Mongolia: Just gettin thar…

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Just getting to the airplane to fly out of Seattle was a hassle. Two days before, I dropped my wife and daughter off at the airport for their annual visit with her family in Phoenix, AZ, and rushed to some photos shoots I had for the Puget Sound Business Journal (small things, photo of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and UW’s president) and gather last minute items for the trip. After doing that, editing images, and unpacking what I packed for the umpteenth time, I spent the next day unpacking and packing…again and double-checking bill auto pays, itinerary sent out to family, and cleaning the house. I had a 3 am check in at the airport and managed to get about 2 hours of sleep. 😦

Now, this is where it pays to get good sleep kiddos. The airport shuttle came and zipped me along to the airport. I had everything laid out to throw in the shuttle, feeling mighty proud of myself that I had it all taken care of, I kept running lists in my head (I printed out a list for each bag too and had checked those off!) and when I got to the airport, I sauntered right in to check my bags. Bag(s). I had my camera bag on my back, my zipped off day bag on my chest, checking in my big Osprey mothership bag, I thought I was checking in two things?

Oh shit! I left my sleeping bag and super-duper 5 star, best of the best-Gaia-said-I-must-have-or-I’ll-die-in-misery-premo sleeping pad at the door of my house! NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!

What to do? I was told the sleeping bag and pads are not very great if I can find one in UB (henceforth the nickname for Ulaanbataar) and I will freeze and die without one, so I have to do something! I had three hours before my flight, its 3:45am, I check with the cabs. I ask a group of drivers clustered together who among them was the fastest? An Ethiopian-born driver came forward and said he was, and the others nodded in agreement. He said he could get me to downtown Kirkland and back in under 45 minutes–for $80. Sigh. And I was so proud of myself for that damn Groupon for an airport shuttle that cost only $30.

IMG_3915True to his word, he flew me up and back in 41 minutes, with my sleeping bag pack in tow now. I checked everything in and flew the long flight to UB with a layover in Vancouver where I managed to get a few winks, and Incheon, South Korea where I got a very nice spa shower (seriously, this is a MUST if you stop at the airport there, its free and very, very nice!)

I got into UB just before midnight and met Gaia at the airport. The local driver, she cautioned, was indicative of the drivers in the city, basically no one heeds traffic signals. It was the first of many driving adventures to be sure. Now I’ve been to Singapore, Bankgok, Jakarta, and live in Seattle; they have nothing on the crazy insanity of driving in UB. be forewarned. You take your life in your hands driving, as a passenger, and especially as a pedestrian!

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Our base of operations, the Lotus Guesthouse. We had the window just under the Lotus sign. (© N. Scott Trimble)

Since I was going to be around for a few months, Tony, the other trip guide I was going to be working with, dragged my groggy ass to the Mongolian immigration office to get my temporary visa. It was there I learned that in Mongolia, one doesn’t wait in a queue to get anything, because you will never make it. A queue is really just an indicator to where the particular thing is that you want IMMEDIATELY. Doesn’t matter if its coffee at a cafe, getting on a bus, a plane, or a visa, if you actually want what they have, you just push through and get it, because that is what everyone else will do as you stare helplessly at the finish line.

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Milk tea dumplings, Gangantugs Tsuivan (yak tripe with flour noodles) and bunnz, an addictive dumpling with goat, yak, mutton and root veggies)

Squared away, we set about exploring UB. We went to Nomads, an ‘authentic’ Mongolian cuisine restaurant that introduces foreigners to a diet of goat, horse, sheep, bounty (mmmmmmmm) and milk tea. Now, nothing beats experiencing those things in a traditional ger with a hospitable family on the Steppe, but more on that later.

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The UB as seen from Zaisen Memorial. (photo by N. Scott Trimble)

One of the biggest things to get used to though was the COOOOOLLLLD water. You see UB has a centralized hot water system. In the winter months, it supposedly works fine. In the summer, the government takes time to clean and do maintenance on the plumbing all throughout the city and and construction projects frequently have the hot water shut off. The water isn’t just cold either, its downright FRIGID, and it certainly is a transition to adapt to those cold, cold showers. But you learn to appreciate them–especially when you face the long cycles of not bathing at all for weeks on end that will coming up quickly.

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Zaisen Memorial, built to honor fallen Soviet Soldiers who died in defense of Mongolians in WW II against invading Japanese forces. (Photo by N. Scott Trimble)
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