Ulaan Baatar - Bolod's 2
'Thirty-Three' - The Smashing Pumpkins
Getting back from the horse trekking, there were several things I hadn't done for a few days. The most obvious of these was washing or, for the best part, changing clothes. We thought that we were bearing up pretty well to the whole body-odour situation but, when we asked Mendee as he drove us back, we could tell from the polite way he replied that we smelt a bit, that we absolutely stank. Immediately upon getting back to Bolod's, I headed for the shower. Inside the bathroom, I realised that something else I hadn't done for five days was see myself in the mirror. I was aware that my hair was a bit longer and remembered during the galloping that this was the first time I had felt it being long enough to blow in the wind. I guess I was also aware that, at fourteen and a half days since my last shave and with nine days being my previous maximum, I would have longer stubble than before. But, it came as a total shock to suddenly see this bearded creature looking back at me in the mirror. I immediately ran into our dorm room to exclaim "I've got a beard!!!", but Susanna and and Iseult just looked at each other and greeted me with a puzzled "Yeah...".
It took ages to hack it all off in the shower and the razor was as blunt as a spatula afterwards. Dan and John were not happy about this when we saw them the next night, having never encountered me clean-shaven before. "You don't look right without it, you could have called us first before you shaved it off, you didn't even send an email!" Later that night, John confided "Between you and me Chris, I've been talking to the girls about this, and they preferred you with the beard also." Actually, he probably didn't call me Chris, as the pair of them mostly called me Craig, Colin or Conan. Don't ask.
At Bolod's, he has two rooms sleeping seven and eight people respectively. He, his two sons and his nephew all sleep on two shelves behind a makeshift curtain in the hallway. When I arrived back a day early, he wasn't expecting me so had no beds available. I don't know if he thought this was his fault or if he just felt added responsibility to a returning customer, but he immediately insisted that I sleep on his shelf for the night. He assured me not to worry about him as he had another apartment to go back to instead, but I have since heard stories of him and the boys sleeping in the car outside before so I don't really know for certain.
Susanna and I ate that night at the other vegetarian restaurant in the town. It was an odd place that you had to walk through a clothes shop and up some stairs at the back to get to. Once up there, it was a normal well-kept restaurant. Eating in Ulaan Baatar always ends early and this place more than most. They were less than subtle about getting us to finish up our deserts and go, turning all the other lights out, getting changed out of their waitress clothes and waiting in a big group by the door for the last ten minutes until we left.
The next night we had a horse-trek reunion, this time with Frank coming along too. We had all got on exceptionally well as a group but, sadly, this was less of a reunion and more of a final fling as John and Dan were flying on to Beijing the next morning. On the plus side, this was as funny and fun a night out as there has ever been. Almost all of which comes under the category of 'you had to be there'. They were staying at our old haunt of Idre's so Jo and I got down there to meet them a little after seven. It transpired that Frank and Mel had met them by accident at lunchtime and they had all been drinking since and were very well oiled already. I didn't really want to go inside in case Idre himself saw me and asked why I was back in town but not staying at his place (the Englishman in me wanting to avoid complaints and arguments at all times). John assured me that Idre was out so I went in and, sure enough, Idre came straight out of his office, saw me, and said hello. We waited a while for everyone to get ready to go out and, after someone had warned us about talking loudly because "it's a quarter to eight!", we headed to BD's Mongolian barbecue.
A good night of beer was had there by all. John and Dan always speak to each other by name. EG: "Would you like another beer John?"; "I would Dan"; "I'll get a round in shortly John"; "Thanks Dan". I don't know if this was an Australian thing or just something between the two of them. Certainly they said that no one had pointed this out to them before. It took me nearly two weeks to get out of the habit of calling everyone by name after they had gone.
We left BD's (when we were asked to by the staff) at closing time. Looking for a club we made a random choice from the map, kidding ourselves that it was scientifically selected. However, once all six of us had crammed into one taxi, one in the front, five on top of each other gasping for air in the back, the driver couldn't understand where we wanted to go and the person I shall not name who had our map refused to hand it over insisting that we didn't need it. We roamed aroud town for a while destroying his rear suspension and taking a couple of U-turns. Eventually, he stopped to ask for directions, initially to the driver of another parked car. We amused ourselves in the taxi for a while and I let blood flow around Dan's legs again when I was able to crawl over the back seat and into the boot. Much waiting later, Dan got very fed up and, ignoring our calls to calm down and get back in the car, stormed off to remonstrate with the Mongolian he assumed to be our driver who was standing by the other car socially chatting to someone inside. He gave this bemused guy a piece of his mind and then stomped back into our taxi. Moments later, our real driver emerged from a nearby bar having worked out the real directions and Dan realised he had just abused a random stranger.
