As expected, the first thing that hit us as we stepped off the train was the temperature: -16°C. Wearing a jacket, thermals, thick pants, a woolen jumper, a scarf and a beanie, I was almost over-prepared and quickly realised that it wasn’t the cold itself that would get to me but the sweat from overheating, which rapidly turned cold. Despite the temperature, the sun was shining, the sky was blue and there was no breeze whatsoever so it wasn’t as unpleasant as we were expecting and was instantly refreshing after being in a stuffy train carriage.
Being a Sunday, very little was open in Ulaanbaatar, so we spent an hour recovering from our journey and went for a wander around the city. Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, and also the coldest capital city in the world, is a mix of old and new buildings, with Soviet-era apartment blocks next to new modern glazed malls featuring labels like Louis Vuitton and Hugo Boss. The latter we certainly weren’t expecting.
We met up with our friends in an Irish Pub and were surprised by the number of ex-pats in the city. We assume that a lot of people are attracted to the city by mining and other industries. After a few Mongolian beers and a serve of dumplings we left at around 10pm, expecting the temperature to have plummeted. Again, we were surprised that it was bearable outside, so we walked back to our hotel and later found out that the temperature had fallen to -27°C.
Ulaanbaatar is a bit of an obstacle course – the roads are covered in black ice and the majority of cars are just standard Hyundais or Toyotas, not really equipped to deal with the icy conditions, so lots of cars seem to skid and slide around. During our walk home we saw two car accidents, although luckily most people seem to drive pretty slowly avoiding too much damage. Each intersection has a pedestrian crossing, however, cars turning right have the right of way (cars drive on the right –hand side in Mongolia) so we were cautious about looking out for cars that we knew wouldn’t be able to stop very easily. The footpaths were also covered in compacted snow and ice which made for a pretty slippery walk through the city. Added to this, we came across the occasional uncovered man-hole as well as footpaths lined with rusty posts about a centimetre in diameter and about a foot high. Not much fun if you were to slip over and fall on top of one of those.
On our second day we went out to a ger camp an hour and a half away from the city. A four-wheel drive came to pick us up from the hotel and on the way we picked up some sugary pastries and lollies for the nomadic family. The camp was pretty quiet – apparently no one really comes to visit this time of year. The landscape surrounding the area was stunning though – white snowy mountains with very little evidence of human activity. The camp consisted of a series of gers, the white, circular tents that traditional nomadic families live in. We were surprised to find that inside was comfortably warm thanks to the wood fire in the centre.
The following day it was time for us to pack up and take the train to Irkutsk, a two-night train journey. Before boarding the train at 9pm, we had an early dinner in the hotel but were told we weren’t allowed to have beer with our food. It was difficult to find out exactly why but after a little bit of research we discovered that on the first of each month, alcohol is not allowed to be sold in pubs, restaurants or supermarkets. We’re yet to find out why exactly this is the case. Over dinner our French friend told us of his experience in a ger with a nomadic family. Upon entering the ger, he discovered that not only would he be sharing with a family but also a calf and a lamb who were lucky enough to be sleeping inside as the temperature outside got down to -30°
© Richard Munckton