|Liam enjoying himself on St. Patrick's day.|
The capital of Mongolia can only be described as a completely unique place. It's a fairly small scale city, surrounded on all sides by mountains which are easily viewed from the end of most of the city's streets. The Soviets were the ones to really make this capital a proper city (Ulan Bator means 'Red Hero'), bringing modern infrastructure to what was previously mostly a sprawling colllection of Mongolian traditional gers. Crossing the roads is crazy; unlike other Asian cities where you have to avoid the weaving motorbikes, here everyone just seems to weave along at high speeds in big cars, not paying any attention to pedestrian crossings. There are some really big cars here, in the space of ten minutes one day we saw 5 Hummers hurtling down the street. The relatively free and democratic political system has attracted many international folk here, bringing Western style bars and restaurants with them. The city's pollution problems, coupled with lack of medical facilities, means that people working for the British Embassy are not allowed to bring their children to live here.
Ulaanbaatar is a city of contrasts; from high rise Soviet blocks to nearby ger settlements right in the heart of the city, and from young city slickers with designer shades to herders waiting at the bus stop in traditional Mongolian clothes. We spent a rather too long 10 days in total here, forced to stay a while to get our Chinese visa sorted out. The food that we had in Ulaanbaatar was OK, and was a pleasure to the purse after Russia! Our local favourite was a cheap eatery called Cafe 999, selling Mongolian food such a Tsuivan, a pretty simple noodle, meat and veg dish. We also enjoyed some pretty decent pizza (well, better than Russian pizza at least). We visited a vegan cafe a couple of times, feeling all meated out after our Ger to Ger experience, and had some good salads and vegi khuushur (pasties).
Beer wise, there have been a few disappointments. We hit an Irish bar for St Paddy's, where Liam was forced to leave a pint of distinctly dodgy (and liekly watered down) Guinness. We tried the home brewed fare at Khanbrau Brauhaus (a German-run brewery), which tasted of pretty much... nothing. A popular lager, Chinggis Khan, turned out to be a very standard lager, as did the Korean beer 'Hite' which promised to have been designed with the wellbeing of the youth generation in mind. Outrageous! Undoubtedly the best that we had was Gem Draft, sold on draft from the supermarket in large plastic bottles, with a lager or a dark beer available, which was really very tasty! So in true budget traveller mode, we enjoyed a couple of evening sessions on this stuff back at our guesthouse on a few of the nights we spent here.
In terms of the sites of the city, here's what we visited:
The main square, Suhbaatariin Talbai, is in the centre of the city and has the main Government building at it's head. At it's centre is a statue of Damdinii Suhbaatar, a Mongolian revolutionary leader. On sunny weekend afternoons the square is filled with hip young things rollerblading and snakeboarding, and lovebirds sailing round on tandems.
The city market was a fairly hectic experience, from watching the hoards of people climbing over barbed wire clad shipping crates to avoid having to pay a 50 Tughrik entrance fee (around 3p), to witnessing the frantic gambling over card and chess games. The market sells pretty much everything you can possibly think of, including horse ropes & saddles, kitchen units, clothes, daggers and livestock. We spent a couple of hours just wandering and having a browse before escaping to the relative calm of the streets.
The Gandantegchenling Monastery felt like our first true taste of the Asia to come, with a really impressive Janraisig statue measuring 26.5 metres tall and only us whities being charged for entry ;) It was quite an odd place really, where parents bring their children to feed the pigeons and random drunks seem to hang out and cause trouble amongst the peaceful worshippers.
We also visited the International Intellectual Museum, founded by Tumen-Ulzii Zandraa who from the age of 11 has been designing and building complex 3D Mongolian wood puzzles. It housed a pretty cool collection of the puzzles he has designed, including some which have won prestigious awards from the 'Internation Puzzle Party' (we kid you not). There were lots of other toys and chess sets on display, including the biggest chess set in the world which pretty much filled a room and which had gers instead of castles. Another notable highlight was a photograph of a perplexed Bush being handed a puzzle by Mongolia's ex president - classic. Tumen-Ulzii Zandraa himself popped out at the end of our visit to perform a few magic tricks, bit of a legend! Definitely the highlight of our sightseeing here.
We've also benefited from the slower pace of the last few days by having time to update the blog, get in touch with people we've been meaning to for ages, and planning the next couple of months of travel. We had only really planned our trip (roughly) until this point, and it was surprising how long it took us to decide what we wanted to do! Next stop, Beijing!