My first glimpse of Mongolia was from a MIAT airplane en route to Ulaanbaatar. Sitting in a plane full of Mongolian migrant laborers who provide the dogs-work for Korea’s super factories, I had a few pairs of enthralled eyes grilling me. I finally set sight on the Gobi desert from a birds-eye view, it was an endless expanse of undulating semi-desert terrain. A wave of emotion brimmed my teary eyes as I listened to “Africa” by Toto on the in-flight Radio. I was on my way home…just taking the long road.
The plane landed in a field in the middle of nowhere. Rough and rugged little gers littered the surrounding countryside. All too quickly, the romance d’en haute was dashed by the bleak harshness of Ulaanbaatar. I arranged for an airport pickup from “Eden Guesthouse” and with eyes on stalks I took in as much as I could stomach. After ultra modern first world South Korea, I selfishly forgot all about the third world plight. It was all coming back to me as we followed the thick hot-water pipe as it snaked its way into the city center… potholes, traffic, pollution, poverty. The periphery of UB is a sight for sorry and sore eyes, and so is UB. Dismal ger districts have consumed the outskirts as once nomadic horsemen have settled to wallow in squaller. UB is set in a valley, so a coal saturated smog pocket chokes its inhabitants in fact only the pretty Tuul River provides any natural diversion.
Left traumatized after trying to confront my fear of crossing the ironically named “Peace Avenue” and terrified after some drunkard tried to grab my money belt off me, I realized I was living all alone in an abysmal blend of communist leftovers and smut. Need. To. Get. Out. Eden Guesthouse wasn’t your typical Lonely Planet recommended backpacker’s joint. In fact it didn’t even make it to the pages of the travel guides. Essentially I stayed with a Mongolian family, who had an extra room in their run down apartment and no other touristas 😀 A little lonely and a lot afraid I buckled and hired a tough as nails guide to help me out. I forget her name, but at one stage she felt like my only friend in the whole world.
She took me to some interesting sights. Finally an authentic temple! We went to the beautiful Winter Palace
of the Bogd Khaan, which was thankfully spared from destruction by the Russians. It’s the place where the 8th Living Buddha of Mongolia resided, the museum provides a glimpse into the extravagance he must have lived in. All sorts of fantastic costumes, gilded gifts and stuffed animals are on display. The temple complex is rich in detail and a treat for the trigger happy.
Being a firm admirer (not fan) of communist architecture and propaganda art I had to pay a visit to the Zaisan Memorial. After a couple of km’s out of centreville we arrived.It was built by the Ruskies to commemorate the unknown soldiers who fought and died in the Great Patriotic War. There’s also a tank on display which was part of the Mongolian People’s Tank
Brigade, delightfully adorned by Spongebob and Patric Star. On a cleat sunny day the views of UB from Zaisan are great. It provided a chillout zone to get away from the schizophrenia of the city. The memorial also overlooks a 16meter tall gold Buddha of the Buddha park to the west.
My guide hooked me up with Edelweiss Guesthouse (UBs BEST KEPT SECRET) and helped me arrange a tour of the Gobi. Finally I was out of UB in less than 3 days with a 2 week Gobi Adventure awaiting me.