Thursday, 3 February 2011

Magical Mystery Tour of Mongolia - 10-19 December 2010

Ulan Bator

Mongolia and Ulan Bator Mongolia, fascinating and mysterious country. Once a powerful goliath in the world, Ghengis Khan led his army across Eurasia and created the biggest empire the world has seen. Stretching from the Sea of Japan across Asia, Siberia and well into Eastern Europe. The Empire fell as politics and it's people were in turmoil and it was too difficult for the rulers to control.  Now, Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated country and the largest land locked country in the world. How does a country go from the superior power ruling half of the world to relatively unknown? This is what makes Mongolia special, it's natural beauty and it's nomadic life still continues today despite pressure from the west to become a capitalist stronghold, which the capital, Ulan Bator, has become.

Mongolia has a long and interesing history. Ulan Bator hosts the National History Museum which guides you through the complete history of Mongolia, it's rises and falls.  I would recommend this museum as a must to any visitor to Ulan Bator.  I went along with a French guy from my hostel only expecting to be in there an hour or so but ended up being there for three and came out malnourished and in need of natural sun light!  The museum helped me understand how the modern day Mongolia came into existence.  The Mongolians, alike Estonia, were stuck between a rock and a hard place during the early 20th century due to an  invasion from the Chinese.  They were unable to fight them off as they simply did not have enough man power.  They were forced to ask for help from countries like UK, France, USA but nobody was able to assist them.  So having exhausted all of their ideal options, they had no choice but to  go with their contingency plan and approach the USSR and of course the power hungry Soviets were only too happy to help them and thus, the Mongolian Peoples Republic was born.  The traditional Ger camps that surrounded and made up Ulan Bator were soon eradicated and the communistic concrete tower blocks emerged.  If you go out into the suburbs of Ulan Bator, you can still find Ger encampments.

Although we are made to believe the Soviets and communism were a bad thing for society, we cannot deny that there were certainly good things that came out of the USSR.  For example, an education and health care system available to everyone including mobile units that visited the nomads that lived in ger encampments out in the wilderness.  It was recorded that prior to being a socialist republic only 2% of Mongolians could read and write, now it's 98% thanks to the Soviet's education push.  This is why the Cyrillic alphabet is more widely used in Mongolia than the traditional script. 

Ulan Bator is now transforming itself out of the Soviet blocks and into new high rise buildings.  There are banks appearing left, right and centre, multi-nationals moving in to stake their claim to a new capitalist land.  It reminds me of Tesco and how they jump into the new European Union countries with both feet in their bid to dominate the European supermarket industry pushing out the local shops as they cannot compete with prices.  Sukhbaator Square is the heart of the city and where the marvellous Mongolian Parliament sits and the enormous statues of Chinngis Khan accompanied by statues of horses reminding us of the country's powerful history.  The square itself has been an important place for Mongolia's history, similar to Palace Square in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, it has seen people demonstrate and recent call for democracy saw people go on hunger strike.
Talking of hunger strikes, we found an amazing local restaurant just around the corner from the hostel.  The restaurant had no name, just a single Coca Cola sign illuminated in the window pulling customers in.  Christian is adamant that if you want to find a good restaurant, you need to look out for the coca cola sign and plastic tables.  This was not a disappointment.  The menus were in Cyrillic, the staff spoke no English but were happy to show us the kitchen and what they had so we could point at it.  A meal would set us back around 1300 Tugs, which is well under a quid and compared to the other Western restaurants in Ulan Bator, you get a decent meal.

Whilst in Ulan Bator I wanted to go to the theatre to see what the Mongolians call entertainment, but alas I was disappointed twice.  On the first occasion, Mr Kim and his son drove me to the theatre on the way to the petrol station to fill up, which was fun however, I'm pretty sure I would have got to the theatre a lot quicker by foot.  We got there only to find the theatre shut.  Mr Kim said it was because it was a Sunday and that I should try another day,  A few days later I headed for the theatre again.  This time the door to the box office was open, so I walked in and was informed that there were no shows on until the following week!

Despite not going to the theatre I did go to the amazing Mogolian Theatre Museum which was.... interesting...  The theatre was situated on the third floor of a builing in a side street just off the main square.  I paid my entrance fee at the bottom of the run down stairwell and was unsure whether this was a scam or not as it didn't look very much like a museum to me.  I climbed the stairs up to the museum and was greeted by a dark passage way with set boxes on either side.  The lights began flickering, illuminating the displays and the lady who turned them on.  It looked as though this museum doesn't have many visitors at all.  The lady approached me and asked me in very broken English if I would like a guide, to which I replied yes.  She then went away to find one.  I continued to look at the hundreds of photos from previous performances at the National Theatre, which were on most part unremarkable remakes of western classics.  Another lady soon joined me and said that she was there to be my guide.  Not sure what her definition of guide is though as she just said what she saw, "Photos...Opera...Puppets...." and when I asked her questions she would reply "I can't tell you about that."  After walking with me pointing out the obvious and not telling me anything, she said "sorry" and ran away.  The rest of the museum was much the same, not telling me much, just lots of photos.

