Wednesday, September 1, 2010

From Mongolia to Russia

After our trip to the Mongolian countryside we needed quite a few days’ rest in Ulan Bator, or at least I did. We had vague plans of taking another trip out of the city, perhaps to a national park, but they never came to fruition mainly due to inertia and probably fearing that it could be as disappointing as our first trip. So Kristen and I ended up spending about ten days in UB, visiting museums and other sights, including the Gandan monastry, one of the few Buddhist monastries in the country that wasn’t totally destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s. (Although nominally independent, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state from 1920s to 1990.) There are also some great dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum and apparently Mongolia is a major area for discovering dinosaur remains. I also enjoyed the Mongolian History Museum. The most famous person in the country’s history is of course Genghis Khan and it was interesting to learn about his empire that stretched from east to west in the 12th and 13th centuries. Genghis has a reputation in the west simply as an aggressive conquerer but in Mongolia he is regarded as a progressive hero. There seem to be good grounds for the latter view. While Europe was marked by religious absolutism in the middle ages, Genghis practised religious toleration, permitting Christian churches and Muslim mosques as well as Buddhist temples in his capital.

Shop in Ulan Bator - was he French-Scottish?

Beatles monument in Ulan Bator

One of the biggest disappointments of Mongolia is the unfriendliness of the people. I had my expectations lifted by reading in several guidebooks that Mongols are a very friendly people who will always welcome to you into their homes. Well, the families on our trip were not like that and if anything, the people in UB were worse. Shop workers were almost never polite, grunting in response to anything said to them. Asking for help usually resulted in lazy dismissals or being rudely laughed at. Hotel staff were grumpy. There were a few friendly Mongols but even though there are some places I’d like to come back to visit one day, I don’t see myself returning to Mongolia anytime soon.

We managed to book tickets on the busy train to Ulan Ude in Russia for August 29 (two days later than we wanted), departing at 9pm. We hadn’t found out how fast the train was and so had no idea when we’d be arriving but after confused conversations with the other passengers sharing our cabin, we got the idea that we’d be arriving in Sukhbaatar (a city at the border named after a hero of Mongolia’s fight for independence from China in the 1920s) at 7am. I awoke just before then and was the only passenger to do so. For half an hour I wandered along the platform, looked at the city, found a cup of coffee and played with a puppy while everyone else slept. Eventually others began to stir and we began the elaborate process of being checked by Mongolian immigration, traveling a few more minutes over the border and then going through Russian customs and immigration. This took an unbelievably long time, starting at around 8am and it wasn’t until 3.30pm that we finally started off on our way again. Something dodgy was happening in the cabin next to ours - a woman from there had previously stashed some clothing in our cabin. Customs searched her cabin thoroughly, confiscating stuff and they eventually came to our cabin and asked whose the clothing was and then, when we said we didn’t know, they took that too. I think the woman was smuggling clothing across the border to sell. I wondered if she would get into much trouble, having heard that Russian border officers can be scary, but we saw her later and didn’t notice any bruises. We had no problems at all. Those Russian visas that were so difficult to get were all in order and we were as joyous with relief as it’s possible to be on a train when one has not had enough sleep.

From the Russian border, a restaurant car had been attached to the train and we spent a while in it drinking beer, enjoying the very Russian decor and wincing at the awful Russian electro-pop that was being played too loud. I had been wondering what Russia would be like over the border. Would there be a sudden change from asian people and culture to caucasian? Or would, as I suspected, people and things look just the same as in Mongolia, with only a gradual change as we headed west? As it turned out, the change was more drastic than I was expecting. Suddenly the houses were more western-looking and while asiatic people were still very present, there were now many more people with paler complexions.

We arrived at Ulan Ude at 9pm last night. The city’s main claim to fame is possessing the biggest Lenin head in the world, an eight metre bronze sculpture that dominates the central square. The people here are a mix of roughly half caucasians and half mongols with plenty of people who look like a mixture of both. It’s interesting to see how integrated they are. They do not stick to their own ethnic groups and it is common to see friends of different races together. I wonder if that will continue (as I hope) or will the striving for ‘ethnic cleansing’ that has so marked eastern Europe in the late-20th and early-21st centuries (and is happening again in the Balkans according to recent reports) come here too. We’ve bought tickets for the train to Irkutsk leaving tonight and will spend several days there, giving us a chance to visit Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and oldest lake.


  1. Interesting to hear your comments about the reactions of everyday Mongolians. While naturally two events don't make a trend, I noted that my flatmates' friends, who were on some mad rally drive from London to Ulan Bator, recently got beaten up by tow-truck drivers and rural police when their car broke down and they disputed a dodgy towing bill. While the friends could likely have been more diplomatic, it did seem pretty eye-opening about Mongolian attitudes to foreign travellers.

  2. "played with a puppy"?! And to think it's only a couple of months since the kitten incident - you're just drawn to danger, aren't you?

  3. I can't resist puppies or kittens