Food so far

As you advance into east, quality of food becomes better and better. Russian food was pretty much crap. Russian cuisine can be excellent, if you go a fancy restaurant, but when it comes to eating out in cheap places, food tends to be pretty bland and tasteless. Potatoes, pasta, processed meat, little to no spices and bland salads. Bleh. Food in Buryatia was even worse, a poor parody of both Mongolian and Russian cuisine. As one of the locals described the differences between Russian and Buryatian cuisines: when a Russian makes a soup, they put meat, potatoes and onions. In case of Buryats, it is just meat. All in all, a pretty grim picture.

Mongolia was not any better. Meat and pasta – these two words pretty much sum up Mongolian cuisine. Ulaan Baatar offered some variety, but in countryside these two ingredients were the staple of Mongolian diet. Oh, and spices are virtually unknown to Mongols, as well as vegetables and fruits. Thanks goodness for ubiquitous Korean restaurants around Ulaan Baatar. Otherwise, it would be very bleak.

Chinese cuisine, on the other hand, is marvelous. Very greasy, weird at times, pretty much meat based, but the flavour is excellent. Needless to say that the food here is very different to Chinese food you get in Finland and only at a fraction of the price. I tend to overeat here, because everything is just so damn good and there are so many things to try. When it comes to meat, Chinese use the whole animal, not only juicy parts. Head, feet, skin, intestines – all parts are put into use. For example, when you order Bei Jing duck, you get filet as the filling for pancakes and the rest of the duck (including the head) in form of a soup. Or another example, fish heads are considered a delicacy and cost more than the actual fish meat. Go figure. As for weird things, I had a chance to taste scorpions (both small brown ones and huge black ones), sea-horses, snakes (meat and skin), bird’s nests and roaches of unknown origin. Apart from small scorpions, the rest was not very tasty, but not bad either. What I learnt from this experience, you can eat anything as long as it is deep-fried and sprinkled with chili. However, these snacks are rather a novelty and tourist attraction and not a part of daily local diet. On the other hand, a millennium egg, a transparent black ill-looking egg is a) a part of traditional cuisine b) extremely weird c) actually very good. Looks disgusting, but is very tasty, especially with soy sauce and ginger on top. Yum.

Tranquility of Gobi

 Mongolia is a vast area of nothingness and traveling on your own is not easy around here, especially in non-friendly environment of Gobi. After a few days of unsuccessful attempts of organizing a trip on my own, I ended up meeting some cool people and we booked an all expenses-paid tour. Dani from the UK, Dev from California, Zhenya from Moscow, Helena from a small village in Sweden and myself. All solo-travellers, who had never met before, we formed an excellent diverse team. Most of the trip consisted of driving through the empty desert for hours, breathing dust, having a lunch break and a quick sight-seeing in the evening (if there was any) followed by Ristiseiska, simplified Canasta and Shithead after the sunset. Rinse and repeat the same procedure the next day.

The closer to Gobi you are, the emptier it becomes. Steppes with scarce vegetation turn into deserts with even less signs of life. Rare trees, low-growing weed, rocky hills, birds and lone-standing gers is all what you encounter on your way through Gobi. Infrastructure is almost nonexistent as well as trails of human activity. You may drive for hundreds kilometers without seeing any signs of civilization anywhere. Paved roads end around 20 km outside of Ulan Bator and it is a freestyle ride after that. On the other hand, the entire desert area is full of improvised roads, which are actually much better than battered roads around Ulan Bator thanks to the flat surface. In some places the landscape is so flat, that it is almost like a giant natural airfield. Interestingly enough, jeeps and land cruisers are not a good choice for getting around in Mongolia, but Soviet-made vans are. As a Russian saying goes: the fancier jeep you have got, the longer distance you will have to walk to get a tractor. One advantage of Soviet technology is its simplicity. They do break down, but you can fix them on the go, especially due the abundance of spare parts.

As it turned out there is not much to see in the desert apart from this vast empty wilderness. There are a couple of rare natural sights and rock formations here and there in Gobi, but that is about it. Nonetheless this vast nothingness and majestic silence are exactly the reasons why you come here. After you spend hours in the van staring at the emptiness and finally get a chance to see one of the sights, it is truly magical. The Flaming Rocks (a small brother to Red Rock in Australia), the Great Sand Dune, Ice Valley and Salt Lake, all are magnificent and so vastly different to each other. It was an interesting experience to go from warm sand dunes to ice-laden mountains, not so different to Lapland in a single day. Night sky was mind-blowing too, thanks to lack of clouds and light pollution. I think this was the first time I saw Milky Way in its fullest potential – not only the stars, but all this whitish star mist too. A fabulous view, only if it was a little bit warmer to make stargazing more pleasant. Shame that I have figured out how to set up super long exposure in my camera only much later, so no pictures of the night sky. Weather was excellent, although a little bit cold. This is in fact not so rare for Mongolia – it is called the Land of the Blue Sky for the reason after all.

