June 13 Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Sleep deprived and definitely in the wrong time zone, I’m ready to dislike Ulaan Baatar. Chinggis Khaan Airport, which is barely a step above third-world decrepitude, doesn’t improve my mood, nor does a midnight ride through streets where drivers behave like cowboys on a cattle round-up. At the dreary, soviet-era Bayangol Hotel I get my room key from Amy Frank, the co-leader of our tour, and retire to a stuffy room with no air conditioning.
After a night’s sleep I’m a lot less grumpy. I breakfast with Amy and meet other members of our group who arrived early and whose cheery faces remind me that this trip is supposed to be fun. We have the day free to explore the city, which contains most of the population of Mongolia. I’m struck by the life and energy of the place. New construction rises everywhere, luxury cars play road chicken in the sporadically paved streets and the women are as elegant and well dressed as one would find in any world capital. I know that there is a great gap between rich and poor here, but the city centre at least appears prosperous. A great variety of restaurants serve good, international food, although they sometimes run out of basic necessities like cold beer, and service tends to be quirky. The city is better than I expected from my pre-trip reading, but I’ll be glad to leave tomorrow.
June 14, Ulgii
For 2 hours we have been flying over a deserted landscape: rugged hills and green valleys almost devoid of trees, an occasional track the only evidence of human presence. Beyond the hills the land seems flatter, though this is perhaps only an illusion caused by light haze. Below us puffy clouds cluster in small groups, separate, then come back together as if fearing to be alone here. Farther east, thicker clouds clump together all the way to the horizon, where they could pass for high mountains. A few lakes, fed by streams from the hills, refract a dull blue, muted like the rest of the terrain. This is the landscape that spawned the largest empire the world has ever known and now supports the descendants of the Mongol conquerors. We cross over a large lake, its level shoreline offering no hint of life. Patches of snow, forlorn residue of winter, try vainly to defy the coming season. Now a swatch of rust-coloured earth appears beneath a phalanx of wispy clouds. Low mountains, their slopes still white, announce our approach to Ulgii.
The smaller the airport, the more officious the staff and the more likely it is that every silly regulation will be enforced, but we eventually make our way to the vehicles that transport us to the ger tourist camp. There are perhaps 10 gers in this camp
A ger is a yurt, with lattice-work sides, covered with felt and fabric. The inside is adorned with colourful wall hangings, carpets and bed drapes.
Outside, a brown river cuts through the valley, its bank’s providing greenery and flowers. The land beyond is a palette of browns: rounded hills, jagged ridges, open plains fading into sky.
A few cows graze in solitude on widely scattered tufts of spiky grass. A herd of black goats scampers to and fro. An afternoon thunderstorm has come and gone, and sun now streams through the camp and across the river, turning the mountains on the other side to light and shadow. A kite (bird) circles lazily in the sky. The new Mongolia shines bright in a high-voltage power tower, silver against the brown hills. A cool breeze banishes the heat of the day. I feel the city slipping away like extra layers of clothing after a long winter.