After advancing for 3 months across deserts, mountains and swollen rivers, the first thing we do in Ulaanbataar is to get stuck in traffic. Except for the steady flow of the pedestrian crowd which gives me a nauseating illusion of slowly rolling backwards, nothing on the street really moves. Busses clogged with everyday people occupy every inch left available by cars with their respective solitary drivers laying trapped inside. There are resigned expressions on faces, shirts rolled over sweaty bellies, newspapers spread over steering wheels, music blasting fizzy techno tunes, hands poked out of windows drumming to the beat with the longer nail of the little finger. It’s definitely not an evident scene one would anticipate to encounter in world’s least populous country.
Ulaanbataar looks nothing like the city of yurts glossy magazines romanticise. And no, contrary to what the participants in the Mongol Rally proclaim in their fundraising YouTube clips, before ever stepping foot into the country, camels are not used for ambulances. The only two double lane streets of the capital are clogged with the latest Infinity and Mercedes 4×4 models, and Ulaanbaatar’s rather un-beautiful answer to a modern downtown is riddled with high-risers.
But this is just glitter on the face of what could go down in history as one of the worst cases of mismanagement and disinterest for the ecological footprint of a boomtown. Luxury condominiums are being built before any access road. All laws of sustainable design and liveability (natural lighting, alignment, how more cars will be absorbed by the traffic and where could these cars be parked – to name a few) are being ignored. The construction sites invade every urban space, up to the gas stations. If anything, chucking more cars into the rudimentary infrastructure of the mongol capital and allowing the urbanism to adapt organically will only make things worse. City planners should gather here from all over the world to solve the mess.
The limited charm of what tourist ads incorrectly proclaim to be “more like sophisticated European city than Asian city” is not enhanced by grey skies and smog, but by its dwellers. In the main square of the capital people gather to pose in front of the national hero. Children and mothers enjoy the only open space in town; brides, grooms and guests strut in elegant deel (silken robes) and gutal (leather boots).
Contrasting to the restraint stance of the locals, Chinese tourists do their regular victory signs and quirky poses.
The luckiest of these beautifully clad people inhabit decaying apartment buildings from the soviet era, to the north of the city. But most residents of Ulaanbaatar are still living at the fringes of empty neighbourhoods of luxury flats, in fenced yurts, with limited access to running water, no sewage and no garbage disposal system. It’s a confronting image of caged steppe sitting in its own refuse, the agony of nomadism. After laying dormant for eight centuries, Mongolia is waking from reverie and the economy is expanding at an astonishing rate. Recent finds suggest that one of the largest gold mines could soon open in the Gobi desert. Never in history a discovery of such scale proved just a blessing. There is undeniable danger in taking prosperity for granted. As elsewhere, the poorest strata of this society – that happens to have been until recently one of the most isolated nations – is vulnerable to corporate neocolonialism. Few of the promises of jobs, health care and education for local communities will ever materialise and before they can be instigated to mass consumption, people need to be eased into what it means to squeeze your country dry.
Such is the heresy that torments the thoughts of Romanian motorcyclists navigating Ulaanbataar’s motorized extravaganza. Clutch pulled, teeth clenched, we ride past the closed gates of the Russian embassy where we had planned to apply for a visa. As Begzuren, our Couchsurfing host is living at the city outskirts and he has no electricity and no running water in his yurt, we have resigned to seeking accommodation in a well known traveller’s ‘oasis’. It takes us the better half of the day to drive there.
