Friday, July 10, 2009

Welcome to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia!



I
can't believe I'm in Mongolia!

It all started very early this morning, at 4 am to be exact which is when my alarm went off on my cellphone. I quickly scrambled out of bed, washed up, dressed, did my last minute bit of packing and headed downstairs to catch a cab to the airport. I had booked a cab the day before so I waited patiently for it to show up. Minutes late and I was getting antsy. I am so impatient when it comes to waiting for cabs to take me to the airport. Fifteen minutes past due time and I asked the desk manager to call me another cab which he kindly did.

Into the cab and onto the streets of Beijing we went. It was literally the crack of dawn and so the streets were empty. Thankfully so as I had feared that this is a city that rises early and the roads would be packed with commuters. We whizzed along towards the airport which is located between Ring Roads 4 and 5 in the northeastern part of the city. Just as I started to see exit signs for the airport, the car started to make a very strange vibrating sound. The driver slowed down and the sound stopped. He sped back up and the vibration resumed. Both he and I tried for several minutes, straining our heads in different directions, in an attempt to figure out where the vibration was coming from. No luck. So, he slowed down his driving speed. Fortunately, we had made good time so I was confident we would make it to the airport in plenty of time to catch my 7:30am flight to Ulaan Baatar.

All in all, it was about a 45 minute drive from the hotel to the airport. The taxi driver deposited me right outside Terminal 3. I headed inside and found the counter for Air China. A small group of people were already there....we would have to wait for the counter to open. Violeta were taking the same flight so I was expecting to meet up with here either at the counter or at the departure gate.

I patiently waited... reading a book to pass the time. Soon enough, Violeta showed up with a medium sized duffel bag in tow. She looked ready for the trip! It was nice to see a familiar face and so we bide the time by telling each other what we had been up to in China. She had arrived a few days earlier and had managed to make her way to Xi'an to see the warriors and had also done a bit of sightseeing in Beijing.

We checked in together so we got seats side by side. We then went through Immigration and proceeded to make our way to the departure gates. To say that Beijing Capital International Airport is huge is a vast understatement. TO give you an idea of its enormity, Terminal 3 is 2 kilometres from one end to the other....it is larger than London Heathrow Airport's five terminals combined, with another 17% to spare!!

Violeta and I took our time to get to the departure gate. Once there, she kindly shared her boxed breakfast, that she got from her hotel, with me. I wasn't hungry but I knew I had to eat so I took her up on her offer to nibble from the box. After *breakfast*, she went in search of coffee. She's addicted to the coffee....she readily admits it and unless there is no other option, she MUST have her daily cup....if not more.

As Violeta disappeared in search of coffee, the boarding announcement came over the PA system. When she hadn't reappeared by the time the boarding crowd was starting to thin out, I went in search of her. Found her!

We boarded the plane and I found myself, sitting in the center seat, squashed between Violeta in her aisle and a guy from the US who was going to Mongolia for a two week trip around the country on motorcycles. Sounded a lot of fun. Anyway, he was a very chatty fellow so our flight to Ulaan Baatar passed in no time.

We landed at Chinggis Khaan International Airport at about 10:30 in the morning. Woohoo!!! We're in Mongolia!

Like many airports in developing countries, this is a small one. You disembark the plane, walk a short distance on tarmack and you're in the immigration area :-)

It was picture perfect day - bright blue, sunny sky, temperature somewhere in the 70's. My kind of weather.

I had checked out visa requirements beforehand and none were needed for US citizens. Violeta, the Canadian citizen, got her visa ahead of time so all we had to do was fill in our Arrival forms and stand in line to be processed for entry into Mongolia. So excited!

Next, we had to get our luggage. My backpack always raises curiosity so I was pulled aside for further *inspection*. Of course, the official found my Chinese medicine and that caused a bit of concern so I was taken back to another room where a policewoman was there to look at the contents of my pack. Poor Violeta had to wait for me.

I pulled out the piece of paper that the Chinese pharmacy had given me explaining that the medicine was for personal use only. Of course, the policewoman only knew a few words of English. She understood medicine. So, I looked at the sheet of paper spouted out words, that the medicine was suppose to cure, in hopes that she would understand what the medicine was for. Of all things, she understood "insomnia". She let me go on my word that the medicine was only for personal purposes...that I would not be selling it. I answered "yes" while thinking who the hell would be crazy enough to buy this stuff...well, except for me.

Having passed inspection, I quickly left the room and met back up with Violeta.

I had made arrangements, through the tour group company, for transportation to the hotel so as soon as we exited the arrival terminal, I saw my name on a placard. Though Violeta should have paid as a separate passenger, they allowed to ride with me so after a bit of trying to figure who would be taking us to the hotel, we got shuffled into a car and off we went.



Neither one of us had any idea about what we would see on our short (40 minute ??) ride to the hotel though I have to admit that I was surprised to see steppe. I thought we would be driving through the suburbs so I expected streets with stop lights and lots of traffic, buildings....normal city views. Instead, we saw rolling, hills and wide expansive stretches of green, green grass.







 

Herds of sheep were a common sight. I didn't know if this was what one would normally see or if it was because it was festival time. I would get used to this sight soon enough. I think there are more sheep and goats in Mongolia than there are people!














































Signs in Cyrillic reminded me of the Russian influence on this country.



It didn't take long to get to the city and it's definitely not a picturesque city. Sad to say, but Ulaan Baatar is probably one of the most drab looking cities I've ever been in.

It took a while for the driver to find our hotel....quite a bit of rolling down the window and asking for directions. No worries though, he eventually found it....tucked off one of the main streets. Hmmm....not the most attractive of streets or hotel. Definitely not expecting a scenic view from the hotel room. As long as the bed and bathroom are clean, I'm good to go.

Violeta and I checked in. View from the hotel room was as expected but the room was surprisingly large and comfortable. Bathroom was modern and clean. We're relieved at the sight. Didn't take us long for us to get settled in....amazing the mess two women can make!

The Mongolia adventure now begins and I can't wait!!