Janet Wood’s Mongolian Diary

MongoliaJANET Wood from Mere travelled to Mongolia during the summer to take part in an expedition with Col John Blashford-Snell of the Scientific Exploration Society. In the second extract from her diary, Janet describes the experience of arriving in the capital, Ulan Bator …

We arrived at Ulan Bator Airport in the early hours having passed over a wilderness of mountains, rivers and little else. Our flight was uneventful except for a very dodgy landing in Moscow – worse than Ryanair! On-board food was dreadful with the choice of beef or chicken on both flights regardless of the time of day. Beef came tops, by a narrow margin.

Ulan Bator is the capital of Mongolia and rapidly expanding. There is a huge mining industry in Mongolia with much international interest, especially from Rio Tinto and China. Many Mongolians have given up their traditional nomadic lifestyle and have converged on Ulan Bator to find work there.

I travelled from the aiport to the city centre with the dentist, surveyor and two other members of our party. One of our first impressions was the bad state of the roads – little did we know that the roads from the airport were akin to motorways compared to what was coming!

Much of UB is a building site including the area around Springs Hotel, our hotel, though it was very central. The traffic is noisy with much hooting and whistling from the policemen stationed at all major crossings. Lanes were three cars wide and little regard is taken of the pedestrian crossing lights. The pavements are lethal with open manholes. The major buildings are often ex Russian but many new buildings are going up. At the centre of the city is the huge Sukhbaatar Square, with many stunning statues of warriors on their horses and Gengis Khan, sitting in state, in front of the recently built Government House.

Ulan Bator is a contrast of old and new with a marvellous backdrop of mountains on all sides. I believe it is one of the most rapidly changing capitals in the world but until now I did not find it exotic.

Back at the hotel we had to repack as our large bags were going off with the lorries and vans to Moron, a drive of 48 hours. Panic! I couldn’t find my underwear anywhere in my multi-zipped bag. So I braved the city’s large department store with other party members and managed to buy replacements from a very limited supply.

Walking there we passed many elderly men with bathroom scales, which you paid to use, street stalls selling shoe repair kits, fruit and sweets. The souvenir shops had wolf skins, felt slippers and ornate national costumes and hats.

We met the rest of our party in Sukhbataar Square where a T Rex skeleton was on display. This had been smuggled out in pieces by the Americans but the Mongolians had demanded it back and won. They were very proud of both the skeleton and their achievement in gaining its return.

Then, to our delight, we saw hundreds of children in the square, all in National Costume dancing to the same tune over and over again. These children came from more than 80 areas in Mongolia and were auditioning to take part in the Nadaam Festival in Ulan Bator. As far as their costumes, it seems anything goes as long as it is bright, colourful and exotic. It was wonderful to see so many children, including many teenagers, participating with such pride.

Our next visit was to the Mongolian National Song & Dance Academic Ensemble to see the Mongolian State Theatre perform. Despite the oncoming jet lag, it was a wonderful performance, very loud, strident, colourful and with many talented performers. There were dancers whirling dramatically around the stage, throat singers, long singers, opera singers, full orchestras playing conventional instruments as well as horse hair fiddles, horse hair bass, horns and even a contortionist. This was my introduction to the Mongolians’ love of music and drama and it reminded me of a Hollywood blockbuster, full of sheer energy.

The evening was rounded off with a meal, compliments of Genghis Expeditions and the first of many briefings, back at Springs Hotel It seemed I was in charge of videoing on the basis that my father had been very active in the cine club many years ago!

Checking through our bags, I found that I had forgotten the lead to charge my mobile, so I sent a text home to say I was turning my mobile off and would be in touch in three weeks time. Very liberating!

Our bags were sent off on the lorries to Moron and as I looked at mine on the lobby floor I noticed a zipped side pocket I hadn’t checked – guess what? – loads of underwear now! This was the first of many lost and regained items but no phone charger.

I slept well that night. JW

Pictured are some of the children dancing in Sukhbataar Square.