Escaping Ulaanbaatar

Just like any new place, at first Ulaanbaatar is very intriguing. The line between city and wilderness, plethora of “idols” to Chingiis Khan, and transitions between ger district and metropolitan blocks all give the city a unique feel. As stated in our UB post, we had a blast exploring the city, however after our first 3 days we were ready for something new. Unfortunately, we had arranged our trips in the countryside and the Mongolia transportation system works in a way that we returned to UB for a few days and then a week between excursions. We needed to find something to do other than sit around, we needed to escape UB. Fortunately, we found three activities that used up our time in a productive manner and heard of more for next time!

Hiking From Zummond Back to UB

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The first time we arrived back in UB from the north we did an overnight backpack from Zuunmod back to the city. This involved taking the bus from the Dragon Bus Station to Zuunmod (runs every hour for 2,000T). We had previously bought a relatively good map from Seven Summits on the surrounding UB area. From Zuunmod, we hiked 3.5 miles to the  Manjusri Monastery. This was a great spot for lunch among the ruins of the Stalin purged buildings and under a new reconstructed hall. We then headed up into what we thought was pristine seccluded wilderness. However, quickly learned that all the pine nuts that are sold on every corner in UB are collected all throughout this area. Every quarter mile or so there were people pounding trees and grinding the cones. While interesting at first, it did not lead to the naturally experience we were looking for. Unfortunately, I would not recommend this trail to solo female travelers. After 12 miles from Zuunmod we made camp and had a relatively warm night. The next morning we hiked through more pine cone encampments and over into UB at the Zaisen memorial. Overall, it was a great little trek and a good way to get out of UB for 36 hours.

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Lotus Child’s Centre

Before leaving for Ulgii we rented an extra sleeping bag from the Lotus Guesthouse due to the increasingly cold weather. We learned that Lotus is a nonprofit that runs an orphanage in Gachuurt with 65 kids. We thought volunteering here would be a great way to finish up our time in Mongolia and escape the city during the extra 6 days we had before our flight to Vietnam. The bus driver for the students picked us up at 10 am from the guesthouse after his morning runs and picked up the other workers on the way to Gachuurt. We arrived at the orphanage to learn that there was no structure or direction for volunteers so we just began to hang out with the kids.

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We helped 4 twelve year old girls bake bread and muffins for the entire orphange’s weekend breakfast. During the weekend the staff (including the cook) goes back to UB so there were 3 adults (Nick, Stacia and 1 social worker) supervising the kids. Although, they didn’t need much supervision as they cooked, cleaned and looked after one another better than most adults. We were blown away by their independence.

On Saturday, the kids practiced sports for a competition the next day. We helped make pizza, played cards and hid-and-seek. On Sunday, the kids competed against a local Chinese school in football (soccer), basketball, and dance performances. Overall the experience was a blast and it was hard to say goodbye to the amazing kids. If you plan to volunteer at Lotus, be sure to contact us for advice!

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Cheering on the boy’s football (soccer) team at a competition
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Not only did Stacia have a different hair style everyday, but we ate kimchi, pineapple, hot dog, pea, pepper, and ketchup pizza.
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Hide-and-seek champions: Asha & Khaliun
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9 year olds raising 1 year olds

Chinggis (Genghis) Khan Statue

We made it to the 40 meter Chinggis (Genghis) Khan statue (7,000 T pp) with Didi, the founder of Lotus. There was a small museum inside, and although nice, seemed like a huge tourist trap. It was hard going from the Lotus orphanage that is struggling to get by to what appeared to be a giant waste of money.

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Snow on Chinggis’s arm

Other Ideas

Although we didn’t make it to Terelj National Park and Khustain National Park these are suppose to be great ways to get out of the city! We had spent plenty of time in Russian vans and were looking to do something a little more independent. Extreme Mongolia had good deals on climbing in Terelj, but unfortunately they had already stopped the service for the winter.

 

 

Ulaanbaatar

Flying into UB was unlike anywhere else I have flown to. We flew over vast mountainous land and ongoing plains. We could see no car lights, buildings or roads, then all of a sudden, our landing gear went down. We arranged a $15 pickup to Sunpath Guesthouse and were welcomed to the country with blaring Mongolian hip hop music and learned how to buy a cigarette through the window of your vehicle from a neighboring car. It was interesting to see the inconsistency of driver side seats as half of the cars are imported from Japan and the others from Korea. Nick and I were on our way to a 45 day adventure.

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We spent time exploring the city, walking to the Genghis (Chinggis) Khaan Square and running errands. We headed to the top floor of the State Department Store to purchase a local sim with 5GB for $13. Although the 3 workers at Mobicom barely spoke any English, the process was easy. I was shocked by how large the department store is and the variety of goods they sell. (If you want peanut butter for trek buy it here, as you won’t find it at the local grocery stores.)

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We took the number 7 bus for 500 T ($.25) and headed to immigration, as any US citizen planning to stay more than 30 days must register. While on the bus, we noticed a young local lady handing the older bus driver a baby, he stood up and took a seat with the baby in the back of the bus. The women took off her purse and started to drive, we loved this shift change! Although immigration was only a few miles away, the bus took about 45 minutes each way and the process took about 1 hour. We needed photo copies of our passports, passport photos, 1,600 T ($.75) and a lot of patience. Later in the day we stopped by Seven Summits (the outdoor gear shop of Mongolia) for a map and some friendly advice.

The next morning (9 am) we attended morning prayer at Gandan Khiid. After the religious purges of 1937, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Mongolians openly practiced Buddhism again. These temples were built in 1838, fell in 1937 and were reopened in 1994. There are a variety of temples where you can see monks chanting, meditating, eating breakfast and the novices learning the sutras. Migjid Janraisig Süm, the main attraction, displays a 26m tall Buddha and hundreds of images of Ayush, the Buddha of longevity. The large hollow Buddha statue contains 27 tons of medicinal herbs, 2 million bundles of mantras, 334 sutras, an entire ger and furniture. Listening to the monks chant takes over your body and reminds you that everything is okay.

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Some of our favorite eats in UB were Luna Blanca, Pyongyang and Nasmaste. Luna Blanca is Mongolia’s first vegan restaurant and we indulged in delicious Mongolian dumplings (meat free!), kimchi and ginger sesame seed tea. Another great way to end the day is to walk up the steps of the Zaisan Memorial and enjoy the sunset and overlook of the city.

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Overall UB is feels run down, underdeveloped and unmaintained. There are buildings half constructed and abandoned, particulate pollution (caution to all contact wearers), and a present alcohol problem. However, the people are the gem of the city. They are not necessarily friendly or overly excited to see Western tourists but so beautiful and every face tells a story. Drive 10 minutes outside of the city and see a whole other world where there is beauty in the animals, sunsets, desert, mountains, rivers, gers and steps (grasslands).

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