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04.21.2008-04.26.2008    USA to Ulaan Baatar
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I arrived in Mongolia in a haze, thanks to jet lag and a late night arrival. After what seemed to be an interminable wait in customs I collected my bike and bag and proceeded to the arrival lobby, only to be swarmed by would-be taxi drivers. Burdened with a hundred pounds of gear (too late for a cart!) I was easy prey. Fortunately I had arranged a transfer to my guesthouse and was soon whisked off into the pleasantly chilly (20 degrees) night by my driver. The ride into town seemed typical developing country fare…potholed road, complete disregard for traffic rules. My first impression of Ulaan Bataar (UB) was one of the midnight hours. I recall little.

I realized quickly that my guesthouse choice was the right one. The proprietress, Zaya, is a garrulous sort and very helpful. However, Zaya is not one for small talk and my first proper conversation with her quickly became a discussion of my intentions in Mongolia, her initial impression being that I must be a journalist or a photographer. I did my best to convince her that I had come to Mongolia simply to ride my bicycle. She wasn’t satisfied. Join the crowd I thought. She told me Mongolia is a country for horses, not bicycles. I didn’t argue. I have since heard this again and I suspect I will hear it many more times during my stay. Once my inquisitors accept my poor selection in mode of transportation they move on to my poor selection in timing, insisting I should have come in July and August. Again I don’t argue. Instead, I try to convince them (and perhaps myself) that there are advantages to travelling in spring. Most of my arguments are pretty weak (there are fewer tourists!) but the colder temperatures of spring will definitely be an advantage in the Gobi, where the number of gallons of water (1 gallon = 8 pounds) I need to carry is strongly correlated to temperature.

On Thursday I encountered the type of weather one expects in spring. The day started with snow showers. After several hours the snow showers diminished and the wind began to pick up. Within a few hours a dust storm engulfed the city. I was amazed at how quickly little sand dunes formed in the sidewalks. My room at the guest house soon began to smell like the desert. It brought back memories of my time in the Atacama. Time had softened and perhaps even sweetened those memories but with another desert ride awaiting me I soon recalled the less romantic side of desert riding—having to watch every ounce of water, pushing my bike through sand for hours, waking up with sand in my teeth and hair after yet another windblown night in my tent.

My primary objective for my stay in UB was to get my bearings before venturing off into the country side. I made the obligatory visits to museums and monasteries
to get a better understanding of Mongolia’s rich history. The National Museum of Mongolian History is the best of the lot, followed by the Zanabazaar Museum of Fine Arts. I also needed to make at least some attempt at language acquisition. Fortunately, the friendly staff at the guesthouse was eager to help me in this effort. I still cannot carry a conversation but I can at least more properly pronounce some of the more ‘exotic’ sounds of the Mongol language.

My impression of UB is not so bad. In the travel literature there is little positive coverage of UB. I expected a smoggy city with its fair share of drunks and petty thieves. It is a smoggy city but its smog levels (at least in spring) pale in comparison to those one encounters across the border in China. I saw few drunks and after nearly a week in UB I still have all my belongings, as well as clothing without the signature slash marks of tourist-preying thieves. I doubt UB will ever be a destination city but as a staging location for a bike trip I’ve found it more than adequate.

After five days in UB I started feeling restless. I know I could benefit from some more time in UB to develop my language skills. However, as I grow older decision making becomes less logical and more physical. My body is telling me it’s time to leave. So tomorrow I pack my bags and head off into the countryside, hoping that Sunday might be the one day of the week when cycling in UB is not suicidal. I’ll enjoy pavement for part of the day but by day’s end I should be well clear of civilization and into the steppe. If all goes well I will not see another paved road before returning to UB in roughly two months’ time.
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