Border-Hopping: Gobi Edition
We are alone, at first, in the van only meant to hold 4.5 passengers, with the last half-passenger set to have a pretty bad time in the middle seat. Our bags are in the trunk, and a spry young Russian man climbs in the dilapidated old Russian car’s passenger seat before the driver enters. For the next half-hour, we drive around Erlian together, picking up people and cargo for the crossing as the driver flails her arms and shrugs her shoulders to the various Mongolian MTV clips she has saved in her console. She speaks a little of many languages, and the beflanneled Russian and I enjoy asking her immaterial questions about her life, job, family and car that she has no idea how to answer. At one stop, we pick up a crate of fruit and she fills each of our laps with tiny apples and a couple oranges apiece for a snack. I have eaten nothing but preservatives in the last 18 hours, so I make my gratitude known in Chinese, English, and Russian. By the time we cross, there are six of us in the car, and four of us are crammed in the backseat. My dad, the Russian, the driver, two mysterious Chinese men with Public Affairs passports and I sit snugly.
The border is open. It’s time to cross.
Passing the Chinese-Mongolian border into the latter nation is not hard. The lines are short in each immigration hall and we are on the other side in a half-hour. The China side is green and lush grassland, while across the border it truly becomes the Gobi Desert. We pull to the side of the road and, as if he just realized the extent of the nothingness beyond China, the Russian hops out and jumps into a car going the other way. My dad and I are confused until we realize what is going on. I admit I am a country-counter myself, and I accept all of the judgement that comes with that. But I would never cross a border then immediately hop in line to go back. Border-hoppers are to country-counters as serial killers are to soldiers. At least I have principles and carefully-decided criterion. Three of them, in fact, but I won’t bore you with that now. Regardless, we laugh for a half-hour about the kid from Yekaterinburg who paid to get into Mongolia, only to jump the median and board a car going back just to get his stamp.
Nothing but roads and train tracks can be found outside border town Zamiin Uud, which quickly becomes one of my favorite places on Earth. The vibe is Soviet with a splash of Siberian. All of the signs are in Cyrillic, which I can read, but also in Mongolian which is complete gibberish to me. Not to mention the train station is charming, and the town is compellingly vacant. Inside the station, where we purchase two 15-dollar tickets for the night train to the capital, is the only place where people seem to gather despite the warm, sunny weather. We take a loop around the immediate downtown as school lets out and kids roam the streets, stopping at convenience stores and basketball courts to ring in their freedom with treats and pickup games. As we pass a well-worn pool table sitting in the front yard of a tiny cottage that certainly couldn’t fit it, kids circle around and begin a game of outdoor 8-ball. I snap a photo without letting it be known that I’m photographing kids without anyone’s consent, though their parents don’t seem to notice or care. This is the Wild East, where the saloons are dark most of the day and kids still shoot pool instead of shooting each other over xBox. Snap a picture. Who cares?
Exhaustion rears its head sometime after we grab a couple of beers in a cafe that recently had its power cut and before we get a Gobi lunch at a near-empty diner. We sleep well into the afternoon, sprawled out on the diner booths before the waitress comes around to kick us out before the dinner rush. We oblige, and cross the central square for the supermarket where we buy a few treats for the train and admire the wall of various jarred pickles. Not much can grow around here and I imagine that every house has several jars of this staple alongside the necessities of rice, flour and other victuals. These vast plains offer little, even in the summer, other than meat, and I am sure many locals would survive the whole winter without eating a single vegetable if it were not for canned and pickled gherkins.
Riding for the Fall
The steppe is vast. The steppe is cold. Even before the snow falls, wind ravages the endless Gobi and nearby grassland. When we arrive at Ulaanbaatar it feels more like early Spring than Fall. Droplets descend unsteadily and congregate in puddles atop already-waterlogged soil. Most importantly of all, though, there is a chill in the air and I am warm in my hooded sweatshirt as we start our walk to our hostel, which we will never find. We have reservations at the cheapest hostel in town, but when we realize it is not where it is supposed to be according to Google Maps, we grow frustrated. We stop and ask travel agents, tourist information kiosks, and security guards and they all point us in different directions. It is a woman in a bank who volunteers to call the hostel and find the location, then writes it down on a slip of paper for us. When we plot it on the map, it is on the complete opposite side of town and I cancel the booking and make a new reservation for a hostel nearby.
