Yesterday, J and I parked ourselves at a table in our guesthouse’s cafe with our netbook and smartphones and didn’t get up for 8 hours. Long-term travel is so sexy. You could say that- in some ways- we’ve transitioned quickly into our new life, which often feels more like we’re living abroad than “just” taking a long trip. As soon as we arrived in Mongolia, it felt different from all of our other travels. Part of it is our mindset going into this trip. The other is, well, the location.
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital and home to 60% of the country’s population, doesn’t have the most glowing of reputations. In travel guides and blogs, it’s been described as drab and the reality doesn’t defy that reputation. From the indistinct buildings to the general, let’s say, indifference of the population (shoving is common, “thank yous” are not) to the pickpocket warning signs posted everywhere, the city leaves something to be desired. Which actually gave us permission to do less, sleep more and travel more slowly than we’re used to. Most days, we’re lucky to do one or two activities and the remaining hours are spent eating, taking care of life’s random tasks, and researching things to do. And going on grocery runs. Lots and lots of grocery runs.
It’s also taught us that when faced with a world of options, we’re very indecisive. We initially only booked a room for the first four nights of our trip, thinking we might continue on elsewhere in Mongolia after that. However, we spent much of those days hemming and hawing over what we wanted to do next- a consequence of our inexperience with unplanned, spontaneous travel combined with the seemingly onerous nature of Mongolia’s long-distance transportation system. So at the last minute- the night before we had to check out of our guesthouse- we simply quit and extended our stay in Ulaanbaatar despite all of misgivings about the city.
After some scrambling for a new home (the one we were at was already booked to capacity), we found ourselves at a guesthouse on the edge of town, minutes from absolutely nothing but tire shops and dusty roads. It was rated highly on TripAdvisor but that didn’t seem to matter after we got off the bus at the market that was supposed to be “right next to” the guesthouse and proceeded to walk for another 30 minutes with all of our gear, searching for said guesthouse.
But we couldn’t remain disappointed when we finally arrived and were greeted by the bright smile of the friendliest innkeeper we had ever met- an Austrian woman who moved to Mongolia 17 years earlier as part of a charity mission and subsequently stayed and built the guesthouse, complete with attached cafe, beauty salon and laundry service open to travelers and locals alike.
And so we settled into our home for the next few nights, a traditional ger, albeit outfitted with some modern conveniences.
Home sweet home- because of its location on the periphery of the city, the guesthouse has parking and attracts many long-term travelers crossing the continent by car or motorcycle.
The interior of our ger.
The cafe in the guesthouse was a sleek contrast to our sleeping quarters.
After an additional day in Ulaanbaatar, I grew not to focus on the city’s negative points but rather appreciate the feeling of growing familiarity with a new place.
Ulaanbaatar, rough as it may be around the edges, does have a few surprises. The people are incredibly fashionable. While Mongolians’ love for meat, mutton in particular, is well-known, Ulaanbaatar has an enormous range of restaurant options including a French bakery, vegan chain, North Korean restaurant, and a hot pot restaurant.
Overindulgence makes everything better.
And despite some of the run down facades, there are treasures to be found behind them:
The International Intellectual Museum (in the distance) which- despite it’s incredibly depressing exterior- has been one of the highlights of our time in Ulaanbaatar. It holds a massive collection of puzzles designed by Zandraa Tumen-Ulzii, Mongolia’s master puzzle maker. One requires over 50,000 moves to solve. It’s also always nice to be reminded that we’re really not as smart as we think we are.
The Choijin Lama Monastery complex was extraordinary. Unfortunately, we weren’t willing to pay the $15 extra to take photos. However, we managed to sneak this one, which is not at all representative of the monastery… but very representative of how easily amused we both are.
Gandan Monastery, which is currently undergoing a massive renovation. The feet will be a part of a much larger sculpture in the new complex.
The colors and details within Gandan Monastery were extraordinary.
And most importantly, our time in Ulaanbaatar has allowed us to rest and mentally prepare for the first great adventure of this trip: beginning tomorrow, we embark on a 12-day trip through the Gobi desert, meeting and living with a different nomadic family each day. We will be completely off the grid during this time. Temperatures are expected to drop to freezing at night. We’ll be living in tents. There will be no showers for at least the first 8 days. Almost every meal will be comprised of mutton (I’m a vegetarian!). Most of the families don’t speak English. At all. Wish us luck.