Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

(November 2001)

I’M VEGETARIAN and my first meal in the capital city of what was once known as Outer Mongolia was…? Pasta with fresh spinach sauce, and a cappuccino. Both of which tasted as they should (ie not exactly as you would get them in Italy, but almost – the cappuccino was espresso with milk and foam, not, say, instant coffee with frothy milk). So much for the tour company guide booklet; that had warned us not to expect anything other than meat, and especially not vegetables, as the Mongolians were suspicious of anything that came out of the ground. (Plus, I suppose, try growing anything in land that’s frozen for umpteen months of the year.) Whoever wrote the guidebook had clearly been caught out by the rise of globalisation; our lunch venue, the Millennium Café, wouldn’t have looked out of place in any city in the world, it really wouldn’t. Our tour guide had met us off the train, taken us to the café and then, after lunch, given us a handful of hours to enjoy Ulaanbaatar on our own.

Ulaanbaatar is the capital city of Mongolia. Modern Mongolia, a country in its own right, lies on land roughly equivalent to what was once known as “Outer Mongolia”. As in the place that when I was growing up was shorthand for absolute remoteness and inaccessibility, but … I WAS THERE!!!! How jaw-droppingly amazing was that?

I hadn’t really thought about what I wanted to see in Ulaanbaatar – just being there was overwhelming enough. However, while flicking through a magazine (in English, so much for Mongolia being the back end of nowhere!) in the café I spotted a plug for somewhere that sounded like just my kind of place: the International Intellectual Museum. Not because I consider myself an intellectual (although of course I am…) but because it sounded so downright weird. And it did not disappoint. It was run by a little old man and it was stuffed full of toys. Some were indeed “intellectual” – metal puzzles and chess sets with the pieces made from interlocking bricks, like a puzzle; some not quite so intellectual – farting figurines, anyone? “American toy, American toy,” the man would tell me as he followed me round, or: “Mongolian toy, two years old.”

Having failed to solve any of the puzzles, thereby proving myself to be an International non-Intellectual, I headed to the hotel where I was to meet my fellow travellers and our guide. We piled into a minibus and were driven to our accommodation for the next couple of nights – a ger (the Mongolian word for yurt) camp on the steppe about 50 km from Ulaanbaatar. Despite the unusual location and nature of the accommodation, I couldn’t help feeling that I was just in a funkier version of Butlin’s, without the redcoats, obviously.  Sure, the gers were, we were told, ‘authentic’, built just like the ones lived in by real nomads, but it was still, after all, a camp for tourists. Even so, I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.

Considering a ger is nothing more than animal skins stretched over a wooden frame, with a wood-burning stove as a centrepiece and we were on a freezing Mongolian steppe, the ger was bloody boiling inside. After a mammoth supper I tried to sleep in what felt like a furnace. In the middle of the night I had to go to the loo. The toilets – hole-in-the-ground compostable ones – were a little way from the ger, and the short walk gave me chance to appreciate how amazingly clear and starry the sky was – no light pollution here! It was spell-binding, if too cold to hang around for long.

The following morning it was time for what was supposed to be our main/mane? (ha ha) event: a horse-ride across the steppe. I wasn’t really that bothered about the ride – I was happy just to be on the steppe – but I was so glad I did go; it was incredible. It was a 16km round trip on (supposedly) wild horses. We were assured that there would be no nasty accidents in the middle of nowhere, as the horses had been trained to ignore tourists and respond only to the instructions of their handlers plus just a couple of basic commands from whoever was on their backs. To get them to move we were told to jerk our heels into their sides and shout “Chew, chew!” which, apparently, means something like “Giddyup!”. Only I suspect it probably means “fart”, because that’s exactly what the horses did every time we told them to chew, chew. We must have been quite something to behold, eight riders trotting across the steppe on our stocky, trumpeting mounts.

Our destination was a ‘monument’, best described as a Mongolian equivalent of British standing stones. It was set in a truly gobsmacking landscape: we could see nothing for miles around, other than steppe – even if that steppe did have electricity pylons strung across it – and, right by the monument, two grubby kids from a nearby (real) ger playing around a mobile phone mast.

Over supper, T, our guide, told us a little about what life had been like when Mongolia had been a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Then, she said, there was usually just one style of shoe on sale, usually made in Poland, almost always in black. “Everywhere you looked,” said T, “People were wearing that shoe, just in different sizes.”

In the mid-1990s, after the Soviet Union had collapsed and Mongolia was in a mess, T went to the shop and all it had to sell was salt. How things have changed! As I had read in that magazine in that café in Ulaanbaatar: “Five years ago Mongolians wouldn’t have known the difference between a tomato and a taco, but now they’re both widely available, and other foods as well…” and it was right. It was bollocks what the guidebook had said about you starving in Mongolia, especially if you were a veggie – pretty much all foods were available, if you could pay for them. It was a bit unnerving, though: I was so used to veggie food being the cheap option at home, but in Mongolia, where meat was widely available but so much veg was imported, veggie food was at least as expensive, if not dearer than, meat.

After supper, T showed us how to play ankle bones, which involves shaking and tossing a handful of small bones onto a table (a bit like throwing a dice), then flicking together the ones that have landed the same way up (which are called sheep, horses, camels and goats, according to which side is facing upwards). Well, if you don’t have access to Subbuteo…

The following day was our last in Mongolia, and it was a full day in Ulaanbaatar. The famous winter palace of Bogd Khan, the last proper ruler of Mongolia, was closed, but the Natural History Museum was open. Mongolia has one of the richest collections of dinosaur fossils in the world, and although some attempt had been made to display them properly, it was all rather sad. There was an entrance fee of US$2, but additional fees of US$5 if you wanted to take pictures of the most impressive stuff – massive dinosaur bones – and $20 for shooting video. The Choijin Lama Museum was beautiful, if tumbledown, but most of the temples were locked, including the main one. A woman got a member of staff to open it for me; it was lovely but absolutely freezing.

Having seen Lenin in Moscow, I was desperate to see the preserved body of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the “hero of the revolution”, who in 1921 declared Mongolia’s independence from China. (‘Independence’ was a bit of a loose term, however, as Sukhbaatar drove out the Chinese with the help of the Soviet army, which stuck around afterwards, thereby replacing one bunch of foreign overseers with another.) Sukhbaatar was supposed to be on display à là Lenin in a mausoleum in the central precinct, Sukhbaatar Square, but it was closed, so I couldn’t. [And I will never get another chance, as the mausoleum was demolished in 2005 and replaced with a hall to … Genghis Khan! Sukhbaatar’s body was cremated in the presence of Buddhist monks.]

One sight I hadn’t expected in the city was a small encampment of gers – which looked like ‘real’ ones, as opposed to something set up for tourists – just a short walk from the downtown area. That  kind of summed up Mongolia in a way: on one side of me sophisticated, mobile-phone-wielding urbanites in the city centre, and on the other, Mongolians living as they had for centuries, shifting their gers and goats from place to place.

Before meeting the others and catching the train to Beijing, I had a veggie lunch at City Coffee, described as “Ulanbaatar’s best internet café” by the English language newspaper the Mongol Messenger (three concepts I did not expect to experience in Mongolia – “veggie lunch”, “internet café” and “English-language newspaper”!)