A Tour of Ulaanbaatar

I returned to an empty newsroom late one night. Outside my office door I shook my contribution to the moving of the Gobi Desert eastward from my coat and boots and onto the floor. The Mongolians won't miss a little sand and the janitor has seen worse, of that I am sure. In settling back in my easy chair and about to light a smoke, I spotted a note from junior reporter Junko on my desk.

While you were out chasing cocktail waitresses "on-assignment" in Ulaanbaatar, the world has been turning itself inside out.

I paused for a few moments so as to properly recreate the typical condescending tone of her voice in my head. With that set, I continued.

A military coup occurred in one of your favorite travel spots - Fiji, and martial law has been declared. The interim leader has demanded air-conditioned taxis nationwide. Glad you are back. Now get your own damn coffee!

A lot she knows. They are called "hostesses" by us in the know. I tossed the letter aside.

That is troubling about Fiji. At this point, I figured they would be well on their way to a comfortable transportation system. At least, every time that a taxi driver had asked me to buy him a bottle of whiskey at the duty free shop, I gladly obliged, thinking that one day those accumulated savings on booze would certainly be going towards an air-conditioned vehicle, or at a minimum, one with upholstered seats. The whole thing is downright puzzling.

My trip started at the airport. There was quite a reception of print and TV journalists swarming around the terminal of the Ulaanbaatar Airport as I exited immigration. Indeed, I had arrived. But so had some sumo wrestler from Japan.

No matter. After about a 20-minute drive through the city, my driver pulled up to what looked like an abandoned apartment building. It turned out to be my hotel.

Because of a lack of Mongolian cultural knowledge, I had my guidebook clutched in my right hand. I was ready.

The power was out in the hotel and the reception area was lit by three small red candles. I pushed my passport, at the request of the receptionist, past one of the candles across the desk. A bellhop then carried my bags up to my room on the 4th floor. All still in the dark.

With the aid of the next morning's light, I looked around only to discover that my room had possibly been the location of a gasoline and match fight. Large stains and burns covered most of the carpet. Paint chips and caulking had fallen from around the windows. I quickly understood why Mongolians stick to the traditional nomadic circular-shaped dwellings of fur, or gers. The electricity problem still hadn't been fixed.

When I turned on the tap in the bathtub, it filled with a decent amount of brown sediment. After further inspection, I found it to be rust particles. I immediately regretted my drinking of a glass of tap water just moments prior. Liberation from 70 years under the Soviet Union's communist umbrella ten years ago obviously hadn't resulted in an emphasis on pluming maintenance. But I later reasoned that a little extra iron was good for the circulation. I decided to consult my guidebook for the first time. This time about Mongolian traditional drinks:

The main drinks are tea, milk, airag (fermented mare's milk), and vodka. Airag is probably the most favorite drink of the Mongolians. Airag is generously served at weddings, big parties and ceremonies. To make airag from mare's milk, put it into a hohuur (a big leather bag made from cow's skin) and beat it until it gets fermented. It is usually ready the next day.

Though more appealing sounding than the tap water, I realized that I didn't have the resources, or the time, for such a complicated project. I decided instead to go sightseeing.

My driver took me to the Zaisan Monument, dedicated to the conclusion of World War II. It is perched on a peak overlooking the entirety of Ulaanbaatar. From the base of the stairs leading up, a solitary concrete statue of a soldier with right arm rising into the air is the feature of prominence. As one climbs the hundred or so meters to the top, a rotunda, painted with a colorful mural displaying the ingenuity, advanced technology, and all around greatness of communism, can be seen next to the military figure. At this high elevation, I began to feel a slight headache coming on. I checked the guidebook:

Wash your head and breast with water containing dissolved burnt fur of a wolf to cure your headache and tuberculosis. If you suffer from a continuous headache, wear a snake skin hat. Your pain will go away. Dried blood of a snake is good for the eye.

A few minutes drive back to the center of the city is the Natural History Museum in Sukhbaatar Square. The two-story museum hosts quite a large variety of artifacts that vary from traditional dress to food preparation tools. Additionally, stuffed and embalmed birds and animals along with dinosaur bones are also on display. As I exited, I noticed the dry desert air was irritating my eyes. I consulted the guidebook:

Eye pains will go away, if the bile of a black cow is used for it.

The Bogd Khaan Museum, the palace of the last dynastic ruler of Mongolia, was our next stop. It is a collection of 7 temples, 20 gates, and a two-story European-style house. The wood structures are examples of traditional Mongolian architecture and were built for the Bogd Khanns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The temples house paintings, traditional rugs, musical instruments, and other artifacts from the period. After exiting the gates, I noticed that a strong wind had started stirring up quite a lot of dust. I began to notice difficulty in my breathing and started coughing. I once again turned to my new best friend:

Swelling on the face and eyes caused by dry cough should be washed with water in which an onion has been boiled.

By this time it was getting dark and I decided to return to the hotel. From the driveway I could see that it was lit up rather nicely, signaling that the power had returned. At the front desk, I waited while the receptionist completed a phone call in Japanese. When she finished I asked, "Is the electricity working in all of the rooms now?"

She immediately whipped out the hotel brochure, showing the different price categories for rooms in the hotel. Either she couldn't see that I was tapping my room key on the side of the desk or she was trying to tell me that rooms with electricity cost more than those without. In whatever case, English comprehension was the problem. I turned to the guidebook:

Drops of urine of a turtle is good for hearing. A turtle makes its urine if a mirror faces it.

Without a turtle, or mirror, in sight, I decided to try Japanese: "Watashi no heya no denki ga tsukimasen (Lady, the electricity in my room doesn't work and I have bacon that needs frying)."

She explained that cooking in the rooms was not allowed and that I simply needed to insert my room key ring into the socket near the door of my room to get the electricity on.

Speaking of cooking, I was hungry. I headed to the hotel restaurant. First, I figured I had better get a rundown on Mongolian food:

In order to keep the meat for a long period of time, it is smoked by keeping the meat above the smoke of burning dried dung. There are several kinds of meat dishes. For instance, depending on the part of the animal's body the meat is taken from, there are two main types; turag makh (animal flesh meat) and dotor (heart, stomach, kidney and lungs).

In checking the main course section of the menu, I did not notice any of the above dishes by name or description and decided on the pork schnitzel. Though flavorful, the schnitzel had the consistency of a tire inner tube, leading me to believe that it was a leftover from Genghis Khan's reign, some 1,000 years prior. I would now perhaps need dental assistance:

Toothache will go away if the tooth is rinsed with water in which the bones of a white horse were boiled.

And so went my trip until my arrival back to newsroom.

A little shuteye before morning and the troops start to file in would be just what the doctor ordered, I thought.

"So you made it back," said Junko, entering my office. It was obviously later than I thought.

"Where's my coffee?" I barked out of reflex.

"I don't have to listen to you," she said in storming back out the door. I consulted the guidebook one final time for requests that have gone unfulfilled:

Goat horn boiled in the mountain water is good for the deaf ear.

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