Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Mongolian Voyage: Part 1

I've always been asked about my bucket list. Well, that list changes every year. I usually set a list of destinations that I would like to go to for the year. So I don't really have one that sticks for a lifetime. Mine changes. However, there are some destinations that keep on falling back to my list if it doesn't happen in the year I planned it. One of them has got me excited ever since I thought about setting foot in that country. Well, I am proud to say that I can finally tick that off my list. Friends, I am happy to finally share to you, one of the most remote countries in the world, Mongolia.



My trip to Mongolia was accidental. I wasn't really planning to go. But when I booked a trip to Shanghai, I grabbed the chance to spend 5 days in Mongolia. So, everything was unplanned, spontaneous well, just like most of my trips anyway.

I already had my roundtrip ticket to Shanghai from Manila, and the plan was to take a flight or train to Beijing so I could hop on the legendary TransMongolian railway all the way to Ulaanbaatar, the Mongol capital. However, I could not find convenient train tickets that would fit my already tight schedule. So I decided to fly all the way to Ulaanbaatar from Manila taking Korean Air with a brief stopover in Seoul. 


The entire journey took 16 hours, and I finally arrived in Mongolia mid-afternoon, groggy from the lack of sleep. The airport looked ancient, but at least it was efficient. I was pulled to the immigration office, since Filipinos do not require a visa to get into Mongolia. But since I was alone, and I think only a few Filipinos have visited the place, they asked me some questions. 


I got my bags and booked a taxi to UlaanBaatar. The taxi was dilapidated, and even had no air-conditioning. It wasn't that cold though, around 10 degrees Celcius I think. As soon as I got out of the airport, it finally hit me: I was in Mongolia. 


The road to the capital was unpaved. I read about how weak the infrastructure is in Mongolia, so I expected it to be bare and dusty, much like traveling to the deserts in Africa. The surroundings felt very remote and yet I was in the capital. After a while, more cars and trucks joined us on the road. Then, oddly, luxury SUVs were coming out. I began to see some buildings and the traffic instantly got bad - and turned to hell. The city was unfolding before my eyes.


The trip from the airport usually takes 30 minutes, but because of the stand still traffic, I arrived at my hotel 2 hours later. Yes, it was getting colder as the day was ending. I imagined it would be faster to walk, but I didn't know how to get to my hotel. 



Finally, I was able to check in at the Urgoo Hotel in front of the National Museum. Nobody knew how to speak English so I mostly did everything by sign language. It was quite difficult, because aside from the language barrier, the people were not making an effort to understand me. They were just smiling. 


My room was a suite, so it was huge. The room was bare, and actually matched the surroundings. I looked out of my window and saw very few people walking. There was an empty grocery store across the street. I really felt I was more in Bosnia or something. And then I realized, they are closer to their neighbor to the north, Russia. Hence, this didn't look like Asia anymore.


It was already getting late, so I decided to zip up and head for Sukhbaatar Square. The wide open space looked very much like the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It was the center of the city and most government offices, the opera, the largest mall, the corporate buildings all surround this vast sqauare.


Sukhbaatar is a Mongolian hero. He is the one seen riding the horse in the picture below. Of course, there is also a monument for the quintessential Mongolian icon, Chinggis Khan, who is portrayed here seated on what seems to be his tombstone.



I was treated to a nice sunset while on the square. The clouds heavy but weren't dark, thus, the splashes of orange and purple lit up the clear horizon. Ulaanbataar had only one luxury mall, which was beside the square. 




I was surprised to see a Louis Vuitton store. In fact, it was really confusing to see all these luxury stores when the back road of the mall looked like a desert or a war torn region.



I already mentioned how odd the city was. As night fell, Ulaanbataar, also known as UB, became more cosmopolitan looking. There were more luxury cars on the road which was ironic, because, the roads were of bad shape, most unpaved even. People suddenly came out to the streets dressed in high street fashion. They were laughing and talking. Most smiled at me when I greeted them. The friendliness of the Mongols are expected, being a nation of nomads who openly welcome strangers to their homes as they move from mountain to mountain.


I ended my day in an Irish bar, which was a welcoming sight The place was packed with foreigners and young Mongols. The place was dark, but the atmosphere was festive. It was the end of Day 1 for me in Mongolia. I ordered a cold mug of Chinggis to finally settle in this obscure and isolated part of the world. And for some reason, when I chugged down that mug, I immediately felt at home.


PS.
My trip to Mongolia has been met with a lot of hurdles, and as soon as I got back to the hotel, I started planning my itinerary. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any tours that can be instantly booked online. So I had to wait for the next day to actually have a plan. More Mongol adventures up next!






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