A bit of a delay getting this one finished folks, but here it is for those still following....
We arrived in Ulan Bator (Mongolia) on Sunday 24th October. This followed a very lengthy border crossing of over 6 hours (during which time we managed to make a complete mess of our entry/customs forms but luckily avoided any trouble). After the immigration officials were finished with us we were then mobbed by the currency exchange touts. I literally had to force one woman out of our cabin after she barged in uninvited, but the poor Spanish guy next door got completely ripped off with an exchange rate of less than a tenth of what it was worth. He was big enough to find it amusing though and had us all laughing with him.
After being collected from the station by our hostel (such a relief when you arrive at 6 in the morning, in pitch dark, without a word of the local language, and after only a few hours sleep) we had a cheeky nap before getting up to plan our next few days in Mongolia.
We spent the rest of the day getting a feel for Ulan Bator. We were both a bit apprehensive about spending time in the city due to repeated warnings about pickpockets. It may have been an exaggeration, but we erred on the side of caution and started leaving all our valuables behind in the hostel and hiding our cash in weird and wonderful places (the trick was trying to get it out again when standing in front of a cashier...)
UB is predominantly made up of widespread suburbs of small, one-story houses interspersed with the traditional Ger (tent made of canvass). It has seen huge growth over the last decade, and judging by the miles and miles of landscaped but undeveloped ground on the outskirts, there is more growth to come (either that, or the bloke who owns the landscaping business has a cousin high up in urban planning). There are some displays of wealth in the centre of the capital, around the main thoroughfare 'Peace Avenue' including a few high-rises for the oil and coal companies. There was also a small stretch of solar/wind powered street lights to excite Charlie.
The traffic in the city is Crazy. It beats Brussels hands down. There are no rules, and it seems to be a matter of who dares wins. There are lots of shiny SUVs around (slightly more justified in this desert landscape than for most yummy mummies in Chelsea), but all with the same aggressive driving style. One poor girl was trying to 3 point turn her way out of a traffic jam and ended up blocking our lane for a couple of minutes. This was met with furious honking and, worse still, when she finally left room for a car to squeeze through, one particularly frustrated taxi driver deliberately side swiped her on his way past, scraping her front wing and forcing her into the curb. You had to be there... There were lots of traffic policemen around, but it seemed that their job was to stand waving long glowing red sticks in the air while the cars completely ignore them.
In the main square, we checked out the giant statue of Chinggis Khan and his two generals. Chinggis (Ghengis to you and me) is apparently now considered as a figure of national pride and identity - although he's remembered slightly less fondly in other parts of Asia and Eastern Europe where he famously practiced his rape, pillage and merciless genocide...
We popped into the natural history museum (simply because it was too cold to be outside). The dinosaur skeletons from The Gobi were pretty impressive, but other than that we have never seen so many stuffed birds and animals in one place. It seems that after coal exports to china and tourism, taxidermy is probably Mongolia's 3rd biggest industry.
From what we heard around the city, the Mongolian language has a very unusual sound. The best description we came up with was a cross between Arabic and Parseltongue (Harry Potter's snake language). Charlie reckons he's also heard something very similar in Star Trek and in one of the Indiana Jones films...
As for food, you could never survive as a vegetarian in Mongolia - almost every meal contains mutton. On more than one menu we saw "vegetable soup" with ingredients: vegetables and mutton! One of the local specialities we enjoyed is khurshuur (hushoor), a fried pancake stuffed with bits of mutton and onion.
Mongolia is best known for its beautiful, rugged countryside, so for the next couple of days we opted for a trip out to the Terelj national park organised through our hostel. Compared to some of the other people we met - several just returning from a 9-day nomadic tour of the Gobi desert - we felt a bit like amateurs, but as we were limited for time at this point in our journey this was the best option.
We had an exciting two days! We hiked through some of Mongolia's stunning scenery, taking in the fascinating rock formations, and went horse riding in the steppes. This was such a great way to experience Mongolia's outdoors and I'd love to have spent longer riding. I think Charlie would have liked to pick up the pace a bit (the horses went at slow tourist pace and wouldn't respond to any western geeing, kicking or reign thrashing - only the whip of our sadistic 12-year old guide "Chingis" got them moving at all).
We spent the night in a traditional Ger (i.e. with no water or electricity), which (very luckily for me - it was FREEZING!) brought out Charlie's caveman instincts. He succeeded in making fire for his woman and, the gentleman that he his, got up in the night to keep it going. I surprised myself yet again by coping with the outdoor bathroom facilities (read: small shed covering dirty great cesspit).
The most magical moment for me was getting up in the middle of the night and looking out of the Ger to see a herd of yak/cattle crossing the landscape in front of us.
The funniest thing about this trip was our hosts. Although we were being hosted by a Mongolian family, we were "looked after" by their teenage sons. As the family had been receiving tourists like us for over 10 years these kids were evidently quite sick of the routine. It felt like they had been told to feed the horses, feed the dogs and then feed the tourists - which the 12 yr old did grudgingly while his elder brother watched TV all day. The power lines came right up to their Ger, but we were treated to the electricity free "proper" tourist experience next door. Thankfully, they didn't whip us as much as the horses and dogs...
Although we loved the Mongolian wilderness, this experience has also made us reassess how much we want to do the "one more tourist on the hostel-special tour" thing. It is really tricky finding the balance between seeing the sights as easily and cost-effectively as possible and feeling like a "tick-list tourist"...
One more thing to mention is Charlie's visit to see a local Shamen. This probably needs a whole diary entry in itself but, needless to say, he had an experience which he won't forget with a fascinating insight into the spiritual beliefs of the Mongol people! I'll let him fill you in on this occasion...
We left UB by train on 28th October. It must have been the weekly backpacker special to China as we caught up with lots of people we'd met on previous trains. We spent several hours spotting camels in the desert, and comparing tall tales of our trips to the Mongolian steppes.
We both agree that we'd like to have had more time here and may have to come back to Mongolia. From the short glimpse we had, it was clear that there is so much to discover which remains relatively wild and untouched.