Entrance Charges for Foreigners

Yesterday we drove out to Terelj. Terelj is a protected area (I guess it is the equivalent of a National Park). There are Juulchin (tourist) camps and the usual horse and camel rides available. There is also some lovely quiet places, near the river and so on. As you approach Terelj, there is an entrance gate manned by government employees – at lease I guess that is who employs them. They collect an entrance fee for the park. The charge is 300 tugrig for a Mongolian or 3000 tugrig for a foreigner. This does, of course, annoy many foreigners, especially those that come from countries where we have been taught to protect the local environment and especially the environment within a National Park.

However, the twin charging scheme applies almost everywhere in Mongolia. At the Gandantegchinlen Khiid monastery with 25 meters high statue of Migjid Janraisig in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolians are let in for free but non Mongolians are charged $1.00. I believe that if you were a foreigner and are now a permanent resident in Mongolia, or citizen, you still have to pay the foreigner rate. That, I think, is a little unfair. I can accept the higher rate for bona fide foreign tourists and businessmen here temporarily over locals, if only because the minimum wage set by the government in Ulaanbaatar is currently $37 per month, whereas $37 is perhaps about the same amount a pair of tourists may have spent for dinner the last night. Charging locals 3,000 tugrigs would therefore be the equivalent of charging them a fair percentage of their monthly income.

Still, it is sometimes galling to have to pay the two fees, especially when it is my favourite Mongolian family taking me out. Yesterday we avoided the problem. As we approached the gate, I was asked to get something from the back of the vehicle. The fees were paid with the gatekeeper able to see the three Mongolians in the vehicle as well as my bottom. As we pulled off I was told to look forward so that the gatekeeper would not see me as we drove past.

Success, Thomo in for 300 tugrigs. Still, I guess the truly amazing part of this story is that Thomo must have a very Mongolian looking bottom 😉

Road Distance Signs (Milestones)

I’ve just spent a week driving around Mongolia …. well, more like being driven around 🙂 Now, over most of the country there are not much in the way of roads, more like tracks, and these are pretty much totally unmarked. However, there are a couple of main roads running through the country. One, for example, runs from the Russian border in the north, through Ulaanbaatar to the Chinese border in the south, paralleling the railway line.

One of the interesting things on these roads is the travelling distance signs (milestones they would have been in the dim dark days of the past). For example, in Australia, if I was driving to Sydney on the Pacific Highway and I saw a sign that said ’85’, then that sign is telling me I have 85 kilometres to go before reaching Sydney. The next sign I saw might say ’80’, telling me I had 80 kilometres to go, and so on.

The signs like this (and the old milestones for that matter) are the same and work like this in every country I have been to …. except Mongolia.

Here, if I am driving from Ulaanbaatar and I see a sign on the side of the road that says ’80’, then it is telling me not that there is 80 kilometres to go until the next town is reached but rather it is saying that I have travelled 80 kilometres FROM Ulaanbaatar. The next sign I see may then say ’85’.

Before poo pooing this, think. When giving directions in Australia we generally say something like “head up the Pacific Highway about 80 kilometres and look for the turn” not “head up the Pacific Highway until you are 240 kilometres from the next town and then turn right.” The Mongolian system makes it easier to do this.

The picture is a manually powered ferry that we had to use during the Road Trip to cross one of the rivers here (the Onon gol in Khentii).

Two Camels, No Roadsigns — Hell, No Roads

I had to travel last week. The job required me to get out and about in our branches so we packed the car, and set off. The troop was our driver, his son who accompanied us as it was school holidays, Baggy, the faithful and long suffering translator and aide confidante and Thomo. We left Ulaanbaatar around lunchtime on Monday and headed south to Sukhbaatar Aimag (province/state). From Sukhbaatar, we would head north, passing through the edge of Dornod and then into Khentii Aimag, after which, we would return to Ulaanbaatar five days later.

Wonderful trip. We stopped and looked at bank branches in nine Soums (towns), one Aimag Centre (main provincial town) and a small village. The country folk were wonderful and some of the scenery was just totally inspiring.

At one point as we travelled along, two camels atop a hill watched our progress. It should be noted too that in the countryside, there are no road signs pointing the next town. Hell, there are no roads – just tracks – and some of them are hard to see if they are not travelled often.

Come visit Mongolia, but if you want to get off the beaten track (that would be the main north-south highway) then connect with one of the local tour people – or drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch with some reputable groups. Come see the countryside though, it is an experience you will remember. I will get some more photos up in Thomo’s Hole Proper soon – in the meantime, here is the highway we followed from Baruun-urt, the Aimag Centre of Sukhbaatar Aimag to Norovlin in Khentii Aimag.

