Ulaan Baatar - Idre's
'He's On The Phone' - Saint Etienne
I was too early at Idre's Guesthouse to take my bed, but I was able to sit down, check my emails and have a shower etc. During my stay, Idre increasingly came to remind me of a Dr No-style Bond villain, hell-bent on nuclear domination and selling his trips into the countryside that were surely the real cornerstone of his business rather than the actual hostel. The place itself was an odd set of contrasts. In some ways, such as the sofas, kitchen and decor, it exceeded all expectations. In other areas, such as the showers and the toilets, it was awful. One upstairs toilet had a lock that didn't really work and slats on the lower half of the door that were sufficiently far apart that you could see in from outside. Another had two cubicles and a shower cubicle which all shared a single lock between them that could be removed from cubicle door to door as required. So, even if one toilet was free, you frequently declined it as the person in the other was using the lock. There was a downstairs toilet sitting open in the middle of a room, but not only did this room have no lock, you had to walk through here to get to the two downstairs showers! Showers, incidentally, with a ceiling that was only about 5'8" high. It was interesting to guess, to the nearest month, when they might last have been cleaned. One morning a girl tried to tell Idre that one of the toilets was blocked but he basically ignored her. I couldn't help but feel that she would have had his rapt attention if she'd begun the conversation by telling him she wanted to pay for a guided trip to the toilet. He told me once that he rarely put out toilet paper because people kept stealing it.
The first few days of Ulaan Baatar involved meeting loads of people from different places earlier in the trip. First up was Cathy, from Moscow. Shortly after we'd left each other before, she'd met up with her friend Julia and they'd boarded a train all the way here together, whereupon they had been on a couple of tours of the countryside and had a couple of days sightseeing the city in between. It was funny how Julia was exactly as irrepressably optimistic and cheerful as advertised. It was also funny to see how Cathy would sometimes adjust her persona accordingly, often to act as a natural counterbalance. The two of them really should be given their own radio show or something.
I met them at the Un-Mongolian-titled Cafe Amsterdam, after trawling unsuccessfully through ten different banks looking for a cashpoint that would give me some local currency. After my scrounged breakfast, we set off through the pouring rain, via a bank that worked, to the National History Museum. Like its equivalent in Moscow, it began with stone-age man. Unlike it's equivalent in Moscow, this one continued beyond 1917. At one point we saw a biggish young guy, possibly German, sitting next to a small, possibly local, girl. He was talking to her in a hyper-aggressive manner but all the while very friendly. It was as if he simply didn't understand that friendly chat didn't involve leaning right into someone's face, dominating the conversation and pursuing questions about what the average age for losing your virginity was in her country. We were looking at them beginning to get a bit worried when a pair of Scottish girls joined us, sharing our concern and wondering if we should be doing something. Eventually, we went and stood at the display case next to them and pretended to be interested, which wasn't so easy as it contained nothing but historical Mongolian fishing nets. He seemed to get the hint though and backed off her a bit before them two of them left the room a few minutes later.
We continued through and laughed in our patronising English way at the more recent post-independence stuff as they proudly explained how many international organisations they had joined and how many foreign dignitaries had visited their country. It was all a bit like your mum asking you if you made any new friends after your first day at school.
Mongolia was billed as a country where being vegetarian would be very difficult. However, the girls were able to direct us to an excellent vegetarian restaurant (someone else later told me of a second in the city!) that even served 'vegetarian halibut', as if they needed to be so specific about the type of fish they were mimicking. While Julia then ran an errand, we went to the museum/monastry of Choijin Lama. I'd always been told that Buddhism was an exclusively peaceful religion, but you would neither believe the number of ways these guys had thought of to torture or kill unbelievers nor the number of ways they had thought of to depict it all in paintings and carvings. Afterwards we went to some museum of the politically repressed, but it mostly seemed to contain photos of people who had been killed for treason, for resisting Communist rule or for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As we couldn't read any of the captions on these mugshots, we didn't really take much in.
