Asia, 1989. Part II: Mongolia

Read Part I here.

April 6 – The morning sun shows the dry, brown rolling hills of Mongolia – a sharp contrast to the Siberian birches and snow. It’s as though the terrain changes between Russia and Mongolia were as clearly delineated as the colored maps in an Atlas. We arrive in Ulan Bator at noon, met by a representative of Zhuulchin – the Mongolian tourist agency. The discount rooms-a-la-Mishella fall through. It’s $80 per person, per night, as our guide says with a grin, “No choice.”

Also no hot water. The water is freezing but refreshing as I have my first shower since Moscow. I dry myself with a towel that smells faintly of fried noodles.

Lunch in the restaurant “Ulan Bator” is nothing if not Soviet. Pork shashlik, cabbage, potatoes and rice, with potato soup appetizer. Best described as functional.

The weather is beautiful, sunny and about 60 degrees, I would guess. The guide takes us to the Mongolian Central State Museum, where we enjoy a brief lecture in Russian on Mongolian indigenous wood and mineral types. The museum is not bad, but a dinosaur skeleton is a dinosaur skeleton whether it’s in the Smithsonian or in Central Asia. We also tour the fine arts museum, which is very interesting – lots of Buddhas and surreal landscape paintings. The guide explains to us the significances of various symbols in the art, in between crediting the Mongols with everything from founding perspective drawing to the original Rubik’s cube. The art is beautiful.

The main square in Ulan Bator is bounded by government and cultural buildings. In the center is a statue of Sukher Bator, the 1921 revolutionary hero, whose ashes lie in a mausoleum on the north end of the square. “Ulan Bator” means “Red Hero” in Mongolian.

I buy some postcards of traditional scenes – grinning Mongolians folk-dancing through the brown hills, yurt villages – which apparently exist only outside the socialist realism of the city. People do still wear traditional dress, though, and occasionally ancient Mongolian script, which was forcibly phased out in favor of Cyrillic in the ’40’s, appears on signs.

In the afternoon, Glenn and I make our way to one of the few remaining statues of Josef Stalin in the world. Nearly all in the USSR are gone, except for a few in Soviet Georgia, where he was born. This larger-than-life replica stands in front of the Stalin Library. I ask Nara, our guide, if there are plans to remove it. She smiles warily and shrugs, careful not to betray any opinion about it one way or the other. Although Stalin had clearly fallen into disfavor in the USSR at this time, the Mongolian government has allowed the statue to stand, and as a representative of the Mongolian government, Nara was not inclined to venture an opinion potentially counter to the government’s.

We wind our way through a neighborhood not far from the hotel, where schoolkids are at play, hitting a volleyball in a circle, or marching in formation under the eye of a Mongolian army officer.

April 7 – We go with Nara to the only remaining Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Yurts, traditional Mongolian tents, crowd the walkway to the monastery, and beyond these, Soviet- style concrete block apartment buildings rise above the yurts. The monastery has 5 temples and 115 lamas. It is very peaceful and very Asian. Once again the sky is cloudless.

Back at the hotel I boil water and pour it into our plastic bottle, which slowly collapses from the heat. The only other bottle I can find is one filled with Mongolian vodka in the dollars shop. I empty the $2.30 worth of vodka, rinse the bottle, and fill it with water for the train trip.

The Mongolians prove to be very adept at wrangling dollars out of tourists. The Ulan Bator – Beijing train connection leaves 24 hours after our Moscow – Ulan Bator train arrives, necessitating at least one night’s stay, with a room at $80 per person the cheapest option. The reservation on the train to Beijing can only be made by Zhuulchin, which charges an $l8.50 surcharge per ticket reservation. Once on the train we find that there are no first class wagons on Fridays, so we are put in a 4-bed compartment. Luckily our compartment mates are very pleasant – an Indian diplomat now serving in Ulan Bator, and his wife. They are on the weekly courier run to Beijing. Their English is excellent, as they urge with perfect grammar: “Don’t go to India in June,” as we have planned. They say the heat is excruciating and the grime omnipresent. But they give us tips on the better places to see. She feeds us lunch of cheese sandwich, potato curry and something she calls “prickly crispies” made of chickpea flour and fried. We drink Maxwell House coffee in Chinese ceramic cups and discuss the varying qualities of chocolate around the world.

The train pushes on alone through miles of empty terrain, with only occasional small settlements. Mongolia seems vast and untouched. The day is spent conversing with the Norwegians and our Indian compartment mates, and writing postcards.

We have a 3-hour stop in a small town with no mailbox and no bathroom. It’s a beautiful night. There’s a warm breeze and the sky is filled with stars. Orion looms, huge, just above the horizon.

Soviet soldiers stand guard at the train as we wait, and a convoy of trucks comes from the darkness, kicking up dust and carrying some sort of machinery. Back in the compartment we go to sleep to the sounds of our neighbors’ snoring.

April 8 – We are awakened at 6am by the knocks of the Mongolian border guards. Since Glenn and I are in a compartment with a diplomat, they don’t check our things. I have 50 Mongolian tungin left over, which the exchange window refuses to change back. I plead with them in Russian, and they ignore me. “Is this the change window?” No answer. “Do you speak Russian?” No answer. I press my face against the bars of the window. “I want to change this money back. Can you hear? What’s your problem?!” Pause. “Nyet.” Aha. That explains it. I ask Janet & John, a U.S. foreign service couple, if they can exchange with me, as he will likely go back to Ulan Bator to help set up the new U.S. Embassy there. Luckily, they agree.

