There’s nothing worse than after an awful train ride is to be awoken at 5:30am to only look out of the window to see a sprawling mass of smoke belching factories and what looks like very basic housing. Welcome to Ulaanbaatar!
To say the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar are ugly would be quite right. The influence of Soviet architectural and town planning is evident.It seems that very little thought has been given to people and the environment. Factories, probably unregulated, are only srperated by waste ground and opportunistic housing. Even the Mongolian ger makes a sporadic appearance. Whether or not they were here before the factories is doubtful.
Arriving at yet another station, a quick look at the map in the lonely planet it should only be a short walk to peace avenue. As it’s 6am, why not – doubt anything is open and it’s unlikely that my room will be ready. Joined by Camile, Gregoire and Morgan we set off. A few minutes later and it becomes obviously that the cartographer for the lonely planet has never been to Ulaanbaatar or there’s been significant tectonic activity as things are futher away than they seem!
45 mins later, several offers of rides, hostels and we’re at Sukhbaatar sq. Quite impressive given the mainly russian style buildings along the route. The Swiss trio decide to look for a place to stow gear while I try to find some coffee – but before we can go our seperate ways we’re joined by a karate teaching American expat by the name of Thamous (one day he’ll be famous-his line, not mine) who offers some help and whisks the Swiss off!
Most of the places for eating are close to the Sukhbaatar square. Silk road bar and grill- off the main road down from Sukhbaatar sq, serves a variety of euro style food but also have shish kebabs on the menu. Good, but you could probably find better. The view if the “temple” is of a brick wall. Don’t come for the view.
California- good lunchtime spot given the outside gazeebo – very welcome shade when it’s pushing 34. Extensive western menu but the beef steak salads are best. Good sized lunch for around 15,000 mnt. For a great curry I’d recommend trying the Taj Mahal in the Ulaanbaatar Hotel (The only five star hotel in Mongolia – so they say!)
Drinking out is a little bit easier unless it’s the first day of the month as no alcohol can be purchased! So, either buy it the day before or raid the mini bar! In summer there’s quite a few marquees up in the town in an around Sukhbaatar sq and along Seoul st. It seems such a waste to venture into an underground bar given the weather so I stayed outside.
A relaxing in Ulaanbaatar for a couple of days, I headed off to Terelj National Park. There are a number of travel agencies around that can organise anything from a simple walk around Ulaanbaatar or for a full on desert expedition across the Gobi. I opted for a more classical trip into the middle of nowhere and a stay in a traditional mongolian ger. One thing travelling by train that is great is the general feeling of safety – one thing you don’t get in a mongolian transfer! Quite simply, they all have a death wish! On arrival I’m greeted with a traditional airag (fermented horse milk) and shown to my Ger.
Thankfully I’d packed sufficient clothes and gadgets to enable my survival of the grid! Especially the Handpresso Wild Expresso Maker and my folding 12w solar charger. An additional benefit to having the handpresso is that it’s a great ice breaker with the locals whilst travelling. All you need is some hot water (in a flask) and handpresso compatible e.s.e pod. Nearly everyone is familiar with cameras, ipods, eReaders but not with the amazing taste of an espresso in the wild!
The surrounding mountains of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park are stunning – if not a little cold and on occasion very wet. Most of the other guests elected to be driven around the sites but with my trusty Garmin Colorado GPS and tasted for a little peace and quiet, I just wandered up and down the mountains.
Back in Ulaanbaatar for a day before the the train leaves for Beijing and time to check out some more of the historical sites. While I was there the Nairamdal Park was closed for refurbishment but the Gandan Monastery, Winter Palace of Bogd Khan and Museum of National History were all open and well worth a visit.