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Trip 3 -- Mongolia to Eastern Europe

Part 1: Mongolia (16 Sep to 24 Sep 1999)

Exchange rate: US$1 = 1000 Mongolian tögrögs (MNT)

16 Sep
Subway: C and A lines, 50 St to Howard Beach-JFK Airport
(21:05; 1h 8m; $1.36)
I called Asiana every few hours that day, and every time, I was told that the flight would be leaving on time. Hurricane Floyd picked 16 September to stir up trouble in New York City, delaying flights at all of the New York-area airports and leading my co-workers and myself to doubt that I'd get off the ground. Many businesses in New York closed early because of the weather, including the Russian Travel Bureau, which I had to race to in the early afternoon in order to pick up my Russian visa. I set off at 21:05 for the airport, still dubious, and after an unusually quick train-and-bus combination to the airport, I had time to enjoy a free e-mail session at the airport in exchange for answering a few questions about where I like to buy chocolates. And the plane left on time.
16 Sep-17 Sep
Air: Asiana #221, New York JFK to Anchorage
(23:50; 6h 43m; $638 New York to Beijing)
It wasn't a full flight, so I could stretch out along three seats. Dinner was beef and kimchi. During our stop in Anchorage, I wandered around the terminal. Many flights stop in Anchorage between the U.S. east coast and Asia in the middle of the night, so the terminal was rather crowded - and all the shops open - at 3:00 in the morning. This terminal was something of a museum, with stuffed bears, pictures of Alaska, and artifacts from expeditions into the cold. There was also a neat clock showing all the time zones, and I got a free sample of fish in the duty-free shop. One end of the terminal was more morbid, showing endangered species and the effects of excessive hunting.
17 Sep
Air: Asiana #221, Anchorage to Seoul
(4:20; 8h 23m; arrived 19m early)
After takeoff we were served a snack consisting of a sandwich and noodles with wasabi and soy sauce; near the end of the flight we got noodles with shrimp and squid; in between I slept. I had a few early-morning hours to kill before leaving for Beijing, and I got to watch the stores in the airport terminal open. It was quite a ritual: All the employees performed calisthenics in front of their respective stores, and then they repeated, in rhythm, whatever their boss chanted. Once that ended, I slept in the transit lounge.
17 Sep
Air: Asiana #331, Seoul to Beijing
(9:50; 1h 34m)
On the short hop to Beijing there was a People-to-People tour - the organization with which my mother and I had gone to Beijing in 1995. A dull lunch of beef and rice was served.

I've spent more than my fair share of time waiting in the departure lounge in Beijing's airport - I've been there in September of 1995, 1997, and 1999, even though it was only in 1995 that I spent any significant time in the city. And this time I'd had to get a transit visa, even though I wasn't leaving the airport. Since I could prove that I was in transit, however, I was able to convince the airport officials that I didn't owe the 90-yuan (about $11) departure tax. I had three hours before the flight to Ulaanbaatar, and I made the mistake of entering the check-in area early - there was nowhere to sit (except the floor) and nothing to do (except gaze at the words "China Border Control" in large, industrial-looking letters) until MIAT open for check-in. Then I had another hour or so in boring gate 22, a dismal, smoke-filled room downstairs. For entertainment, I used the bathroom.

17 Sep
Air: MIAT #224, Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
(14:30; 1h 41m; $210)
My travel agent had never issued a ticket on MIAT, the Mongolian airline, before, and she had tried to dissuade me from being the first, suggesting Aeroflot instead. (There are not many ways to get to Ulaanbaatar.) The Lonely Planet guide (the only guide to Mongolia that I could find) says that travelers joke that MIAT stands for "Maybe I'll Arrive Today." Yet I had a very pleasant flight - the plane was clean; peanuts, drinks, and a deli lunch were served; we flew over beautiful hills and mountains of three distinct shades of brown; and we arrived on time.

When we arrived at Ulaanbaatar's airport, 18 km out of the city in Buyant-Ukhaa, and I entered the arrivals hall, I knew I was in Mongolia, because everything smelled like mutton. I changed money and walked out of the airport, where I was greeted by a couple of stray cows.

17 Sep-21 Sep
Ulaanbaatar

A song-and-dance show; excellent museums; all the mutton you can eat...

Getting around was not particularly difficult; although Mongolian is the national language, most people speak at least a little Russian - as do I. A bus took me from the airport into town for MNT 100. It was crowded with children coming home from school; a female conductor who scurried to collect fares from passengers; and a bunch of adult passengers, two of whom barely avoided a fistfight. The bus let me off in front of the Bayangol Hotel, in the center of town.

