Browsing Tag


Asia, Destinations

A day in Ulaan Baatar

December 9, 2014 • By

It’s cold – bitter cold. It’s so cold that after 10 minutes my feet warn of frostbite and I must retreat to the car for Toyota’s finest heat. My skin dry and flakey may be peeled like an orange. The Mongolians are not stupid. They are layered in fashionable warm clothing and no one is wearing bright pink sneakers – not one person (except for this jackass).   They are dressed in boots, fur hats, fur coats and cashmere everything. Most of Mongolia is hot in the summer (July & August) and extremely cold in the winter. There are businessmen in Mongolia but no tourists. I have the city to myself! My guide seemed to think I was complaining a bit about the conditions and informed me it gets worse in January and February. I have no intention of staying. I leave Wednesday.

Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, Mongolia Tourism

It cost me $5 to snap this photo

According to some weather website I pulled up, winter averages drop as low as -22 F in the city (colder in other parts) as a result of a cold, heavy, shallow air from Serbia. The annual average temperature in Ulaan Baatar is 32F. Did you read that? This lovely weather makes Ulaan Baatar the world’s coldest city. On a positive note, there are approximately 257 sunny days in Mongolia giving the country the nickname, “Land of blue skies.” I probably should not add this but the blue skies near Ulaan Baatar are filled with pollution at least until the wind whips up some visibility and breathing room around noon. The average life expectancy in Mongolia is 68. I asked my guide why and he said, “All the meat we eat.” I contend it’s probably the poor air quality or life as a nomad.

In spite of the cold, I made the most of my Mongolian history lesson. First up, the Gandan Monastery, Mongolia’s main monastery and also the center of Buddhism. I snapped a picture of the gold-plated Avalokiteshvara and a monk chased me for $5 USD. That was an expensive picture. I hope Buddha will send some positive energy my way. Currently, the Tibetan-style monastery houses 150 monks. I watched about 20 monks praying from ancient scrolls “sutras” and I had forgotten that it is a sign of honor to have your children become monks in some cultures. There were 4-5 kids about age six in this group. I giggled a bit when one of the elder monks glared and flicked his finger no at a youngster goofing off.

In the 1920s, there were about 110,000 monks who lived in Mongolia making up one-third of the male population but in the 1930s Russia’s influence increased and Mongolia’s Communist leader closed an estimated 700 Buddhist monasteries and killed about 30,000 people of which half were monks. Today, fifty-three percent of Mongolians practice Tibetan Buddhism and the monk population is growing. The rest of Mongolians practice Shamanism (giving nature spiritual power) or Islam. About 95 percent of the country’s population is considered Mongolian and the rest of Turkish origin or Khazakh’s.

After my religion lesson for the day, we walked briskly through Sukhbaatar Square recently renamed Chinggis Khan (apparently Mongolia is once again big on Genghis Khan). I learned the president of Mongolia is simply a figurehead and that this Democratic country utilizes a parliamentary system of government. From 1921-1990, the Mongolian People’s Republic controlled Mongolia as a Communist country. Damdiny Sukhbaatar went to Russia in 1921 to seek their help in defeating the Chinese who were causing problems. Be careful what you ask for – or maybe no good deed goes unpunished because Russia returned the favor by essentially making Mongolia the second Communist country in the world. Mongolia stayed under Russia’s authority and a Communist state until 1990.  Sukhbaatar still stands proudly in the city’s square but it seems the people rather celebrate greatness than domination.

Mongolia is the roast beef between the bread – one slice is Russia and the other China and neither can decide who will take the first bite. The Mongolian modern language is Cyrillic and culturally they are more European than Asian. They use silverware, have regular toilets (heated I might add), dress European and their diet is more western than Chinese. Their ancient history has them equally confused. The people have always had one foot on Chinese soil and the other on European.

Mongolians history references a few great leaders but very few expanded their reach like Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. In ancient times, Attila the Hun, the ruler of the Huns from 434 – 453, conquered what is now Southeast Asia and most of Europe through Germany but excluding the Roman and Ottoman Empire (Turkey, Italy, Greece). Attila based his operation in Hungary, which is why many people claim to be relatives of the Hungarian Empire. The most famous commander in Mongolian history is Genghis Khan. Referenced by the Chinese as a barbarian, Genghis unified Mongolia from 1185-1206 and formed the Great Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in world history. He ruled (Mongolia and China) from 1206 until his death in 1227. For the next 34 years, the sons of Chinggis Khan ruled until Kubilai Khan, the grandson of Chinggis took over in 1261 and conquered China unifying both countries and creating the Yuan Dynasty. Kubilai died in 1294 and the Chinese maintained control over Mongolia during the Ming and Qing dynasties until 1911.

Since Mongolia has been a punching bag over the years, it’s easy to see why the World Bank ranked it a lower middle-income economy. According to their 2011 GDP, 23 percent of their population lives on $1.25 a day. My guide said most people (non-nomads) make $500 a month or $6,000 a year (sometimes an entire family makes $6,000). Russia and China own most of the mining companies and with that Mongolia’s debt. They are heavily invested (and jockeying for control) over Mongolia. Locals maintain China and Russia are just waiting for Mongolia to fail so they can swoop in and control them as in the past. Korea, Australia, Japan, the United States, Germany, Canada and Great Britain are also eager to take advantage (or maybe make use) of Mongolia’s rich resources. Minerals constitute 80 percent of Mongolia’s exports mainly coal, uranium, gold and cooper but Mongolia doesn’t have any refineries so the local people think the foreigners are actually getting a larger take than necessary. An article from 2012 claims the government estimates its mineral reserves to be worth $1.2 trillion and its foreign direct investment $5 billion. Unfortunately, none of this money trickles down to the people. My guide relayed that Mongolia is the second most corrupt country following Liberia. I found one news source that quoted that in 2013.

