Ulaan Baatar - Bolod's
'Ballbreaker' - AC/DC
On Wednesday morning, having completed the week I had arranged to stay there, I packed my bags from Idre's Guesthouse and walked into town towards Bolod's Guesthouse and checked in. It may have been more basic but it was much more friendly and this rubbed off on the residents as well who all hit it off very well. I earned myself a few goodwill points with Bolod himself by spending my first three hours there trying in vain to fix his PC for him. In truth, I actually only spent about twenty minutes doing this and the rest of the time keeping an eye on it while a de-frag ran, but he was duly impressed which is all that counts. For the record, the PC had to be taken back to the shop a couple of days later and rebuilt for him.
I spent some of the rest of the day further confusing myself with the Learn Chinese CDs in Cafe Amsterdam, but can at least count to ten badly now. After updating my blog in an internet cafe that actually works and getting a cheap pizza for dinner, I found a film crew shooting what was possibly the Mongolian Matrix in an alleyway on the way home. A local girl, looking increasingly bored as the same shot was refilmed dozens of times, was dressed up in a jump suit, a blong bob wig and long, leather coat. She was attached to a couple of ropes from a mini crane. Each time she had to run at a wall at an angle such that she ran up the wall and along it horizontally. A couple of crew pulling on the other end of the ropes allowed her to defy gravity to do this. Back at the hostel I found my top bunk squeaked a bit, so felt very sorry for the girl sleeping underneath every time I rolled over in bed.
The next day was tank day. Sam, an American guy in our room, was up for it. Robert, an English guy from Norwich had umm-ed and err-ed for ages before deciding to take the plunge and join. This meant, with a minimum of three people bringing the costs down, I had agreed to go along. When we were arranging it with Bolod, at one point he said "Wait one minute, I will call my tank friend". I thought "Wow, I wish I had a 'tank friend'". By the time we set off the following morning, we were joined by the girl from the bunk beneath me, who turned out to be called Genevieve ("My friends call me 'Gen', but my [Chicago] ganster name is 'Vi-Vi Sweetcheeks'") and also from Norwich.
Our driver was called Dawa and he had already driven Sam and Robert around for a few days on another trip. On our way out of town we stopped at his home to collect some water where we couldn't resist photographing him with his grand-daughter. It has to be said that all Mongolians look absolutely adorable when they're toddlers. We stopped again to grab some food and water at an indoor market place where I got, amongst a couple of other things, a huge slice of water melon. The journey then proceeded along proper roads and then for half an hour along very slow, bumpy tracks across the plains.
Eventually we arrived at a small millitary compound where Dawa got out to speak to a couple of soldiers. "This is all very official" said Robert, completely misunderstanding the situation. Dawa and a soldier rejoined us and we were driven around the back and walked into the compound itself. We were invited to climb over and into a little tank which we assumed we would be driving. Whilst doing this, someone started up one of the bigger tanks and took it over to the petrol pump for refueling. This was our real vehicle! We clambered around and took snaps of each other. I have loads of the others but need to pursue them to get hold of the pictures of me. Fueled up, they drove us outside while we sat at on top clinging on to whatever we could. One at a time we then got into the driver's seat, had some basic instructions involving pointing and not much else, then got to drive it for a kilometer or so. During the first changeover, Gen had sat astride the big gun and asked me to take a picture of her in silly pose on it. I was leaning backwards, right off the front of the tank trying to get her and the gun in the same shot when suddenly Robert started moving it with a jolt. I half fell and had to grab hold of the gun for dear life to avoid falling under the front of the moving hunk of iron - there was no way back from falling off the front of that thing.
My turn came last. Sam had weaved all over, and off, the road but had claimed to be doing so deliberately for the sake of fun and I more or less intended to do the same. Everything happens with a jolt on this thing, particularly the steering. You have two steering levers; one for left and one for right. There are no degrees of left or right, just left or right. So, you yank the heavy lever and as soon as it's in place the whole thing suddenly lurches left until you yank the lever back into its normal position and so on. I did my best to keep the foot to the metal at all times and to aim at anything that looked remotely bumpy or muddy. I didn't want to go too far though because I would have felt a bit morally culpable if I'd bounced one of the others off the side or, worse still, the front. I was suitably proud when Dawa declared me the worst driver of the four. We assumed that he was ex-army to have organised the trip and to have ridden with us telling us where to have fun sitting etc.
