1. Crossing the Chinese-Mongolia border is A Process and we do it at night. The customs and immigration part is easy enough, but the train tracks change significantly, and each individual car must be lifted off the racks for a bogie change. We are given the option of staying in the train carriage for the process, being lifted by crane and everything, or going into the immigration facility. We choose the latter, as folks on the trains are FORBIDDEN (in all caps, too) from using the toilets during the transition. It’s better to browse the strange duty-free shop and have access to skid-marked squat potties.

2. I open the window shades of the train in the morning and lose my breath simply due to what the window frames. Stark plains and hills covered in a rusty-colored hay stretching in every direction. The ground reaches up and meets the sky directly, like a poorly drawn landscape illustration.  Bright white gers and herds of animals punctuate the color blocked scenery occasionally.

3. We’re met at the train station by a driver named Bogie whose iPod shuffle broadcasts quite the selection. Shortly after a Beatles song ends, a fast-paced number featuring the famous Mongolian throat singing begins. The song is modern despite being saturated with traditional music while avoiding any of the drippiness of most world music numbers. It’s earnest, and it sets the tone for our few days in the country. Altan Urag is the name of the group, and you can listen to them here.

A theater in downtown Ulan Bator. 

4. An outdated guidebook warns that Ulan Bator is dangerous, as do the signs on our hostel door that warn guests that nights are “not so safe.” I ask the manager what this means, and he tells us to come in early, drink beer in the common room. “Don’t worry about outside! Come in! It’s safe here!” We leave to see the city in daylight hours and run into a friend from Texas. Her co-worker tells us some horror stories about foreign men who marry Mongolian women receiving some ass-kickings. While in the depths of winter, no one who appears to have money is safe. You could very well get punched in the head and left to die in -40 C (or F, it’s the same) weather.

5. Here is what makes up traditional Mongolian food: mutton, beef, horse, cow milk, sheep milk, horse milk. In the city, exotic ingredients like potatoes, rice, and carrots play a supporting roles. But not very often. The land’s harsh climate supports animals better than plants, and eating their flesh, fat, and innards means survival to many of the nomadic people.

6. 50% of Mongolians live nomadically. The other 50% live in Ulan Bator.

7. Beautiful women live in Ulan Bator. They wear quality cashmere garments topped with dark, skirted coats. Tall boots cover everything from the knee down. Though Mongolia is one place where hiking boots and quick dry pants might seem practical, they are out of place in UB. The urbanites have wonderful style that still recalls a bit of their nomadic past in the subtle details.

This is what your average Mongolian storefront looks like. 

8. Andy observed that Mongolian language sounds like Russian that hits static. It sounds something like this: drestroskistayaKKKKCCCKKKKKK.

9. The Gorki-Terelj National Park is just a little out-of-the-way from Ulan Bator, and it’s where horses, cows, yaks, and sheep run around like wild in front of gers occupied by families, but mostly tourists. Gers are these round buildings with a spine of timber and flesh of felt, all covered with some white wind and water-resistant material that’s tied on by ropes. A stove sits in the center of the ger and releases smoke from the fires you need at night into the atmosphere via a very skinny black pipe.

10. I named the horse I rode in the park Loid, short for Mongoloid. Monoglian horses are small, but sturdy creatures who convert grass to meat and muscle with efficiency. As I mounted the homemade saddle with a small u-shaped metal rod as a saddle horn, Loid was indifferent. He didn’t speak English, this Loid, preferring to move only when Stable Boy made whistling noises. Then, he suddenly started galloping into the distance and disobeying my reined command. Stable Boy rode out and tried to help me, but the Loid was spinning in circles and I couldn’t focus on the body language instructions the boy gave me. Eventually I jerked back the reins so hard, Loid reared up. When he came down, he ate some grass and joined the others.

11. Andy’s horse farted a lot.

12. Gers are quite cold.

A ger in Ulan Bator’s main square advertising insulation. A matching house was right behind it. 