Nearby I saw that there would be a song-and-dance ensemble performing a few minutes later. Ever since the fiasco on the evening of India's 50th anniversary of independence, I've tried to be diligent about finding a hotel before dark, but I figured I'd go to the show and then take my chances. The performance was excellent - two hours of songs and dances showing scenes from Mongolian life, such as herding cows, praying to Buddha, and marriage. The audience clapped to some of the songs in rhythm, and the most favorite songs (a catchy tune with two kids and a song performed by a soprano who, to my ears, sounded sharp) were reprised as encores. And the ticket was only MNT 3000.

After the concert, it was hard to find an inexpensive hotel. The city was poorly lit; many hotels were not well-signed; the blocks were long, dreary, and cold; and there were numerous stray dogs. Eventually I found the the unattractive but friendly Zaluuchuud Hotel, for MNT 11000 per night. I got room 311, which had a moderately hard bed, a little bit of light, and a trickle of running water when I turned the faucet. I was too tired for food.

The next morning, I tried to visit the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, but it was closed. Then I tried entering a building that looked like a museum, not to the amusement of those who worked there and knew better. The National Museum of Mongolian History was also closed. However, I did manage to visit the Museum of Natural History, which had a good selection of stuffed animals, topographical maps, dinosaur eggs, and animal skeletons and an interesting camel exhibit. For lunch, I had tsuiyvan (noodles and meat) with a roll and juice for MNT 1150 at a guanz (canteen) across the street from the Zanabazar Museum.

I then walked a kilometer or so to the train station, in the south of town. There I found out that the price of a locally bought ticket for the train from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow should have been only MNT 95000 - I'd paid about three times as much for the privilege of buying my ticket in the United States, though I wouldn't have been able to get a Russian visa without doing so. I looked around the train station for the train museum but never found it. Nearby was an exhibition with people selling cashmere and other clothing. I then took a bus to the decrepit Winter Palace, from where the eighth Bogd Khaan (Living Buddha) ruled in the early 1900s. I paid the MNT 3000 admission, and a student showed me around the palace and the seven surrounding temples. Here, too, was a collection of stuffed animals and furs, as well as a ger (mobile tent that the nomadic Mongolians reside in) covered with leopard skins.

I tried to have dinner at the Ider Restaurant, next to my hotel, but it was closed, so I dined at the Café of France: creamed mushroom on pastry, Roquefort steak, and a Tiger beer for MNT 12500.

The next morning, at the attractive Gandan monastery (the full name is Gandantegchinlen), I heard two types of Buddhist chant: one in unison, chanted at low pitch in quick rhythm, and one in three-part harmony. Sometimes cymbals and drums were also used. The scene was lively, abundant with monks, children, and pigeons. There was also, of course, an impressively enormous Buddha statue.

Near the monastery, a lady showed me where to buy a bus ticket for Kharkhorin, and that's where I met Brad, an American working in Korea who had just a week of vacation and chose to spend it in Mongolia. He was also heading to Kharkhorin the next day. The schedule said the bus would leave at 8:30, but the ticket seller wrote on the tickets that we'd leave at 7:20.

Since I'd bought my ticket for the Trans-Mongolian Railway by phone in the United States, I had to pick it up from a travel agency in Ulaanbaatar. The agency was inside the Central Library, which gave me an excuse to check out the library a bit. After picking up the ticket, I headed to Nairamdal Park, a somewhat attractive, if sleepy, park just south of the city center. The only thing moving was the Ferris wheel, though it was pleasant to walk among the bridges over the little pond. Inside the park was a Korean restaurant (aptly named the Seoul Restaurant), where I had a passable lunch buffet (good kimchi) for MNT 9900, which became about $15 with drinks. I'd have done better to order off the menu.

It took longer than expected to change money at the bank, because it took me a while (how silly of me!) to discover that money is changed at the "Cashier" counter, rather than the "Foreign Exchange" counter. Then the National Museum of Mongolian History was open, so I perused its excellent exhibits, which started with prehistory and had a large collection of artifacts, clothing of different ethnic groups, interesting musical instruments, and punishment devices, including a cangue (which I had just read about in The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen) - a box-like device worn around the head. I had dinner at Dulgunuur Tuya. They had interesting things on the menu, but they didn't actually have them in the kitchen...so I had the inexorable mutton.

I left the hotel at 6:35 to get to the bus station at 7:10. Brad was there; I also met a Russian sausage seller who lived in a town near the Ural Mountains. He did business in many countries and had covered much of Russia on foot. He and I discussed the Trans-Mongolian schedule at length, and he estimated (quite accurately) that the trip to Kharkhorin would take seven hours. He didn't actually come to Kharkhorin, but he had a friend, a Bulgarian, who joined us.

