I arrived safely in Ulan Bator yesterday after a tiring flight from London. I connected in Beijing and found one of my fellow Dragoman guys, John, when transiting so had company for the transit leg which was great.
The flight into Ulan Bator is quite surreal. You fly in over the hills and they look just like the lake district, lots of rivers and lakes interspersed with green rolling hills and mountains. It's pretty spectacular to be honest. When you get closer to the airport you start to see the city in the valley. One the outskirts are all the Ger encampments. Some are concentrated in groups and others lie on their own. You can see lots of big cream circles from the sky and next to them are sometimes concrete buildings and small generator units. The concrete buildings all have colourful red and blue tin roofs so it looks a bit like Iceland and the traditional homes there. Despite having concrete buildings these tend to be for animals and machinery and the people prefer to live under canvas. Nearer to the centre of the town you see more modern architecture and the futuristic Blue Sky buildings which would right at home on the Dubai promenade! Interspersed between the buildings are loads of factories and power station chucking out fumes so you can tell right away that it's the industrial and power centre of the country.
The airport arrival hall is tiny, I mean miniscule, it's smaller than Derby's bus station. It also has abseolutely no facilities, no cafes or money changing facilities, only a lone ATM in the corner. I managed to find my hostel contact in the arrivals hall as there were only about 15 people there so someone with an orange sign was going to be hard to miss. We met our driver, a young but portly Mongolian chap, and headed into the city. You drive right through the industrial zone with the power station cooling towers not 10m from the road. It's a Chemical Engineers dream as you can actually see them working and the water running down the inside of the towers. I must remember when I return to England, to let my old lecturers know that a trip to Ulan Bator would be much more instructive than the trip to Esso's refinery in Crawley which is what I had to endure.
The road into town is very much a dirt road with no road signs of lights and lots of pot holes. It's funny, people in Zambia thought their roads were bad but they are like the M25 compared to this. Our driver expertly wriggled his way between the holes, swerving this way and that. Needless to say there were no seat belts (what a silly idea!) so it's good I'd had a warm up in Zambia :) The airport road joined the main juncture to the city very abruptly and there were no road markings or lights so you can imagined what ensued, a veritable horn blaring competition with drivers nudging past each other in an effort to get to the right direction. My driver was great and had us through in minutes...well from what I could tell through my semi-closed eyes :)
As you approach the city centre you can see the various influences on the culture here. The shrines to Tibetan Buddhism, the Chines lions at the entrance to buildings for protection and the overwhelming communist / Russian architecture and street layout. The street layout is fairly easy to follow although reading the signs is impossible as they're in cryllic. It's a bit like being in Syria again where it's pot luck what's behind each door - a shop or a brothel?! I go by the pictures on the walls and the people hanging about outside and haven't ended up in anywhere dodgy yet.
The weather here right now is rainy and it's not giving up. The traffic police are in white plastic coats and black welly boots and many women are wandering around in high heeled welly boots (quite fancy a pair) but then again I have seen the odd optimistic woman in white plastic stilletos, refusing to give into the rain. There are alot of western backpackers around and given the long queue of people waiting to check into my hostel last night I think they all stayed in the same place as me.
The hostel is nice and very secluded and has every bed full so its good I booked. There are no locks on the doors and no lockers so it's very much a place that feels like home. Nothing has gone missing and the other travellers I've met have been great so I'd definitely recommend it. It's right behind the state department store so easy to find. The state department store is my idea of heaven. I reckon it's based on Karstadt in Germany as its packed with the same goods and loids of the German brands I like so I figure if all my kit is caked with mud from 3 weeks camping in the rain I'll just replace stuff there. I feel quite small here as everyone has a sturdy Russian/Mongol build and so getting things in my size is easy peasey - yiiipeee.
Better go now as I have to transfer to the Dragoman hotel and meet my roommate. I picked up the key this morning and my roommate is called Catharina so I figure I'll be going by Kate for the next 3 weeks. I'll try and write about my trip on my return, about 3 weeks from now.