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View from Train Window

Ulan Bator

The border-crossing formalities from Russia to Mongolia took almost as long as the ride itself! We sat for hours waiting, in a lone carriage, to be hooked to a locomotive and shunted across. As soon as we arrived on the Russian side of the border, an official-looking man in a faded uniform boarded the train and walked down the aisle, peeking into every compartment. At the end of the car was an empty compartment. Soon bags, bulging with goods, were carried aboard to fill it up. We didn't really pay it that much attention until later, when a customs official, wearing a much nicer uniform, boarded and asked who was assigned to that cabin. Suddenly there was shouting, then commotion as the bags of merchandise were thrown off the train. One of the boxes broke open, revealing cartons of cigarettes. Perhaps someone had been trying to smuggle the goods across the border. On the Mongolian side, things were much more lively. With our remaining rubles, exchanged for Mongolian tögrögs at usurious rates, we bought some greasy mutton dumplings in a plastic bag. Children were running around, playing and watching the tourists. After spending all our money, Eric went to use the toilet, but had nothing left to pay with.

On the way to Ulan Bator, we befriended a couple of Swiss ladies on the train. They had already booked a guesthouse, recommended by a friend, in Ulan Bator. The train passed through rolling hills, then, gently descending, swept in a broad arc down to a wide, tilted plain ringed by mountains. Rusty steam pipes and smoking factories, signs of Soviet-style industry, appeared on the outskirts of town. At the station we were mobbed by guesthouse touts. But people spoke English! They actually liked tourists here! We followed our Swiss friends to their guesthouse, a cramped apartment in a communist-era housing block. It was a tight squeeze, with people sleeping on the floor, but it was centrally located.

Main Square, Ulan Bator

Ulan Bator is a typical communist-inspired capital city, complete with a vast concrete square surrounded by imposing Stalinist and brutalist buildings. Hawkers lined the streets selling calls from cordless telephones, the cheapest way to make a public call. People seemed better off here than in Russia. They certainly were friendlier. We walked quite a distance in town to the giant open-air market. Although there were mostly imported Chinese goods on display, there were a few stalls selling Mongolian riding boots and traditional clothes, and even a few vendors selling yurts. The State Department Store, right in the middle of town, has a whole floor of souvenirs, much of it kitsch, but some of it good value. We each bought a pair of felt slippers for home. With enough advanced notice, one could get fitted with a complete Mongolian riding costume, from spike-tipped felt hat to pointy-toed riding boots. That night we ate in a Korean restaurant, the most common kind of ethnic food available in Mongolia. We didn't bother trying any Mongolian restaurants - we wanted vegetables! Walking back to our guesthouse we were accosted by street kids posturing and begging for money. Ulan Bator, with patchy streetlights and spooky concrete housing blocks, is not really a safe place to wander around in after dark.