By now, five O'clock had rolled around so we went to Dave's Place, an open-air English bar on the edge of the main square, for some liquid refreshment. After a couple of drinks, Julia rejoined us. She had been to the International Intellectual Museum (or, if you will, puzzle museum). They had both been previously and, amongst other souvenirs, she had bought a Gaelic-style ring that separated into four pieces, the puzzle being to put it back together again. She had returned because someone had broken her first ring. On each visit she had spent a long time being shown the solution which the pair of them described as being impossible. They gave it to me to try but laughed at me for thinking I had a chance to solve it. Fifteen minutes later I was sharing a table with one solved puzzle and two stunned/gutted girls.
We ate at a rather nice Italian restaurant and then got a taxi to a nightclub we had read about in the guidebook which claimed to have a giant statue of Stalin in the middle of the dancefloor. Not some semi-controversial figure like Trotsky or Lenin mind you, we're talking actual Uncle Joe here! Both club and statue did indeed exist, but it was almost empty and about to close at midnight so we found another bar to eek out another beer each and drain away the last of our energy levels before heading home.
The next day, after another breakfast at Cafe Amsterdam and some time playing Ulaan Baatar's favourite game, Find the Working Cashpoint, we took a taxi to the Black Market. Well, I say taxi, I assume that some taxis do exist in this town. Most of the time you just flag down a normal driver looking for some extra money. In retrospect, the rates they charge are laughably inflated but they're still laughably cheap to us so I guess everyone's a winner. In the case of this taxi, what appeared to be a family of four pulled up. The three women got out and urged the three of us to get in in their place. 'Dad' then left them by the roadside as he drove us to the market for the equivalent of less than a pound (split three ways).
The market itself must have covered some stupid area of land like half a square kilometre or more. It sold every conceivable product from clothes, batteries, material, nails, engine parts, swords, sofas, boilers and Ger tents. There were even bathroom sinks available, although I confess we didn't see any kitchen sinks. I put my utter style ignorance at the mercy of the girls who soon had me decked out in much-needed sunglasses and hat. They busied themselves buying hats and material to take home to make into dresses or cushion covers. The richness and variety of material was stunning, even to me, but each time I tried to help their search by pointing out a pattern that I honestly thought was good, I was greeted with a bigger and more derisory laugh than the previous time. I would have liked to have taken some pictures of it all, but it wasn't really the sort of place to wander around with your camera in your hand.
We went back to the vegetarian restaurant to debrief the experience, which allowed them to fall into their radio personalities;
JULIA: That was the best market in the entire world!
CATHY (slightly firmly): No, it wasn't
This was all the more remarkable given that the former had had her purse pinched, although she was lucky that it was almost empty so she lost just twenty euros and the purse itself. After our late lunch, they went off to pack for their flight to Beijing and I headed back to my hostel to catch up on my sleep. In the evening, who should I randomly bump into for the fourth time on the holiday but Eryk and Daniel from Yekaterinburg and the train to Irkutsk.
Friday morning was the beginning of the Nadaam festival, the reason almost all of us had planned to be in town at this time. It involves the 'three manliest sports' of wrestling, archery and horse riding. More recently, the anklebone game had been added to the agenda. Daniel, Eryk, Susanna and I headed on down to the main square to watch the proceedings begin. A military band were standing around ready for the off, but getting very bored. They were in formation but chatting, standing with hands in their pockets, stretching, texting and even chatting on their mobile phones! Check out the picture I took of two soldiers texting where one of them is looking up at me with a cheeky grin knowing that he's just been caught on camera. When things started, the point of it all was for them to play whilst some cavalry turned up to collect the national standards from the government buildings and then ride off to the national stadium, a kilometre to the south, for the real opening ceremony. All day, the cavalry were followed throughout all their ceremonial duties by two farmer-looking guys on horses who looked totally out of place with the whole thing. When the band began to play, they first marched forward ten paces, which meant launching straight into the unsuspecting crowd who were standing nearby. When they were done, they made a left turn and started marching into the crowd again, oblivious to the people who couldn't get out of the way in time.