Fifteen more minutes by train and we have passed the three barbed-wire fences and small ditch that make the Sino-Mongolian border. We stop for four hours for Chinese customs and to change the train wheels. The rails have different widths in China and Mongolia, necessitating the new Chinese-size wheels. We change money: $200=721 yuan in Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC). In theory, FEC has the same value as Renminbi (RMB or People’s Money), but in practice, the black market pays 180 RMB for 100 FEC, since FEC can be used to purchase goods not available to Chinese citizens. It is illegal for Chinese to possess FEC, or even to enter the Friendship Stores that stock the Western goods reserved for tourists or the elite.

Our first Chinese meal is rice, garlic sprouts, onions and meat, and Beijing-produced Coca-Cola. I use the chopsticks with confidence, if not skill, and look forward to eating more and dropping less with practice.

Glenn and I decide today to try and arrange taking a bus from Kashgar, in northwest China, to Islamabad, Pakistan. It is near Soviet Tadzhikistan and apparently has beautiful scenery. Details in the guidebook are sketchy, but it is do-able. We hope. We are encouraged to be realistic, however, by our Indian diplomat friend, who peers over the rims of his glasses to intone, “I have very grave doubts that you will be able to obtain the necessary visas in time.” His wife rolls her eyes in mock exasperation and chirps “He is so pessimistic, don’t you think? Don’t worry, children. Have some more prickly crispies.”

We have dinner in the dining car; a many-course affair, with one unidentifiable food in sweet sauce. We look at the young waitress quizzically, and she laughs and draws a picture of a smiling pig on a napkin and shows it to us. “Peeg.”

Once more we enjoy the company of the Norwegians in the evening. They will spend four days together in Beijing, then go their separate ways.

April 9 – Our Trans-Mongolian Rail Adventure ends officially as we pull into Beijing Station at 6:20 a.m. Glenn and I burst from the terminal into brilliant sunshine and a sea of Chinese faces, animatedly chattering away in completely (for us) unintelligible sounds. We wander with determined looks on our faces, trying to figure out which way is north and where bus no. 20 stops. We wrestle with a guidebook map that indicates that the spot we’re standing on doesn’t exist. After several failed attempts to comprehend our surroundings, we set back off for the terminal to find faces that look more like ours to ask for help. Two Polish students show us on a different map where beds for Y12 can be had. We watch as the Norwegians pile into a waiting mini-van for the trip to their already reserved hotel rooms.  We take a taxi-van for Y10 to the hotel the Poles recommended, where the cheapest rooms are Y50. Tired and dirty, we accept. After showering and relaxing we set out to see the city!

We take a bus route that goes right by the Forbidden City and ends at the train station, where we hope to rent bikes. No luck. We walk to the Friendship Store, which stocks Western goods, to see the Time magazine special issue on the  Soviet Union, which Glenn and I both worked on. It’s there! We each buy one and flip through, looking for photos where we had been with the photographers. There is a picture of Glenn with Boris Yeltsin, pretty good size and obviously Glenn. He’s really excited.

We wander around looking for bike rental. Beijing is incredibly crowded; there are bikers everywhere, and no rules, apparently. The buses are jammed full and pedestrians stroll and spit. The Chinese are refreshingly animated compared to the somber Soviets. The sidewalk vendors’ stands have incomprehensible writing, fresh fruit – oranges and bananas! – and smiling faces that call out “hallo!” but look puzzled when asked “Where is bike rent?”

Lunch is in a tiny restaurant at the end of a grimy, but busy alley. The pork and vegetables are not bad at all, but the crowning achievement of the kitchen is an enormous, sauce-soaked fish, head graciously included. It is actually not bad tasting at all, but somewhat unappetizing to look at.

The quest for bike rental goes on. People point up and across streets and we walk for blocks with no luck. An American hustler of Trans-Siberian train tickets directs us, but first comments that he saw me in the Embassy APO this winter, as he travels frequently to Moscow; then asks if I’ll go in and make a train reservation for him. He says he’s bought so many tickets in the past, they won’t sell to him anymore. I decline. We move on.

At last we find a bike rental place – across the street from the Friendship Store, where we had begun our search 5 hours before.

Biking through Beijing is great fun. Hundreds of bikers, from kids to 80-year-olds, weaving in and out, ringing their little bike bells. Beijing assaults all the senses. We bike by shashlik stands, piles of celery-like vegetables, kids eating ice cream, people wearing surgical masks to screen out dust, called “Yellow Wind,” that blows in each spring from the Gobi Desert. The pavement reflects the spring heat. The trees have their first green leaves. It’s a wonderful first day; we forget the hotel hassle of the morning. In the evening we bike back to the Jing Tai hotel to relax, plan our errands for tomorrow, and peruse the Time issue.

Next week: Beijing, the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City

7 responses to “Asia, 1989. Part II: Mongolia”

  1. Damn — there are Unicode entities for traditional Mongolian script but my computer will not render them.

  2. Scotty says:

    I love your voice in this. I’m so glad that you decided to post these entries.

  3. LP says:

    Thanks, Scotty. Now that I’m rereading them, which I haven’t done in a very long while, I’m struck by how just-the-facts they seem. I’m also remembering more details to the stories, which is kind of fun.

    Wish I could post the photos I took, too, but that would require scanning them, which I don’t really have time to do.

  4. ks says:

    i’m anxious to go back and read your travel journals when I finish grading…something that is keeping me from properly focusing on anything put papers Papers PAPERS at the moment.

  5. J-Man says:

    An excellent bedtime story. Nighty-night!
    p.s. you wrote an article for Time at that tender age?! Very impressive!

  6. LP says:

    I didn’t write an article for them, though I tried (it was rejected). I was hired as a driver / interpreter for the photographers who came to take pictures for the special issue. Which is a story in itself, involving the first car I ever crashed, wooo!

  7. Stella says:

    I want my prickly crispie.