At first glance Ulaan Baatar, or UB to those in the know, is a city of little charm. The coal fired power plant built by Russia; belches smoke throughout the valley. Heating pipes, wide enough for foot traffic, snake and curl along sidestreets and over highways like endless strings of unkempt spaghetti. Their final journey underground is easily traced by a series of dislodged man hole covers under which homeless children shelter from the winter chill. Temperatures of -30c in January are not unusual in this, the coldest capital in the world.

Recently a colony of the Soviet Union, Mongolia was ill prepared for the independence and democracy it achieved by default in 1991. Spare parts for Russian jeeps, trucks, buses and an aging power plant disappeared along with the communist economic safety net - and it shows. Half the city's population of 800,000 live in typical run down Russian-built high-rises while the rest inhabit unserviced "ger" suburbs. (A ger is the Mongolian term for a yurt). Potholes, drunks, stray dogs and blackouts can challenge an evening stroll.

But wait. There is charm among the uncut weeds! As well as vodka, Mongolians have embraced the Russian love of theatre. A chalkboard outside the Opera House lists weekly performances. La Boheme, Carmen, The Barber of Seville. Around the corner, at The State Youth and Children's Theatre, contortionists, throat singers and traditional dancers perform incredible feats. Try and sit behind a woman - men tend to wear their hats! A slow handclap is appreciation not disapproval!

UB is host to all kinds of international aid workers and missionaries who require the essentials of home. Pink perfumed Parisian toilet paper, Johnny Walker Black Label, disposable diapers, tubes of chocolate hazelnut spread. All are available at La Belle France as well as icing sugar for angel cake teas at The British Embassy. A German Bakery. Cosmetics from South Korea and Japan. An Italian Pizzeria. Even Mary Kay, though my search for a pink Cadillac went unrewarded! Get that perfect cashmere scarf or miniature ger for aunt Nellie on the 4th floor of The State Department Store.

After four days of searching out temples, palaces, museums and admiring well-coifed young ladies in skintight shorts mingling oddly with traditionally dressed passersby, it was time to get out of town. I had arrived with a list of 61 outfitters gleaned from the Mongolia online website. Should be no trouble? "He's in the countryside" "We can arrange a jeep, driver and guide for US$200 a day, when do you want to leave" "Sorry old chap we're totally booked up with a bunch of Americans" - Panic took hold. Try the guesthouses.

Local entrepreneurs had seized the opportunity to pack low budget backpackers into ger dormitories. Low budget backpackers require low cost tours. A perfect situation for an impoverished, though aging, scribe! I grabbed the phone again. "Where do you want to go?" - "Anywhere" I replied desperately. "We've got a group leaving tomorrow for a week to The Gobi Desert - Six of them, An Israeli, Germans, French, I'll see if they want to cut the cost by adding a seventh " Next morning I threw my pack on the mounting pile beside an ancient Russian van. It would transport us 1600 Kilometers through rutted sand to The Gobi and back - for thirty-five dollars a day each.

We hit the wholesaler - A vast barn of a place. Sides of lamb, the national staple, hung from a line of hooks awaiting the attention of nine female, machete-wielding, butchers. A customer exits, his wheelbarrow filled with raw jiggling meat. A case of vodka is required to appease our hosts along the way. More Russian influence, but at a buck seventy-five a bottle what the hell. Hard to find Chinese carrots, onions and rice will balance our diet. Finally the van is loaded to the gunwales and we're off.

The paved road is short lived. We turn up a dirt track through undulating green hills and wild flowers to our first flat tire. Not a good sign! Our driver examines the damage. We note a long slash in the treadless radial as he glues a rubber patch to the hissing naked inner tube. An odd combination but tires are expensive. Four hours and two flats later, the eyes of our beautiful guide flash with anger. Mongolians address each in a series of whispered clucking sounds interspersed with a "tsur" performed with the tongue brushing the roof of the mouth. A language better pronounced without teeth! She'd made her point. Our chastened driver returned with a new tire an hour later.

The road, such as it was, became a series of washboard ruts. We passed eagles, leaping gazelle, herds of dromedary camels, clusters of two or three gers. A line strung between two anchored posts serves as a saddle horse tethering point. An ancient Russian truck stood at each encampment to move the family to greener pastures when the thin grass ran out.

Around half a million nomads roam this fenceless land, twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France. A family requires 100 animals to survive. Horses are a herder's proudest possession. A throwback to the glory days of Chinggis Khaan? Mongolians learn to ride at 3 years old. I learned that tiny saddles are hazardous to western derrieres and other parts!

Lunch time. We pull up to a lone ger. Our guide knocks on the short blue and red door. This time her flashing eyes are filled with charm. Could she cook lunch for her little group of nine? We follow, grateful to escape the 100-degree heat and the juddering of the van. A dung fire is already burning. We squat on the carpeted floor away from the Buddhist altar and the watchful gaze of The Dalai Lama. Nine small bowls are filled from a covered pail. Airag is made from fermented mare's milk and comes in different strengths. Strong and stronger! It's rude to refuse. I try not to retch as the white liquid slips down leaving an after taste of sour rough cider. "It's delicious but no more thanks." The curds looked innocent. Sort of fat oatmeal biscuits, but the assault on my nose was warning enough. "I'm saving myself for lunch!"