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Asia, Destinations

Trans-Siberian railroad to Mongolia

December 7, 2014 • By

I really need to stop reading. This summer I happened upon a romantic journey a New York Times writer took through the countryside of China, Mongolia and Russia aboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Since I found myself in the area, why not explore the vast lands of Asia by train? Armed with granola bars, oranges, apples, water, and cookies I stepped on the train at 11 AM Saturday. Initially, I was confused. Everything seemed to be in Russian. It makes sense because the line begins and ends in Russia but then I noticed a second and third language on some signage. I figured out the English pretty rapidly but it took me a few hours before I realized Mongolians like Russians utilize the Cyrillic system not the character system like the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans etc.


The Mongolians on the train I’ve met appear half Asian and half Russian and neither half nice. They are stern and serious like the Russians. In fact, they are Russian with Asian faces. I tried smiling, I attempted waving side to side and then I just gave up. For a few hours, I eavesdropped on the suite next to me containing a Mongolian woman fluent in English (Most Mongolians speak Russian, English and Chinese) and a British man wearing a red Christmas tree sweater like Mr. Darcy in Bridget Jones Diary. She is attractive and he an old fart. Since we are all sweltering our doors are open and their conversation has given me much fodder during the ride. She is beating him to a pulp and it’s clear she is not a fan of British government. My guess is he is hoping to get lucky with a pretty Mongolian. Where is my Shanghai husband?

It’s hot on the train. That is the opposite of cold. I’m curious if they are trying to break me down so I will be better ready to embrace the 20 below 0 temperatures in Ulaan Baatar. I am sweating. I’ve now stripped down to a t-shirt which is an issue because I’ve just been informed we are at Chinese customs and now the conductor is motioning to something that “no working Chinese.” She is right. I am not working and neither are the Chinese. I gathered from the sign on the bathroom door she meant the toilet. I hope this is a quick stop.

The wheels on the train need to be changed for the next part of our journey. Mongolian rail tracks are narrower than Chinese. The train has moved forward, and backward several times. They are lifting us up and dropping us down by crane and I feel like I am in an underground war shelter with little oxygen while bombs burst around me causing the ground to quiver. I decide without power the temperature is perfect and I should take this opportunity to sleep for a few hours.

At some point, I check my phone for the time and it occurs to me four hours have passed since the Chinese immigration man took my passport. Should I be worried? It also dawns me on that the bathrooms are still locked so I really must try to sleep but then I realize I am technically not in China and I immediately grab my iPad. BINGO…Google up, Facebook check. Instagram check. I’m back in business.

In total, 17 cars were lifted to change the wheels at the border crossing. It took about five hours. The Chinese man did bring back my passport at some stage and another hour or so passed before a Mongolian woman started waving at me for my passport. She disappeared and since I was 1-1 with the Chinese guy, I scrunched up my jacket for a pillow and shut my eyes until sunrise.

Someone not naming any names but stern Mongolian lady #1 forgot to unlock my bathroom door, which meant I had to go on the hunt. Walking quietly down the corridors, I tested every bathroom door with an open berth and the doors were all locked. I eventually arrived at the staff suite and a woman was sleeping on the bottom bunk. I scrutinized her breathing but acted quickly and turned the bathroom door very quietly. Success!!!! I ducked in there fast and did my thing before she could reprimand me. Slowly opening the door, I slid out of her quarters as quickly as possible. I’m confident she heard me but when ya must go ya must go.

The view from my window has been the same for the last 10 hours – bland straw colored desert and farmland and signs of freezing temperatures – Frost on the window, ice patches and even humans bundled up like Eskimos.


Mongolia has a population of about 3 million people of which a million (45 percent) live in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar and my final destination on the Trans-Mongolian line. It’s a land locked country with Russia on one side and China on the other three. Thirty percent of Mongolians are Nomads and their “homes” were visible along the train’s route. They are called yurts or Ger in Mongolia. It is more like a tent or an igloo looking structure. They are very easy to put together and transport according to the Mongolian passenger on my train. Alas, thirty hours passed somewhat quickly. I spent the time writing, reading about writing and watching chick flicks like 27 Dresses and Little Women. I won the seating lottery because the second passenger never arrived and I occupied the entire space (2 bunks and a chair).

As the train approached the station, a light bulb goes off in my head and I realize I have no Mongolian currency nor do I know the exchange rate. I quickly Google (Yipppeee) and it’s math so it doesn’t make sense. I’ll wing it! I jump off the train foolishly half dressed due to the sauna like conditions on the train and my exposed skin quickly reminded me it’s -5 F and I won’t last long. After no less than 20 people attacked me for a taxi or lodging, I located an ATM. Originally, I took out 5,000 Mongolian. When I turned around the taxi man who showed me the way to the ATM said he would take me to Kempinski. I replied, “how much?” He said 20,000 and then we went back and forth and then I realized I definitely screwed up the exchange rate. Letting it all hang out, I grab my AT&T Ipad (somewhere along the way Verizon informed me 35 min of data cost me $150 USD) and figure out that we are bargaining over $1.98 USD. Ooops. I tell him 10,000 ($1.98) is fine and let’s be on our way.

On first glance, Ulaan Baatar is a shit hole. It’s polluted, the traffic is worse than Beijing and the buildings look like 1950 Russia abandoned them. Russia did occupy Mongolia for nearly most of the 1900s but they clearly added no value. It’s a poor country. I’m really going to force myself to leave the hotel and learn something so hopefully my impression will change with a little history lesson. Until then…. I am definitely eating a solid meal tonight and I look forward to catching you up on the wonderful sights of Mongolia Monday.

Current Temp: -10 F @ 6 pm local time

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