappointed by the presence of electricity and running water (though the nice flush toilets had no paper, towels, hot water, or doors). Still, the owners lived in a ger themselves, and kept a large and noisy menagerie on the property.
Though rain limited my time trekking in the park (causing me to nearly discover the maximum number of games of solitaire a person can play before snapping), I nonetheless was able to take advantage of my camp’s good location near the most prominent park landmarks for one morning to hike for a while, bushwhacking through the Mongolian mountains on some paths possibly never traversed by humans (though that’s because I made the foolish decision to take a dangerously steep path down the mountain when there was a well-traveled, much gentler route just over the ridge – I have a few bruises from that choice). While the valley where I stayed was full of other camps, it took less than an hour to get to empty wilderness – and had my camp been located a few miles further north, past the small village and main road, I could have spent days hiking without seeing another person.
It is still hard to believe that I have only one week, and one blog, left of this trip. My last week in Beijing will certainly be a transition – save for Tokyo, it is the largest and most developed city on my itinerary, and unlike most of my destinations, one that is popular for tourists, but it will be a separate adventure.