I stepped in a surreal scene – squat Russian-type apartments, facing off like soldiers, with few dimly- lit windows like half-closed eyes staring out in the soupy black night. Everywhere, snow glistened with its own eerie light.
How silent it was and empty. Every once in a while, figures scurried over the white powder, billowing clouds of frozen breath before the mist devoured them.
Somewhere lies the door to my lodging. I’ve just arrived on the trans-Siberian train after a two-day ride. My guide dropped me off at a corner, pointed out my apartment block, gave me the lock combination and drove off.
I haven’t counted on darkness falling so fast and the chill worsening by the second as I wrestled with the main door. I peeled off my gloves for better grip though the steel was so cold it burned my flesh.
When the portal yielded at last, I dragged my luggage to the two-bedroom walk-up and was relieved I have it all to myself. The owners must have rented it out while they wintered over in a sunnier place.
Not bad, for the equivalent of less than P1,000 per night. In Europe and elsewhere, I’ll pay more than double for the price of a single dormitory bed in a hostel.
After a few hours of sleep in a proper – but not warmer – bed, I was keen to explore Ulaan Bataar – UB, they call it.
The almost 400-year old city sprawled at the foot of rolling mountains. Before UB became the “Red Hero”, it was the “Great Camp”, a nomadic Buddhist center which changed location twenty-eight times.
Even now, districts of “gers” – traditional nomad tents, ringed its condos, office buildings, tenements and factories.
Mongolia, “The Land of the Blue Heavens”, favored nomads, which today make up thirty per cent of the population, because so little of the country can be farmed. It’s all steppes and mountains to the north and the west; to the south, the Gobi Desert. No wonder, urbanites resorted to dirty industries.
The capital of Mongolia, the nineteenth largest country on earth and yet the most sparsely populated, holds half of its three million populace. Right now, it’s in the midst of a construction boom, with seven power plants spewing charcoal smoke into the skies, making its air the dirtiest in the world.
Yet, at the moment, my lungs are not complaining from the pollution as much as from the cold. I felt like an astronaut trudging down the city’s single major thoroughfare – Peace Avenue – in four layers of clothing.
Locals flitted past me in down coats, wolf pelts and fox furs though a lot of the old ones still favoured the traditional padded “deel”.
Following the single main road to the heart of UB, I found myself in Sukhbaatar Square, where a statue of the “Red Hero”, Damdinii Sükhbaatar, the “Father of Mongolia’s Revolution”, rides his war steed.
In his hand, he brandished a whip whose hollowed handle hid his king’s letter which he smuggled past the Chinese checkpoints to enlist the help of Russia to regain his country’s freedom.
Tragically, he died, aged thirty, of poison.
In the same square, sat a giant replica of Genghis Khan, who founded the Mongol Empire in 1206. His grandson, Kublai Khan, conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty. Then the Chinese Manchu emperors subjugated Mongolia in turn.
For 220 years, the Qing dynasty ruled until Mongols revolted and regained their freedom in 1911, only to become a Russian satellite state in 1924. They finally managed to break the yoke in the 1990’s when the Soviet Union dissolved.
My next stop was the National History Museum, with its collection of artifacts from Stone Age to modern times.
I ogled at articles of daily life, including the “tugir”, the three-footed wooden chair-perch of their hunting eagles, the leather hoods and Y-shaped arm-rests with which the hunter (“berkutchi’) supports his raptor-holding hand while he steers his horse with the other.
They also displayed wooden coffins, the warrior armor, bows and arrows, swords of Genghis Khan’s warriors as well as the Sukhbaatar’s horsewhip and letters secreted inside its handle which changed history.
Winding down, I fed pigeons in Gandan, a mid-19th century Buddhist Monastery which continued to function during communist times . A wedding party paraded down the snow as I stood, the bride hitching up her gown to reveal white snow boots.
Needless to say, I paid my respects in the ger-shaped Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul, one of three that serve the needs of less than a thousand Catholics in the country.
And because city-touring is hungry work, I sampled Mongolian Barbecue in UB, minus the vodka on-the-house.
Of course, Mongolian Barbecue is something only Westerners can whip up. Mongolians schedule the food they eat according to season, consuming horse meat in winter because it gives warmth. In summer, they eat mostly dairy products to cleanse the toxins from their carnivorous winter diets.
Modern Nomad Restaurant offered exotic recipes like Reindeer Wigwam and Ox Tail. Playing safe, I ordered a mixed plate of four steaks – pork, mutton, horse and beef.
But at my dinner stop, Chinggis Khan Restaurant, the décor interested me more than the menu. A snow leopard pelt covered one wall, stuffed golden eagle and cinereous vultures hovered over the reception hall.
While I filled my plate from the Asian buffet, a Mongolian throat singer regaled me with long songs accompanied by traditional horse hair violin.
Shopping is also an experience in UB, though I bypassed the cashmere shops for the State Department Store, “Big Shop”, the country’s first official mall, by itself a stand-alone tourist attraction.
The 1st floor supermarket sold imported chocolates, local honey and stewed horsemeat in ready-to-eat packages.
They also offered souvenirs– paintings, miniature “gers” dangling from key rings, leather chess sets, wooden dolls in fur-trimmed robes, plaited hair arranged in dramatic loops over their heads.
They even peddled saddles and complete horse gear, for USD$2,000 per set, traditional “gutul” boots with turned up toes, so they don’t catch in the stirrups, for $100 per pair, fur hats, real red and gold fox pelts, blue fox and wolf skins for over $100 each.