The capital city of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (UB), had always seemed like a mile stone for us. Marking the end of three months of cycling through the Altay region of Russian and across Mongolia where we have experienced sublime scenery, challenging terrain and incredible hospitality. So it seemed fitting (in a twisted kind of way) that the final few kilometres into the city centre required us to do battle with roads flowing with thick mud, potholes covered with water that threatened to swallow our bikes whole and the inevitable heavy city traffic. In the world of the computer platform gaming the final enemy is often called the “Boss” and to us it felt like we were on our final “Boss” level road.
Finding ourselves wet, muddy and disorientated by the noise and traffic of the city after three months in the countryside we asked some fellow travellers for directions via their GPS. A short distance later a French cycle tourist flagged us down to offer any help he could. This wasn’t the last we would see of either of these helpful travellers with the most popular guesthouses and the centre of town being located right next to each other. After settling into our guesthouse we were back on the street where it proved impossible to walk any distance without stopping to chat with a fellow traveller or in our case lead a couple from a full hostel to an empty room in our guest house – commission free!
After months of eating local cuisine we wanted a celebratory dinner fit for two cyclists who had conquered the “Boss” road. The only difficulty was choosing between the Korean, Japanese, Pizza and Thai cuisine on offer but Thai triumphed and almost defeated our appetites.
With a Chinese visa taking between 3 – 5 days to process and Russian visas a week or more many travellers find themselves calling UB home for weeks at a time. Over the next few days recognising familiar faces and stopping to chat with other travellers instantly made us feel at home in the central neighbourhood. Our new found social life also included meeting up with Chris and Liz from www.bikeabout.co.uk who we had been in email dialogue with across Mongolia. Their route is the reverse of ours, cycling from New Zealand to the UK which gave us a lot of tips and advice to share.
High on our agenda of jobs to do while in UB was to sort out a Chinese visa and plan our route through China into South East Asia. We had heard mixed reports of how difficult the visa process was but arriving an hour before the embassy opened with all our paperwork prepared we found it a fairly straight forward process. With our visa details confirmed we moved onto booking train tickets and arranging for our bikes and panniers to be transported as luggage across the Chinese border. We managed to navigate the complex customs export process with the help of a local “agent”, a myriad of official stamps and a mountain of paperwork before we handed our bikes and bags over to the Mongolian luggage handlers.
One task we were thinking may have been impossible was to locate a specific model replacement zipper for our tent but the cavernous Black Market (named after the colour not because its illegal) held a treasure trove of zippers and most anything else you could imagine.
For all its western trappings and outward displays of wealth UB is still a very poor city and petty crime is rife. We heard of wallets and phones being stolen on almost a daily basis with locals and travellers alike wearing their bags papoose-style in an effort to avoid pick-pockets. Away from the busy main thoroughfares there are families living in gers surrounded by dusty pot-holed roads not so different to the countryside but this is in stark contrast to the parade of shiny expensive automobiles and shopping malls that surround them. Its easy to understand the appeal of UB to Mongolian people from the countryside as a place where wealth is so prominently on display. This goes some way to explaining the overflowing population and the concerns of some Mongolian people we met that traditional ways of country living are in danger of disappearing.
Its nice to be back in a sizeable city with all the trimmings it brings but the downsides of city living seem to stand out in sharp relief after our time in the countryside. A week in UB seems like just about the right amount of time for us to cover off our chore list, share some interesting stories and yet again reassure ourselves that life on the bike and road is infinitely better than the evening rush hour commute.