Even though the bed was just too short for me to sleep comfortably, I slept pretty well. Actually, I woke up with freezing feet and legs, but apart from that and the short bed, it was a good nights sleep. I even slept through the 15min stop at Sainshand at 5AM.
When I finally opened the curtain and first peeped out at Mongolia, I saw a bare and barren brown land, very reminiscent of the Australian Outback. There wasn’t much life to be spotted.
But eventually the brown dirt turned to plains of dried grass, which turned to hills of short green grass, which turned to snow capped mountains.
The snow was actually a surprise from a recent cold snap. It was genuinely cold in the train (for me in my shorts). The puddles of water beside the tracks had layers of ice, so it wasn’t just in my head.
The further we got from the harsh brown dirt of the Gobi, the more animal life we would see – horses, cows, goats, sheep. We were starting to witness the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle, from the animals being tendered by shepherds to the felt ger tents.
There were a few more permanent communities that we passed through, but they were quite insignificant and quite sad looking Soviet towns.
Our first glimpses of Ulaanbaatar (or UB for short) came through the bright and colourful outer districts. There were dozens of gers, and even more simple buildings in all shades and hues – it was really pretty, even if it was akin to a (very nice) slum.
Inner-city was surprising – there were all the large Soviet-era buildings, but there was also quite a modern and multicultural feel (it’s hard to explain). We were fortunate enough to be visiting a good friend of ours who is living here in UB as a volunteer (working with a local magazine). She met us at the train station and flagged down a local taxi. Here in Mongolia, any car can potentially be a taxi – random drivers will happily accept strangers and drive them to their destinations in exchange for a pre-agreed sum of money. Our taxi driver even kicked out two other guys (and all of their tools/equipment) so that we would fit – we felt a little bad about it, don’t worry.
We spent a while catching up, showering, washing clothes and catching up on unfiltered Internet.
Our friend organised some tickets to a huge Buddha’s Birthday celebration that was taking place in the National Stadium in town. But first, we went and had some dinner at a modern Mongolian restaurant – Modern Nomads. It was a great opportunity for the two of us to get a taste for Mongolian cuisine. Here is a shock, they don’t eat lamb here! The youngest sheep that they eat is three-years old (or, as well call it, mutton). We grabbed an assortment of dishes, including a Mongolian hot pot, some Mongolian pastries and dumplings …and a sheep’s head! The food was all really, really good – even the sheep’s head (though, I drew the line at the eyes).
It was frigid single-degree temperatures outside, but we were headed to a big outdoor celebration. The celebrations started while we were having dinner, but since they consisted of lots of talking (in Mongolian), we didn’t miss much. The main event was the simultaneous release of hundreds of paper lanterns into the skies above UB. Wishes were also written on stickers that were attached to the side of the lantern.
When it came time to light the fuel for the lantern, it was chaos. There was a breeze, and it was a struggle to keep the sides of the lantern from blowing in and catching alight until there was enough hot air to fill the sides and take flight. But, with a little assistance from an organiser (the trick is to keep it close to the ground until it is ready), our lantern laden with all our wishes took flight and joined the hundreds of others that drifted up and away (and landed somewhere not too far away). While this was happening, this amazing, trancelike (as in, it was inducing a trance, not like the 90s techno trance music) beats were playing. It was beautiful.
I climbed up on to a stage behind where all the people were set up launching their lanterns, when I felt (and heard) an enormous BOOM. I had flashbacks of the cannons in Tiananmen Square. Turned out that it was fireworks! And, they were launched from just behind where I was standing…
The sun doesn’t set here until nearly 8:30, so it felt really strange going to bed at 10:30, but we were certainly ready for it by then.