We rolled in to Ulaanbataar around 11am and were immediately overwhelmed by the traffic. The capital city of Mongolia, Ulaanbataar is home to over 1.3 million people or almost half of the entire population of Mongolia! After a week of traveling thought tiny towns and villages, a major metropolitan area was a real shock!
We checked in to our hotel and then made plans to visit the English Khan Equestrian Statue on the outskirts of the city. This was another one of my "saw it on the internet" quests that I wanted to fulfil on this trip. So far both the Croation monument and the Door to Hell had not let me down, so I was hoping that I'd go three for three on the trip.
The statue is 40 meters (about 130 feet) tall, perched on the spot where Genghis Khan is said to have found a golden whip. It points to the east and his birthplace. So, yeah, I had high expectations.
It did not disappoint.
We could see the statue long before we drove through the gates. It dominated the skyline, beckoning all to come see the Great Khan. The day was gray and overcast giving the steel plating of the statue a truly armored look. Astride his magnificent steed, one hand rested on his golden whip, the other at his side, ready to draw his sword.
We entered through the building at the base and climbed the stairs up through the statue. Eventually we exited onto a small platform at the base of the horse's neck. A few steps later and we were on the horse's head, with panoramic views of the valley. Behind us, the stern face of Genghis Kahn watched over everything.
It can be argued that Genghis Kahn was the greatest leader the world has ever known. Rising from obscurity and limited power, by the time of his death, Genghis Khan ruled an area that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan. His successors would expand the empire even further, creating the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. A study in 2003 determined that .5% of the world's population (or 1 in 200 people) is a descendent of Genghis Khan.
I took the moment to reflect on my accomplishments of the past two months. I drove ten thousand miles across some of the worst and highest roads in the world in a little van that was not designed to leave the city. I managed to navigate the convoluted process of the Caspian Sea ferry. I crossed borders with questionable documents and dealt with police with questionable morals. I crossed rivers, climbed dunes, and drank fermented milk. I carried hitchhikers, dead animals, and enough spare parts to rebuild a Rascal. But most importantly I moved the bar of where I thought my limits were. From here on out it will be pretty difficult to convince myself that something is too difficult when I managed to get an engine replaced in the middle of Turkey while speaking no English and having no wifi.
We headed back to the city. Patrick and I decided to hit the black market and do a little shopping. Michelle had insisted that I had to bring home a coat like the one one I was wearing in the photo with me and the eagle.
The market was a sprawling complex of stalls, tents, and shipping containers that covered several blocks. Unfortunately it was getting late and people were closing up. The only thing we had going for us was that there was some sort of organizational structure in place. The books were in one section, bags in another, office supplies in another, and clothes in yet another.
We headed for hte clothing section, armed with Patrick's translation software and a photo of me in the jacket. Most of the clothing we found was Western style clothes of dubious quality and origin. Brands like "Abibas" were everywhere. We dove deeper down the aisles until we ground sellers with more traditional clothing. We showed one woman a photo and she just shook her head. "Kazakh," she said.
I had been duped.
The outfit I was given to wear...the "traditional Mongolian outfit" was actually from Kazakhstan. Yes, the Kazakh people have a long history of hunting with eagles, as do the Mongolians. However their clothing is much different. It would be like walking in to a store in Portland and asking for a "traditional sombrero and serape". Not exactly authentic Americana.
She proceeded to show me a slection of tradional Mongolian outfits (which I had seen at the Khan stature earlier that day). These were less ornamental and actually more practical for my daily life. I selected a nice green one that I plan on wearing during my outside recess duties this year.
Then came the negotiation.
If there is someone who is a tougher negotiator than a Kazakh police officer holding your passport, it is a Mongolian shopkeeper who knows she has an American on the hook. Even Patrick trying to explain that I was a poor teacher with a wife and kids back home did not help. While I didn't pay full price, I'm pretty sure she did not have to go hungry that night .
We returned to the hotel, our wallets lighter but our bags heavier. Tomorrow would be the actual finish line in Ulan-Ude, Russia. One more day to go.