Ulaanbaatar’s New Subway

Corporate Hotel’s Front Page ClaimsIn perhaps the best kept secret in the world the Mongolians have, according to their newest hotel, opened a Conference and Exhibition Centre and a Subway in Ulaanbaatar. The image to the right here (click on it to read the full size text) appeared on the front page of the website of the Corporate Hotel, Ulaanbaatar, on 14 July 2007. The interesting part is that it notes that:

The Ulaanbaatar’s Convention and Exhibition Centre and MTR subway stations are within easy walking distance of the hotel. The majority of tourist attractions and business areas are easily accessible within 5 minutes drive. The 55 well-appointed guestrooms and suites are tastefully decorated in pastelcolours , with opulent wood and brass accents carrying through the hotel’s neo-classical feel.

Well what can I say? Expensive rooms, classy joint (there is apparently a revolving lounge on the 11th floor overlooking UB), an altogether impressive new hotel in Ulaanbaatar which bears absolutely no resemblance at all to the Charterhouse Hotel in Hong Kong that can only claim:

The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and MTR subway stations are within easy walking distance of the hotel. The majority of tourist attractions and business areas are easily accessible within 10 minutes drive .

The 294 well-appointed guestrooms and suites are tastefully decorated in pastel colours, with opulent wood and brass accents carrying through the hotel’s neo-classical feel.

Now the UB Corporate Hotel is obviously smaller – but a full 5 minutes closer to the tourist attractions and business area of Ulaanbaatar than the Charterhouse is to the equivalent in Hong Kong.

Oh, and there is definitely no MTR in UB … honest … I would have seen it if there was! 😆

Happy Naadam (Наадам) Festival

To my Mongolian friends – enjoy your Naadam (Наадам) festival and holiday.

For the rest, the Naadam festival is an annual festival and holiday in Mongolia, turning up on the 11th, 12th and 13th of July each year. The festival is in celebration of the three manly games of archery, horse-riding and wrestling. These are held over the Naadam festival period. In the countryside, there are Naadams in each town over the summer. In Ulaanbaatar the Naadam Festival and Holiday is over the period 11th to 13th of June.

These dates are significant in Mongolian modern history as it was in July 1921 that Sukhbaatar finally liberated the then town of Niislel Khuree and formed an independent Mongolia. Niislel Khuree was later renamed Ulaanbaatar or “Red hero” in honour of Sukhbaatar’s efforts and the support of Bolshevik Russia at the time, liberating Mongolia from the then Republic of China and other freebooters.

UB Post Back on the Air

The UB Post, Mongolia’s best (well I think it is) English Language newspaper have restored their website to the world again. It has been off the air for a few weeks. Today they noted:

Dear readers,

We apology for mistakenly erased all the contents together with user information created since last December. We found this happened when our company’s IT department tried to move our site to an another dedicated server. Those, who are members registered since last December, please create your user account again. We will work hard to retrieve all the contents as soon as possible, and not to repeat this again in the future. Thank you.

Admin

Well, OK, mostly English language 🙂 I, for one, have missed my weekly dose of Mongolian news and I am happy to see the paper back in action. You can see it at UB Post.

MobiCrap … er … sorry … MobiCom Strikes Again

It seems that MobiCrap have done it again. Apart from massively overcharging their customers, and especially the international roaming ones (I’ll post comparative costs on that later), MobiCrap have allegedly been caught out providing wiretaps on their customers for the shadowy departments in the Mongolian government and legal system.

The UB Post reports on Wiretapping Charges Rock Mongolia that:

Legal enforcement agencies have been accused of listening in on telephone conversations, a totally unacceptable encroachment on the privacy of individuals guaranteed by Mongolian laws and democratic norms

Now, were there no substance to this, the story would have disappeared fairly quickly under the usual conspiracy theories. However judging from the comments from Mongolian friends it seems this is quite the talking point in Ulaanbaatar at the moment and there is widespread belief that this may well have some substance in fact.

The article in the Post goes on to list a number of companies and government departments that have been listened to. This would, of course, explain some of the weird things that used to happen when I was there (although not explain the exorbitant charges and poor service provided by MobiCom). Interestingly, Khan Bank is not mentioned amongst those listened to.

Whilst MobiCom have demanded that the allegations be withdrawn and have threatened legal action against the original publication reporting this – that would be the Niigmiin Toli (“Social Mirror”) – the list seems to still be standing.

The uproar seems to be based around the infringement of personal privacy and freedom, especially as Mongolia is a democracy. Of course, being a new democracy, Mongolia has not learned that this is normal for developed democracies – just not spoken about very often. See the article about Bush wants immunity for telcos that assisted in illegal searches.

