Rounding the World – Day 30: Ulan Bator, Mongolia

I awoke to the sun gently shining into to my private room as I stretched completely to fill the King size bed enjoying the fluffy pillows and soft mattress. The simple things like a real toilet and a real shower were like music to my ears. I spent the morning catching up on writing, emails, chatting with friends, family, etc. In my frenzied excitement to finally unpack the day before, the room was cluttered with piles of stuff everywhere. After organizing the chaos it was time to start the day.

Snow was falling on the city and the side walks were slick. Temperatures were in the high 20s Fahrenheit though with the wind, it felt much colder. A block away from the hostel was the State Department Store, which consisted of a mix of nice looking vendor stalls selling everything from flowers to electronics to make-up to clothing. On the 1st floor (ground floor being 0) was the tourist information center where I was able to purchase a map of the city and get tips on how to navigate between the sites without using a taxi.

The snow was coming down thicker, everyone bundled up to their eyes. I tucked into a coffee shop for a warm latte and waffle. The hot latte came with a straw, one of those skinny kind like the red ones used to stir coffee but larger. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I used it to drink out of my latte cup. Foreigners! The Suhbaatar Square was a slippery mess with the snow, the soft shiny stone made every step a challenge not to slip and fall. In the middle was a statue of a man on a horse and the words ‘SATAN’ written in snow. Hmm…

The main site in the square is the Government House which showcases the history of Mongolia. As it was closed, I tip toed back through the icy square to a public restroom which for 300 MNT you could use, though it doesn’t get you toilet paper, hand soap or water for the sink. Alas. I made my way down Chinggis Avenue where just past the KFC, yes, they are everywhere, was the bus stop for the #55 bus. Huddled outside in the windy cold, I was the only westerner. It took about 15 min for the bus to arrive, I put my 500 MNT bill in the box, and grabbed the pole wondering how on earth I’d figure out when my stop is.

The bus sped through the snow and the traffic across the Dund river, over Peace Bridge, past the Central Stadium. At the first stop it made, it felt like it might be right so I tried to ask the driver ‘Temple Tiim?’ though all attempts to communicate weren’t effective. I got off anyway, hopeful it was right or at least a short walk to right. Just across Niislel Huree Avenue, a major intersection, I dodged through traffic and made my way to the Bogd Khaan Palace.

Wind was whipping and the snow was falling, the temple was outdoor and practically empty. I purchased my ticket and ducked into the Winter Palace to see the indoor display of artifacts from the King and Queen. Ornate wood beds, their stuffed animal collection, outfits, etc. On the main floor was a display of a yurt made entirely out of leopard fur, inside looked like a high end gypsy camp with trunks and metal cups, colorful rugs, and teak furniture. Outside the palace was a walled off temple with an ornate oriental looking entrance gate.

Inside the gate felt like a mini version of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing with temple after courtyard after temple after courtyard. Inside each of the temples were freezing cold rooms containing Buddha prints and statues. The soft white snow coated the roofs and walkways just outside. I could only imagine how beautiful it must have been hundreds of years ago when it was fully functioning. Or in the summer – ha!

I waited for bus #55 to the Burhan Buddha Memorial outside in the cold as the snow fell so hard it was difficult to keep my eyes open. 10 min later, no bus. 20 min later, no bus. My toes were getting cold. With my cell phone broken, the only reference I had was the tiny map I purchased at the State Department Store – maybe I could walk? 30 min later, no bus. The wind was whipping hard and I was cold and determined as I made my way walking down Zaysan Street and across Zaysan Bridge. The Mongolian locals were walking at a snails pace as if they had all the time in the world and didn’t mind the cold, I on the other hand was on a mission to minimize exposure in the cold by speed walking as fast as possible to the Buddha.

The Burhan Buddha was perched up on a small hill in a large golden form. Without any trees around the wind and snow was coming in hard as I walked around the complex. Having come all this way, despite what a horrible weather day it was, I was determined to climb to the top of the Zaysan Tolgoy Memorial just behind the Buddha. At the very top of the hill the memorial has views of the entire city. The climb up wasn’t too bad as I was bundled to the gills and kept my head down to avoid the wind and focus on not slipping.

At the peak was the most impressive views of the city, expansive and beautiful. The wind was absolutely wicked. After my cell phone fell in the Terejl it was only partially functional requiring about 10-15 tries over a 5 min period to get one single photo. Not ideal, but since my Nikon was completely broken this is what I had to work with. Having walked all the way up, I was going to get the phone to work, though after about 30 sec the cold was so intense my fingers could barely function. Losing heat in my fingers made trying to get the phone to take a photo even more challenging. I wrapped my hands in my scarf and tried again and about 10 min of absolutely bone chilling brutal cold later, my phone finally appeased me and took the darn photo. Seconds later I was bounding down the hill to get out of the intense wind.

I hopped on bus #55 back into the center of the city, the only westerner on the bus. Constantly scanning the surrounding for things that looked familiar I recognized my original stop and got off. Nearby was the famous Blue Sky Lounge on the top floor of a skyscraper in the center of the town with notable views. After having taken only a small number of marginal photos on the hill, despite the effort, I was hopeful of getting a few more in the warmth of a building, though they were closed. Wandering around inside the building to escape the cold I stumbled on a hair salon. Hmm… It has been a year since I got my hair cut.

Curiosity won me over and I walked in. Despite all the English signs saying hair cut, hair salon, open hours, etc. no one in the entire place spoke English. Good thing I’m not fussy about my hair. I lifted my hair up, made the motion of scissors trimming, followed by the motion of how much money. She grabbed a calculator and typed 35,200. About $18 USD. Done. As I waited on the couch scanning the magazines for a photo of a haircut that could work so there would be a visual, I was hard pressed to find one. It will be an adventure.

They took my coat and put it in a coat closet and then walked me to the sink to wash my hair. She didn’t use conditioner and I knew it wouldn’t take long before she’d realize it’s someone with my hair type that spawned the creation of conditioner. She fought with my hair for about 15 min trying to untangle it, obviously not a common hair type. Eventually it was tamed and she trimmed my hair much like any western salon. In my peripheral vision I could see the various Mongolians in the place curiously looking to see how this was going. It’s very possible I was the first naturally light hair she’d cut, this lady was young, like I could have given birth to her young. I wasn’t sure if tipping was normal, so I gave her one and she lit up with all smiles then immediately called someone on her cell phone and frantically said good bye to me. It was cute.

The sun had began to set and the deep chill of the evening was seeping in. I sped walked the 20 min back to the Hostel so I could confirm my taxi for the morning and get sorted for the evening. Having had such great luck with Google Maps reviews the prior night, I tried Caucias for dinner. It was a 10 min walk from the hotel with only one huge avenue to cross that had an underpass so seemed like a good choice for the night.

Inside they asked to take my coat and then sat me in the back of the restaurant. There was a TV on with something that appeared like a Mongolian Disney channel of sorts, likely to entertain the kiddos while the parents eat. The menu was in Russian and Mongolian though luckily it had pictures and stickers saying if it was fish, chicken, beef, or vegetarian. When the waitress came by, I pointed at the chicken with vegetables, the bottle of water, and the glass of white wine. The venue was only a quarter full and I was the only westerner in the place. No one spoke English, though the waitress did a great job with hand gestures.

Exhausted from a day of fighting the bitter cold weather, I slushed through the snow back to the hostel and fell soundly asleep.



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