I will start linking to places we stayed at etc, from now on. On the one hand, we already left those places so my paranoid self can rest assured that no one will come hunt us down, on the other hand, I decided to only to name and link to those places which really deserve a mention. If they are linked here, I can whole-heartedly recommend them.
After leaving through the Russian border fortifications, Mongolia was an instant and welcome change. Trees growing right next to the tracks, branches forming a bit of a natural tunnel; the trains passing by keeping branches at bay, but the trees free to grow wherever else they pleased. A few hundred meters later below a rocky ledge, a cow had apparently fallen down and died. Partially decomposed flesh still clinging halfway to its rib-cage, it proved to be a sign of the (mostly) more laid-back attitude Mongolians tend to take.
After finally getting our passports back and being allowed to leave the train, we first headed to the station to get some money. At ~1800:1, the exchange rate for Tugruk against Euro speaks volumes about inflation; imagine my surprise that the MNT 20,000 note is the largest one. It's also the one and only amount any and all ATMs will default to.
We were quite surprised by how cheap everything was, even in the one single store within the station directly behind the border. In Russia, travellers expect to pay hefty markups when shopkeepers know they can charge them, not so in Mongolia.
The woman in the trash
Upon returning from the station, our waggon was just merrily being driving away on its own by a lone engine, something we had not anticipated or appreciated a whole lot. A woman (we hadn't noticed her before) who was busy scavenging a trash container for food for herself and her scrawny-looking son happily stopped what she was doing and, with a big smile, moved her hands around and smacked them back together, signalling us that our waggon would be attached to a different train for the subsequent journey.
To put it mildly, I was stunned; we had met people eating from the trash in Russia as well (yes, I always make a point of giving them enough for a few decent meals; anyone eating out of the trash actually needs and definitely deserves something good happening to them), but they were glum and disheartened. Here, there was someone who not only had to look out for herself, but for a three or four year old boy as well, and still was just so... positive... I don't know if I would have it in me to act the same way...
As an aside, even though we were just a few kilometers across the border from Russia, she did not actually take the money from me, she cupped her hands to receive it by having me place it into her hands; this is a very Asian thing in my experience and something we would see both in Mongolia and China consistently.
Later, when we were back in our waggon, she passed by and happened to see the Spot Messgenger 2 dangling in front of our window, its lights blinking every five seconds. For a solid twenty minutes, until the train started moving again, she squatted down with her son, oggling the Spot. I have no idea what she was thinking it was and I had no chance to explain it to her, but she was really fascinated and just kept staring and staring.
When we finally left the station, we waved to and smiled at each other, she ran after us, and then she was gone. All in all, this was one the more memorable things which happened to us.
When I say that Mongolians as a whole tend to be a lot more laid back than Russians, this extends to infrastructure as well, but not in the good way.
- Where Russia uses concrete sleepers, Mongolia uses roughly-hewn wooden ones.
- Where Russia has two rail tracks, Mongolia has a single one which is extended by parking spots to let other trains pass then and now.
- Where Russia maintains a perimeter along their rail tracks, Mongolia has a mainly gapless barbed-wire fence against animals on both sides; said fence may be near or far, covered with bushes or standing on its own. Its there so serve a purpose, but that's it. There's nothing else in ways of track protection.
- Where Russia has well-built, if dirty, crossings with one design spanning across all of Russia, Mongolia has random crossings that happen to look like they look.
- While Russia's streets are covered with potholes, Mongolia's are covered with potcaves.
- Some smaller stations didn't warrant a stop, but they couldn't be passed at full speed, either. Basically, if someone was waiting at the station, the train would come to a complete stop. At night, attendants would lean out of the train with flashlights, scanning the station and its surroundings for potential customers. If anyone was found, they signalled the driver and we would stop. Strange, but it works.
