Sunday, 8 June 2014

Knowing Ulaanbaatar for Dummies

Ulaanbaatar view from Zaisan
Recently, my archaeological teacher and friend went to Ulaanbaatar to attend a conference. It’s cruel enough to tease me who can’t leave my job behind. Moreover, they keep posting Mongolian pictures on Facebook! Oh I miss their food and weather soooooo much!
I’m still a bit sad about that I can’t get a Mongolian job immediately after I finish the former job in May. But getting this current job is also quite lucky. When I heard the currency these days (TWD:MNT=1:60), I’m shocked. When the time I stayed in UB (2011-2012), it was 1:40; last year when I visited, it was 1:50. Now what! Might next year become 1:70? If so, it’d be not so worthy to work there. Furthermore, skipping the problem that the average payment is low, the price to live in UB is actually quite high. I’m keeping an eye on rents in UB, they’re normally around 300~500 USD/per single apartment. Furthermore, because lack of local manufactures, Mongolia is depending on import goods. And with the mass popularity and high rising crime, these made UB not so comfortable for living.
But anyway, I just love Mongolia so much that I can endure all these problems.
Back to our topic. Because my teacher and friends’ visit, made me rethink this both small and big city. When they asked me to introduce some interesting places or restaurants, I always saying what I’m thinking. But later I found it’s not a good way to introduce a newbie to know UB. It’d better be a point-list. That’s why this post appear.
It’s my “Knowing Ulaanbaatar for Dummies”. If you have other thoughts, you’re welcomed to post a comment.

1.      Landing. Usually people first arrive Mongolia by airplane. I know some would prefer trains. Actually that’s a lot easier, because train station is far more nearer to downtown than airport. So let’s just talk about airport transportations. There are 4 options: hotel’s shuttle service, taxi, bus, and friend. Remember, it’s always easier to do anything in Mongolia if you have a trustworthy friend. Just ignore their sense of slow-flowing time, a nice Mongolian is very hospitality, friendly and willing to help. But if you don’t have a friend to pick you up, and you want to save money, your next choice would be buses. The bus station is on the left-side street when you walk out of airport. There is no signal of bus stop, but you will see bunch of people stand together. That’s the correct place. The bus you need to go to downtown is number 22, takes about 40~60 min. When you see a very big square and palace, you should get off. They’re Sukhbaatar Square (now renamed to Chinggis Khan Square) and government building. Your hotel/hostel/guesthouse should be somewhere nearby. Remember, always take good care of your luggage, thieves are very active on buses. Hotel’s shuttle bus is always the most expensive choice. But if you’re too lazy to bargain or worrying about your luggage, it’s the best option. You could try to take a taxi too, just remember to bargain a good price before you hop in. Most taxis in Mongolia are without taxi licenses. They’re only normal cars. Don’t be afraid to get in.
2.      Currency. Mongolian currency called “Tugrik”. TWD:MNT so far is about 1:60, USD:MNT=1:1,837.5 (2014). My suggest is, when you arrive Ulaanbaatar, change some small among of money in airport in order to get a transportation to downtown. Then go to 2nd floor of Tsetseg Tuv, which is in the west side of Chinggis Khan Square, placed on Peace Avenue. There’s a very big souvenir shop in the 1st floor. They have better exchange rate.
3.      Landmark. Usually when you live in Ulaanbaatar, the biggest landmarks should be the government building alongside with Chinggis Khan Square, and State Department Store. These two places are settled on the biggest street: Peace Avenue.
4.      Shopping. The biggest supermarket chain in Mongolia is Nomin. There’s one inside State Department Store, too. Most foreigners go there to buy supplies. If you’re interested in traditional markets, there’s one near downtown. It’s called Bumbugur, which is near Gandan Temple and Tengis Cinema, placed on Ikh Toiruu Street. There are two building with 3, 4 floors, selling items for daily use, clothes, fresh meat and vegetable, dairy products and almost everything. But if you want some antiques or Mongolian traditional stuff, you better go to the biggest and most famous market: Naran Tuul (Black Market). It’s also a spot for visitors just hanging around. They’re selling Mongolian traditional clothes, carpets, horse-riding equipment, antiques and even a whole Mongolian yurt with furniture. But be careful of your personal belongings. There’re a lot thieves inside markets.
5.      Eat. There’re actually quite many choices to eat in Ulaanbaatar. Of course it can’t beat Taiwanese high density of street snacks, but already enough. Because of the friendly relations between Korea and Mongolia, there’re a lot Korean restaurants in Ulaanbaatar, selling real Korean food and kimchi. If you want to try some Mongolian food, a big restaurant chain Modern Nomads would be a good choice. They have English menu and service, but the price would be not so friendly. Or you can try some bigger restaurants near State Department Store, they will have English menu, but rare people speak in English. For a cheaper option, there’s one that I like called Sentosa, which is on a small alley in the east side of Chinggis Khan Square. It’s like a food court, with Korean, Mongolian, Chinese stalls. They have pictures of dishes, so you can just point to what you want. English is not used here. And if you just want a homemade, easy dish, there’re a lot small restaurants on every street. On the signboard you can see Khuushuur (Mongolian deep-fried pie), Buuz (Mongolian steamed dumpling) or Bansh (Mongolian dumpling with soup). Almost every dish in Mongolia contains meat (mutton or beef). Even if you see Nogoon Shul (vegetable soup) on the menu, it just means that meat soup contains vegetable (usually potato, carrot and onion). If you’re a vegan or don’t eat mutton, a vegan restaurant chain Loving Hut is spreading across Ulaanbaatar. It’s a restaurant chain held by The Supreme Master Ching Hai.
6.      Night Life. To be frankly, there’s no such glamourous nightlife in Ulaanbaatar the capital. But thanks to the big amount of foreigners, there’re still bars available. Ikh Mongol is one of the oldest bar. It’s near State Department Store, next to the circus. They have music performance almost every night. A new bar called MB+ is in the south of Chinggis Khan Square. The building is all covered with glass, and the signboard shines in the night. Their beer is one of the best in Ulaanbaatar. There’re also some Irish bar and restaurants provide drinks in the night. There is a special bar chain called Tse. They have many decors and paintings of Nazi. It should be very rare to see around the world.
7.      Scenery Spot. Beside the two I’ve mentioned above (Chinggis Khan Square and Black Market), Gandan Temple is a must-seen spot. Mongolia follows Tibet, also worshiping Tibetan Buddhism. The figures of Buddha looks very different from Taiwanese ones. The Buddha, the prayer wheels and the temple square make a quiet and peaceful atmosphere. It makes you feel nice even if you only sit somewhere outside. Zanabazar Museum is also settled in downtown. Zanabazar is the 1st Mongolian incarnated lama. He was also a very talented artist. This museum preserves many of his work, like Thangka, paintings and carvings. Near Zanabazar Museum, there’re some of few Mongolian cafés. Another must-seen museum is Choijin Lama Museum, which is in the south of Chinggis Khan Square. It was first a temple, contains many wall paintings and Buddha sculptures. Go a bit far to south, there’s Bogd Khan Winter Palace Museum. Bogd Khan was the last emperor of Mongolia. It also preserves many paintings, sculptures and stuff that Bogd Khan had used. Besides historian or art collections, National Historian Museum and National Natural Museum are two museums you have to visit if you want to know Mongolia in a day or two. For outdoor lovers, in the south of city located the monument Zaisan. It’s built to symbolize the friendship between Mongolians and Russians. It is on a small hill. From which, you can overlook the whole Ulaanbaatar city.
8.      Souvenir. Souvenir shops gathered on the street from Chinggis Khan Square to State Department Store. There’re many choices, but here I want to recommend one fair-trade souvenir shop: Mary & Martha. The owners of this shop are a British (?) mid-aged couple. Their products are bought from Kazakh communities in western Mongolia. Their stuff is a bit more expensive than others, but also better quality. You can know who made your gift by reading a small card tagged on it. If you want some cheap and small gifts, I usually go to the 1st floor of Bumbugur market. There’re two or three stalls selling souvenirs. For example, a leather coin purse or a small Mongolian yurt costs 3,000T, a small Mongolian doll key chain costs 2,000T. They’re not very delicate, but are good for friends or children. If you need something for friends who are interested in Buddhism, on the street in front of Gandan Temple, there shops selling Buddhism stuff.
9.      Notice. In Ulaanbaatar, the number of thieves is comparably high. Because of the concentration of popularity, the inequality of wealth, and the lack of job opportunities, thieves are very rampant. Take care of your belongings every second. Better to put them inside your inner pocket. There’re some anti-Chinese complex among Mongolians. Be careful not to talk too loud and stay low-key. Better to wear lenses than glasses. Mongolians have good sights, if you wear glasses, around 50% you will be recognized as a Chinese. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Huvsgul, all by legs (starter)