Even with proper instruction, and a handy Microsoft Paint-drawn map of our new hostel’s location, the spot is hard to find. The chart shows that it is housed in the same building as the North Korean, Tajik, and Kyrgyz Embassies, but when we arrive we see no evidence of any of these. We also struggle to find the entrance and the only person willing to help doesn’t speak English, Russian, or even Chinese, and we circled the block once before we find the entrance to the complex. Once inside, finding the door to our hostel proves difficult as well. Four or five separate entrances lead into the same building, so we try two or three and find no evidence of a hostel. I actually break into three separate apartments which have signage in Mongolian, and each time a different woman politely tells me that I just walked into her living room or office and not a hotel. Who knew that an urban area exists on earth where a randomly selected sample of three apartments do not even have locked front doors? After all, there are suspicious young American men out there who get their kicks from walking into random apartments by the North Korean embassy. Be afraid.
Finally, my dad texts me from outside where he has been casing the joint as per my instructions. He found a group of young people who looked like travelers stepping out of a first floor apartment nearby and discovered they were staying in the same hostel as we. When we arrive, the interior is very homey and the manager asks us to take off our shoes before showing us our beds.
We have finally chosen the correct door. Monty Hall would be proud.
The “Coldest” and “Most Polluted” Capital
Browsing the near-skeletal body paragraphs of travel blogs and listicles, I find that where I am is not a nice place. Nearly every day is cloudy, and northern Mongolia reaches bitterly cold temperatures for much of the year. Not to mention, pollution from burning coal is supposed to devour the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in the winter, and traffic here is supposed to be beyond nightmarish. But in late September, when autumn is in its prime, the city is magnificent and temperate both day and night. A season of warm weather has made coal unnecessary, and whatever pollution remains has been absorbed by the grasslands. Admittedly, it is raining the moment we arrive, and lack of trees makes it hard to romanticize this season. We arrive faster at our hostel than if we caught a cab, given the traffic situation in the city. Despite its flaws, the industrial Soviet-but-not-Soviet charm of the city is perfect to me, even on our wild goose-chase in which we engaged while searching for our hostel. After settling into the hostel where we are to spend three nights, we walk a few blocks to a Mongolian barbecue place that specializes in mixed rice, meat, and vegetable dishes. My father and I expect boring meals but get some of the freshest and most savory food we’ve had thus far in East Asia.
With culinary and geographical criteria fulfilled, we only have to take part in some sort of cultural activity to truly say we have been to Mongolia (unlike the Russian kid I wrote about earlier). Near the Mongolian barbecue joint my dad locates Dashchoilin Monastery, one of the Buddhist tradition which was built in 1890 and relocated. The yurt-like structure survived during Mongolia’s communist years (which roughly aligned with the rise and fall of communism in Russia) only to be used as a stable for horses. My father and I do three loops around, spinning each prayer-wheel as has become tradition but not yet religion. As in a spiritual labyrinth, I feel the peace of this repetitive, meditative motion.
The Night Life
Greater travel-writers than I have tried to crack this capital, and few have done the place justice. To the best of my knowledge, late travel hero Anthony Bourdain never even visited this country which indicates a certain hopelessness. For the duration of this chapter, I will do my best to highlight the best, the quirkiest, and the most charming aspects of Mongolia and its capital city, because I believe it truly is one of the best adventure travel destinations for everyone, even those who don’t want to sleep in yurts and ride horses romantically across the steppe!
