Ulaanbaatar, May 23rd.—No rest to start off, but social engagements. Vans and Tess left me with a goodbye and a scrap of paper with their email addresses. We hope to hire a guide and driver, and the scrap is for us to coordinate.
Eva is the other character here. We are at the same hostel, so keeping in contact with her is simple. This is her second time in Ulaanbaatar, and her happiness is glittery. She is Polish, but her accent is a confluence. On the whole, it is a refined British. Had the BBC set out to manufacture an accent for their social documentaries, they would have created Eva’s. Oxford is her alma mater, and her parents live in a wealthy English suburb. Up to a point, Eva did the things an Oxford girl with wealthy parents does. Unhappiness is what pushed her from those things, after which she branded a new life. First in Russia on the Trans-Siberian, then in Mongolia. Since Instagram filters are the modern notaries of a person’s mental place, hers during that pre-Russia period were very, very awash with blue. A blue impossible without gray.
In Ulaanbaatar, which does not have freeways but avenues, we sit in traffic. Our car’s wheel is on the wrong side. I’m not saying this cheekily, like an American says, “Brits are driving on the wrong side!”, but literally. The wheel is on the right while for all other cars it is on the left.
Our hostel is on the fourth floor, which we reach via a dark stairway holding out phones’ flashlights. Inside, in the foyer and taking off her Timberlands, Eva tells me she has a pop-star boyfriend in Kabul.
The hostel owner lived in Santa Monica, which is why he speaks English like an American. He goes every winter to surf. He went first for school, and I believe he said “UCLA”. A man I see lingering in the office is the owner’s brother. Co-owners, apparently. They’re back in Mongolia out of national fealty and recognizing a certain business need.
Next to the office is a small room with a table and chairs. There is a corner that has a tray with some snacks, a large jar of cherry jam, and a jug filled with sour cherry juice. I go into the other room. The hostel is empty, and the walls are pinned with maps of Mongolia. It shows how massive the country is, and how sparse. Tracing the roads, Ulaanbaatar is like the center of a neuron. Two thick bold lines indicating a highways go east from the city, another one goes north, two other south, one last one east. These highways—which I discover are not highways but two-lane roads—go to Russia and China with a smattering of roads splicing off here and there.
I connect to wifi and see Vans emailed me: he has a guide. We’ll meet for dinner to discuss.
Ulaanbaatar feels like it is on the edge of something: a place on a map, a concept, an abstraction, a hope. It is a sprawling city except when held up as a comparison: buildings are further apart than any mega city. Roads are more likely unpaved than paved, and this makes the city’s main color earthy brown. The roofs are vibrant though: apple red and mineral lake blue. The buildings are concrete or brick: there is no glass or silver skyline other than for two buildings in the CBD (one of which is reminiscent of a sail). The other buildings are low down, to the curb. Dumpling shops and electronics stores, clothing stores selling fake-jewel encrusted jeans.
There are more Westerners than I expected and I want to meet all of them. Not because they are Western, but because they would not belong anywhere. I see a man with a long beard and leather trench coat. He has a bowie knife attached to his belt, and shortly after him, I see a woman whose hair is down to her waist and whose hiking boots are losing their stitching. Both are carrying their bedding in small knapsacks.
I’ve been told to be mindful of pickpockets. The owner advised I hold my backpack in front of me in any public space. I said I’d feel foolish and like I was insulting people. “It is necessary,” he insisted, “My wallet was stolen last week. In total, I’ve had it stolen three times.”
So, when I enter the state department store, it is while hugging my backpack.
The state department store is an Ulaanbaatar landmark. Monument to commerce, meeting place, social hang-out. It is its street’s tallest building. The exterior sides are pink, and the front facade is made of green windows that are non-reflective so do not look like windows. Eva is with me and, once inside, disappears among the plethora of interior stores to find a SIM card. I’m lost on the first floor, making my way through make-up and perfume stalls searching for currency exchange. I see a u-bend desk in the room center. A broad woman with a fine mustache stands at it. I see the small sign indicating currency, and I exchange yen and dollars for tögrög. Using a punch-pad calculator to input the rate, she gives me my tögrög and I realize it will be far more than I will need.
The floor above is a full supermarket. I go and buy apples. Above are two floors for clothing. I buy a North Face half-zip, which is on sale but, I later learn (to my horror), has a ribbon of text on the rear bottom that reads, “Always Exploring.” Above is a floor with electronics, and I buy a Remington shaver.
At dinner—which place the hostel owner recommended—we laugh because it is a place for foreigners. Already, I think, we are being shielded from Mongolian cuisine, which has a certain reputation that is not entirely good. Of course, the food options are the best in the city. Those who loved the food in Mongolia ate there. This place is empty. Our food comes in buckets. Tess captures a photo of me captivated by the allure of a heaping pile of braised lamb.
Vans explains our itinerary: tomorrow drive west to Karakoram, Mongolia’s ancient capital (five hours); day after drive to Little Gobi (three hours) and stay with nomads; day after drive to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park (five hours) and spend the night; day after drive (an hour) to a Ghengis Khan statute and then to Ulaanbaatar (two hours) so I can catch a train to Russia.
Eva won’t be joining. She is moving to a horse farm.
We toast our coming trip and finish our meal. I have an early wake up the next day and sleep fully if not too short.