Into the open

Ulaan Baatar could never be described as pretty (although I stand by my previous statement – made not so terribly long ago that all cities are great at dawn).It has something in common with Moscow – its central feature (in this case Sukhbaator square) is closed for renovation. Lots of green fences around it to protect you from yourself.

And it is surprisingly cool (not the temperature). I think this comes from the way out factor. “Oh yeah, I went to Mongolia. UB (that is what the cool kids call it) was kicking”. Cool nods of head all round, as if going to Mongolia and hanging in UB were activities that all self-respecting cool kids get up to.

What else? Big streets, ugly soviet style buildings, plenty of places to sit down, buses, cars (they drive on the right, but use both left and right-hand drive cars), noise, smog, dust (lots of people wear masks and gloves) and wind (a very windy country) makes dirty. Very hard to keep the floors clean. Take off your shoes.

You can walk around (but look out for uncovered and unmarked sewer entrances, especially at night), but why bother when taxis are so cheap even if they rip you off by driving around the block 10 times it only costs a dollar more (and they seemed to be honest as far as I could tell).

Restaurant service is terrible, but food is good. It has a 24 hour bank where the staff are incredibly efficient (this was my first cue that I had left Russia, where securing foreign currency is frequently a hassle).

Completely unpredictable weather. One day cold and raining. Next day hot and muggy. It was snowing a week before we arrived (in mid-Summer).
Mongolians are incredibly friendly and helpful, even if I can understand not a word of the guttural sounds that are known as Mongolian (even “hello” is complex). They are beautiful too – with round faces, and ready smiles – except for the ones who know they are beautiful, as in every country.

I got my washing done on arrival. A predictable behaviour, but that does not make it any less necessary. And how happy was I (after so long spent hand-washing my clothes) to get them all back smelling of delicious washing powder? Getting dressed is no longer a chore, but a joy. A pity it will not last long.

I sent home some clothes and things from Russia. Gradually I am optimising the contents of my backpack (the perils of a six month trip through varying climes). If I encounter a sudden cold snap (which becomes increasingly unlikely as I head further south) I shall have to take shelter near some friendly fire til it passes. Now I need to meet someone who wants to carry my tent to Singapore. Then I will just need a dance partner.

Ulaan Baatar has, in common with many other Mongolian cities, a suburb where the houses are all gers. Not that the people move their houses much, but just that they save on construction costs (particularly trees, which are very scarce in some parts of the country). Apparently none too safe after dark, but then Mongolians tell me that all the time. I think that they, naturally enough, do not want tourists to see anything of the seamier side of Mongolia life. There is a sign on the hostel door warning against going out after midnight. “The city is not so safe”.

Not that advising against going out is going to prevent you seeing the poor and drunken in UB. Just near the hostel are a few rubbish bins that serve as rich hunting grounds for the homeless and the hopeless. And every day you get to contend with some of the thousands of young (and cute) kids who reportedly make their homes on the streets (sewers in the winter against the cold, above land in the summer for the tourists).

The street kids have various different strategies. Some use the tried and true “look forlorn and dirty (not difficult when your life sucks as much as theirs) and follow targets around with hand out clutching at throat from time to time”. Others prefer a more playful approach. We saw three playing on the footpath, both climbing into one pair of pants and trying to run. More likely to elicit a smile, but more lucrative in the long run? Perhaps even street kids need time out from time to time.

You can’t help but wonder about their long-term prospects. Street kid in Mongolia has got to be pretty low in the scheme of things. If I were Hindu I could believe that they had done something terrible in a previous life. Doesn’t make their existing life any better though.

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