Yes, it is true. We have arrived safely in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia! After using the morning to pack our things up and spending 464 yen of our remaining 475 yen on breakfast (win) we headed off to Tokyo station to catch the Narita Express to the airport. During this process we had the only disappointment to date with our JR rail passes and really, it was entirely our own fault. We had gotten off our local train at Tokyo station and booked it to the Narita Express platform to wait for the next train. Previously when using our passes we learned that there tend to be 3-5 cars per train that don’t have reserved sits so you can hop right on without having to wait in line for a ticket agent. Well, it turns out that the Narita Express is the exception which we only learned by walking the entire 16 car platform looking for the unreserved car signs of which there were none. We headed off to the ticket station and about 30 minutes later had our tickets on the next Narita Express 30 minutes after that. Luckily we had left our hostel quite early so timing wasn’t too much of a concern.
We arrived at the airport with 2 hours to spare before our Mongolian Airlines flight and used the time to grab some lunch at McDonald’s (yes, we were those folks) and see if we could find Doug a better sized hat (which we could not). Our Mongolian Airlines flight went very smoothly during its 5.5 hour duration and we killed time by listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History – Wrath of the Khans, watching the movies that were offered, and of course, sleeping. About 30 minutes before landing we started to see the Mongolian landscape as the sun was setting and it stunned both of us. Beautiful rolling mountains, occasional clusters of trees, and gers awaited us!
We landed without issue, deplaned, and headed to passport control where we were greeted with 3 queues – 2 for Mongolian citizens and crew and 1 for foreigners. The area itself was small and white with the only decoration being advertisements for cashmere, which apparently is what you by when you come to Mongolia. It also featured a 10’x10′ duty free shop which we were quick to notice featured darts and badminton sets. Not typical, but someone needs them. After passing through the checkpoint, we picked up our bags, and headed off to meet with Davaa, the driver that our tour organizer, Stone Horse Mongolia, provided. Luckily he was already there even though our plane landed a little earlier than expected so we hopped in his van to head to our hotel in Ulaanbaatar where we will spend the night before heading into the hills to stay with a herder family the following two nights.
A few observations were had on our 45 minute drive to the city from the airport. The city is nestled in a cluster of mountains which we drove along before turning onto some more populated roads. Also, it is quite brisk out compared to Tokyo. While Tokyo was hot and humid, Ulaanbaatar is cool and dry. In fact, after first stepping outside the Chinggis Khan airport we both turned to each other and said “it feels like winter in Texas.” But on to what we’ve observed – First, Mongolians drive on the right side of the road but have a mix of American-style and British-style cars meaning the steering wheel could be on either side. Second, Davaa at one point during the ride was sure to close his window and request that Doug lock the back door which gave us pause, but nothing happened, don’t worry! Third, they actually drive in lanes which is different than some places we’ve been, but maybe a tad more aggressive than most. Fourth, we noticed that there is a lot of building and road construction happening on the route we took. According to Davaa, they are attempting to complete this before winter. Oh, and winter starts mid-October. Lastly, there are no such things as crosswalks and people tend to cross streets, including highways, by darting through traffic. Luckily we have not observed any fatalities as of yet.
We made it to our hotel safe and sound which it turns out is a 12 story building and received our room on the 11th floor. Needless to say we have quite the view with most other buildings around us being 3-4 stories. We have a sitting area, kitchen, and patio even though we won’t be using them since we are only here the one night. We grabbed dinner at the hotel restaurant, The Godfather Restaurant (yes, themed and all), and then settled in for the night in anticipation of the next few days with the herder family. We don’t expect that there will be a whole lot of connection options so you likely will not hear from us until Saturday when we return to the city before heading out to the Gobi Desert. But, don’t you worry! We will fill you in on what we have been up to then.
Daily Walking Mileage: 4 miles
- The water is not safe to drink in Ulaanbaatar and is considered contaminated. Luckily bottled water, at least at The Godfather Restaurant, is roughly $1 USD.
- Mongolian currency is the tughrik. There are 2000 tughrik to $1 USD.
- The Mongolian written language is made up of characters similiar to Russian. Doug is using his Greek skills to translate.
- The countryside, from our thus far limited time here, looks like the interior of California.
- Mongolia is currently in daylight savings time so it is in the same timezone as Tokyo which is 5.5 hours due east.