The train stops. I lift my 8 kg backpack and join the queue in the corridor. Soon I step out of the door and feel the Far-Eastern, chilly morning breeze on my skin and in my flesh. This time I'm better prepared than in Irkutsk - I have enough clothes on me not to feel too cold.
A young lady comes to me and my cabin-mates Joana and Marcel. Already when I say Sain bainuu? to her, I know she'll be offering accomodation to us and even before she says: Sain. Ta sain bainuu? or shows her brochures I'm 100 per cent sure I want to go to her place...rather than to any of those that the guys who look like wrestlers represent. "Gana's Guest House" - a nice name. After I hear that they even have Internet and sauna and that they only charge five dollars for a night in a ger, it's clear. I want to go to Gana's. Sain bainaa!
When we begin walking towards Gana's minibus, I look over my right shoulder and see the writing in cyrillic on the wall of the station building: "Ulaanbaatar". It is true, I am in the soil of the country of tögröks and möngös - this is Mongolia! I wonder if Gana can arrange a meeting with Chinggis Khan?
Gana couldn't arrange the meeting. The only places I saw Chinggis Khan were in all notes above 1000 tögröks and in the label of famous Chinggis Khan Vodka. And in National History Museum of course. Mr. Temujin (his original name) is a real national hero nowadays. Still, it's Mr. Damdin Sükhbaatar that is celebrated by a big square of his own, a big statue and a mausoleum in the city centre. Mr. Sükhbaatar was the first leader of the Mongolian Communist Party (and therefore the whole country) in the early 1920's. Communism has not been in fashion in Mongolia since the coup in 1990, but still Chinggis Khan - once the leader of the biggest empire the world has ever seen - has to settle for vodka and bank notes. Ok, he died 772 years ago, so asking for a mausoleum being founded now is probably too much. Although no one knows if Mr. Sükhbaatar even rests in his mausoleum, because it's not public - unlike Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing.
I liked Ulaanbaatar. Probably it's partly because I was coming from Irkutsk, but partly also because I really did. Traffic was not that bad and people were really friendly. It was even possible to communicate with some of them, because many people spoke some english. The atmosphere was nice. Really nice and relaxing. No one was in a hurry. People were smiling. Sun kept shining all day long. I could buy some proper food (although sometimes I had to do this in darkness because of the blackouts). And our ger was suberb!
Gosh I still couldn't believe I actually was in Ulaanbaatar and had a Mongolian visa on my passport. I never really thought I'd ever end up in Mongolia. Now that I've seen it, if I would have to describe Mongolia with one word, it would be: "different".
In the train I met Joana from Germany and Marcel from Switzerland and together with them and a young Norwegian couple we all ended up in the same ger. A ger is a kind a big tent, but it's more than tent. More than half of Mongolian population lives in a ger, most of them in the countryside but surprisingly many in the capital as well. It's normally about 10 square metres and the whole family lives in one ger. Mongolians have lots of children, 40 % of the population are below 15. So we lived in a ger and Gana's workers heated it with wood and coal - all this for five dollars a night! Of course we had to take the mice in consideration and keep our food hanging from the roof.
My home is where I lay my ger
I was fascinated enough walking in the streets of Ulaanbaatar and visiting the national history museum, but it was only the beginning. On Tuesday morning Gana's people took us by their Russian vans, and brought us to the wild countryside. The best thing was of course that Tsingta (I never learned to correctly spell her name) came with us - the same lady, who we had met at the station on the first morning. Kharkhorin and the "roads" of Mongolia, here we come! (believe me, I would never be able to drive myself in Mongolia, it seems that a place is called a road just because someone has driven there once sometimes)
Traffic jam in Mongolia
In 1200s Chinggis Khan built the capital of his enormous empire in Karakorum. 300 years later the first lama monastery of Mongolia was built on top of the old ruins of Karakorum. In 1930s almost all temples were destroyed by Stalin and the communist rule. The monks were killed and all that was left was the small town of Kharkhorin. In 1999 came I, saw the three surviving temples and 108 monks who are once again living there, and left. I've never been to Tibet, but I can imagine that this - Erdene Zuu Khiid - is very much like it. The place is about 1600 metres above sea level and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The monks pray in Tibetan and dress like lamas in Tibet. The temples are exactly like Tibetan temples and even the horn that the young monks used to gather everyone for a prayer was like the ones I've seen in movies like "Kundun" or "Seven years in Tibet". Hey, maybe I don't need to go to Tibet any more after this! Well, seriously: given the problems in Tibet with the Chines rulers and the liberal present time in Mongolia, I wouldn't be too surprised to see Mongolia being the centre of lama buddhism in the future. Of course the holiest places remain in Tibet, but the believers must be happier in Mongolia.