Hmm, what was that clicking I just heard on my line?

Korea Suffers Worst Yellow Dust Storm

A citizen wearing a mask rides a bicycle in Hangang Park, Seoul, Sunday. Earlier, the Korean Meteorological Administration posted a yellow dust warning for the city (of Seoul)Over the weekend just gone, Seoul and parts of Korea were blanketed in one of their worst Yellow Dust Storms. This is an annual event starting around the end of March and carrying through to May. Often the dust is suspended high in the atmosphere, not coming down until out in the Pacific Ocean somewhere, perhaps even making it all the way to the US and Canada. We used to joke when I was living and working in Jeon Ju that is was the Chinese giving themselves away to the USA. The Korea Times noted about the dust storms that:

The whole nation on Sunday was under a cloud of yellow dust blown from a Chinese desert some 5,000 km from here. The worstever (sic) yellow dust cloud forced people, who often picnic or hike in the mountains on the first Sunday of April, to stay home. The number of holiday-goers was about one third of those of a normal day. The density of dust was up to 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, 10 to 20 times worse than usual.

There were a couple of other articles about it and the photo above was presented showing the intensity of the dust in Seoul.

Yellow Dust on the edge of the Gobi in Mongolia

It has been noted that the problem is the Gobi Desert in China, where various poor environmental practices over the years has led to a dust bowl which blows away each each year. Well, the Gobi extends into Mongolia as well and around this time last year I was travelling by train to Beijing from Ulaanbaatar. On the way, we passed the cause of the dust storms – shown in the other photo.

Seoul Food in Ulaanbaatar

“James Brown Park” in the UB Post in an article titled Seoul Food talks about Korean Food in Ulaanbaatar. He notes

I like Korean food. Yes, it is more limited than Chinese as shown to me not long ago when I was shepherding some Korean businessmen around town who had brought kimchee, canned sesame leaves, and hot sauce with them from Korea to accompany buuz and khuushur.

He then goes on to discuss a Korean restaurant on the northern side of town that he quite likes, I guess because of the proximity to his apartment.

Being an Australian and having lived in Korea for many years as well as in Ulaanbaatar for two years, I must admit to having somewhat of a strong opinion of Asian cuisine. The first thing that should be noted about restaurants in Ulaanbaatar is that mercifully there seems to be more Korean Restaurants than there are Chinese Restaurants. Certainly this is the case in the central part of town.

This is merciful as the Chinese food in Mongolia really is pretty ordinary – indeed, in many cases, awful. The best Chinese Restaurant I have found is 30 kilometres out of town at the Hotel Mongolia. A nice location, especially in the summer with the beach and near the river, but a long trip in winter.

As for the Korean restaurants, the one Park speaks of near Los Bandidos is really pretty ordinary. The food there is not so good and even though Park is using a family name that is typically Korean, he cannot be as no Korean I know would hesitate to ask ajuma for more lettuce at a barbecue.

As far as Korean food goes, the Seoul Restaurant probably offers the best barbecues in Ulaanbaatar, including the fusion dish of Barbecue Mutton. Their Chinese food is also excellent. Then just down from ikh delguur (State Department Store) are three Korean restaurants, one of which you would swear you were in a restaurant in the residential areas of Seoul. These restaurants all offer the traditional soup and noodle dishes as well as the Korean “Chinese” dishes.

There are another 4 or 5 Korean Restaurants along Seoul street all serving fine food.

And the restaurants all have English Language menus as well. The most frustrating thing about the menus is that they are in Mongolian, Korean and English. In Mongolian and Korean a dish will be described as Daenjung-chiggae [not sure of English spelling]. In English it will be called “soy bean paste soup”.

Fortunately I read enough Korean to be able to recognise what I want off the Korean menu. My Mongolia friends are always impressed as well when I order dinner in Korean – even the Mongolian girls working in the restaurants speak restaurant Korean.

As for a favourite meal for Mongolian guests, barbecue is good so I usually order them samgapsal or taegi-kalbi or taegi-bulgogi, usually one portion more than the number of us eating (4 people order 5 portions). I also order daenjung-chiggae and bab (and beer or tea). Usually we end up asking for more soup and the soup is an introduction to them to other Korean soups and dishes. All have enjoyed these mixes of food.

All my friends now insist on my ordering dinner at a Korean restaurant. We don’t eat Chinese there any more.

By Rail – Moscow to Beijing

Legend Tours has a page on their website called “Train schedule in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)” which contains information about travelling by train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia.

