London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)
It was still early morning as we kicked-up a mini sandstorm climbing the steep hill to one part of the ger district. The ger district consisted of a mix of traditional Mongolian tents and basic houses in a vast informal sprawl around central Ulaanbaatar.
Most of the residents had been nomadic herders who had set down their gers forever after a bad winter killed their cattle (their wealth and savings) or drawn by the erroneous promise of having a good life in the bright lights. But once they arrived, they found they didn’t have the skills the big city wanted, and many fathers and husbands cut off from the wide fields and to stave off the pain of uselessness, turned to drink while the women worked at several menial jobs to keep the family fed.
The rumour about the ger district was that you could grab as much land as you liked as long as you enclosed it with a fence to denote your claim to that land. So instead of open fields, the district is full of fences guarded by fierce dogs. Nothing much grows in the sand here.
Urban planning didn’t seem to have quite taken off in a long-term or comprehensive way in UB, and certainly there wasn’t not much in the way of common utilities in the ger district. A rubbish-collection truck came once or twice a month, and a water truck arrived on certain days a week to fill a communal tank in a water house – each household would then collect water for household needs in any way they could – with old oil jerry cans, in plastic tubs etc. In the east ger district, there was a shower house at the bottom of the hill where the whole neighbourhood could get washed.
Members of families huddled in simply decorated houses and gers, a crowded but good way to save on heating in winters where the mercury dropped to -40°C. Coal was expensive in small quantities, but many were unable to take advantage of economies of scale because, being daily-waged if at all, there was usually just enough money for a night’s heating. Sometimes, they burned tyres and plastics if work hadn’t been available all week or if too much salary had been spent on vodka.
In the Hustai National Park (or Khustain Nuruu National Park), this horseman hailed us to ask about buying a car. Stay away from the big city, we wanted to shout.
After dolling out some advice, our driver enquired if he had seen the wild horses (or takhi or Przewalski’s horses) any where. They were the last true wild horses (genetically rather than historically since these came from zoo stock around the world). Just across that hill, he pointed vaguely.
And practised eyes spotted the horse-like specks from afar. They were calm creatures who continued to chew the grass thoughtfully as we approached.
Wild and free to roam anywhere under the sun!, we exclaimed. Ah, replied J wisely, but they have to find their own food and water. And in the winter, they have to crack the ice on the rivers with their hooves before they can even get anything to drink.