Finally! I’m going to Huvsgul! In this trip, I’m going to use a week trekking from Huvsgul Lake to Tsagaannuur. Huvsgul Lake is the second biggest lake in Mongolia. I’m going to walk along west shore, pass Jiglegiin Am, cross mountains, to Renchinlhumbe and Tsagaannuur.
At first I’d submitted this project for some grants, but I didn’t get it. Maybe my dream is not great enough for them to pay attention. But for me, learning more about this beautiful and interesting country is definitely important. Because of this little shock, I start to rethink that how to get my people knowing some more about Mongolia. While on the plane, I started to read “Wild East: travels in the new Mongolia” (2000) by Jill Lawless. She writes her own experiences while she lived in Mongolia. She makes fun of herself and telling some common cultural shocks when a foreigner encounter wild Mongolia. I really like her words, simple, fun, but also make readers think and learn. Maybe, I say maybe, I can also write something like this book to introduce this country, which I love so much, to Chinese world.
So who cares one doesn’t get grants? Mongolia is a place I’d visit again and again. And Huvsgul, after last winter’s visit, I’ve been always wondering of seeing her blue and watery appearance. At last I still bought the ticket to Huvsgul and experience this extraordinary place by my legs.
Huvsgul is a humid place. Unlike other parts of grassland and dessert Mongolia, here you can see green forests, lakes and rivers. Mongolians call here “taiga”, which means forest. There is a border between Huvsgul and Siberian Russia. And the deepest lake on the Earth, Lake Baikal, is just nearby. Sadly this border only allows Russians and Mongolians pass by, otherwise I’d really like to go through here, directly going to Lake Baikal, saving some time and money going back to Ulaanbaatar again.
Here is my trip:
15 Aug  Khatgal—Jiankhai C1
16 Aug  C1—about 25km northern somewhere near the lake C2
17 Aug  C2—6km before Jiglegiin Am, picked up by a motorcyclist—Renchinlhumbe village C3
18 Aug  C3—Tsagaannuur lakes’ side C4
19 Aug  C4—Tsagaannuur village