To delve into the real Mongolia—that is the one preferred by locals with a touristy twist—I first have to latch onto a real Mongolian. I do it using ‘dating’ app Tinder, where tons of hot (sometimes) singles (hopefully) want to chat (and often more) in your area. Your judgement is palpable, but the amount of travel expertise, self-awareness, self-control, and other miscellaneous intel I have gained from the world’s foremost hookup app is astounding.
Hot local singles can have brains, too. It’s 2019.
Brilliant, funny, and trilingual Daria, employed by a nearby mining company as a procurement manager, agrees to meet me at night for dinner, and I tell her that she has to pick the place. My only request is that the food not be American, and she agrees. At first, I request she choose a Mongolian restaurant, but she tells me that locals rarely go out for Mongolian; it’s just something you have at home. And I have to admit, aside from the ubiquitous dumplings ("Buuz"), Mongolian restaurants tend to be aimed at tourists. This first Tinder lesson has already proven my method for localized reconnaissance valuable and I am eager to meet Daria.
From the various signs for Korean and Japanese restaurants and karaoke bars, it is safe to gather that these cuisines are incredibly popular in the city. When I meet my date for the evening, however, the Japanese restaurant she chooses is not what I expect. It is more of a cafe, with desserts and drinks styled around the once infinitely popular craze of Matcha or green tea powder. While rural Mongolians, she assures me, love their plain meat and vegetables, Ulaanbaatarites like to enjoy many of the fads of the western world, though it seems on a bit of a delay. Now I know what you’re thinking: this is all well and good, but wouldn’t I rather be in a yurt somewhere, riding a horse bareback and sipping fermented horse milk? Yes and no. While that is surely an adventure (and one I’d be willing to have), that is the typical tourist view of the country, and I have the opportunity to explore more than that. And explore I do.
High above “UB” as it is colloquially known, Zaisan Hill looms over upscale Zaisan Hill Mall, which in turn looms over the rest of the city. To get there, Daria hails a car with a Mongolian hitchhiker’s thumb: an arm extended straight along one’s side, only five or ten degrees from her hip. We hop into the stranger’s vehicle and this officially becomes the coolest date ever for me. For her, this is the normal way of getting around town. After all, the buses in this town are incredibly crowded, and owning a car and contributing to the smog and the traffic doesn’t seem like a responsible option. So we hitch. For mother earth, and for Jack Kerouac, and for everyone in between.
Near the entrance to Zaisan Mall, we stop at a monument to Mongolia’s “Russian brothers” where a tank sits atop a steeply inclined cement block. I did not know until then, but Mongolians fought alongside Russians against the Nazis on the eastern front. But our tour of monuments to Neighbor Russia has only just begun. To see Zaisan Monument at the top of the hill, we sneak into the mall, taking a combination of elevators, bridges, and cut-throughs to arrive at the monument’s base, only a hundred or so steps down. It is at this point that my date slips off to the bathroom, without telling me, and I am left alone with a grandmother and granddaughter from Washington State. We share a moment that can only be described as human as we talk about Mongolia and the food here. Picky Granddaughter thanks God for KFC and Burger King, and I add that I noticed there was no McDonald’s in UB. Grandmother rolls her eyes at my encouraging Granddaughter's pickiness, and I start asking what they tried on their Steppe-mastery of rural Mongolia. Granddaughter didn’t like the strange unpasteurized milks of the prairie. They gave her a bad stomach. The two have a laugh when I tell them about my ingestion of fermented horsemilk out in Kyrgystan. In a moment we three paisanos are family, and then my date returns and we continue to the top.
There is more camaraderie waiting for us at the top as I start to feel American, Mongolian, and Russian all at once. This testament to what may have been the last just American war affirms that. It doesn’t matter though because silly patriotism takes the back-burner when I am distracted by the wonders of this mountaintop. There is an American bible study group praying out loud as if they have just found the next ten commandments inscribed in the marble. There is a man in a hoodie sitting next to an also-hooded falcon, and their heads are bowed as if they have their own church group starting up once the other one yields the space. Then, there is a Mongolian woman who keeps chanting. I think she’s praying, too until my date explains that she is just asking everyone that will listen if they want to pop balloons and win prizes. And that doesn’t even mention the beauty of the city below, the beauty of my date who is out of breath and trying not to show it, and the inherent beauty of a perfect night on a perfect hilltop in the most perfect imperfect city in the world. I had chosen wisely in coming here, rather than just hopping the border.
