As Mongolia unfolded in front of us on the train, a strong theme became evident: space.
These little minibuses are everywhere. The drivers get out and shout out their destinations along with the route they take, although I'm told that where they actually do go can vary quite a bit. They pack as many people as physically possible into one of these and then the next one comes.
Day 31. I surprised myself by not plummeting off the side of the bunk during the night. I think I had some sort of a setting inside myself that switched to mortal fear which kept me from moving even an inch to the left. But that also kept me from getting the kind of quality sleep that I demand so when arrival time came I was still quite tired.
When we opened the curtains the new landscape was quite dramatic. It was mostly desert with an occasional ger where someone was living. As Ulaan Baatar drew closer, we saw more and more buildings. But it still looked pretty damn alien.
We got to the train station and found our ride. We were taken to the Peace Bridge Hotel which right away struck me as more modern and friendly than any of the other hotels we had been in recently. The only problem was we had to wait for our rooms to become ready since it was only eight in the morning. So we walked around the neighborhood a bit, immediately becoming acquainted with the fact that cars reigned supreme in the streets and pedestrians had better watch their asses. It wasn't really what I expected which was what I had been told Mongolia would be like: the land of the unexpected. So I wasn't surprised.
At one intersection a lone policeman was standing on the sidewalk where he would occasionally blow his whistle and make a gesture, after which a car or two would immediately pull over. This seemed to be a fairly common occurrence as drivers would then get out of their cars and walk over to him with various bits of documentation in hand. He seemed to keep half the people there to write them up for one thing or another while the other half were allowed to go. I don't know if they were committing some sort of infraction or if it was a random check of some sort. But the whole process seemed to move quite quickly and efficiently, despite all of the dangerous driving that was going on mere centimeters away.
I needed to take a nap so I crashed as soon as our rooms were ready while Hanneke and Sasja wandered around town. I wound up doing quite a bit of work when I got up so I didn't actually make it outside until around 5:30. Hanneke and Sasja wanted to go to a traditional Mongolian concert featuring a Mongolian throat singer. That sounded cool but I also wanted to contact a listener named Todd who had actually emailed us from Ulaan Baatar. It would be really great to have someone local show us around. So we walked over the Peace Bridge toward the concert hall. It was way too noisy to use a phone anywhere near the road so I didn't even try until we had reached the entrance to the building. I was all set to call Todd when all of a sudden this guy materialized in front of us and introduced himself as that very person! Wow, this place really *was* weird.
It turns out that Todd had actually spotted Hanneke and Sasja walking around town earlier in the day. Westerners stand out like sore thumbs here so it wasn't too hard to figure out who they might have been. And since he already knew what I looked like, he was able to put two and two together. It's still pretty weird that he happened to be exactly where we were going (and we didn't even tell anybody, honest) but I guess it was a pretty centralized location. Anyway, we made plans to meet up after the concert at an Indian restaurant which made me pretty happy. Indian food for the first time since London. Again, Mongolia surprises.
The concert was quite nice, filled with all sorts of traditional musical instruments and styles. It was rather odd seeing them doing an excerpt from Carmen with those ancient looking violins with tiny square bottoms and other instruments that are so unknown to us in the West. But the real highlight for me was when the Mongolian throat singer came on stage. I'd heard about this type of singing but had never actually heard it and certainly had never seen it done right in front of me. I had no idea human vocal chords could do this kind of thing. It sounded almost like that guy from "South Park" with the thing in his throat except that the range this guy had was fantastic. He was able to hit really low notes that made the place resonate with bass. But then he could switch to something so high you had to look around to make certain there wasn't another stringed instrument in the area. I can't imagine what doing that with your voice must feel like but the audience seemed to feel the same way I did: captivated. I could have easily watched that for the entire time of the concert. I wound up buying a CD just so I could play it on "Off The Wall."
After the concert we went over to the Taj Mahal where Todd was waiting for us. It was actually located inside a hotel where it had recently moved from a different part of town. Todd told us there were only about 20 Indian people in town yet there were several Indian places. I think that alone is a good sign.
Todd had been living here for about five years working for the Canadian consulate and the United Nations, making frequent trips out to the country, becoming almost fluent in the language, and starting a family. A native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, he was actually the first native English speaker I was able to have a conversation with in person since leaving Amsterdam. That was pretty neat and somewhat therapeutic.
I'm still amazed that people listen to our radio shows in places like this. The Internet has sure changed everything. And hopefully the net would be something I would have access to before long. Not since that Internet cafe in Irkutsk had I been able to do anything on the net and I needed to upload my travel logs, check mail, etc. Plus I was hoping to tape the next "Off The Wall" out in the wilderness later in the week and upload it from Ulaan Baatar. That alone would be a great feat to pull off, one that I never imagined would be possible.
For now though, Internet access for me remains a challenge. None of the numerous net cafes could deal with a laptop. The solution was something known as an Internet card, which basically allows you to dial up a modem and go out on the net that way. But nobody seemed to have these things, no doubt because there wasn't much demand for them. Not many people have their own computers around here. After looking in the immediate neighborhood, we hopped in a cab and drove around town searching for a place to get one of these magic cards. We were unsuccessful on all fronts. Being tired and worn out, I decided to take up the challenge tomorrow and hopefully connect then. But it wasn't a paramount concern. I wanted to focus as much attention on the fact that I was actually here, in one of the countries I always considered to be one of the world's most mysterious. And on all levels, I felt right at home.