We were supposed to be firing guns and rockets after that but for reasons no one knew we were just ushered back into the van afterwards and driven home. My water melon tasted sour but I had kept it to try to use as an alternative gun target, not that this ever happened. On the way, Dawa stopped off at a ger to see a family he knew. We were all taken aback to find that the man of the household was wearing lipstick. I wondered if this was normal but all of the others had stayed with families in gers before and assured me it was not. They invited us inside and gave us biscuits and local yoghurt. After we had finished eating I noticed a couple of badminton rackets on the floor so started miming using them making a clicking noise in my mouth to represent the shots. The two boys grabbed them and an old shuttlecock and we were taken outside to play with them for a while. After that it was back into town and as I rode along I tried to take some snaps of the suburban scenery and the locals, some of which worked better than others. I shouldn't fill my blog with other people's stories but back at the hostel I heard of someone who got a bus back from the market. We've all seen conductors arguing with passengers before but she saw these two, both women, rolling around on the floor fighting, covered in each other's blood with no one, including the driver, doing anything about it!
In the evening, most of the hostel went out to a Mongolian barbecue restaurant. It turns out that this idea is an American invention, not Mongolian, after all. By now, the hostel had been joined by Susanna and Michelle, both making their grateful escapes from Idre's, and a Japanese guy who we all found very entertaining. He plans to travel the world for two years but so far has only been going for a week. He has a couple of percussion instruments hanging from his waist at all times which he let us try. Each one is two large hollow nuts, nearly a couple inches in diameter, connected by four inches of string. Each nut makes a sound like a maracca when shaken. He also mentioned that he had a drum in his bag. Most of us left home agonising about whether we had room for an extra pair of socks or spare bar of soap in our backpacks, but this drum was bloody enormous! It was fairly heavy too. He also had a snorkel tube and snorkel mask in there. One assumes he didn't pack any clothes before he went away.
The night ended up in a bar then another bar that was shut but still willing to serve us. All the while drinking Chinggis Beer and Chinggis Vodka. There is an open manhole near our hostel with a clear six-foot drop underneath it. In the daytime it is pretty dangerous but at night I almost emptied myself into it. I was walking back to the hostel with a couple of the others, looking right talking to them, when one of them grabbed me and pulled me out of the way a couple of seconds before I put my first foot into it.
The next day most of us did very little other than sleep off the night before. I tried to go out and run a few errands but was back in bed with half of them complete. Frank and Melissa, an Australian couple, went off to get their first tattoos. I was sitting with them just beforehand in Cafe Amsterdam and Frank, who was getting quite a big one, was perhaps a bit apprehensive about it. They both looked great afterwards though.
The next morning I was up early to get clothes washing and other jobs done before I was picked up to go on a 5-day horse trek at 15:30. I'd been up nearly an hour and was going back into the bathroom to set up the rinse cycle on my clothes when I found Frank, who confessed that he'd just broken the toilet. He'd pulled the stopper on the top to flush the loo but it had come off in his hands. We took it apart and I think we accidentally flushed something important away in the process. It was old and rusty inside but I held the ballcock lever up to stop the flow of water while Frank tried to fix it manually. Bolod came along so we were just telling him what had happened when the ballcock lever came off in my hands! Water started jetting out of the valve now, hitting the other side of the tank and then spraying back all over the bathroom. I tried to block the jet a bit with my thumb while the three of us frantically tried to find which tap underneath turned off the water supply. Afterwards, we had to turn the water off for the entire hostel while Bolod telephoned, on a weekend, for someone to come out and fix it all. He was able to turn it back on a a dribble so I could eventually refill the washing machine to rinse my clothes, but everyone has no shower and no toilet there now.
It is customary to buy gifts for the families who will host you in their gers on trips, so I headed out to buy some before I was picked up. I think we'll be staying with about four families during the course. One thing they keep on telling you is a good gift is toothbrushes, but I can't help but feel that they get swamped with more of them than they know what to do with, a bit like the Dennis Moore sketch in Monty Python where the dandy highwayman, John Cleese, robs nothing but lupins from the rich to bring to the poverty-stricken peasant, Michael Palin, and his wife, Terry Jones, in their mud hut...
CLEESE: I've brought you something.
PALIN: Medicine at last?
PALIN: Some blankets perhaps... clothes... wood for the fire...
CLEESE: No. Lupins!
PALIN (exploding): Oh Christ!
CLEESE (astonished): I thought you liked them.
PALIN: I'm sick to bloody death of them.
JONES: So am I.
PALIN: She's bloody dying and all you bring us is lupins. All we've eaten mate for the last four bleeding weeks is lupin soup, roast lupin, steamed lupin, braised lupin in lupin sauce, lupin in the basket with sauted lupins, lupin meringue pie, lupin sorbet... we sit on lupins, we sleep in lupins, we feed the cat on lupins, we burn lupins, we even wear the bloody things!
Perhaps this was why every shop I went into was sold out of them as they all seemed to have many ranges of toothpaste but no actual toothbrushes. In the event I got a couple of bags of rice, an couple of small bottles of Chinggis Vodka, some crayons and drawing paper and, after all, four lupins.