Driving to the Gobi is not for the faint of heart. Gas pumps? Forget it. No gas has been delivered to the countryside for three weeks. The few pumps that exist in small settlements are dry. Our guide recalls an aunt who lives nearby. She'll know who is hoarding the stuff. We fill up from a well-hidden rusting tank after much heated discussion. Our benefactor has a windmill, satellite dish and a motorbike outside his ger. A black marketer. Over the next hilltop, a woman is watering her camels. She empties the rubber bucket into a trough, fashioned from an old truck tire, and reaches back into the deep well. We wait our turn. Local knowledge is vital. Water is life in the desert.

The sun becomes a deep orange ball heading for the horizon. Stars and a half moon begin to emerge. We follow a goatherder to his home beside a dried up riverbed. "Can we stay?" The family moves outside into the desert to make space for their unexpected guests. If it rains it'll be cosy! We need meat. A goat perhaps? The old man eyes his herd. Much negotiation takes place. Four children, one at each leg, haul out the hapless choice. He returns to his ger and sharpens the thinning blade. He dons his "del" a long one-piece gown made from wool, held at the waist by a simple yellow sash. Butchering follows a tradition. The knife disappears into the goat's belly followed by the old man's arm. An artery is tweaked and skinning of the lifeless beast begins.

The old man's sons prepare a dung fire. Cooking is their job. Large stones are gathered in the center of the flames and will eventually be placed inside the stew pot to shorten the cooking time. Spices, vegetables and water are added to the meat. More dung is piled on the fire and a lid is added. A delicious meal. Inside the ger, the ceiling resembles a fine parasol. Roof struts are decorated in minute gold detail. A red liner hides the wool felt insulation around the walls. Crouching children with typical high cheekbones and laughing eyes follow our every move. We are as much a curiosity to them, as they to us.

The glory days of Chinggis Khaan are gone forever. Awards, such as "The order of glorious motherhood 1st Class" for a woman with more than 8 children, have long been abandoned. Overgrazing, drought and a brutally cold winter have culled the herds by a third. Tourism is growing. 33000 visitors arrived in 2001 with 3000 from North America. Most join organised tours for which an infrastructure of comfortable "ger hotels" has been created.

Despite poverty, the openness and generosity of the people is overwhelming. Recent, much-touted, visits by Julia Roberts and National Geographic may well change things. At The Naadam Festival, held in UB between July 11th - 13, a thousand wrestlers clad in colorful spandex briefs and frontless vests fight for the title of "National Giant". Four thousand horses compete in 6 races of up to 30 Kilometers spurred on by jockeys as young as 5 years old. At least for now, the spirit of Chinggis Khaan lives on.

VISAS: It is essential to obtain a tourist visa prior to departure. Mongolian Consulate- General. PO Box 754, Suite 1800 BCE Place, 181 Bay Street, Toronto Ontario M5J 2T9
Tel: 416-865-7707 Fax: 416-863-1515. E-mail consul@mongolia.org You can obtain a 30-day tourist visa quite promptly. You will also need a double entry Chinese Visa if you plan to come and go via Beijing. Chinese Consulate-General in Calgary Suite 100, 1011-6th Ave. SW.Calgary T2P 0W1 403-264 3322 fax:403 264-6656

FLIGHTS: The best way is to fly to Beijing - Shop around for a ticket, often Travel Agents frequented by Asian returnees offer better deals. There are regular flights from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar. Try to avoid MIAT - The Mongolian National carrier. It can be unreliable (as I discovered!)

TRANS-MONGOLIAN RAILWAY: Prices can vary wildly depending on where and how the ticket was purchased. I was quoted over $300 for a one way ticket from Travel Agents in Canada. A friend paid $105 at the Railway Station. I paid $170 from a Travel Agent in Beijing. The train runs every Wednesday from Beijing and fills early around Naadam. The choice of accommodation is 2nd Class 4 berth sharing or 1st Class private compartment with shared shower. Both are clean and comfortable. The train eventually winds up in Moscow.

Mongolians are gentle people but they do love their vodka. Drunks, stray dogs (generally passive) street children, potholes and open manhole covers are the main hazards in the city. Take normal precautions against pickpockets especially at night and in crowded public transportation. This is a poor country.

THINGS TO TAKE: Bug spray. A wide-brimmed sun hat. A flashlight for evening walks and blackouts. Sunscreen Warm clothing - The weather can flip from boiling to bitterly cold. A fits-all plug! Instant coffee/tea bags. A spoon fork and mug for the train or hotel room.

FOOD: Mongolia is not a gourmet's delight. In Mongolian restaurants lamb is the order of the day - for breakfast lunch and dinner! Europeans have opened up-market eateries to cater to tourists and aid workers with prices to match.

USEFUL WEBSITE: www.iexplore.com Choose destination map - Far East and Mongolia. www.mongoliatoday.com

USEFUL GUIDE: Lonely Planet Mongolia.


Copyright © 2003 A.G.P. Renton All rights reserved.