Little Dhingis Khan
We arrived in Ulan Bator at six in the morning and started haggling with taxi drivers. Our hostel had (stale, it turned out) information about acceptable fare from station to their place on their website, 5,000 MNT was supposedly OK. Our driver tried to get 20,000, then 15,000, then 12,000, then 10,000, went down to 7,000 and finally settled for 5,000, all this interspersed with frequent "no" by us and walking away. Once on the road, he wanted to convince me that we had agreed upon 5,000 per person, something that did not quite work out for him. When we arrived, he started to tell me that he was good friends with the hostel manager and that said manager would surely want us to pay more; again, that did not work too well. He made the mistake of getting our luggage out of his trunk immediately (we always kept all our stuff in the passenger area afterwards...) before I paid and even though I only had a 10,000 or 20,000 note, I insisted on correct change. The same old dance began anew, with him edging closer to the correct change in steps of 1,000 MNT. He tried to get away several times, but I stood in his door and held it open; if he had just driven off, I couldn't have stopped him, but that thankfully didn't occur to him. After he shoved all small change (MNT is bill only, no coins) he had with him at me and wanted to make off yet again, I was close to throwing all the small crap at him, but after he, a man of maybe 1.65 meter and sitting down, tried to signal his willingness for a fist fight and me, a man of 1.94 meter and standing started laughing, he gave me 2,000 more and drove off cursing.
In case you forgot, at that exchange rate, we argued about two to three Euro, but as he tried to cheat, it became a matter of principle.
The Hostel, part one
All parking lots and other property in Ulan Bator have a small watchtower with private 24/7 guards; said guard ambled down, let us in and woke the poor woman who was forced to let us check in. As she was Mongolian as well, we were a bit surprised when she switched from broken English to perfect German, but the owners of the OASIS are a German-Austrian couple so I guess that makes sense.
Fighting through the war
Traffic in Ulan Bator is war. Lonely Planet talks about the city being too newly motorized and that it did not have to develop a culture of driving, yet. This is a euphemism for "no one has any qualms maiming or killing you". Everyone is driving like mad, nudging and racing their way in front of each other. If a driver has an oppurtunity to get ahead by a few centimeters with his small car, thereby blocking the way for several buses, making a whole parking lot grind to a halt and thereby deadlocking themselves, they will take said opportunity, and gladly.
Red lights are gentle suggestions, there to be mainly ignored; police will not drive over red lights, but they will not stop anybody else from doing so, either. A hearse will have a dozen or more cars following it, all driving in a tight pack, aggressively attacking anyone who dares to wedge in between them and expecting all other traffic to make way even if they are driving over a red light.
Crossing a main street in Ulan Bator as a pedestrian is hell. There are a few traffic lights and they help to some extent, but you still need to be extremely careful when crossing a street. Thailand, India, Russia, China, no matter where it's supposedly hard to cross a street by foot, I never had any issues weaseling through. In UB, it takes planning, determination, and a lot of attention, especially as there are stretches where there's not a traffic light in sight. While maintaining eye contact with a driver usually ensures that they will try not to hit you, this does not work in the least in UB. In the evening, I took to shining a high-powered flashlight at the ground to the oncoming traffic's side to mark ourselves and decrease the likelihood of being hit. This worked well in combination with sprinting through gaps in the traffic, except for one guy who actively aimed for us and did not slow down. He even changed lanes, just to keep us in front of his car... Shining the flashlight directly at him in highest mode made him break quite violently though; a good thing, as he may have hit us had he not slowed down.
Ulan Bator is weird.
It has clear signs of westernization, but it's still very much an old city. There is one large store which would fit into any random shopping center in Germany (which are tiny when compared to most other countries) and which carries most goods, if with a limited selection. Its supermarket is extremely well stocked with food and drink from all other the world and laughably cheap (for us) prices.
While its infrastructure is definitely crumbling, the city is clean, especially when compared to Russia. Two girls from Stuttgart who we met during our Trans-Siberian travels commented on how clean Russian cities were when compared to home, but that may be more of a statement about Stuttgart than about Russia...
Anyway, in Mongolia in general and in UB in particular, there's a concise effort to make what they have look nice and clean. There is no trash in the streets, loose gravel and earth is removed from the curb by dedicated workers, all areas of packed earth are sieved and all large stones removed. All in all, it's a lot cleaner (if more dusty and sandy) than Russian cities if somewhat older and more shabby-looking. That being said, Mongolia's countryside is littered
There were several street stalls consisting of nothing more than a cardboard box on a stool selling single chewing gums and cigarettes from the original packaging; it's normal for people to buy one cigarette or one piece of chewing gum and walk on.
The sights of UB were nice, but nothing too special.
In the next part, I'll cover "The Hostel, part disaster" and generally talk more about excrement than I thought one could write before moving on to China (were I am located at the time of this writing).