Jazz For Your Soul
Dinner and a mountain-climb, which I can only assume is a typical UB first date, is drawing to a close and the night settles in like the autumn evenings I dream of, that can only be stored in the cranial border region between pleasure, pain, and nostalgia. Saudade. I go back to the timeless night after Columbus Day in Connecticut, when the public pool has not yet been closed for the season. The air is cold, the water is less cold, and I smell like day-old popcorn after a shift at my new job as a movie theater. No one is around, so I strip down to my underwear and hop the fence. I am my own man now, and I can do whatever crazy thing crosses my mind. I have a job. I have freedom.
Daria has the same look in her eyes. She has tomorrow off and we both wordlessly ask “what’s next?” There’s a jazz club in town, she says, and that sounds crazy enough for me. Why is there a jazz club in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia? And who goes to it? We hitchhike there and, for about an hour, there is no answer but “Mongol-Americans on first dates” because we are the only ones who show up. We order drinks, and since I know we’re going to be here awhile I buy a liter of beer and we talk until the quartet starts up an hour later. We are well-acquainted by then after connecting over American pop music, which for me has always been a conversation of last-resort for me. But, given that the two of us are about to embark on two straight hours of jazz it is clear that this is just something to say rather than the thing to say. I'll admit I like Sam Smith, but only if it's clear that I also like 5-minute trumpet solos and dark speakeasy basements.
When we hitchhike home our driver actually winds up being a taxi driver, meter and all. It’s the end of the road, and my date slips out quietly so she can rejoin her family under her parents’ radar. “God this is terrific,” I think. I am ageless, and I no longer have any regrets about things I didn’t do in the past, because I am back there.
The entire cab ride to the State Department Store, the only landmark near my hostel the driver understands in English, I grin from ear to ear because I am the man who solved time. Vonnegut was right. Time isn’t linear. Memory is the taste I’ve had of time travel, and it is only in these perfect moments that I can completely move between decades. I sneak into the hostel as I would sneak back into my bedroom as a teenager, and when I realize that missing part of me was never missing I sleep deeply, and awake well.
Thumbs Up, Mongolia
I am a new man who has been revitalized by the wild road, and so when my dad asks if I want to see the giant statue of Genghis Khan 30 miles east of UB, I am happy to oblige as long as we go the most adventurous way possible: by hitchhiking.
Public bus runs from the city center out to the town of Nailakh, and we are determined, like Kerouac bound for Bear Mountain, to make it out there then hitch the rest of the way. It takes two transfers to make it out to the suburb, as we start at the wrong station and transfer somewhere out near the city Botanical Garden to a bus capable of what we would call “of-roading.” While there are several dirt paths that branch out and converge like tributaries around a mighty river, they are all riddled with bumps, hitchhikers and potholes so we have to make our own way. The bus is full and my arms get more exercise than they’ve gotten in the last four years, since I last had to take the Presidential fitness standards test in high school. I swing around, trying my hardest not to knock over tiny Mongolian babuschkas or send myself through the glass into the desert. Once we arrive in the beautiful dust bowl town of Nalaikh I am overwhelmed by a sense of triumph, even though we hardly make it anywhere of note. It’s the end of the line, and now we make the journey on our own terms, by the will of God and the endurance of our thumbs.
First, to break a large bill, I stop into a convenience store to get a drink and an ice cream. Growing up, I was lactose intolerant and thus unable to explore the ever-expanding universe of ice cream. Prepackaged bars, cones, and sandwiches were more or less uninteresting to me because I was condemned to a life of creamless sherberts, popsicles, and sorbets. Before you start lamenting this tragedy let me just say that I was happy and that to this day few things content me more than a lightly-melted Italian Ice on a hot day. But, the ramifications of my inability to process dairy in my younger years has lead to a bewildering ignorance of the varieties of ice cream that exist, outside the obvious cartoned varieties that I know as well as anyone.
