UB isn’t a big city but it still manages to house almost half the population of Mongolia – about 1.5M people. Otherwise we’re in the least densely populated country in the world, with only 2 people per square km (plus about 50 sheep, goats, camels, cows, yaks and horses).
Fun facts about Mongolian traffic: Firstly, a fifth of Mongolians drive Priuses – no import duty, road tax and start from cold apparently – we’ve seen them everywhere: high on a hillside, herding sheep, fording rivers, even racing us through the Gobi. Secondly, all of Mongolians drive crazy.
Thus we were welcomed to the capital in a tide of Toyotas, a blaring of horns and a complete melee of traffic and fumes. Where do the fumes come from if so many people are in hybrids? The rest, of course, who drive what we still only recognise as Mongolian Jeep’s and Russian buses. Also the fact that there are several large power stations situated well within the city itself – huge vent stacks and all… cleaner air is something the public are currently lobbying the government about…
We battled rush hour(s) traffic across the city to reach the Oasis hotel, a favourite among overlanders. They weren’t quite ready/open for the season yet but were still very welcoming and rapidly assembled us a Ger and some dinner, even whilst the new bathrooms were being tiled and the furniture taken out of store. We’re already quite used to being in the tent in the middle of nowhere so we weren’t sure how sleeping in a Ger in the middle of a city would feel but a couple of beers and a warm stove soon showed us!
Having already enjoyed several hours playing with the traffic we decided to take a taxi into the city the next day to see some sights and run a few errands. Our list of jobs, once again, read a bit like challenge Anneka, so we first asked Tseke (our host at Oasis) for information on 1) posting large items back to the U.K., 2) getting some kind of insurance we had been told was mandatory but had been unable to find and 3) where to buy Kerosene, which is still evading us.
And so our first stop was the central post office where the staff asked exactly what this long, thin item we were sending contained. After our excellent miming of ‘bike bag’ produced only confused looks we managed to convey ‘bike bag, but no bike inside’ which seemed to satisfy them. We had been told the Mongolian postal service uses an App called ‘WhatThreeWords’ (go check it out!) because a third of the population are nomadic, and whilst they have regular seasonal camps they don’t actually have addresses. WhatThreeWords allows the post office to give a precise location (3mx3m) and therefore a sort of official address, to every Ger in the country. Or anywhere in the world for that matter – for example, I am currently at: muddled.soulful.significantly which hopefully isn’t prophetic. Anyway, it’s pretty awesome and we went prepared with Mike’s folks’ address: caskets.every.organism (!). They asked us for a country and post code and duly printed out a label.
Unburdened we headed off to explore the city a bit further, taking in Sukhbataar Square, Gandantegchinlen Buddhist Monastery and The State Department Store. Decades of communist rule have taken their toll throughout the country from brutalist architecture to enormous empty town squares to the destruction of much cultural and religious heritage. Also to now warmly embracing all things western, hence the state department store which was basically Debenhams, but doing better financially.
We also visited the awesome and, at 3 rooms, perfectly-sized Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. Here, amongst others, we met T Rex’s lesser known brother, Tarbosaurus Rex, directly translating as: alarming lizard king, which seems fitting.
After wandering around and finding gas canisters, mountain bike shops and generally taking in the odd clash of designer labels and Lexuses with obvious poverty and general decay we headed back to Oasis.
Hoping for an early departure, the next day we checked over the truck, tightened some bolts, cleaned and tidied and refilled what we could before setting off west across the city. Two and a half hours later we reached the edge of town where we refuelled and promptly leaked diesel all over the forecourt. Initially I thought the alarmed attendant was trying to tell us he’d filled the truck with petrol but soon realised he was pointing at an ever increasing puddle coming from somewhere near our rear axle. Looking like the total pros we are, we panicked, yelled, grabbed a rag, swore a little bit, rolled Giles out of the way, and worked out that it was probably just coming from the fuel tank vent rollover valve (obvs). Absolutely stricken, the attendant google translated ‘ I have broken your throat’ which went some way to lightening my mood (he thought he’d bust the neck). The tendency here if you ask for a full tank is for the attendant to absolutely brim it (and then some), so we’re hoping that was the cause and it’s nothing more sinister…
By this stage it was already late afternoon so we carried on an hour down the road to Hustai National Park where we found the Ger camp was open (yey!) but full (boo!) and it was illegal to camp within the park itself. After taking advantage of a tour guide (which required some truly terrible German) we found we could camp just outside the perimeter, so we found a cosy niche up on a hillside to hide out of the wind for the night (much to the chagrin of some onlooking cows who had clearly had the same idea…).