Nine Fish Cleansing

The area near where we stopped with the fierce mosquitoesI was out with my favourite Mongolian family this weekend. Saturday we were west of the City of Ulaanbaatar again, this time parked by a river. The trip over the bridge was amazing, as was the ferocity of the mosquitoes. I will go back and take photos of that bridge in the future. However, whilst this was a fun part to the weekend, it was not the best part. Sunday we went to Hotel Mongolia. I had promised to buy my favourite Mongolian family lunch as it was a birthday weekend for one of the family members. We did. Hotel Mongolia has become famous here for its importing tons of sand – about US $10,000 worth I believe, which in Mongolia is a lot of grains of sand. They have placed this sand near the river and hold beach parties there.

I should also note that the Hotel Mongolia does the best Chinese food I have eaten in Ulaanbaatar so far.

This, however, also was not the highlight of the weekend. The highlight was later when we went and parked by the river. Now I have been told that what follows is not an old Mongolian custom. When I asked, however, how my host had heard about it, she noted that it was some old Mongolians who had told her. OK, so not a custom. What was this though? Well, apparently swallowing 9 small river fish, alive, is good for the stomach.

Fish were caught, counted and set in a glass with some clean drinking water. They were then duly swallowed. When offered, Thomo backed away (some may say in a cowardly fashion) and fell back on my three rules of eating – namely:

  1. Dead
  2. Cooked
  3. Should never have connected the mouth to the bum of any animal.

These failed on all three.

Still, my companion was fine at dinner later that night although apparently not terribly hungry. 🙂

Late Breaking Addition: The ever faithful aide confidante, Baggy, noted to me over lunch today that this tale was, in fact, correct. My favourite Mongolian family, however, had missed one important part of the recipe. Before drinking the fish, one should drink 1 to 2 litres of fresh water first, so that the fish would survive long enough in the stomach to provide the benefit. He also noted that you could feel them cleaning the stomach walls (this I am not so sure about but hey, coming from Baggy, the ever faithful aide confidante, who am I to doubt?).

So, I guess this was a case of one member of my favourite Mongolian family being an expert short term planner (catch the fish and swallow them) but not so good at long term planning (now that I have caught and swallowed them, how do I keep them alive long enough for them to provide some benefit?). 😀

Mongolian GPS

Mongolians find their way naturally across the Steppe – they don’t need compasses and such. They are as natural moving across the Steppe as a Sydneysider is in the water at Bondi Beach. Yeah, right!

The boss asked me to get a GPS for one of the company vehicles … his. He has been in Mongolia and driving across the Steppe for five years now – always with a Mongolian driver. Now, I know bugger-all about GPS, relying as I have my entire life on the fact that even in outback Australia there will always be a sign pointing to the next petrol station or the next pub. Seems there are not too many pubs on the Steppe.

I asked the boss about the Mongolian sense of direction. Surely it was as good as noted as the boss was around to be requesting a GPS. “Mongolians don’t get lost travelling between soums. They sort of know the direction they need to drive” I noted.

“A number of times” said the boss “the 4 Wheel Drive has stopped and the driver and one of the Mongolian passengers have climbed to the roof of the vehicle and stood still there, like Meerkats, surveying the distance, pointing, muttering, shading eyes and then surveying and pointing some more”.

“Any problem” the boss would ask them when they got back into the car. “No problem” was the usual response. They would then drive for about 20 minutes, stop and repeat the Meer Cat routine on the top of the vehicle – repeating the process again and again until they had arrived in the soum.

“They are lost” says the boss “don’t believe the innate sense of direction on the Steppe bit, they are lost!” I purchased a GPS for him so that now they will at least know where they are when they are lost. 😕

So, the next time you pass a 4 Wheel Drive on the Mongolian Steppe or in the Desert and you see a Mongolian standing on the roof of the vehicle looking like a Meerkat, remember, that is simply a Mongolian GPS taking its bearings.

Drive for the Gap

“It might not be where you want to be now, but it will be eventually, so aim for the gap”. These sage words about gaps in traffic were given to me by a friend in Indonesia many years ago.

Then, when in India, another friend noted that when an Indian buys a car, the first thing he does is check to make sure the horn is working – no horn, no buy car.

I think it was in Korea that we discovered that lateral vision was a positive impediment to good driving as really, what happened 15 degrees of straight ahead was all that mattered.

And then in the Lebanon, the taxi drivers there taught me that there are three colours of traffic lights – green, light green and dark green.

Mongolian driving is the culmination of all these traits. A combination of artful horn blowing, even if only as an after thought, coupled with a desire to fill any gap (causing more artful horn work) whilst ignoring anything behind and refusing to pay anything other than a brief passing regard to the traffic lights. The last place for artful horn blowing is at the traffic lights. If cars are not moving forward within 15 nano-seconds of the lights changing to green, the horns are off.

Having said that, the majority of bingles I have seen around UB (and been involved in, I have been here slightly over two months after all) have been pretty minor.

Great people though 🙂