Last day in Ulaanbaatar
I’m writing this at 6:15 Sunday morning, Korea time, from the Ramada Hotel and Suites in Seoul. Why am I up at this hour? Because I haven’t been to bed yet! Our flight from UB left just before midnight, and with the one-hour time difference, we arrived in Seoul at around 4. And Incheon Airport is about an hour away from downtown Seoul, so by the time we got here, it was about 5:30. But since it’s daytime in Canada, I thought I would write about my last day in UB, while the memory is still fresh.
Today was a day off, and I decided to spend it a) looking around the city; b) taking photographs, and; c) shopping for gifts to bring back home, since I had done hardly any shopping since I arrived in Mongolia. It was also a good day to go off on my own — the group is wonderful, but I figured that I would need to be alone if I wanted to get any serious shopping done.
As I was walking down the main boulevard known in English as “Peace Avenue”, I noticed the sign for the Cafe Amsterdam, a place I had read about in the Lonely Planet book. It’s a popular hangout for North American and European expatriates in UB, and is known for its excellent coffee. By 11 a.m., the place was pretty crowded; I ordered a cappucino and sat at the only empty table, which was on the patio outside. Next to my table was a group of 20-something Peace Corps volunteers, and another young man who couldn’t find a seat — 30-something in this case — asked if he could join me at my table. He was an American named Kyle and was working in Mongolia for USAID, the American version of CIDA, and he had only been in the country for three weeks, He has a girlfriend from Vancouver who was planning to join him in a few days — she’s a filmmaker and got a job teaching for an organization in UB dedicated to Mongolian press freedom. We had a great chat about Mongolia and about working in international development. As I was about to leave, I gave him my Lonely Planet Mongolian phrasebook — the one I had looked so hard for at Chapters — and told him that he will need it more than I will, since I was leaving the country that night. An interesting encounter, and a reminder that people who work in international development are a special kind of global community.
I still hadn’t bought anything yet, so I headed for the fifth floor of the State Department Store and picked up some things there, then checked out a number of other souvenir shops and other stores selling items that could only be found in Mongolia. After buying all the gifts for people back home (I won’t say what they are because it would spoil the surprise), I decided to buy something for myself. I wanted something that would really remind me of my visit, and given my passion for music, I knew it had to be a morin khuur. I went to the best music store in UB, but they were all very expensive, but I found a smaller version in a souvenir shop for only 39,000 tugriks (about $31). I bought a case for it for 20,000 tukgriks because I knew that was the only way I would get it on the plane. Even if I never learn to play it, the horsehead fiddle is extremely decorative, and it is said to be good luck to hang it on a wall.
UB is full of surprises, and one of them was right down the street from the State Department Store. It’s a monument dedicated to The Beatles! It was erected in 2008 to reflect the group’s popularity among young Mongolians in the 1960s and 70s. Fascinating.
Back to the hotel at 5, where we met the MCTIC people, who took us to a performance of the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble. A few of the coaches had seen the same performance when they first arrived in UB, and it came highly recommended. The show exceeded all expectations — dancers in very elaborate costumes, musicians playing traditional instruments, singers and yet another contortionist (see my previous post). There were two highlights for me; the first was a dance performance featuring a man dressed as an elderly monk faced by the incarnations of evil — the evil characters looked exactly like those in the tapestries we had seen in the monastery at Kharkhorin, and both their costumes and their dancing were magnificent. The other came at the end, with an orchestra of some 35 musicians, all playing traditional Mongolian instruments. The first pieces they played were Mongolian folk songs…but then they played a Strauss Viennese waltz as well, if not better than any western symphony orchestra I had ever heard. Their final number: “We are the Champions” – the song made famous by the band Queen. Traditional instruments or not, these musicians could play just about anything! I didn’t take any photos of the performance because it cost an extra 6,000 tugrik for the privilege, and I had run out of Mongolian currency. But Bruno, one of the coaches, paid the surcharge and I will post some of his photos (with proper credit, of course), when he posts them on his own blog.
We hadn’t yet had dinner, so after the concert, we headed next door to the incongruously-named Grand Khaan Irish Pub. Yes — you heard that correctly! It was a pub with an extensive menu, European soccer on the big screen and lots and lots of Chinggis beer, the most popular local brand. Now, I have a confession to make — I ordered a hamburger and fries! Stop laughing, I know what I’ve said about North Americans who seek out burgers in foreign countries. But it was exactly what I had an urge for! And it was certainly not the McDonald’s variety — an enormous beef patty on a bun with cheese and some kind of vaguely spicy sauce. And crispy, crunchy fries; and a real green salad. Out of this world, and so big I could barely finish it.
After dinner and a few rounds of Chinggis, we piled into a 14-seat van provided by the folks at MCTIC, while our luggage – lots and lots of it — was carried in a second van behind us. It was off to the airport, and less than three hours later, we were in Seoul,
Bayaartai (goodbye), Mongolia. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope I’ll have the opportunity to return someday.