One of the paragraphs of useful information for the traveller is the one shown below:

Customs & Immigration. There are major delays of three to six hours at both, the China-Mongolia and Russia-Mongolia borders. Often the trains cross the border during the middle of the night, when the alert Mongolian and Russian officials maintain the upper hand. The whole process is not difficult or a hassle – just annoying because they keep interrupting your sleep. Your passport will be taken for inspection and stamping.
During these stops, you can alight and wander around the station, which is just as well since the toilets on the train are locked during the whole inspection procedure.

Immigration Officials Wait At Zamin-uud, Mongolia
Zamin-uud Railway Station, Mongolia, with very cute Customs Officers

This is sort of understatement. Yes, the officialdom part is onerous and a couple of hours each side of the border are given up to much inspecting of documents, checking visas and so on.

In fact, when travelling across from the Mongolian side of the border to the Chinese side, all the Mongolian Immigration officers come through the train in Zamin-uud (and contrary to the article, you are encouraged to remain in the train). Everything is checked, papers and passport. The Mongolian border crossing at Zamin-uud is the only place I have ever been where a customs declaration has to be completed for departure (at the Chinggis Khaan airport in UB, customs forms are only required when arriving). What you should be aware of is that if you travel back INTO Mongolia through Zamin-uud, the Customs folks will want to see the form you completed when you were leaving.

Erlian Station, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China
Erlian Station, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, where the Customs officers are hidden and not cute

The train then crawls along for maybe 30 minutes or so to cover the 5 kilometres between Zamin-uud and Erlian. The Chinese Immigration folks then take the next 2 hours to check your entry papers. There is a detention area half way between Zamin-uud and Erlian and sometimes the train stops there and a young Chinese guy or two will be escorted off the train and into detention. Presumably their papers are not in order.

Of course, the trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar is the same, just the waits are reversed. Seems though that the trains tend to get to the border late at night (when travelling either way). The other thing not mentioned is that Chinese Railways run on Standard Gauge track (4 foot 8 1/2 inches between rails). Mongolian Railways run to Russian Gauge (5 foot between rails). So, at the border, apart from the immigration delays, there is a further delay of a couple of hours while the entire train undergoes a change of bogies. This entails jacking each carriage up and replacing the bogies underneath them. This is done with much bumping and banging whilst the passengers are all still in the train trying to sleep.

As mentioned, the toilets are locked but it is near impossible to get out of the carriage. Also, if it is winter, the temperature in the carriage falls as well. The combination of drinking beer before the border (or coffee) and cold temperature puts an unbelievable strain on one’s plumbing.

Indeed, my friend had saved a couple of plastic beer bottle precisely for this event. Out with the Swiss Army knife, quickly remove the top of the bottle and voila, instant relief.

The one thing that still has me frustrated about this whole process is that there is no reason why the Mongolian AND the Chinese Immigration staff could not check all the passengers at the same time. This would take at least 2 hours off the entire process and reduce the time to travel between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing to about 1 day 4 hours.

Mongolian Camels’ Horns

 

The Camels Look Up After Drinking
A couple of Mongolian camels looking for the goat to come and return the horns

When Mongolian camels (OK, so they are Bactrian camels but in Mongolia, they are Mongolian ones) drink they inevitably slurp great quantities of water down, then look up.

Puujee was telling me that the reason for this comes from many many years ago. Camels had horns in the past and goats did not. One day the goat wanted some horns for a while. So he asked the camel if he could borrow his horns. The camel was wary and said that he wasn’t sure but the goat kept insisting. The goat promised to have the horns back to the camel later that day.

The camel relented and lent his horns to the goat. The goat went off with the horns.

Later that day the camel was having a drink and wondering when the goat was going to come back with his horns. He then looked up and around to see if he could see the goat coming. He drank some more and looked some more but still the goat did not come.

To this day, the camel looks up after drinking to see if he can see the goat coming with his horns. To this day, the goat has horns and the camel does not.

And, in the time I spent in the Gobi, I never saw a camel and a goat drinking water together either.

The Banner Horses

The banner to Thomo’s Hole now shows a herd of horses crossing a river. This is part of a photograph I took in Mongolia in July 2005. The horses were being moved by some Mongolians on horseback. The horses were moved across a river and that is when I took this photograph. The photograph is one of the ones that I have that were described as “National Geographic” photos. That is, one of those photos where everything — light, subject, exposure, everything — actually works.

The river is the Kherlen gol (Kherlen River – pronounced as Herlen) that runs across the border between Dornod and Sukhbaatar Aimags in Mongolia. It is one of my favourite photos of Mongolia.

Happy Tsagaan Sar, New Year

Happy Tsagaan Sar to my Mongolian friends.

Happy New Year to my Korean and Chinese friends.

This New Year is the year of the Pig.

I am sure it will be a fun and interesting year for all of us, including this poor horse 😀