Cell phone weilding monks
Vail, CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of stories about local resident Luc Pols’ trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
We definitely feel we are in the Russia of the old days. At the border with Mongolia, where we spend about six hours, we are allowed to use toilets in the station, but nobody in their right mind would dare. Then they tie, yes I mean with rope, a border guard to the end of the train, during our 10 km trip through no-man’s land between Russia and Mongolia. Whether this is to prevent people from getting in or getting out, we are not sure. We just feel sorry for the poor border guard. Also watch towers and armed guards are still visible.
After 34 hours and once again two nights on the train, we arrive in Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia and also the world’s coldest capital. While the people are definitely dressed differently from their Northern neighbors, other differences are more subtle. The people look more Chinese than Russian, not surprisingly, since the country only declared its independence from China in 1911. After that time, the Russians played an important role here and one can see it in the Soviet style architecture. Interestingly enough, the name Ulaan Baatar means “Red hero.”
It is here that we meet my friends Rob and Sandi from Shanghai and the four us start exploring the city. We visit the Museum of Natural History and there is now even a Museum of Fine Arts, which I must admit, is not really all that interesting. We stroll over the Sukhe Bator Square chock full with people and visit the famous Gandan Monastery and even see monks with cell phones. I guess the 21st century is descending upon Mongolia as well. We are lucky to have absolutely marvelous weather and we sit in a sidewalk cafe and watch the Mongolians stroll by.
The next day under a perfectly blue sky and 70 plus degrees, we charter a mini bus and the four of us ride off in the desert in search of camels. Our driver assures us (we assume he is assuring us, because his English is about as good as our Mongolian) that he knows where he is going. After he fixes a flat tire somewhere in the desert (a bit of an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the stomach), we arrive at a “National Park.” Upon paying an admission fee, we proceed and we come across a couple of camels who look far more dead than alive. Not knowing whether we will encounter any other, we busily start taking pictures, but are chased away by the owners, who demand a fee for this activity. We decline.
Back in the car and about 25 minutes later we pass a field where four magnificent camels are grazing. There’s no one around, but now we want to ride them and we go in search of the owners. We come to a couple of “gers” (yurts, something like we have on top of Vail Mountain) and are invited in to have some excellent yogurt and other Mongolian specialties, the names of which I never learned. Now it is time to settle the fee to ride the camels and after rather short negotiations, off we go to the field, where we first spotted the animals. Talk about taking pictures. But we did it, we rode our camels and, in all honesty, they really are not that comfortable ” ask Peter. However, when in Rome …
This evening we attend a Mongolian folk dance where girls who definitely do not have any bones in their bodies perform acrobatic feats that defy the imagination. We are also fortunate to have “throat singers” perform, which is a typical Mongolian way of singing. All in all, a splendid evening. We stroll back to the hotel and the weather is great, still about 60 degrees. Imagine our complete surprise when we wake up the next morning and the whole town and surrounding area is covered in snow and it is still snowing! This is a personal record … the greatest change in temperature in 12 hours, from 70 to 32 degrees.
We make our way to the Railway Station and board our train to head back to Ulan Ude in Russia, in the blizzard, a 17 hour ride and only one night on the train.