With the small formalities over, we walked down to the stadium ourselves. We hadn't got far when we ran into Alan, from the Baikaler hostel in Irkutsk. Ever the enthisiast, he was ecstatic to see us and joined us for the day. Outside the stadium we bought tickets for the section next to Alan, who already had one, and went in. The photos probably explain what took place better than I can. In summary, the cavalry, and their two mysterious stalkers, brought the standards onto the pitch and ceremonially set them up on a stand. The President, flanked by some men carrying briefcases gave a speech that essentially declared the whole thing open and lots of people in bright and no-doubt symbollic costumes entertained us all.
No sooner was everyone (including 80% of the crowd) gone than the wrestlers started coming on. I expect there is a list of things like punching and gouging which are not allowed, but it can be summarised by saying that the first guy to touch the ground with anything other than his hands or feet loses. There were half a dozen bouts going on at any time and each seemed to be a lop-sided contest between a big guy and a little guy, with the latter sitting on his arse in less time than it takes to say "I don't fancy his chances much". Apparently the latter stages can take over ten minutes to decide a winner, but this was the first round with five hundred and twelve taking part. Before and after each bout, both wrestlers prance around on their toes gracefully flapping their arms to mimic an eagle in front of the standards. The losing wrestler must then walk under the winner's arm in a gesture to represent their respect and friendship but which surely just underlines who is boss. Apparently a woman once entered a wrestling competition and won, causing much offence to the men. So, ever since the correct wrestling costume involves a bare chest so they can tell when a woman has infiltrated the contest.
Having seen a few of these and with Eryk and Daniel already off looking at other sports, I went in search of food with Susanna and Alan. While we were sitting up against the outer wall of the stadium eating our snacks, a doddery old local guy came up next to us and put an old desk phone, of the type you would have found in any office fifteen years ago, on the ground. It was a very odd thing to be carrying around and I was thinking to myself how funny it would be if I had had my mobile with me to make a ringing noise and then pick up his phone to talk into it. Suddenly, his phone started ringing! And, to my amazement, with no wires going in or out of it, he picked it up and had a minute's conversation into the handset. Then, chat finished, he put the receiver down, picked up the whole phone again and walked off. I was stunned into laughter by this, although someone told me a few days later that such converted phones, working like a cheap mobile, do exist in these places.
We found the archery stadium and went inside. Groups of up to four archers gather in lanes about six yards wide and take it in turns to shoot at the row of rings (they look like tin cans) at the other end of the lane perhaps seventy yards away. The women stand a few yards in front of the men and I really wouldn't have wanted to have been a woman shooting while a man in the next lane, standing a few yards behind me, fired just past my head. The judges by the targets at the far end were frequently jumping out of the way of stray arrows that came towards them. Alan saw a Dutch couple who had also been at our Irkutsk hostel. They told us that, just before we arrived, some woman official had been hit in the head by an arrow and had to be carried off. The points were blunted, but not with the sort of suckers you have on children's toy arrows. Ouch! We walked down the side of the range for a different view and then stood just behind the targets to see what the judges could see. The arrows seemed invisible in flight to me. I almost jumped out of my skin when one landed with a loud thud a couple of yards from my feet whilst I was looking the other way and we took that as our cue to move on to the anklebone game.
I think in Mongolia, this game is to the other three as darts in the UK is to football & rugby. Each competitor has a piece of wood that looks like a slightly large letter stand in Scrabble. They have a piece of something (bone?) in the shape of a domino. They flick this with their middle finger, using the run of the wood for aiming, at a pair of sheep's ankle bones sitting on a box six yards away. Beyond that, I've got no idea what was going on. When we arrived they were at the semi-final stage. I was able to squat down next to them and stare into their eyes whilst they aimed and eventually took their shots. All around them are doing a nomadic chant in the style of a football crowd doing and ever-louder "ooohhhHHHH" as a goalkeeper gets ready to take a goal kick. The concentration and tension in their faces was incredible.
Finally we walked back into the city. This was no mean achievement for Alan who had hurt his ankle quite badly on the first night of his holiday in Moscow and was still hobbling heavily. We left him near his hostel and then Susanna and I went searching for either of the vegetarian restaurants in town. She is a quiet Italian girl who is making her trip up entirely as she goes along. I can never decide whether I am horrified by her utter lack of planning (she has no form of watch or timepiece with her and got turned away from the Belorussian border and had to redirect through Lithuania because she had no idea that she needed a visa there) or impressed by her initiaive and underlying determination to ensure that everything works out in the end. Both restaurants were shut but, as we turned away from the second, a little old lady urged us to bang on the door anyway. On her advice I tapped gently but she came and rapped on the door. When a waitress opened it she talked them into letting us in anyway even though the chefs had gone home!
