A pre-dawn bus depot in Ulan Ude is a quiet place indeed. A gaggle of Mongolians slowly gather with their foodstuffs stored in aluminium canisters. One café, with darkness penetrating through-and-through the single glaze windows, is open. On the flickering TV strapped to the corner, news of the war in Syria. I awake the girl behind the counter and order a scolding hot cup of black tea. I drink a third before heading for the solitary bus, slowly being loaded with people and parcels.
The long bus to Ulan Bator, taking some 12 hours, is still considerably faster than the lingering train option. Red decorative curtains cover the tops of somewhat transparent plastic tarps nailed over the windows for a hope of heat insulation. The effect is somewhat negligible. Everyone inside wears their winter coats and hats the whole ride through.
The border between Russia and Mongolia is a stunningly beautiful region. Siberian pine forests, which slowly give way for high mountain barrens swept by wind and braved only by a few horsemen covered in the skins and furs of various animals.
The usual border formalities. First, I’m pulled out of the queue and then later taken into interrogation. Why have you been to Turkey? Why are you going to Vietnam? What do you mean by travel just for the sake of traveling? These border guards are always curious people with minds full of curious questions. I’m finally let back onto the bus, only to be met by understandably angry glares from my fellow passengers who all had to wait for me and my little chat with the border women and men. Farewell Russia, I wish to return soon.
First stop in Mongolia, a bus depot somewhere in the mountains. At the door of the restaurant we were all shuffled into, a large swine rushes past me. Lamb and noodles. The first of many to come in Mongolia.
A fast arriving dusk swapped the stunning landscapes of northern Mongolia into complete darkness. After hours of charging through the night, Ulan Bator finally loomed. Jumping out of the bus, the chocking pollution problem of the city became immediately apparent. Stinging in my eyes and throat, the smell of burning coal and tires. The cigarette my taxi driver lit up in the car, on the way to my accommodation, actually made the whole air situation somewhat more pleasant.
Ulan Bator feels a bit like Mos Eisley. A wild town full of vagabonds coming to and from Asia. Junk, acrid air, the most hectic traffic I’ve seen anywhere, robbers, beggars, junkies, back-alley-tricks and rabid animals of all sorts. An unfathomable amount of Toyota Priuses rushing around on and off the road at stupefying speeds. The dry, cold and dust filled wind from the Gobi desert to the south and the dry, cold and coal-smoke filled wind from the north take turns blasting through the city.
If Ulan Bator is Mos Eisley, then (and forgive my Star Wars metaphors here) northern Mongolia is Hoth and southern Mongolia Tatooine. It really is a land of extremes. Despite all this, I quickly grew to love the city, the country and the people of both. Ulan Bator has more soul than most places in this world; the harsh and unforgiving kind, but I guess I’m somewhat drawn towards that vibe.
Apart from all the negatives mentioned above, Mongolians are friendly and beautiful people, who speak much better English than their neighbors to the north or south. The local cuisine is simple, but delicious and cheap. There’s a large selection of foreign cuisines to sample, some of the best Korean food I’ve had anywhere in fact.
The best parts of Mongolia however can be found a bit outside of the capital. And by a bit, I mean if you drive 10 minutes outside of Ulan Bator you can already start to find some beautifully barren areas and people living close to the way they have for hundreds of years. I was lucky enough to meet a couple from the UK, Heather and Joe, who’d driven their 25-year old Mitsubishi from London to Mongolia. Us three took the trusty 4×4 for a light excursion around the city to find a bit of peace, quiet and stupefying statues of their “great leader” Genghis Khan.
The time I spent in Mongolia was completely lacking, and I’m already planning a longer trip back there during warmer seasons. Sitting in the comfortable train from UB towards the Chinese border, gazing over the expanse of the Gobi desert and chatting with a stunning Mongolian beauty my eyes did grow a tad misty. But no time to look back now, China awaits.