13. Mongolian food is an exercise in finding nutrition by whatever means possible, as the hot, hot summers and cold, cold winters set right out in the middle of the desert make growing food quite hard. Nearly everything comes back to the sheep and the cow, who have been bred to have wooly coats that help them withstand extreme winter climes. Though carrots and potatoes have made it into urban Mongolian food, the dietary staples fatty mutton, dairy, and rice. With all the dust in the desert and pollution in the city, Mongolia screamed, “Heart Disease!” It would be inevitable, I think, if you spent too much time in UB.

14. UB is stark. Soviet architecture and big glass buildings crowd the center area, while impoverished ger districts crowd into the city as the rural population is pushed and pulled out of the agricultural and nomadic way of life. While the young people and the rich people dress well and with money, the poor wear whatever they can and the old still sometimes choose the padded robes and boots. The contrast is set blindingly high.

15. We hitchhiked to the bus station and boarded the train to find two Italian tourists in our car. When it’s time for bed, the woman offers me earplugs as her husband settled in. I had my own, but they did nothing to stop the nonstop, loud snores that roared out of his body all night. The worst was when the train stopped and the snores were the only noise as loud and as stark as Mongolia itself.

16. Don’t eat the horsemeat.

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5 Responses to Mongolian Shorts

  1. phil martin says:

    1. please say more about the black train engine with the red star you posted on the vagabond travelog on 23 Oct 2012. It looks like a coal-burning locomotive. Is it? Are Coal locomotives common on the trans-siberian railroad?
    2. Folks swam in Lake Superior ‘cus our weather was warm this summer.
    In summer, do (normal) folks swim in Lake Bikal?
    3. I understood that your cousin, Hannah Miller, rode a yak and slept in a yurt while spending a fun-filled weekend in Mongolia. Did you sleep overnight in a ger or yurt? Have you two compared Mongolian notes?
    4. Are Ulaanbaaar city gers (yurts) still portable to the extent they can be put up or taken down in 2 hours? Or has a new-fangled ger-shaped permanent structure developed for city life? And where do ger folks go pottie?
    5. Wikipedia says describes UB as a “winterwonderland” in which the population has doubled since 1990 to over 1 million, is the coldest national capital in the world, and suburban new growth is gur/yurts that do not protrude into the soil ‘cus it’s permafrost. I wouldn’t care to live there as a former proletariat now living in a small-government market economy in a suburban yurt.

    • Susan says:

      1. The train engine was displayed, immobile, in front of the old abandoned Perm train station. I don’t think coal-burning locamotives run on the Trans-Sib, but the stoves and the heat in the individual cars were at least partially fueled by burning wood. The trains seemed pretty full-on dirty diesel.
      2. People love to swim in Lake Baikal in all weather and they are not sound decision-makers.
      3. I think ger is the local term for yurt, like Yangon is the local name of Rangoon, etc.
      4. The ger districts in UB are full of outhouses. I can’t imagine the ger being MOVED in two hours due to the sheer weight of the felt, though they are certainly portable in theory. They can probably be disassembled without damaging the structural integrity in 2 hours. I believe the ger is just the normal house for Mongolians, with or without a nomadic life.
      5. I wouldn’t want to be in UB during the winter. Life would be hard enough in a house with central heat. I can imagine the desperation that leads to the violence against rich or rich-looking foreigners, and luckily I have the choice and means to avoid it.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Whoa, seriously awesome. Such a interesting and different culture…You are an adventurous girl!

    Can’t even imagine what it would be like in December. Though some nice cold air burning my cheeks sounds awfully nice as I sit sweating in my classroom…

  3. Katie says:

    I want to experience most places in the world, but this just sounds so….bleak.

  4. Shawn Meadows says:

    The green train that pulled in was more like a bumbling caterpillar than the sleek bullets blazing the routes between China’s major coastal cities. The golden horse logo emblazoned on the outside showed me I was in the right place. This was the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

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