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July 11th

The scenery is amazing. Hills with green pastures, cows, goats, villages with painted houses. We got to Naushki at 1pm local time. We were told to get off and come back in 3 hours for passport check. I am not sure what is the purpose of this delay - all that happened during the 3 hours was that the remaining trains were decoupled in the first 10 minutes leaving us with just two. Then the train was moved forward by about 300 feet. At first we were glad to be stopping here as the weather was nice but we soon regretted it once we realized just how little is there to do in Naushki. There were no cafes, no merchants and the farmers market had only a handful of stalls open - all selling good that looked like stuff removed from other people's luggage. We found a grocery store where we got water, peanuts, some ramen, and crackers. This took about an hour. Furthermore, the toilet besides the stylish entrance was just a squatter and the attendant lady handed out only 6 squares of toilet paper for the R7 fee.

At 4pm we loaded back into the car, only to witness what appeared to be an altercation taking place outside the train. Some young punks were causing trouble trying to get onto the train. All of a sudden cops with dogs appeared from nowhere. They surrounded the punks. Then, the door to the customs building opened and police in full riot gear started pouring out. There must have been at least 30 of them! They proceeded to beat on the punks. All this happened right outside our window. In the end, we realized this was part of an exercise for some high ranking official. After the "altercation" several cops took photo with an officer wearing a particularly large hat. Still, I found this scene quite scary and unnerving since I didn't know if this was for real or not. Last thing I wanted was for us to get involved in some riot involving Russian commandos. Later the customs people came by, casually glancing over our compartment while searching and banging on the walls of the compartment next door freshly occupied by Mongolians. Little racial profiling. The dog made several rounds and various crevasses in the alleyway were inspected for contraband. Our passports were collected and we were once again allowed to leave the train - for a bathroom break. During this time a cow decided to graze on the platform and leave few presents outside the police station. We left at 7, six hours after arriving. The journey was short. We passed by a river and saw our first gers. In about 30 minutes we arrived in Sukhbaatar, where two fairly attractive ladies collected our custom forms and passports. This was a nice change from the long staredown and face/photo comparison performed by their Russian counterpart. On another note, our train attendant seems to be hoarding the bathroom for herself. It's locked more often than the far one, plus the far one ran out of TP. The Mongolian passport check took even longer than the Russian one - 2 hours exactly. During this time we were not allowed to leave the train. When we finally got our passports back, all we were given was 20 minutes for a quick pit stop. A snack shop in the station was already closed. But we got to see some gers as we left the station. It soon got dark. We had Shiramok noodles for dinner with beer, peanuts and cookies.

Scenery south of Irkutsk

The landscape is much more mountainous here

It's beautiful!

The lake - and the annoying blue curtains!

Some interesting sights, I particularly like the guy in the Lada clinching the steering wheel.

Some village along the way

Train station in Naushki, home to a wildly roaming cow

And a doggie

Sharing snacks with our Irish friends, and their train mates

Police exercise taking place outside our window

Cow telling the cops what she thinks of the whole exercise deal - and our first ger!

Our first sunset in Mongolia

July 12th

We were woken up by the conductor. The train got in little after 6am, but we were not due to arrive at the hostel until 8. The hostel - LG Guesthouse - is located just few minutes from the station, at the end of several paneláks, and a small run down building. The backdoor was open so we walked in. It was dark, and none of the light switches worked. We walked up past the empty office, a shared bathroom and an Internet terminal without seeing a sign of life. We left our bags on the 3rd floor. Just as we were about to leave we heard some commotion. Looking up the staircase we saw a guy who said the reception people come around 9. So we went out in search of breakfast. There is a ridiculous amount of guesthouses, hotels, restaurants and cafes in this city - more than would appear sustainable by the small tourist population. We first tried some "Mongolian fast food" cafe chain across from the State Department Store. It surely smelled like mutton. Nobody brought us a menu - I guess you order at the counter - but the menu on the wall did not have prices and most of the stuff was in Mongolian. So we instead went to Chez Bernard where breakfast cost T10,500 - about $10 regardless of kind - buffet, or engish, german, french, etc.. We got the premade ones - I got german which had a sausage, cheese, salami, orange juice and tea. Since we only had 20,0000 we used a dollar bill for the rest. This is quite common here. Since the Mongolian Togrog currency suffered heavy inflation in the late 90s, people are very happy to accept "hard" currency, such as the dollar. On the way back to the hostel we stopped by the Gandan Monastery, since they have a morning prayer. This is one of the monasteries to have survived mass destruction under the Communist government. We had to pay an entrance fee, despite The Lonely Planet claiming it was free. We walked past a myriad of pigeons, sustained by seeds fed to them by visitors - seeds a little 5 year old girl tried to force on me. We witnessed the end of the prayer. It ended in a lot of banging. We then went in the main temple - this is where the tickets were checked.

