We were also surprised to see the driver's seat on the right side. Do Mongolians drive on the left side of the road? Odd for a former member of the Soviet block! Unless the fall of communism was accompanied by a frenzy for all out change. It turned out that the driver drove on the right side of the road, having had to stretch across to the left side window to pay the airport parking attendant whose hands were also stretched for a Sistine Chapel-like connection. Oh well, we thought, another nut who had gotten himself a car with the wheel on the wrong side.
As we discovered in the short time we spent in the city, if we needed a quick ride, you just stand at the curb with your hand outstretched and sooner or later a vehicle will pull up. This is the quickest and fairly cheap way to get around, though quick is not how anyone would characterize traffic movement in the center of the city. Toyota Prius, Lexus and other mostly second-hand Japanese imports cram every inch of asphalt and while the lack of lane discipline is reminiscent of India, the chaos is devoid of the sound track of constant honking that is inescapable on Indian streets. Maybe the Mongols are just a more patient lot.
With less than four full days allocated in our vacation plan for this vast country, we had decided to focus our visit to the central part of the country. Based on travel forum recommendations, we had corresponded over email with Bilegt and Mejet, a husband and wife duo who arranged for vehicle and driver for travelers.
We also noticed Ulan Bator traffic to be massively dominated by Toyota Priuses (Prii for the grammatically oriented). Which means that these can't be older than, say, 15 years. So what is the story behind this? Bilegt explained to us that used Toyota Priuses that are not deemed worthy of Japanese roads (or Japanese customers' sense of obsolescence) are shipped to Mongolia for resale, a country that cannot afford new car prices. Hence the right hand drive cars with the kana screen displays. Outside of Ulan Bator, SUVs dominate the land with Toyota Land Cruisers the most commonly seen. Most of them have a strange looking adjustment with an air intake pipe laid against the driver side windshield's edge to draw air for the a/c unit.
After an excruciatingly slow ride across the city, we met up with Bor, our driver for the trip, whose English vocabulary was limited but had years of experience ferrying visitors around the country. While conversation was limited, he was pleasantly accommodating of our constant requests to stop so we could take photos of the scenery, birds and the like.
Cows came in colors - all shades of white, black, brown and grey, many monochrome but also pied and mottled. Herders seem to have traded the traditional steed for the modern equivalent, it was common to see motorcycles zigging and zagging trying to keep the herd moving.
We craned our necks upwards for a variety of birds of prey, (vultures, kites and other unidentified species) some perched on electric poles along the road. The size of the imposing Cinereous vulture was particularly impressive. A couple of heavy duty flaps were needed to get these large birds off the ground, but once they were airborne, they looked like 747s.
After crossing the small town of Lun, the driver indicated that we would cross a river and he would stop there for us to make some lunch (cook water was his - no doubt newly memorized – phrase for these weird foreigners who were in Mongolia with strange smelling powders manufactured in New Jersey).
As the vehicle crossed the river Tuul, we spied a modern Travel Center with signs for Cafe and Restaurant. Not really optimistic about what would be on offer, we checked it out anyway and were pleasantly surprised to see a buffet type facility that had options that looked vegetarian. We chose a few and realized we were fooled by what looked like a creamy vegetable salad (it had pork bits mixed in), but the cucumbers (dressed with sesame) and cabbage slaw were winners and were good accompaniments to steamed rice (called budda in Mongolian – perhaps as a nod to its origin from the great country due south whence a great religion made its way up?)
Our destination for the day was Kharkhorin (new name for the ancient capital Karakorum, established by Ogatei Khan, son of our old pal Chinggis).
Before nightfall, we went out for a short walk on the steppe, visiting the family’s cows and goats that were feeding at a distance from the yurts. Spicy MTR instant upma made for a good dinner (after “cooking Mongolian water”!) as temps were dipping and the dung fueled oven was bought to life using our butane fuel canister fitted with a special blowtorch attachment! We were prepared for the cold, but not for the intense heat generated by these ovens and had to leave the door open occasionally to let the heat dissipate to a comfortable temp so we could get some sleep. Just as we were ready to turn in, the lady of the house knocked as the door and presented us with a bowl of specially prepared vegetarian steamed dumplings, delicious little packages filled with diced potatoes and shredded cabbage mildly spiced. This especially nice gesture to make us feel welcome was appreciated very much.