21 Sep
Van: Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin
(10:23; 6h 53m; MNT 6000)

The "bus" we were booked on turned out to be a private van, and they wanted an extra MNT 1000 - I didn't know whether that was some kind of scam, but the trip was still cheap enough. We didn't leave until 10:23 - not remotely near the 7:20 indicated on the ticket or the 8:30 indicated on the schedule.

In the van, Brad and I met Hiromi and Akemi, who were visiting from Japan. Hiromi had picked up a few words of Mongolian. It took a long time to get out of the city proper, as we waited for one passenger to pick up an enormous quantity of bread. The trip was a bouncy one, and we stopped frequently for sheep, goats, and cows. Only once did we get a flat tire. We stopped for lunch at a collection of gers; Brad and I ate in one of them along with a bunch of Mongolians who were not riding in the van with us. Brad and I had mutton with rice and tea and were charged MNT 1000. When we paid we looked quizzically at each other - as we took out our MNT 1000 notes, everyone else was shelling out just a couple of coins. But just to be in a ger, even a commercial roadside ger, was an experience. The kitchen items were on one side, the sleeping area was on the other, and a pipe brought the smoke out through a hole at the top of the tent.

21 Sep-23 Sep
Kharkhorin

Bitter cold; a Mongolian party; an ancient monastery...

Kharkhorin is a pretty, small village where Chinggis Khaan built his capital city in the 13th century. Its most notable attraction - perhaps its only notable attraction - is the the Erdene Zuu monastery, dating back to the 16th century. There's a small market area, which also doubles as the bus stop. Around the city's few streets are just a few hundred houses.

When we arrived, the Bulgarian showed Brad, Hiromi, Akemi, and me to one of the, well, top-end hotels in town, a freezing place with no running water. They offered us a special rate - MNT 4000 discounted from MNT 6000 - which we negotiated down to MNT 3500 and then still decided was overpriced. We left the Bulgarian and walked across a bridge over a small creek and through a field to the Hotel Orkhon, next to the post office. The Orkhon also had no running water and was terribly cold, but it was only MNT 3000. The four of us stayed in one room with hard beds, cracked windows, and occasional electricity. We were the only ones in the hotel except for the owner and his family.

It was too early for dinner, so we walked the 15 minutes or so to the monastery, even though it was closed. The monastery is on the outskirts of town; there's essentially one main street leading to it. Despite the apparent bleakness of the town, it was a beautiful place, nestled among snow-topped hills, and although we hadn't properly met any of the locals (except for hoteliers), it had an aura of friendliness.

Darkness fell, and then the electricity went out - apparently they turn it off every day. Hunting for restaurants, we approached buildings that seemed likely candidates, and on the third or fourth try we got it right, coming upon the Naran Restaurant, lit by a single candle. We were greeted by a friendly guy who gave us an English menu. Surprisingly, mutton was not the only thing on the menu - we enjoyed spaghetti and meatballs (served with ketchup rather than tomato sauce) and cold Beck's beer.

We ate for an hour or so until the electricity came back on, at which point this seemingly lifeless building turned into...a disco! A dozen or so Mongolians (the names of two of them were something like Erdene and Erdenetsk) came in, and one of them started dancing. Eventually we were all dancing, and then we headed to a room at the back and talked over shots of vodka and airag (fermented horse's milk - I tried a little, but after shots of vodka it didn't taste like much to me). Some news program was on TV. I fell asleep somewhere in that room and woke up a couple of hours later. Someone asked for MNT 3000, a reasonable price for the evening's entertainment, and then Brad, Hiromi, Akemi, and I somehow found our way back to the Orkhon.

In the morning I checked the temperature in our hotel room: two degrees Celsius. The window was open - permanently. We headed over to the monastery, which contained three main temples and a few smaller ones. There was an abundance of Buddha statues and thangkas, mostly from the 16th century. One character depicted with three eyes and five skulls appeared often among the artwork. At one point we heard a horn call, and then a group of monks huddled together outside before going into a temple to chant. It was all very enjoyable, except, perhaps, to Hiromi, who had overindulged on vodka the night before and wasn't feeling his best. Near the monastery were two rocks shaped like turtles; they were two of four that used to mark the city boundaries. After we saw everything at the monastery, one of the caretakers collected an entry fee from each of us except Hiromi, on whom she took pity because of his sickness.

