If there’s ever a time you don’t want you train to roll in early, its at 5 in the morning when you’ve just dumped hot water in your porridge and still needing that 10 extra minutes to get your stuff together. However, that’s exactly what our train did, and so we lumbered of f,bleary eyed and hungry, weighted down by our bags.
Within seconds, we are all suddenly very grateful for all that thermal gear we’d packed and been lugging around seemingly without reason until this moment. Its -10 with a wind that cuts right through, and as our cheery Mongolian Honcho (Vogy – or Christie as we could call her if desired) took us to our bus, we dived in desperate for the warmth.
Vogy first took us to a bank (which in Mongolia are open 24 hours) where it was possible to exchange money or just take it out, and warned us to take out enough for the whole time in Mongolia. I’d brought US Dollars as advised since you cannot get Togrog outside of Mongolia, and exhanged my remaining Russian and about $103. I became a very wealthy woman, walking out with about 189,700 togrog.
Next stop was the Sant Asar hotel, which joy of joys, we could book in and do whatever we wanted until 10:30 when Vogy would take us on a tour of the city. Since it was a hotel, there were seperate rooms. The 2 couples got double beds, 2 shared a twin room, and I and another girl got single rooms! Tonight, I had an entire double bed AND a bathroom all to myself (does a little happy dance).
(Trust me, spend the better part of a week with little to no privacy or space and that’ll seem like a really big deal to you too).
Some people went to sleep, but I was a few days behind with my blog so had a long hot shower, changed my clothes and spent the time getting up to date (need to borrow a tour mates adaptor so I can upload the photos – then get my own in China).
We’d all agreed to pay for a bus to drive us around today, but Vogy took us on a walk while she booked it, heading for the Gandantegchenling Monastery which wasn’t too far away. The temperature had risen, but it was still easily -5, probably colder. Everyone had layers on once again, but frankly, it wasn’t enough. This was just the dress rehearsal for the Gers Camp tomorrow, and already I’m not sure I’ve got enough warm clothes.
The Gandan Monastery is one of the few that wasn’t destroyed by communists in 1938. Around 900 fell, while the monks were forced into the army. Five of the original temples here were destroyed, while the rest survived as accommodation or barns. It wasn’t returned to a functioning Monastery until 1944, and even then only under strict supervision. It wasn’t until 1990 that proper restoration began.
There are 2 things you immediately notice about any area in Mongolia of importance. One is the number of people selling paintings they’ve done themselves, and the other is pidgeons. Hundreds of them.
They are everywhere – much to the dismay of one of my tour mates. In Mongolia there are 4 holy animals, the Elephant, the Monkey, The Rabbit and the Pidgeon, so there are always pidgeons in temples – and people selling rice for you to feed them.
Inside the Monastery itself, we were lucky enough to see the monks chanting. They perform this from 10-12 every day, and is a very popular daily service. Understandably, you’re not allowed to talk or take photos in here while this is happening.
We moved further on to another temple in the complex, the Migjed Janrasig – which the Mongolians consider a symbol of Independence. Inside is a huge statue made from copper and gilded in gold. The original was built in 1911, but destroyed by the communists in 1938. The new one was created thanks to Buddhist donations and was completed in 1996. I’ve been to Japan and seen the Giant Buddha’s, but this was just as breathtaking. We stuck around long enough to spin around the many, many barrels in the building, before heading out and towards dinner.
Vogy had told us of a Mongolian barbeque restaurant that was pretty expensive for Mongolia, but also an all you can eat so you can get your money. As it turned out, the restaurant was a chain (BD’s) which was a little disappointing, but it was hard to argue when you saw the food.
Salad bar, hot dishes, and plenty meats, noodles, veg and sauces that you took over to the chefs who’d cook it right in front of you. I’m told that’s fairly typical for Mongolian BBQ, but even the regulars in my tour loved this place. When you can even please the vegetarians at a barbeque restaurant, you’re on to a winner. I ended up with about 5 plates of hot food (admittedly only 2 of them were barbeque plates)
Afterwards, the plan was to go to the Mongolian Museum, but when we arrived, it turned out it was closed on a Sunday, so Vogy promised to bring us back on our last day, and we walked towards Sukh Bataar Square.
This is a pretty modern part of Ulanbaataar. Most of the high rises surrounding it are goverment buildings, while the large pink building in the distance is the city’s only opera house (also home to other art performances). The square itself hosts both the statue to Ghengis Khan, and the statue of Damdin Sukhbataar.
Unfortunately, there is one issue for tourists in any populated area. At both the temple and the square, we were accosted by several people selling paintings. Vogy explained they normally painted the piece themselves and sold it for the extra money. But they are VERY pushy, one guy continually followed us for about 10 minutes despite us trying to ignore him. I ended up buying one of the guy’s paintings (with Vogy helping me haggle and discuss what he had – the paintings were done by his father), when I found it was painted on leather and therefore would survive my bag far more than paper every could. Cost about 20,000 togroks, which averages out at around 7 pound.
Since the museum had been a bust, we basically had free time for the rest of the afternoon. One of our tour mates had lost a glove when we went horse riding in Russia, and after walking round Mongolia, she’d realised she desperately needed to replace them, so we all went out as a group and went shopping. We’d been looking for the State Department Store, but couldn’t find it and ended up in a pricy looking boutique. Took our chances and split up, and while I wandering round, found a brand called Fox that had a section with 80% off. 10 minutes later I walked around with a new day jacket for less than 6 quid). Absolutely useless for this trip if I’m honest, but if I can’t use it, I’ll send it home along with the handful of winter gear when that time comes.
When we headed back, we found a supermarket too, and headed in to get some supplies for the Ger Camp we were heading to tomorrow.
I swear, if all supermarkets were like this I’d be prepared to move to Mongolia. The Good Price supermarket was a gold mine. The fruit was huge, the salad bar one of the best I’d seen, they had grape fanta (one of my favourite and sorely sought after products) and had anime figurines such as One Piece in the game department (had to flee the shop once I saw them or risk actually buying them).
We had so much to eat at lunch, that nobody really wanted to go out for dinner, so we all agreed to meet up in the hotel’s piano lounge around 8, so anyone who did want food could go get it, and we all had time to pack up our day bags for the 2 nights at the camp. Some of the group went to the lounge and tried to order pizza, only to be told 30 minutes later that “sorry, no pizza.” Needless to say, they were a little agitated that it took them 30 minutes to tell them since it meant they no longer had time to go anywhere else.
I met up with the group in one of the bedrooms 10 minutes beforehand at their invitation – and was pleasantly surprised with cheesecake. Two of my group had bought one from the supermarket as a celebration for getting into Mongolia. Not a big fan of cheesecake but this want was really good – another point to Mongolia’s food.
Promised to meet our honcho in the lounge so we eventually dragged ourselves downstairs, and some of the group that were still hungry ordered a sharing appetiser, while I ordered just a portion of fries. The sharing thing was supposed to come with mozzarella sticks, but instead came with fries. When Vogy arrived (bringing along a friend – a student opera singer no less), we were able to talk to the waitress properly, who explained they just didn’t have any cheese in the building right now.
Sadly, although things were in full swing around half 9, I had to throw in the towel. I was feeling awful, and there was no way I could keep going, so said my apologies and headed upstairs. I found out tomorrow morning that two others had dropped out half an hour after me, but the rest had headed to karaoke, and according to the video and photos taken, had a great time (the opera singer is fantastic, and Vogy wasn’t half bad either). Really wish I hadn’t missed it, but there was just no way I could have lasted.