The inevitable pit stop of those to overland in Central Asia needs little introduction. Orderly, yet somehow lacking character, well-appointed, yet somehow freedom-restrictive, furnished with yurts and staffed by Mongols, yet somehow disconnected from local realities – it’s an universe folded into itself, pretty much like the Mongolian yurt. Many have arrived at its gates for a couple of days only to be swallowed for weeks into its gut. Those whom the experience awaits in the future must have already had their fair share of warnings. What the place masters is also what we came for: it connects travellers and allows them a place for exchange and vehicle rejuvenation. We wonder how this place will change in the future, as the people who have run it for 13 years have just sold it to another couple. We meet many people, each with their own unique story: the spaniard Teo aka Mr. Hicks46 who has been filming his entire journey while addressing his viewers from inside his helmet…
Tom the American, who has been living in Moscow for 10 years…
The Corsicans Jean-Cri, Aure si Emilie who are on their Piu Luntanu RTW by 950 Adventure and who surprise us with the fact that they have been following our blog since Africa…
Many others are crammed into a small yard with communal washing facilities where poor locals come to take their weekly shower. Travellers separate according to vehicle: trucks and cars keep it to their own, so do motorcyclists, with the odd cyclist trying to fit in-between. On the evening of our arrival I hear someone speaking in Romanian into a phone. Emigrated to Germany over two decades ago, Karl has arrived in Ulaanbaatar at the end of a ride across Europe, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. He is with a rat-pack of four – his son Daniel (an architect in Vienna), his son in law and his father, all on Super Tenere. As Karl is medic, he takes care of Ana’s injured thumb with fatherly love.
Pics below courtesy of Daniel & Karl
Ana seeks at breakfast the advice of Dimitri, a real life explorer, a brilliant, funny and larger than life Frenchman who has been on a quest to circumnavigate the world by human power. Believe it or not, he is one of the two people to have crossed the Bering on and through ice, on foot, swimming and pushing a sledge. We wrote a small piece about him on experimentalist (link requires login).
Pics below courtesy of Nexus Expeditions
If we arrived in the city hyped that we had managed to accomplish what we had set out to do, in Ulaanbaatar we are failing at everything. Leading a rookie rider across challenging tracks was a child’s play compared to the task of shipping two motorbikes from Mongolia to Romania. Our initial plan was to do Central Asia, then follow the Silk Road by bicycles into China towards South-East Asia. That required sending the bikes by plane back to Bucharest and buying bicycles in Ulaanbaatar. Well, it does not prove straightforward. The black market offers no second hand bicycles, but it beats going to a museum.
After Ana returns from an attempt at jogging with the cough of a chain smoker, we decide to take a break from everything and do a museum after all. In Sukhbaatar square there is a pavilion exhibiting Mongolia’s recently returned son, the T. bataar, that was the object of an unusual smuggling.
While we easily find an excellent TREK dealer, ridiculous quotes, erratic client service and dubious conditions render useless all our attempts to contract a forwarder. After a week it becomes evident that riding our motorbikes back is the sanest and most reasonable option. And also the cheapest, even if we include in the alternate costs the price of plane tickets in order to return to Asia and continue our journey as planned. In the meantime travellers keep coming and going. Every bike engine revved on departure stirs our sentiment that we are stuck in UB forever. At night, Ana confesses that Tom’s exhaust reverberated across the yard like a bass guitar in a empty concert hall. That the sound made her stomach ache. That her DRZ abandoned by a tree in the garden makes her think of a chained beast, a friend condemned to oblivion after they said ‘I love you’.
We are both struggling with a burning desire to go. Ana has just warmed up to biking and has itchy feet. Me, I am haunted by an idea. The idea of a place almost mythically remote. Magadan. As far away as it is, now I’ve gotten so much closer that I succumb to the temptation of riding there. I pitch to Ana my plan of doing a solo loop and reunite with her either in UB or in Irkutsk. Coming back from Magadan I would also have the opportunity to tackle the BAM. To me this plan feels a proper resolution to our journey so far, the right step in pushing the envelope a millimetre further. But the feeling is not mutual. I don’t want to sit on my ass in UB waiting for you to come back, says Ana, and I am not keen to ride alone to Irkutsk. One afternoon, in an attempt to calm after another heated debate, I decide to ride up one hill so steep that I commemorate the 690’s safe ascent with a lap around a Buddhist cairn. From the top I gaze upon the Urga that once lured mongol hordes and Chinese worriers. Somewhere in the background the coal thermal plant spits poisoned clouds, the clouds of progress.
