Couch Surfing in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar’s city centre looks Soviet. One part filled with dilapidated apartment buildings and the other with gers (or yurt, a kind of tent).

After living seven months in a hotel in Cambodia and six months in Thailand, we thought it would be great to try something else for a while: Couch Surfing and Mongolia.

Earlier we had used Couch Surfing once in Singapore and enjoyed our stay. We had also tried to join a similar system called Hospitality club when we were travelling in Russia, but unfortunately they refused to accept people like us who don’t possess “an address”, so we ended up joining a more flexible system instead of hostility club.

We sent about twenty requests to Vietnam, South China, and Mongolia. Many persons offered to host us, but cancelled just before we arrived. Mongolia seemed to be the opposite. We had altogether five people welcoming us to stay with them. However, in Ulaanbaatar (also spelled Ulan Batur, Ulan Batar, Ulaan Batar, Ulan Bataar, and Ulaan Baatar), the capital city of Mongolia, reality bit us. We sent messages to our hosts telling that we have arrived but only one answered. Luckily, he was a really easy-going and hospitable guy. Staying with him restored our belief in Couch Surfing although we did not hear anything from the other hosts ever again.

We met also other travellers as our host’s place was full when we arrived. There was a Belgian-French couple who were bicycling from Brussels to Beijing. We cooked some garlic potatoes with them. Another couple was from Germany and they had also been travelling in Russia. The third couple was from Serbia. They had been doing some serious touring in former Soviet Union countries, Western China and Russia. We went to see a local Buddhist temple with them although we didn’t ever go in because the entrance fee annoyed both the Serbs and us. The business monk who was selling tickets said cheerfully that "only foreigners pay" like it was some kind of a valid reason for making money with a religion.

Borderline experiences

The train trip from the Chinese border to Ulaanbaatar was a bit uncomfortable. We took a cupé thanks to a Mongolian woman who kindly helped us to buy tickets and assumed that we needed to show off. When we came back, we were more educated and bought “obshie” tickets. Obshie wagons have less dust so Santeri had less allergic reactions. The trains are Russian-made and the Trans-Mongolian experience does not, in effect, differ from Trans-Siberian except when it comes to the scenery: you can watch the endless Gobi desert instead of Russian taiga.

Border between Erlianhot and Zamin Uud was a model example of a border. There was a typical taxi and bus scam enforced by corrupted officials. The three-kilometre border crossing using scam bus costs the same as the train trip from the border to Ulaanbaatar (approximately 500 km). In addition to that, the officials tried to collect some imaginary extra fees on Chinese side. One can only guess what kind of scams will be waiting for those who participate in the Olympic games next summer. It is sad to see how humans seem to have a compulsory need to create borders to separate people from each other. This will only support the delusion that all sentient beings are not one.

Exotic Mongolia?

An advertisement we saw in the Mongolian embassy in China spelled out the following claim about Mongolia: "Mongolia is any tourists dream, the only left unspoiled tourist destination in the world". Well, when we got there, there were surprisingly many tourists to be such a country. Maybe during the coldest months in the winter, but at least in September it was way more crowded than for example Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Another claim we heard about Mongolia before going there was from the China tourist guide we got from Bill & Betty, and which originally led us to China. It depicted Mongolia the following way: "eat all you can here (in China), the food in outer Mongolia (Mongolia) is notoriously poor". Well, someone who does not like to eat noodles every day might say exactly the same about China.

Our picture turned out to be a lot different, and actually, not so exotic at all but rather homely. Ulaanbaatar is an interesting blend of Asian and European, mainly Russian, culture. We found it homely as Russia has also had a profound effect on Finnish culture. Although Finland was not physically part of the USSR it has always been quite Soviet. For example the government, political system, and customer service have similar roots with Russia. No wonder, as the countries share 100 years of common history in the past (1809–1917).

Mongolia itself was a superpower in the past. According to our host, the whole of Europe and Asia could still be part of Mongolia if the Khan had not died in the middle of attack. According to Mongolian laws they had to return to Mongolia for selecting a new Khan and thus lost the momentum of war.

Surprising similarities with Finland

While in UB, we were busy with computer. Our photo sharing service Sony Imagestation will be closing in near future, so we had to transfer our photos to a new service. Please let us know, if there are any anomalies. Santeri also re-mastered a video called “Karate Teppo” (Kake-Teppo in Finnish) he had made over twenty years ago with his friend Harri and added subtitles. You can watch the enhanced movie on YouTube.

The look and feel of Ulaanbaatar’s city centre is from the Soviet times. Otherwise it is a city like all other cities in the world, only the amount of rats varies as Santeri puts it. Half of the Mongolian population lives in Soviet-style apartment buildings here, the other half in Mongolian gers (or yurt, a kind of tent) a bit more further away. As for similarities, Finland has also its nomadic people, the minority of Sami people, who live in Lapland in little teepee-like yurts and wonder around with their reindeer.

Mongolian food is Russian-style, meaning rich in meat and fat. It was a nightmare for Santeri who is nowadays a vegetarian. He was asking in a restaurant if they have vegetarian meals and the girl answered him smiling: sure, we have excellent goulash. Well, we did have a chance to enjoy such Russian delicacies as dark bread, cheese, caviare, smetana and pickled cucumbers. Those we had really missed in South-East Asia. There was also a wide selection of dairy products which we enjoyed greatly for the same reason.

Local drinking culture is Russian: a lot of vodka, just like in Finland. In the evenings you can see drunk people wandering around, picking fights, and those who have already passed out sleeping on the streets. Mongolian climate is hostile like in Finland which probably explains phenomenon partly, but there is still a bit more daylight as the country is located more South.

In September the days were sunny and warm, but nights were quite cold. In midwinter temperature can dip down to -30 degrees Celsius. With only one-layer windows it is hard to imagine how to cope with the cold without vodka. We figured out there has to be a New Zealand -style heating: whenever it gets colder, you just add more clothes and work harder. However, Mongolians consider themselves lazy so in the end, we do not know the solution and we did not want to hang around to see it. Thirty-four years of winter was enough for us.

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