In Ukraine this summer, I felt I had gained access to an entirely new world when I bought my first aluminum foil ice cream cone at a sad Slavic convenience store, and slurped it in the summer heat. How had no one told me that these cones grow soggy like milky Cinnamon Toast Crunch after their long journeys from factory to store? Or that the insides could be lined with chocolate? This is life-changing information, people, and I feel like I should have been kept in the loop!
Anyway, so we stick out our hands for less than two minutes, and I haven’t even leveled my ice cream to the cone-base (or ceiling?) when our first pickup pulls to the side and tells us to hop in. This driver also has Mongolian MTV and I can’t help but watch the entire trip to the statue. When we arrive, we slap him a few bucks and stare in awe at the enormous silver Genghis Khan riding forever through the sky toward China.
Ghost Genghis in the Sky
If it were just my father here, I am sure you would be reading a blog about the Genghis Khan museum and the exhaustive (and not at all exhausting) exhibition of his life, housed under the statue of the man himself. But I am cheap, and believe wholeheartedly that the only thing that could kill my steppe-hopping spirits right now is a boring museum with walls of facts that I plan on forgetting within forty-eight hours. So, we get our pictures and start our trip back to Nalaikh and to UB. It’s not about the destination people, it’s about the journey. Can’t learn that in a museum. You can only learn it outside the museum, in the parking lot, when you realize you just spent $10 to read a really long, poorly translated, Wikipedia article. And you couldn’t even take pictures. Genghis Khan didn’t die for that. To be honest I don’t know what he died for, or from, but I doubt it was to prevent tourists from taking pictures of his stuff.
We walk down the hill, through the parking lot, to the road that runs straight west back to the capital. I instruct my dad to snap a picture of his his badass hitchhiker son, and before he can get the framing, or the lighting, or my always-present-but-difficult-to-capture gravitas in order, a young German couple pulls to the side of the road up ahead. My portrait will have to wait.
There is only one available seat in the white panel van that has been been home for this couple, let’s call them Hans and Greta, for the last eight months. We exchange pleasantries, and they ask if we always hitchhike. My dad, misleadingly, says “when we have to,” which makes it seem like we do it all the time. I don’t correct him; it makes us look cool as hell. Our two new friends, unfortunately will not be going all the way back to Nalaikh, and while I cannot read their body language from the floor under my dad’s legs it seems like they are happy to drop us at the turn-off to Terelj. Perhaps they think we're too cool and they want to get rid of us so they don’t feel bad, but we are content to walk the last mile to the bus stop as the day is temperate and the slope is entirely downhill. They pull into a gas station, we disembark, and they peel away.
The mile to Nalaikh turns out to be two, and while the weather is nice we have not yet eaten dinner and are ready for a break. The moment I mention the idea of finding a restaurant when we get into town, a restaurant appears out of the thin Gobi air on the right side with a half-Cyrillic sign that says “Orgio Kitchen.” There is nothing but grass and garbage for miles, and here in the middle of the Mongolian steppe sits an upmarket restaurant sponsored by a local chicken farm. We are confused. We are grateful. We are hungry.
I get some kind of teriyaki chicken wings while my dad orders goulash. Both are served in sleek Soho-worthy cardboard boxes, to be devoured on Italian marble tables. I cannot help but think of the Prada art installation in Marfa, West Texas, where Anthony Bourdain filmed one of his last episodes. At any moment, if someone told me this was all a dream, I would have believed then. Why is this here? Why am I here?
Denton, Bryan. “Burning Coal for Survival in the World's Coldest Capital.” The New York Times,
The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2018,
“Life in Ulan Bator, the World's Most Polluted Capital.” Time.com, Time.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.