Back at the hostel before bed, Daniel had hooked one of the PCs up to Skype where he was having a conversation with his mother which he was quickly regretting. She was strongly warning him to be careful of having drugs planted on him at the Chinese border by the Mongolian drug mafia. None of his increasingly desperate replies could convince her either that Mongolia didn't have a drugs mafia and that, even if it did, they would have nothing to gain by planting drugs on him. Eryk, sitting alongside me on the sofa behind him, just laughed away and explained that his mum always treated him like this.
The traffic in Ulaan Baatar is like nothing else, at least not in my experience. There seem to be no rules on the road, or if there are then no one pays them any attention. Cars just swarm around without waiting to be asked, including often overtaking each other in short bus stops. Traffic lights appear to be optional at best. Crossing the road requires a special kind of bravery. Not the sort of bravery you might associate with making a public speech or doing a bungee jump. More the type of bravery required to drink a litre of bleach or give an untethered bear a hefty kick in the swingers. There are zebra crosings without lights, but these make ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE TO TRAFFIC BEHAVIOUR. It's no good just waiting by the roadside for someone to wave you out, it simply isn't going to happen. You just have to take a deep breath and step out in front of something trusting that it will stop for you. Actually, ignore the bit about the deep breath - the dust and fumes in the city are such that even small breaths around the roadside are unwise and choking. But, stepping out does give you at least a 50-50 chance of the car stopping. There's an art to it, which you soon pick up. However, today we were about to discover that what happens in the city is just scratching the surface of bad driving compared to what can be found outside.
I wanted to go and see the other Naadam event, the horse racing, with Marin and Zoran, two Slovenian guys from the hostel who were a great laugh and often a bit crazy. This took place forty kilometres out of town. They had been researching cars through the agencies and guesthouses who were quoting them seventy-five dollars split betwen however many passengers you had. They wanted me to go in with them but it sounded very expensive and they were getting fobbed off with a load of bullshit by people trying to sell them this deal. To cut a long story short, for once, we ended up waving down a taxi outside our hostel and, from an initial price of twenty-five dollars, agreed a deal of around sixteen dollars to go there.
The roads out of town to the venue were all one lane in each direction. Or, at least, that's how they were built to be used. The reality was completely different. Most of the traffic was going our way so they filled BOTH lanes. Furthermore, the dirt on either side of the road became fully-used third and fourth lanes heading in the same direction. Further-furthermore, when the grass/dirt wider than this allowed it, cars would flood out onto it at full speed to try to make up some precious ground on everyone else. I tried to photograph it but every time I clicked people would dive back into lane or the incredible dust woud mask the worst of it. Take a look at my last traffic photo though; I swear that EVERY SINGLE CAR in this picture is moving as fast as it can to try to overtake us cars on the real road. Every now and again we would pass some poor car heading in the opposite direcion, trying to thread its way through the other cars like a lone buffalo trying to walk against the charging herd.
Once arrived we walked from the car park and were initially slightly worried that everyone else was walking back to the car park. We figured that, although it was only half-past eleven, we had arrived too late to see any racing. They had various other cultural displays in Ger tents and musical performances which were a bit touristy but it was nice enough that they had made the effort. I queued for half an hour for the toilet, which was just a shack with a hole in the ground and a plank either side to stand on. The door for our cubicle had fallen off its hinges so whoever was second in the queue had to prop it up over the doorway on behalf of the person going in. The girl in front of me almost fell down the hole when she went in, which wouldn't have been good. On the plus side, the smell was much better than you might have imagined it to be.