Shortly afterwards, we were dropped by a hotel and walked up to the club down the road. Inside, it was nearly empty with just a dozen or so other patrons. Instantly Dan livened the place up by charging to the open dancefloor and breakdancing on his spinning shoulders, to the cheering delight of everyone else there. John and Mel, with a little less enthusiasm but a little more technique, were able to repeat the same trick later. We stayed until after midnight, at which point it became Mel's birthday, but left when it shut some time nearer one. Outside working out how we were going to get home, a Mongolian guy rushed out to us, asking for our help. He was in the upstairs kareoke bar and wanted English people to help him sing an English song. With varying levels of enthusiasm, we followed him back in. We waited a few songs for something to happen but it was pretty dead up there. I personally decided I'd had enough when he seemed to think I should be impressed that he loved Liverpool Football Club in general and Steven Gerrard in particular. Back outside, everyone sobered up a bit when we saw some people gathered around the all-night mini-market who dropped a baby on the ground. It went silent for twenty seconds while some woman tried to help it by holding its torso under each of its arms and shaking it as hard as she could. It started screaming again, which was progress, so we went back to the hotel down the road to call for a taxi.
I shared a ride with John and Dan. Jo had booked into Bolod's but he had no room when she arrived earlier so she booked into a hostel above it and found herself the only guest. In fact, the owner gave her the key late in the afternoon saying "I've had enough, I'm going home, don't let anyone else in, I'll be back tomorrow". So, the plan was of course to go back there and drink some more. The three of us went up and knocked on the door but there was no answer. In retrospect, the other three were inside but we didn't knock hard enough so after waiting some more the brothers decided that it was too late, we said our goodbyes and they headed off to their own hostel, apparently getting lost on the way. I tried the door again whilst brushing my teeth and found the other three, but was tired myself so ducked out of the card game and went to my own bed also.
To many vegetables at the eat-all-you-can barbecue the night before had me on the toilet for most of the next day and eating very little. The four of us remaining (Mel, Frank & Jo) went to the cinema to see Kung Fu Panda, which was actually pretty good. Jo got a bit carried away struggling to hold back the tears at the 'sad' bit. Beforehand I had been sitting in Bolod's kitchen with Susanna and three others wondering whether to join them on a three-day trip into the coutryside the next morning, but realised that this just wasn't realistic if I couldn't hold more than a biscuit in my stomach yet, so declined.
Saturday was my birthday, hitting the big three-three. We went to Dave's Place, on the edge of the main square, for lunch and a bit of cards and were still there ten hours later. I had been taught to play '500' at Mendee's camp after we finished our trek and a very good game it was too. Near the end of today I was taught the staple card game of travellers the world over: 'Shithead'. Initially I had wanted to avoid learning this. Partly because playing it is such a travelling cliche, partly because the name just doesn't sound as ironic as some people would like to think it does. Having played it a few times, I can now add to that list of reasons the fact that it just isn't a very good game. We had plenty of stodgy food with English breakfasts and egg baguettes for lunch and dinner, so I felt confident that there was no way my stomach could turn that lot into diarrhea. We moved to another bar for one last drink before bedtime but we were all very tired by then. A very relaxing and enjoyable way to spend the special day.
On Sunday, Jo and I went back to the cinema to see 'Wanted'. I read a review afterwards saying it was like a political broadcast on behalf of the mysogynist party and it is hard to disagree. Throughout the horse trekking and subsequent days, Jo had been leading Mel and herself in singing a sing I hadn't heard before with a chorus that goes "If you like pina coladas...". They didn't sing it badly, but it struck me as a pretty awful song. They did, however, sing it incessantly. My good friend Wikipedia showed me that it was 'Escape (The Pina Colada Song)' by Rupert Holmes, a cheesy hit from the end of the seventies. Imagine our surprise when it turned up inthe middle of this movie as part of the soundtrack. Oh, how we laughed...