We lunched on khuurshuur (mutton pancakes) and mutton with rice at a nondescript guanz back in the center of town (MNT 360 each); then we walked around the surprisingly lively market area: Here one could buy various kinds of meat (including sheep's heads), drugstore items, and ice cream (of which we partook).

While Hiromi napped, the rest of us climbed a nearby hill. From the top, we enjoyed an amazing view of the road (there was only one) leading into and out of Kharkhorin. Birds came, and then a helicopter, and despite the snow on the ground it warmed up to a pleasant temperature. Then we returned to the hotel ourselves for a nap. When we awoke, the lights went out, and for dinner the four of us found a restaurant next to the Naran - but run by the same person! He and a co-worker or two made salad and gulyash (mutton with rice and vegetables). Over that and bread (MNT 1700), we discussed trips through China (Brad and I had both traveled overland extensively in that country), and Brad described his trip through Pakistan in the back of an open truck. I wore two sweaters to sleep that night.

The next day we dispersed. Hiromi and Akemi would spend another day in Kharkhorin, I needed to get back to Ulaanbaatar, and Brad set off on foot toward Tsetserleg (about 100 km away), hoping to hitch a ride. Assuming that transport from Kharkhorin to Ulaanbaatar left early in the morning, I woke early to get to the departure area before 8:00. Brad, Hiromi, and Akemi accompanied me. One lady offered to take me and a few other passengers in her Lada for MNT 6500 each. She said we'd leave at 9:00, so the four of us had some tea and khuushuur (MNT 200) before going our separate ways.

23 Sep
Car: Kharkhorin to Ulaanbaatar
(11:49; MNT 6500; 8h 48m)
I was in the car before 9:00, but our driver wouldn't leave until the car was full, so we sat. And sat. Just before 11:00, we started moving, but it was only to get gas a couple of kilometers away. After that, we came back, driving over Kharkhorin's pedestrian bridges, to wait some more. Finally the driver filled the last vacant seat, and at 11:49 we departed.

The first time we broke down, it was for half an hour, and it wasn't far from Kharkhorin. After some banging and stomping on the pedal, the driver got the car going again, but not for long. This time she and another passenger (a professor who spoke Russian and talked with me a bit) opened the hood and started taking things apart. I braced myself for a long trip.

They got things working again, but just to be sure, the driver took us back to the oil tanker where we'd gotten gas, hoping for some additional mechanical assistance. The oil tanker was gone, though. We started making real progress around 14:00, and then we had lunch near the same ger area as before - but this time I paid the right price (MNT 400) for tea and buuz (mutton dumplings). It rained a little, and there was a gorgeous rainbow.On the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, forsaking the momentum the car had worked so hard to achieve, the driver stopped for a bathroom break, and the car broke down again. Fortunately we were at the top of a hill, so gravity got us going again. Then, just as we approached the checkpoint at the entrance to Ulaanbaatar, the car died for the ninth time. We pushed it through the checkpoint until it started, and I left the car when we reached the central square of the capital, Sükhbaatar Square.

23 Sep-24 Sep
Ulaanbaatar

Finally at the Zanabazar; preparing for a four-day train ride...

I tried to find a slightly more upscale hotel than the Zaluuchuud. The Centre Hotel looked promising but was full. The Genex Hotel was run by extremely friendly staff but I didn't feel like paying $48 for a room. One of the staff ran after me a few minutes later and offered to reduce the rate for a semi-deluxe room to $35, but that was still more than I wanted to spend. So a little while later, I ended up at the trusty old Zaluuchuud.

"How was Kharkhorin?" the receptionist asked, handing me the key to room 311.

I had dinner at the Titanic Restaurant, which featured posters from the movie (but, sadly, not the musical). The meal was beefsteak topped with egg and pale Chinggis beer (the Mongolian brew), for MNT 2860.

I tried to get rubles at the bank the next day, but they had none, so I got just enough tögrögs to buy food for the four-day train ride. The Zanabazar Museum was open, so I saw its fascinating collection containing thangkas, vividly colored silk art, three-dimensional art, a scary painting of skulls and eyes, ancient carved stones (an employee opened this room on request), paintings and drawings of lamaism and ancient festivals, and statues made by Zanabazar (a famous Buddhist sculptor).

I walked through the Dollar Market, a lively area with produce, clothing, and other goods, but I preferred to do my shopping at Khid, a large supermarket. For a ridiculously low price, I loaded my backpack with sausage, cheese, ramen, mineral water, strawberry soda, Chinggis vodka, bananas, apples, bread, pastries, a mug for soup and tea, a glass, a fork, and a spoon. Then I walked briskly to the train station, getting there just a few minutes before departure. Go on to part 2