Inside is a ginarmous golden budha-like statue. It is absolutely impressive impressive and intimidating. Surrounding the statue are prayer wheels. Leslie though I was joking when I said you are supposed to spin them until a Mongolian guy in front of us started spinning them - all several hundred of them! From the temple we returned to the hostel. We upgraded from the $5 a night 10-bed dorm to a $8 a night double. In our room is a british couple at the end of a 6 month journey. It looked as if they have been living in this room for 6 months. They were still sleeping at 11, and their stuff was everywhere. The room is nice and roomy. There is a chandelier or at least the remnants of one. The shower is a disaster however. There is water everywhere. Later the dude walked in his shoes, turning the puddles into mud. There is also a TV - which the dude keeps watching nonstop - leaving it tuned to the British Discovery channel and various disaster sensational shows. Overall the couple seems pretty bored - or boring. They hardly talk. Maybe they got sick of each other and got nothing left to talk about. But, they gave us their Naadam tickets - 3500 each. Naadam is an annual Mongolian festival that we just happened to be in town for. The place was a zoo. We got to our gate before it opened. Mongolian concept of a line is a can of sardines. The guy behind me was practically laying on me and possibly even rested his hands in my back pockets. More people kept butting in all around. Our ticket was for the 14:00 to 17:00 time slot, but were not allowed in before 14:45 - not until the line reached critical mass. What followed next was a stampede to find the best view. People really care about this festival! We stayed for about 30 minutes during which we saw the archery part. It appeared that the archers shoot at small boxes in front of the judges who raise their arms to indicate the score - or that they are still alive. However, in reality the archers shoot at a target which we completely missed and the judges indicate if the bulls eye was hit. We looked at souvenirs but most of the shops were selling cheap clothing. Hats were more than we had on us - change from the hostel - since all banks were closed and there doesn't appear to be a single non-bank ATM in the city. We finally found one at the train station. Later we walked to the main square and had dinner at Ikh Mongol. I had lamb - I am not sure how much more mutton I can stomach. The taste is so overpowering!

Sunrise in Ulaan Baatar

Ulaan Baatar suburbs. Many Mongolians prefer to live in yurts, even in the city.

The hostel was a short walk from the train station

Monks on the way to the Gandan Monestary, the principal center of Buddhist learning in Mongolia

These exercise gazelles were quite popular in the city.

Cute Mongolian kids playing with pigeons

At the monastery

The ONLY cat we saw in all of Mongolia

Little beggar girl making money by selling seeds to tourists

The white building on the right is the hostel - and these dogs guard the entrance

Our room - and some fella carrying cinderblocks to the roof on his back!

View from the hostel - and a train we saw on the way to the festival

At one point we had to cross a busy bridge. There was an underpass. There we saw this wild horse and also folks who prefer to walk on pipes instead of the sidewalk above. With a kid!

Above Ulaan Baatar, on a hill, is a large portrait of Genghis Khan.

Few more scenes from Naadam Festival.

I spotted a kid wearing a Virginia Tech hat!

The archery event: The archers shoot at targets 75 meters away and the judges indicate a hit


Although downtown Ulaan Baatar is modern, the scene changes rapidly just few blocks away. There many pitfalls await: no street lights and open holes that could easily swallow a man.

Chez Bernard, an overpriced western hangout where we had our first meal

Economic growth

Sükhbaatar Square, the center of Ulaan Baatar. On the right is the building that was torched in the riots that happened just few days before we entered the country.

Banners commemorating the Mongolian empire and the Mongolian Republic

Statue of Sükhbaatar on horseback. He was one of the most important persons in Mongolia's fight for independence from China. Also a large statue of Chinggis Khan in front of the parliament building.

Close up and a shot from elsewhere in the city

Ikh Mongol, restaurant where we had dinner...

... mutton, of course!

It's located across the street from the Circus building