That's just my two cents of course. I really know next to nothing about buddhism and this was my first time in a buddhist temple - let alone lama. But let's go back to the countryside and beauuuutiful nature:
Horses on the steppe
I didn't have my English dictionary with me and I didn't understand what did the word "steppe" mean. But my (English) guide book kept telling me about "Mongolian steppe this" and "Mongolian steppe that". By the time I got to the steppe, it wasn't hard to guess that the Finnish correspondence is "aro". If there ever was a prototype of all steppes in the world, this must be it! Just plain plains to every direction and mountains in the horizon and nothing growing but some dry grass. And grasshoppers were everywhere. All sorts of grasshoppers. Grasshoppers of all sizes. Grasshoppers that made all kinds of sounds. Grasshoppers that flew. Grasshoppers that jumped. Small grasshoppers. Big grasshoppers. Medium-sized grasshoppers. Grasshoppers that sounded like the ones in Finland. Grasshoppers that sounded like a big clock ticking. Grasshoppers that sounded like a giant blowing through his lips. Green grasshoppers. Reddish grasshoppers. Gray grasshoppers. Grasshoppers.
For me it was a bit strange to see all animals running wild on the steppe. Yaks, horses, cows, sheep, goats, camels and dogs. They seemed independent, but every now and then we saw some nomads herding them. These people are real nomads if anyone. Their ger can be put down in one hour and up again in another, so moving to a better place is easy. The people were also SO hospitable and always offering airag (fermented horse's milk), salted tea with milk and home-made vodka (of yak's milk). Everything was drinkable, but the snacks made of different animal's milk were not really to my taste. Also, I was happy enough to avoid too much mutton, because we had our own food with us from the capital. Mongolian country people seem to eat nothing but mutton and different milk products.
Four days on the road. We were seven tourists, two drivers and two guides and we had lots of fun! We slept in family gers , had picnics outside and dinners in gers, ate sheep entrails, rode horses, did fishing with a rifle , had snow fights, saw rivers, mountains (my altimeter told me I got to 2000 metres at the highest, which was a disappointment to me) and steppe etc. Our guides were excellent and we learned lots of things about Mongolia during these days from Tsingta and Ikha. All this for 20 dollars a day.
Of course I also got sick and I didn't even have to pay extra.
After returning back to the capital on Friday afternoon I wanted to try the sauna - I was really dirty and the days and nights in the countryside were also really cold. Well, the sauna was excellent! Rarely do I have a chance to get to such a good sauna in Finland. Maybe it was because they heated it up with coal. Anyway I took too long sauna, drank too little, ate too much, spent too long time in the cold with too little clothing, heated my ger too much and - threw up in the evening. Next day I felt miserable, had fever and could not do anything else but sleep. Luckily I had two doctors in the neighbour ger and friends from another ger took my postcards to the post office (thanks Henry, Jette, Joana and Marcel!).
Because of getting sick I never got the chance to get to the natural history museum to see the dinosaurs - so I was happy to see them later in Beijing. I also couldn't spend my last 15.000 tögröks or find replacements for my Mongolian cashmeer woollen gloves that I lost on the steppe... Still, I had to find Mr. Munkhtulga and change my voucher to a train ticket, which was not too easy in that condition.
And yeah: if you ever go to Ulaanbaatar, Gana's Guest House is the place to stay! :-)
Just another Sunday morning...in Mongolia - and my last one. Feeling much better now and eager to get to the train again! I have to depart from my friends and meet my new, Asian cabinmates. When the train begins its way out of Ulaanbaatar I jump to my bed on the upper level and say Ni Hao to the elderly couple downstairs and the young girl on the other upper level bed. 13 hours later I would be in China.