LEAD TRAVEL FEATURE IN THE EDMONTON JOURNAL NOV 1ST 2003
REPRINTED IN VANCOUVER SUN NOVEMBER 15TH 2003
THROUGH THE GOBI DESERT
IF YOU GO
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
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
for Russian jeeps, trucks, buses and an aging power plant disappeared
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I learned that tiny saddles are hazardous to western derrieres and other
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
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
USEFUL WEBSITE: www.iexplore.com Choose destination map - Far East and Mongolia.
USEFUL GUIDE: Lonely Planet Mongolia.