By now, we were all increasingly just marking time in the city as we all waited to move on to other places one by one. Enjoying ourselves, but more in a hanging-out kind of way than sightseeing or having new experiences. I didn't ever dislike the place or being there, but it becomes harder and harder to find a restaurant that you aren't bored of or to find a good reason to get out of bed in the morning.
There were four Dutch girls in the hostel on Monday night. A couple of us were talking in the kitchen about Russia. First we were talking about how it had done more to win the second world war than anyone else, contrary to what we are taught in Western Europe or America. Then we moved towards how they had stitched up Poland at the end of the war. Bolod overheard this last bit and it obviously pressed one of his buttons as he launched into a fifteen-minute speech about the unfairly-bad reputation that Russia has. It seems that she has become very unfashionable in modern Mongolia, as Mongols seek to align themselves with useful business relationships in Japan and America. He gave the example of the war in the early thirties when Russians had bravely fought alongside Mongolia against Japan, sometimes apparently insisting that they go into battle first as there were more of them so their country could afford to lose soldiers whereas less-populated Mongolia could not. Now, the Japanese war cemetary in the country is beautifully maintained whereas the Russian cemetary has fallen into disrepair and all useful pieces of metal etc have been looted. He also bemoaned the myth that Russia had destroyed the country's 700 monastries. Granted, they had disbanded them, but he felt this was necessary to end the unsustainable situation where 44% of the male population were monks. But, he explained, he had personally researched the matter and discovered that they had not destroyed the monastries themselves as this was pointless and impractical. This act had been carried out by Mongols looking to use whatever building materials and contents they could for their own purposes.
Afterwards, a couple of the girls and I went out to one of the vegetarian restaurants. I must have eaten the entire menu at this place during my stay in this city and this was my second visit there of the day. One of them, Charlie, was training to be a doctor. She told me how they had been staying in a family's ger camp a few days previous when she had been awoken at three in the morning because an old woman of the family in another ger was having some kind of fit. They knew of her education and hoped she might be able to help. Slightly scarily, she found herself examing this woman in the early hours, surrounded by concerned relatives, with no medical supplies beyond her personal first aid kit and knowing she was still unqualified. If it was a heart attack, she knew that her asprin might help a bit. If it was a stroke, she knew that this could only make it work. Fortunately the woman had seemed to have got better after fifteen minutes or so.
Susanna had received contact from home a few days previous meaning she had to end her journey and fly back to Portugal for at least a few months. Tuesday was the first flight she was able to book so that morning I helped her with her bags (Lord only knows what she was carrying in them - they were solid and heavy as bricks!) to the bus and on to the airport. It was slightly small and pokey, as you might expect of a place that only flies to about ten different destinations, but once inside you could ignore the old looking surroundings or the dirt track you had to walk up to get there from the bus stop. Frank and Mel wanted to collect their Indian visas that morning and then book flights out later the same day, so my plan was to log on to the internet at the airport, find out when they were flying and wait for them there to see them off also. It transpired that the airport had no internet cafe. When I got back to the hostel it further transpired that that their visas had suffered an umpteenth delay so they were not flying for two more days anyway. We played cards in the hostel with some music from the iPod and mini-speakers and then went to a crumby cafe for crumby food. We were even less impressed when some poor young waiter was sent over to tell us we were not allowed to play cards there! We then went to the bar underneath the window of our hostel room and played more cards and provided the pub music for everyone with our speakers. By now I was getting the hang of this 500 game and won both games.
With days in the city running out, not to mention friends, I tried to get out and do a few things. I went looking for a bike hire place from the guide book but drew a blank. I did find some old steam locomotives on display though, so it wasn't a complete loss. I then took the long, hot walk across town to the Marshall Zhukov museum. I had looked for it before without success but had seen it on a better map afterwards so came back again. This time I found it and it was only a few yards beyond the point where I had given up before. Inside was pretty small and all in Russian, but the pictures and display items were interesting and I managed to kill forty minutes there as the woman who ran the place occasionally disurbed the silence with her fly swat. Best of all, it was icily air-conditioned and cooled me right down. Walking outside afterwards, the wall of heat hit me hard as soon as I stepped through the doorway.
