We arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, around 11:30pm on the 17th of September after a long day of travel that began at 2pm, Seattle time, on the 16th. Between the time change, not sleeping on our flights, being incredibly emotional from the goodbyes, and the stress of packing up our lives for a year, we were completely spent.
Shawn’s Mongolian friend Manlai, who he met while in the Peace Corps 12 years ago, offered to pick us up at the airport, which was a huge relief to me. Only I realized, as we landed, that we had never agreed upon a meeting place and Shawn hadn’t seen him in 10 years – so we weren’t 100% sure we would recognize each other. After going through immigration and claiming our bags, which thankfully made the transfer to our new airline in Beijing, we made our way out the door after a quick walk through “customs” and immediately recognized Manlai waiting at the gate. Thank goodness for Facebook – even I knew who he was right away.
We went out to the parking lot and climbed into a newer Prius, a car that Manlai had borrowed from a friend to pick us up. We were relieved to be free from long-distance international travel for a while and happy to be in the company of a somewhat familiar face. It didn’t take long for me to get my first taste of Mongolia as Manlai started to weave in and out of the other cars clambering to get out of the airport. This was no airport parking structure – we were on dirt and rocky roads within minutes of exiting the parking lot. There seemed to be no method to this madness nor any signs. It was just a small taste of what was yet to come.
After a nearly half hour drive, we found ourselves at the guesthouse we had booked before we headed out for our Gobi tour, which was to begin a few days later on Saturday. Walking up the concrete stairs, I was reminded briefly of Spain. It was my first feeling of something familiar about this large, confusing city and a feeling that has held on through our first days here. We were able to secure a private room and looked around briefly, breathing in our surroundings and realizing this is it, we’re really doing this, before crashing on the not-so-soft bed. We were just happy to be stretched out for the first time in over 24 hours.
The view from our little room – lots of honking, all the time
We awoke the next morning early, despite our late arrival. This city wakes up late. It was a Wednesday, but it was after 8am before we heard the first rustling of life on the streets. From that moment on, it was nothing but the chaos of city life until it was nearly time for bed. For being a generally relaxed culture, they sure do move fast.
First rule of crossing the street here: keep moving
Our first few days were a leisurely mix of trying to feed ourselves, gather supplies such as water and tissues, and adjust to the time zone. I would like to say it was relaxing, but it was anything but. You forget, over time, just how much energy it takes to do basic things like find places to eat while you’re traveling. Many people here speak English, but it’s not a guarantee. Shawn’s memory of the Mongolian language is rather distant, but he’s quickly picking it up again, which has been a huge help to us as we try to navigate this city.
This pedestrian street is new since Shawn was here in 2003
We obviously stick out quite a bit while walking around – this isn’t a hugely traveled country by Westerners (yet) and most of the tourists they do see have already left as the major festivals are over and the cold weather is sneaking its way into the forecast.
I can’t quite explain it, but there’s something familiar, something intriguing and something quite lovely about this city. It’s not extraordinarily beautiful, but so far, I like it. It’s familiar while being completely new. We’ve definitely jumped into the deep end starting our travels here, but it feels like we’ve discovered a diamond in the rough. It won’t be like this in 10, maybe even 5, years and I’ve been glad to start getting acquainted with this city now, while its still holding on to the past and figuring out its future.
The Blue Sky Hotel is a new luxury hotel and you can see new construction in every direction