A love relationship put under the pressure of adventure is as competitive as it is loving; as punitive as it is accepting. In the end, Ana transitions to her normal self. I know how hard it was for you to support me through this journey, she says, and I am grateful. She knows that I need to enjoy true freedom, unencumbered by the speed of a rookie. She knows how tormented I was to watch her grow out of her own mistakes, that as she was riding on steep mountain faces and on the edge of the abyss, I was consumed by the fear that a disaster was waiting to happen. Joy was hard to distinct from relief. This is my time and I deserve it; it’s the chance I must take. And while we reconcile to this decision, the arrival in UB of a French guy on a 250 TTR provides Ana with a companion for the ride up to Russia.
This brief separation will be getting both our instincts going again. For the past few years we’ve been spending almost every waking hour together, and for the past few months our limits have been pushed to new extremes. Ana needs this break as much as I do. Without me there for her to give a push and a shoulder to lean on, she will find the resources to push herself and to stop leaning. I know some have and will judge me for ‘abandoning’ my girlfriend in UB while I go chase a unicorn. Yeah, but if we are true to ourselves and take into account that Ana has shown great potential to grow from being tested, I think it’s the right step forward. It’s been our game to jack in everything in order to evolve, why should we concede to fear of unknown at this very moment? I say nay to the haters, we’ll do what we need to be doing. This thread could have been called: “Can a rookie make it to Mongolia via the Wakhan Corridor?” The answer is clearly yes, with the right support and the right attitude they can. In our case, the rookie loved the ride just as much as the leader, if not more. :)
I want to share one more thing on this topic. Two months ago while sipping beers with Phil, Andrew and Jon in Uzbekistan’s Bukhara, I was asked if I was really not dreaming of the BAM and Magadan. I said no, but realise today that I was. Jon’s question rolled the snowball into the valley. We each have our own little reasons for braking loose from the logical, the convenient, the reasonable. It may be our biological clock, chocking in its unstopability, or perhaps the taken-for-granted slowly wearing down all that should be passionate, like a cancer. Some of us are simply harbouring something as frail as a longing, a dry hunger for a version of ourselves that was supposed to be, and yet never happened. Thrusting yourself out into the world cannot resolve such agenda. It may however equip you with the courage required to attempt a change within. A long journey allows tapping into dormant resources. Though slow changes and accruing you become aware of the infinite potency of hours and days. As a side bonus, a journey over land simulates demiurgic creation: it gives substance to the imagined, a materiality to the unknown. We depart from our cultural islands to be constantly adrift on a sea of alien and incomprehensible cultures. But even if we cannot find our way, we are not lost.
I also want to allow a few final notes about how this country impacted us. Coming after 14 months of Africa and 9 months of struggle to get back to ‘normal’ life, Mongolia felt like a place where everything exists within the realm of the archetype. If you ride across with that in mind, what you see takes on cosmic significance. The denizens of the lonesome yurts aren’t poor drunks at the mercy of weather; they are the People of the world they inhabit, ecvestrian Heroes, almighty Mothers, resilient Angels, all masters of their domain.
The world outside their foetus of felt is something Mongols don’t care much about. A sole eye opens from the inside of the home to the stars – the tunduk, and the smoke that escapes from it is the vertical of a faithfully horizontal landscape. There are rules, but they are never actually spoken because, you see, that would diminish their magical character. Only a handful of people have managed to claim their place in history. The Italians and the Spanish took the 16th century, the French and the Dutch took the 17th, the English are yet to relinquish power to the Chinese. Romanians combed by waves of nomadic, Ottoman or Russian invasions never emerged from mediocrity. In spite of the isolation of their homeland and the extremely testing weather, the Mongols made the 12th century shiver. As tamed as they’ve grown since then, they are no ordinary people. They have been treating us with affable hospitality, like an aristocrat who cannot let a stranger suffer outside, but who does not take interest in learning about the accidental guest. They have briefly engaged us, usually with the vodka as mediator. Out of all the countries we have visited, Mongolia remains one of the most provocative, that would require at least a second visit to understand.
Vizualizaţi 2013 – Mongolia pe o hartă mai mare