I spent a few hours on the internet on the way back to the hostel where Frank and Mel told me they had met the Americans, Sam and Lizzie, from Mendee's camp earlier in the day and arranged for us to all meet them that night for a drink. We headed out with Jo and a French girl called Emi to this brewery which was popular with the ex-pats. The 1-litre beer glasses were huge and heavy but very cool. Afterwards Sam and Lizzie had to go as they had work the next day, but they recommended a good club and put the five of us in a pair of taxis.
Club Metropolis was a bright, airy place with decor that reminded me of the Korova milk bar in A Clockwork Orange. Being a group of westerners and not afraid of smiling (OK, grinning, after we'd had a few to drink) to express that we were having a good time, we become the coolest people in the joint. On the front of the stage were Mongolian guys, often wearing sungalsses and dressed like a bad boyband, striking a series of odd, slow poses with pouted lips and outstretched arms. In fairness, when we were dancing near them they were very friendly and pulled us all up to join them. There was an odd bit when the music stopped, everyone filed towards the exits then, five minutes later, it all started again and everyone rushed back in. At the end of the night we got in two taxis back to our hostel, with me sharing with two locals. Spying a westerner (me) in his car, the driver gave us the inflated price of 5,000 togroks rather than 2,000. None of us were having this and it turned into a long, spirited argument outside the car, with the driver trying to push me back inside a couple of times. Other taxi drivers pulled over and got out to stand by the side. I wasn't really sure if they were there to provide moral support to a fellow driver or to try to pick up a spare fare if we still needed to go somewhere. Sensing it was going to turn nasty, I ambled casually into the hostel to get Frank but found no one there (they had all gone for something to eat). Fortunately, by the time I got back over the road the driver had disappeared, refusing to accept even the reduced offer of 2,000. So, back to bed it was at about four AM.
Unsurprisingly, the next day was hangover day for all of us. Sam walked past us while we ate and played cards at Dave's Place, so we called him up to join us for his lunch hour. Either side of that, I completed a walloping victory at 500 before any of the others could even score a point. Mel, Frank and Jo were all due out of town the next day so we went back to BD's for one final time with Emi and two French guys she had just arranged to take a trip with. No one was drinking tonight, although it was still a merry old time. We really were marking time in the city by now.
Mel & Frank left the next morning to catch their flight, via Beijing, to India where they will spend a few months. Great people, both of them, who I am sure I will see again, even more so as they plan to spend twelves months in London in the next couple of years. I spent the afternoon at the Brewery bar eating a smashing vegetable combo platter and finally writing a pile of postcards I had promised to everyone who gave me their address. That evening Jo left to go to the station to catch her train into Russia leaving me the only person from the group still in town . . . or so I thought. An hour later she was back, having realised when she went to board the train that she had left her passport in the bank earlier in the day. So, minutes after getting back from the takeaway pizza place, I was walking her back there to get some late-night food of her own.
On Saturday I finally visited the main monastry and took various pictures of it, but not of the 26.5m tall gold-plated bronze Buddha which cost extra to photograph. It is still an active monastry so most of the building I went into had around a dozen monks chanting away. Most of them were just boys, a number of whom weren't chanting but were just looking around bemused or whispering to each other. In one building a public service was taking place where many people had bought gifts which were all placed at the front by the statues. Most of these gifts were cakes and biscuits. One woman took up a bottle of vodka, from which she was careful to remove the cap before placing it down. Presumably the monks party on all this stuff every night.
Afterwards I had a cracking Chinese from a bar just over the road from Bolod's that I wished I had discovered earlier and then bought some food for my train journey. I bought Bolod and his boys a tin of biscuits with pictures of English horse guards on it, which he seemed suitably happy with. Jo headed off to the train station, having found her passport but lost her camera during the day, and didn't return so she probably made it this time. My room at the hostel, which had mostly had all eight beds full, was now totally empty as I laid down for my final night.
On the one had, it would be easy to say that I spent too much time in Mongolia. Easy because it was true. On the other hand, it would have been better if I had organised myself to get out of the city and do more. I had only stayed in the country due to complications in the planning stage with my Chinese visa and it was interesting to become a local bum in a strange place rather than just a sightseer making a whistlestop tour of the primary tourist attractions. Also, I did meet some fabulous people and have the time to get to know them in a way that I might not have done if I had spent less time with them. Hitting China reminded me though that I was on this trip to see bright new sights and not to kill time as I had been.