With business taken care of, Marin and Zoran had heard tell that a race was going to take place, so we found a place on the seated grandstand, which was like sitting on a climbing frame and only two seats deep. It took forever for the riders to gather and then trot off to the start line, and so the blood circulation in my bum suffered accordingly as I sat on my two iron bars. We chatted to a French guy who had driven all the way here with his wife on the sort of extended holiday they took all the time. We exchanged stories about people who undertake these long challenges and I mentioned the German guy from Irkutsk who was cycling from Frankfurt to the Chinese Pacific coast, but when he mentioned a fellow Frenchman he had met who was walking from Paris to Beijing, there wasn't really much any of us could add. When he further told us how the aforementioned walker had asked him to look out for a knife he had lost in a clearing by the roadside and how, twenty-four hours later, he had found this knife and planned to return it, all we could do was silently look impressed.
The Nadaam horse races are 10 kilometres long, so it took them a long time to ride off to the start and it was certainly over the distant hilly horizon. I thought were were watching a children's category race but I read later that most of the riders were boys as they are lighter. This was the last year that children as young as five could take part before new safety laws forbid it. Eventually a tiny cloud of dust appeared in the distance which we took to be the race heading towards us. Over the course of the next ten to fifteen minutes it grew bigger until we could make out actual horses. Some guy whipping hell out of his horse came home the clear winner and another hundred or so riders whipping hell out of their horses followed him during the next ten minutes. The Jockey Club would certainly never allow such practice.
We took a final stroll around before trekking back to the car park. We got the impression that our taxi driver from the morning had been planing to wait for us but, not unreasonably, he had gone when we got back so we tried to wave someone down. I think Marin's clean shaven boyish face would have been better suited to convincing someone to let them in their car rather than Zoran's stubble and pained expression that no one was stopping for us, but it was Zoran who insisted on taking the lead in thumbing duties. After ten or so vehicles had passed us by, a people carrier stopped and offered to drive us back for free! There were six people inside and they were obviously doing OK for themselves by Mongolian society standards. The back row was one big seat like in the back of any normal car, so Marin and I just about squeezed in between our two hosts. The middle row was two individual seats so Zoran squeezed himself down onto the floor. Immediately they started offering us bottles of water so, not wanting to look like scroungers, I passed around a large bag of M&Ms, which they duly emptied.
Whereas our morning driver had at least stuck to the tarmacked (sic?) road, our afternoon driver was willing to do anything and everything to get us all back as soon as possible, despite his wife's constant gesticulations that he should stop playing chicken with oncoming traffic and get back into his own lane. The three of us just swapped surrepticious wide-eyed looks at each new manuouvre. He dropped us at the city outskirts by a bus stop. We were walking faster than the crawling traffic so decided to continue on foot for a while, despite the belief of most drivers that our dusty 'pavement' was there for them to overtake on. When the traffic sped up we waved a car down who took us back to our hostel for a small price.
That night was Eryk and Daniel's last in town before they moved on to Beijing so, with Susanna, we went out to a Mongolian barbecue where we later chanced upon an American couple from our hostel that they knew. I have to say that this place was brilliant, partly because it was American-owned so had all the service standards we are used to. You go to the buffet, fill a bowl from the wide selection, including tofu and pasta for the veggies, and fill a little pot with whatever cocktail of sauces you take a fancy to. You can also take an egg. You then take this to the large, circular cooking plate where the chefs cook it up for you with two long prongs and demonstrate their flip-and-catch skills, which were very entertaining even if a lot of food did end up on the floor. The way they gripped the egg between the prongs, broke it on the cooking plate, let the contents fall out and then flipped the shell into the central refuse hole in one fluid movement was particularly impressive and drew a large round of applause when we first saw it. The close proximity of your food to everyone else's and the way it often got mixed was worrying from a vegetarian point of view, but you just had to pretend it wasn't happening.
Over dinner, conversation turned to Jurassic Park and everyone was saying how they were five or seven years old when it came out and how they were too scared to sleep for a week afterwards etc. I said that I had been eighteen and wasn't that impressed with it at the time. "Wow", said Daniel, "Does that mean you remember really old stuff like the fall of Communism?" You should have seen five jaws hit the table when I replied that I remembered the Falklands war.