Rare villages we encountered on the way reminded me of towns you see in Western movies: scattered lone buildings, bright sunshine, lots of dust and sand and even tumbleweed making its way through the desert. A perfect setting for a Mongolian western if there will be ever one. We spent every night in a ger, a traditional Mongolian tent on steroids, equipped with furniture, a crappy stove used for both cooking and heating and kitsch wall decorations. Fancier gers (not tourist ones, though) have even solar power and satellite TV – talk about technological progress! While this type of accommodation wass certainly novel and exotic to me, it was full of shortcomings. A little bit too short beds, poor thermal insulation and a crappy stove that does not retain heat made nights somewhat restless. Plus the lack of coal in most places and use of camel shit instead made things a bit chilly. After going to sleep, I woke up several hours later because of the cold. Brrr.. Having a sleeping bag and an extra blanket did not always help. Interestingly enough Mongols have a different standards of what is cold and what is warm and the conditions that were cold to us, did not seem to bother them at all. Another interesting cultural aspect that you do not take off shoes or outdoor clothes in a ger, so lines between the indoors and outdoors are blurred in a Mongolian mindset. Needless to say that the hygiene standards are a bit different around here.

Seven days was enough to get a taste of Mongolia’s wilderness, even with the hectic schedule (our van broke down on the first day, which resulted in one lost day). I am glad I visited Gobi now, as it is apparently unbearable in summer with temperatures rising up to +45C. Apart from those freezing moments at night and bad traditional Mongolian food (in a nutshell: meat with pasta, no spices), it was a blast.

UB is a place to be


Ulan-Bator’s very own special feature is prevent travellers from leaving the city. People get stuck here for one reason or another. And the kicker is that there is nothing much to do here and in fact it can be very boring at times. Take for example, this Canadian girl who stayed in Khangor hostel for more than a month, because of the lost passport. Or another girl in UB Guesthouse broke her leg – two weeks stay. Another guy spent too much time drinking vodka with locals and as a result got sick. Extended stay too. And so on. My case is more trivial. First I could not leave the city to Terelj National Park, as there were no scheduled buses and then getting a train ticket to the Chinese border proved to be problematic. The next day tickets get sold out for some reason (my guess is that they are cheaper than buying several days in advance), but they put on sale a number of tickets on the day of departure. The cashier’s recommendation is always the same: if you want a ticket for the next day, come tomorrow at 8AM. And so I did only to see the line of more than a hundred people freezing in the morning chill. To make things more exciting a couple of police officers tried to control this wild sensation with the aid of tasers. Bloody nightmare. And this situation apparently repeats itself every morning – business as usual in Mongolia.

On the other hand, being stranded in the city without anything to do shifted the focus from doing things to socializing. I met a woman from Alice Springs, Australia, who stayed in the same hostel as myself. A former transcendental meditation teacher, on her spiritual journey to visit Hindu/Buddhist temples in Asia. Bah, an instant soul-mate. Another interesting encounter is a random local on the street, who offered help finding a bus to Terelj National Park (the bus was never found by the way). A former stroibat and a political dissident, he shared an alternative take on the recent history of Mongolia. According to him the famous democracy movement in Mongolia is a fluke and was initiated by the local KGB in order to stay in power. The process of privatization was not so different to Russia’s one, i.e. the lion share of resources ending up in the hands of few oligarchs. Moscow is still pretty much in charge, although their control is not as obvious as in Soviet years. Apparently a lot of people are dissatisfied with the corrupt to the core government and after-election riots in 2008 only reaffirm this. Interesting indeed – Lonely Planet gives a completely different picture on the state of the affairs in the country.

Anyhow, I am a happy owner of the train ticket to Zamyn Uud and will leave to China today. Mongolia is very beautiful and would love to visit it again, but Ulan Bator is unfortunately not. If I am here ever again, I will be sure to work out the exit strategy right away upon coming into the city.

High hopes for China!

Mongolia, a confusing place

When I thought Russia was confusing, I did not know what would wait me in Mongolia. Russia is an example of rationality and systematic thinking in comparison to Mongolia. To quote Lonely Planet Mongolia:

Cynics say that the six most widely heard phrases in Mongolia are medehgui (don’t know), baikhgui (don’t have), chadakhui, (can’t do) magadgui (maybe), margaash (to- morrow) and za, which roughly translates to, well, ‘za’. Za is a catch-all phrase, said at the conclusion of a statement, meaning something akin to ‘well …’, ‘so then …’ or ‘ok’, and is a fiendishly addictive word.

Nobody really knows anything here. Streets have no names. Banknotes are confusing and numerous, with Mongolia’s very own numbers on the front. There are days when Visa is not accepted in stores without any reason. They play gangsta hip-hop (♬let’s get high together♬) on the speakers in public buses. Bus schedules do not exist or are not correct (and nobody knows for sure). Traffic is chaotic, traffic lights are rare, green light for pedestrians is even rarer. And not that anybody would even respect that. Getting anything organized here on your own is an exercise in futility. When asking for information, you get either the usual “don’t know” or a different answer every time. This mentality does not apply only to tourists, but locals seem to get the same treatment. Travelling on your own inside the country is less and less appealing due all the logistical complications, so the best option seems be to book an all-included tour. More expensive, but this way you delegate dealing with all the details of local mentality to other people. On the other hand, all these issues are kind of balanced by the goodwill of local people. When all the hope seems to be lost, a local pops out of nowhere to help you. This is the Mongolian way.

First Mongolia impressions

  • Mongolian country-side and Southern Siberia looks a lot like Lapland with all that snow lying around
  • Russian customs have a sniffer dog. Mongolian customs have hang-around dogs.
  • I was told Genghis-Khan is to make a great comeback in 2013-2014. Just after 2012, how apt.
  • Mongols use cyrillic. Apart from the same letters, there is nothing in common with Russian. I guess this is how europeans feel when encounter another unfamiliar to them Latin based language.
  • Within an hour of arriving to Ulan Bator, I met three Finnish guys from Turku, who are going to Gobi next week. Looks like I am going to join them.