After the trip through the steppes, a long period in Ulaanbaatar ensued. At the first evening after my travel mate went back to the Netherlands, I went out for a few drinks. At a Couchsurfing event I met some really nice people who quickly introduced me to a guy who had an extra room in his flat, and was willing to rent it. I eagerly accepted the offer, which was a great deal: very close to the city center, good apartment and a real fun guy to share a place with. I spent the whole month living more or less as a local: working during the day, going out for drinks at night and partying during the weekends. Though the city itself is ugly and chaotic, as I mentioned earlier, I had a great time. People were incredibly outgoing and fun, just very interesting folks everywhere I went. Many of the younger fellows speak very good English, and the travellers you meet in such a place in October/November are not your usual type of boring tourist. It's a city and a time of the year that attracts a more experienced, interesting kind of traveller.
Unfortunately, after such a long time without any problems (8 months travelling through south-east Asia and China without ever being robbed, getting sick or into a fight), the big dirty mean capital of Mongolia finally threw me a few bad hands: my photocamera was stolen. This means I don't have many pictures of the city, but that's not a big loss for you guys, as there really aren't many beautiful spots to report. What I do regret not having more pictures of are the statues and art exhibitions that were all over the place. For such a small place (Mongolia has 3 million inhabitants, 1.5 in Ulaanbaatar), the art production of the city is just incredible. As for timing, I hit the jackpot: while it is true that the big festivals (Naadam) are in July, I think I couldn't have had a better first impression of this place. I hear July is very dry (I seriously dislike dry weather) and dusty, full of tourists (probably the more boring kind) and higher prices. Instead, I enjoyed a great autumn there, and had the luck of being just in time for several great events: a big art exhibition from the university students with concerts by small local bands followed by a great festival presenting renowned artists from the different regions of Mongolia. After that weekend, the jazz festival started, and after that week, a film festival took place. After all that was done, they threw a birthday party for Chinggis Khan, so I can say I had a pretty good time as far as cultural events are concerned.
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As for food, I must say the quality of the meals improved a lot compared to the time I spent on the steppes. Specially worthy of note is the traditional Mongolian Barbecue. It's prepared in a round solid iron griddle, with fire everywhere and a big show of how the cooks use the swords to mix the meat with the vegetables. Strange meal of the month: Sheep's head. I guess the most exotic food is in south-east Asia, but it's always possible to find some novelty when it comes to cuisine. And to be honest, I actually quite enjoyed the vegan place (yes, there are vegans even in Mongolia...) with the cute name of "Cafe de Amor", where I made a few friends and even participated in a few events, from meeting the Cuban ambassador to playing in a basketball competition. One might ask, "but why would the Mongolians be interested in basketball, and how good can they be?". Well, after wrestling, horseriding, falconry and archery, which are the main national sports (yeah, they're badasses, deal with it), basketball is the most popular thing. And though they're a small people, they're not that bad at it. Which means I sucked big time, but I should have known: I hadn't played any basketball in 15 years, and I honestly couldn't remember the last time I ran a few hundred meters. It was great fun anyway, as most of my stay in the city.
Prices were quite steep, though. They don't produce many things in this beautiful land: no grain fields, no plantations, no big farms were to be seen through most of my trip around the country - only amazing, untouched nature as far as the eye can see. That means they import a lot of stuff, which brings the prices up quite a lot. How they manage to live with the low salaries and the high prices was a puzzle to me at first, but later I learned that they rely on loans from family and friends, with very low or no interest rates at all. If they had to go to banks for those loans, I'd bet the country was doomed to crash in a few years, specially because of the rampant corruption going around. But I guess there is hope for a good future if they manage to clean up the politician's act and keep away from the big banks.
Nevertheless, I must be honest and tell you that the thing that impressed me the most about this city (yes, even more than the good nature of its people, the traffic jams, the cultural richness, the strange dynamics of economics and the barbecue places) were the ladies. I did not expect them to be this beautiful at all! Men too, when they are not ugly, are very handsome. They all look very similar, true - there is not a lot of variety. But the Mongolian ladies have a beauty that I cannot compare to any other. I may be crazy, but I can see traits of different kinds of beauty in them: to me they look like a mix of "Asian" with "Native American" and "European", whatever that means. I guess it means Chinggis Khan and his men really raped a lot of women everywhere, and peoples around the world inherited the traits of the Mongolian people. Not only the physical beauty of the Mongolian ladies impressed me, but also how strong and independent they are - they are not the stereotypical Asian girl, giggling timidly while cooking and cleaning for you. They'll drink a hefty load of alcohol (more than most white boys I know) and kick your ass if you rub them the wrong way. All while being elegant and good looking.
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After two months, came the day when my visa was over and I had to leave the country. I had a ticket to Irkutsk, in Siberia. Therefore, I went to the town's market (Narantuul) to buy some winter clothes a few hours before boarding the train- after all, one needs to be prepared to be in Siberia, if the stories about its cold are true. Then Lady Luck decided to take a day off and my bank card was stolen- I was left without money on my way to Russian winter. But that story I'll tell on the next post...