Nothing much was happening or even open on Sunday so I took the opportunity to lie around in bed and catch up on some sleep. But in the evening we headed out to find Marin and Zoran for a farewell night out as they were due off on a twenty-seven day tour of the country the next morning. We were joined by a Swiss couple who were on the same trip as them and a good time was had by all until we ran out of open bars (which happens earlier than you might imagine in a capital city, unless I'm just looking in all the wrong places). By the next day just about everyone had moved on except Susanna and I who, for different complicated visa-related reasons, had to stay until the start of August. The previously-packed hostel was suddenly looking like a ghost town.
Monday morning I . . . oh, alright, Monday afternoon by the time I had crawled out of bed and showered etc, I walked all the way across town in search of the Marshall Zhukov museum. He was in charge of most of Stalin's armies during the second world war, so could perhaps be credited with saving us all more than anyone else (forgive me if my memory is making me in any way factually inaccurate here). Basically, I couldn't find it and blame a slightly-misleading map in the guidebook, but I later saw another map which suggested it was a little bit further along so hopefully I will get the chance to try again before I leave the country.
But, this was a two-pronged plan so I was still nearby the 'puzzle' museum. This is run by an old Mongolian man who could reasonably claim to be the world leader in making these sort or wooden or metal puzzles such as build the 3D shape or separate the two rings etc. He is five times the winner of the top prize at the international puzzle convention, the guide proudly told us. The man himself, although speaking no English, made an appearance during our tour to show us a few little tricks. Mongolia has strong links with the US, who presumably have their beady eyes on some natural resource or other, so George Bush has made an official visit to the country. In a faux pas of international relations surely the equal of Silvio Berlosconi making a pass at the Finnish Prime Minister, they decided to take him to see this place, the International Intellectual Museum. There's a lovely picture of him on the wall looking very confused.
In the gift shop afterwards, the guide showed me the puzzle of the ring that split into four pieces. After asking if she remembered two English girls a few days previous who had spent a lot of time having this demonstrated to them, I was able to proudly declare that I had solved it by myself. She replied that dismissively that "it's not such a difficult puzzle", thereby denting the egos of all concerned. On the way out to eat that night, we ran into Alan again. We were moaning about our hostel and he was raving about his so he took us back to take a look. "Bollod's" was not as modern or big but it was centrally located on the main square, was very friendly and, luxury of luxuries, it even had a lock on the toilet door. I resolved to move there once my week at Idre's was over on Wednesday. Bolod had also arranged for Alan to take a day trip into the countryside where you can fire various big guns, drive a tank and fire a grenade launcher. I resolved to book myself on the same trip.
By Tuesday I had decided that I really needed to do something about learning Chinese before I go there so I had announced that I would spent sixty minutes each day, or perhaps thirty, listening to my teaching CDs on the iPod. So I sat myself down in Cafe Amsterdam and wore a perplexed expression whilst eating a sandwich. I also used this otherwise uneventful day to take a parcel to the post office to send back to the UK, which was a minor adventure of its own.
In the evening, Susanna and I found an 'authentic hotpot' restaurant, which was very nicely done out inside indeed. The way this was supposed to work is that you ordered a soup which boiled on a little gas stove on your table. You also ordered a selection of bits and pieces and a sauce. You then put the bits and pieces into the boiling soup where they cook before spooning it back out and eating it with the sauce you ordered. Except, we had no idea how any of this worked and proceeded to make idiots of ourselves whilst the waiting staff did their utmost not to lose their patience with us. First of all, we didn't understand the fundamental importance of the soup in the whole exercise so couldn't understand why they insisted that we order some. This was further complicated by the fact that they didn't understand that we were vegetarian ("Try beef broth, it is better for vegetarians"). The cherry on the top was that we had to eat with chopsticks, which strikes me as the best dietary aid since sewing your mouth up. All of this made me look like Mr Bean, I was helpfully informed. Apparently, this is a lot of fun to cook you own food. I simply can't agree. If you want a cushy job, I recommend working as a chef in one of these places. Once you've chopped everything up, there's nothing left to do except sit back, listen to the radio and smoke cigars. We were fairly late eating there by local standards, so when it came to ordering a dessert, everything was unavailable except the ice cream, presumably because the chefs had finished for the night but ice cream only involves scooping. Well, you can't blame them. I expect they'd had a long, hard day, the poor lambs.