Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mongolia 2017 - Day 2. Hong Kong to Ulaan Baatar

The following morning, at 6 am we landed in Hong Kong. I had 5 hours of layover to kill, so I got out of the airport to sweltering heat (and me carrying a heavy jacket meant for the frigid nights of Mongolia). There was not enough time to visit the main town, so I had to be content by taking a local bus to the nearby town of Tung Chung, where I stretched my legs walking through impossibly high apartment buildings, which are cleverly connected to each other via a maze of above ground corridors and shopping malls. I had changed US$10 into HK$74, and had spent HK$9 in bus fare, so by the time I got back to the airport I had HK$63 burning a hole in my pocket. I had a leisurely lunch of noodles and giant prawns, and by 12 noon was ensconced in an economy seat with Mongolian Airlines (MIAT) for the last 4.5 hour leg of my trip to Ulaan Baatar (which could also be spelled Ulan Bator or Ulaanbaatar; nobody can tell what the true spelling is because in Mongolia they use the Cyrillic alphabet, and there are no set rules on how to convert into the Roman alphabet, so to make my life easier I may just call it UB).

I landed in UB at 5 pm, and was pleasantly surprised by how fast I got through immigration and customs. The Mongolian authorities basically believe that if you are here for less than 30 days they will make life easy for you, which I find extremely civilized (for more than 30 days you need to register with the police, and that makes things a bit more complicated). I got out in the arrivals hall by 5:30, and started looking for my Goddaughter, Zoe Dilles, who for the last 9 months has been teaching English at one of the local universities. No Zoe to be seen, so I used the time by going to the SIXT counter to make the necessary arrangements for the car we were going to rent. I was at that when Zoe popped out of the crowd, like a Jack-in-the-Box! She is such a cute young woman, and I was delighted that she, her dad John, and myself were going to spend two weeks of quality time traveling together to western Mongolia.

I was just handing my credit card to the lady in the SIXT counter when a chill went through my spine: Despite the lists and the days of preparation I had forgotten to notify my credit and debit cards of my summer travel pans! The thing is, credit card companies are pretty skiddish when it comes to seeing a sudden charge from a place that you don’t normally frequent, so they freeze your card when there is any doubt! I imagined having all my transactions being denied for the next three months, and me out in the sticks without a brass farthing. Well the charge went through for the car, but when I wanted to get cash out of the ATM it didn’t go through. Stupid, stupid, stupid. OK, get a hold of yourself and don’t panic. Zoe offered to use her own ATM, but for the time being we would be OK until I found another ATM that might be more friendly.

John wasn’t coming in for another two hours, so Zoe and I decided to take the car and go to the hotel to decompress. It was not the best of decisions because the traffic was dense, but at least got me used to the driving karma of the town (it is bad yuyu, because drivers are pretty reckless and seem to have little regard for getting their cars scratched and dented in small fender-benders). But we got to the hotel, where everything was in order, and thanks to the miracles of modern technology was able to connect with my two banks via Skype and make the proper travel notifications (big sigh of relief).

On the way back to the airport we stopped at a shopping mall to use the ATM machine. There were actually five of them, side by side, and I busted three of them until eventually I was able to extract 400,000 Mongolian Tugriks from the fourth one. One US dollar equals 2,400 MT, so despite feeling a millionaire all I had was the equivalent to US$170.

We got to the airport 5 minutes ahead of John coming out of customs, and needless to say we were both very glad to see him. He had started half a day before me, on a Portland to Tokyo flight, but had a 20 hour layover at Narita airport, so he was double glad of finally arriving in UB and seeing his daughter. By now it was getting late, so after dropping his bags at the hotel Zoe took us to a popular restaurant, The Bull, for the first of our traditional Mongolian dinners, hot pot. The restaurant was very nicely appointed, and on each table there are individual stove heaters, where you are brought a small pot with boiling broth. On the side you order platters of thinly sliced horse meat, veggies, mushrooms, and noodles, and then you proceed to use the boiling broth as your own cooking pot. The broth is pretty tasteless, but the more you add to it ingredients, soy sauce, peanut sauce, garlic, chiles, onions, and cilantro then the tastier it gets. It is a kind of racelett, in which you leisurely spend the time cooking and chatting, only now and then stopping to scoop some of the tasty mix into your bowl. We all had a nice tall glass of Mongolian beer with the meal, and at the end were presented with a tab of 50,000 MT; about US$20 J    

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