So from what I've heard, Mongolian traditional theatre is more like Chinese, with acrobatics, wrestling, dancing and throat singing.  Unfortunately I was not in the place at the right time to witness any of this so cannot provide my opinion.

Taxis and Cops

One day Christian, Caué and I thought it would be a good idea to flag a taxi down and go to the Manzshir Khiid Monastery just outside of Mongolia.  In Mongolia and Russia any car is a taxi, you just need to flag it down and haggle with the driver.  After an hour of freezing cold winds blasting our faces and umpteen drivers turning us down we finally found one who was prepared to take us there, wait 2 hours and bring us back to UB.  After negotiating we managed to secure the ride for 60,000TUG which included the waiting time.  The monastery was 60 km out of town, so that was a fair price to pay and splitting it between three of us was relatively cheap and certainly easier than the bus.

We set off in a worn out black hatch back with an unhealthy amount of smoke bellowing from the exhaust pipe leaving a trail behind us.  I personally wasn't sure whether we would actually make it out Ulan Bator's scarce suburbs into the national park and to the monastery.  We soon pulled into a petrol station and was asked to hand over 20,000TUG so that the driver could fill up, which we didn't mind at all.  The suburbs disappeared and to our pleasure the desolated snow swept national park scene appeared all around us.  The road was not the best quality and the snow was creeping in from both sides rapidly covering the tarmac forcing the drivers to swerve around them as they cover the numerous pot holes that could easily cause a broken suspension.  Along the way the driver was chain smoking his way through the remainder of his packet of cigarettes which forced us to crack the windows open and feel the fresh winter air.  Once he finished, he threw his empty packet out of the window which shocked and appalled me.  I have noticed that in Ulan Bator, they don't care about their environment and have no problem with throwing litter onto the floor.  This surprised me as I thought Mongolian's were respectful of nature and their country.

Around an hour of driving through the beautiful landscape of outer Mongolia we pulled off the main highway and headed towards a small town.  Unfortunately we had no idea where we were, but it turned out the driver didn't either.  He slowed down and opened his window and spoke to two pedestrians hopefully asking where the monastery was but we couldn't be sure.  The driver seemed satisfied with their response and we headed off round a series of corners, started to ascend up this long steady hill and stopped.  The road was covered in a thin layer of snow for the next 10 meters to which the driver deemed unsafe to travel and refused to take us any further, to which we replied "No monastery, no money!" as we were not sure whether he was just lying to us or not.  He seemed to understand our ultimatum and began to drive back down the hill and back towards Ulan Bator, this was disappointing as we were hoping to convince him to take the risk and get us up there.  Our main idea of the trip was to have a look around and have something to eat and drink whilst watching the sun set over the beautiful country as the sunsets in Mongolia are absolutely amazing, especially with the rays bouncing off the snow peaked mountains.

Alas, an hour or so later we ended back up in Sukhbaator Square, hopped out of the car and walked away without paying any more money.  However, the driver was not happy about this and stopped us by grabbing a firm hold on Caués backpack restraining him from moving any further.  We tried to tell him that we agreed that if he did not take us to the monastery, we wouldn't give him anymore money.  He had already got 20,000 from us for fuel which meant he wasn't out of pocket so we thought it was fair and didn't feel bad about this.  The man became more aggravated and became physically threatening, we knew we wouldn't be able to negotiate any further with him so I ran over to the Policeman in the square and inlisted his negotiation skills.  The policeman did not speak English and was looking annoyed that I had interupted his quiet afternoon on the square.  He instructed the driver, Caué and Christian to cross the road and come to him as he was obviously not prepared to use any extra effort than necessary in this incident.  The Policeman was no help and ordered us to get back into the car and to go to the police station to sort the problem out.  I was not happy with this and refused.  I was not prepared to go back into that car with a man who now hated us even though the policeman tried to reassure us by taking down his details.  Luckily a man pulled up in a faded gold car with his wife in the passenger seat and his daughter in the back, he showed us his ID and it turned out to be a more senior police official who could speak English.  After thirty minutes of arguing back and forth about who was right and wrong we finally negotiated to pay a further 10,000 and call it quits.  Christian wasn't happy with this and insisted we had two further options, to go to the police station and continue negotiations or to go to the embassy.  I was personally freezing cold and just wanted to end the situation quickly.  It was the first time the cold has really affected me, but standing still in the minus whatever and not moving seriously is not good for you.  So we gave the driver a further 10,000 and left the square.

Keep looking for some more on Mongolia.  Photos will also appear soon, it's just that I'm still battling with the Great Firewall of China!  Until then, farewell!

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