72 hours in Ulaanbaatar
4:55 AM, March 15
Wow, what a night...and what a welcome to Mongolia. Arriving on the Korean Air Airbus A330 into the airport at Ulaanbaatar was quite the experience, as it seemed the plane was very close to the ground, yet there was not a single light from the ground anywhere. This really was in the middle of nowhere. Eventually when the plane did land, from the looks of about 6 feet of snow on each side of the runway, I could tell it was going to be damn cold outside. The airport wasn't anything special. It reminded me of a halfway in between Dhaka Zia Airport and the Dakar Yoff Airport, with a distinctly Soviet flavor mixed in...complete with every taxi/hotel/tour hustler in town. After getting rid of a few of these guys, I finally hopped into a metered taxi and 12 miles later I was in Ulaanbaatar.
After being dropped off at Nassan's Guesthouse (or what the taxi driver thought was Nassan's Guesthouse), I went on a wild goose chase looking for it. Apparently it is rather common for guesthouses to be inside large apartment blocks that also happen to have absolutely no signage anywhere. I spent the next half hour or so through several flights of dark stairs and Soviet style hallways and after waking up a couple of surprised Americans in the process of ringing one doorbell after another, I realized I was on the wrong block and proceeded across the street and towards the correct direction. As I was walking in front of the Turkish embassy, two young Mongolian men approached me and one said he was a tour guide and wanted to have whiskey with me. Having dealt with numerous hustlers of this kind in the past, I exchanged some small talk and then walked away from them and around the corner onto another street. At this point I finally found the sign for Nassan's Guesthouse, but for the life of me could not find the entrance. After walking to the back of the building and then to the front, my two Mongolian friends came running towards to me and insisted that we go for a drink. This was pretty close to midnight and the last thing I wanted to do was go for a drink. So after telling my new Mongolian friends that I'll have a drink with them tomorrow, I proceeded to look for the entrance to my hotel. I guess my Mongolian friends lost their patience and the taller one grabbed my glasses off of me and put them on himself. After showing me his fist, his partner then went to dig in my pocket looking for my wallet. Pretty soon I found myself knocked to the ground and hearing the straps of my bag (containing my laptop and camera among other things) being ripped away off of me. Soon after they ran off, I ran after them trying to retrieve my bag. Fortunately, there was a construction site in front and there were several people walking in the direction that we were running to. I guess the 10 kilo bag was a little too much for them to run very fast with and they threw it in a ditch and took off onto another street. Literally, out of nowhere, several policemen (both uniformed and plain-clothed) showed up and asked me to come with them. Just as abruptly the group of policemen showed up, another policeman showed up with the two men, one in each arm and asked me if these were the same ones that attacked me. Sure enough, these policemen meant business. Not only that were physically huge, but also it was clear that having grown up under the old Soviet style days of the police state that Mongolia was, they were not going to tolerate this type of behavior from these two. I have no idea what one of the policemen said to the two they just caught, but immediately afterwards they became very cooperative. We went to a little 24 hour cafe to get out of the cold where they filled out preliminary reports. Shortly after, a small Hyundai police car showed up...very different than the Ford Crown Victoria's or Chevy Impala's that I'm used to seeing driven by police at home. I found it very odd that along with 3 policemen, I shared the back seat of this little car with the same two that had just attacked me as if six adults in the back seat of a Hyundai Accent wasn't odd enough.
We eventually made it to the police station and after some attempted conversation over a few cups of coffee, it was pretty clear that we were not going to get anywhere without an interpreter. At 2 in the morning, this was not going to be an easy task. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that the US Embassy must have some sort of 24 hour emergency line that could arrange an interpreter. Sure enough, within 10 minutes there was a call from the embassy for me at the police station. He introduced himself as Tumenbayar, the Guard Supervisor at the US Embassy and that he would be over in 10 minutes. Tumbenbayar (Tumi) showed up exactly in 10 minutes as he promised and we proceeded with the police report. Turns out that there were several attacks similar to this one involving foreign visitors in Ulaanbaatar recently and the police suspect that these two may be involved with those as well. The entire experience with the Mongolian police was quite interesting to say the least. They were able to recover every single thing from the robbery except my Peruvian wool hat. While not surprising, the state of technology there was pathetic. I expected at least some computers, but instead it was all pen on paper and old manual typewriters that had seen much better days. In the end, I was quite taken by the efficiency of this police department and how professional their behavior was towards the matter. After filling out all the paperwork, they wanted me to get a medical report. I had some minor scratches and bruises on my legs, so I didn't think anything of it, but they insisted that I go to a 24 hour clinic to consult a doctor about my injuries and to verify them formally.
Tumi drove me to another part of Ulaanbaatar where we obviously woke the nurse by the loud knocks on the metal door. We walked upstairs and went on to wake the doctor as well. After about 15 minutes and 2,000 Tugrugs (US$1.64) later, I had a medical report number which was to be forwarded to the police in the morning. By now, it was about 4 in the morning and I still had not checked in to a hotel yet. And trying to find a cheap hotel that would be open at this time was pretty much impossible. Tumi invited me to sleep at his place for the night and called his wife who cleared up the other bedroom in the middle of the night. Tumi lives in an old Soviet style apartment block literally in front of the US Embassy. He said to me that he has the safest parking spot in all of Mongolia as he leaves it in front of the guards carrying military automatic rifles at the embassy. We walked around the wall of the embassy and up six flights of stairs to his modest apartment. Apparently, in many of Mongolian apartment block buildings, the elevators do not run after 11pm. We had a couple of cups of lemon tea before calling it a night.
Working at the embassy for the last 4 years, Tumi has observed a few interesting traits found in Americans...or could it be the Americans that work there? He went out of his way to bring out the special coffee as he has observed that Americans like "good" coffee. After a couple of cups, we took the elevator and walked another minute or so before entering the embassy. I met with representatives from the consular office which normally deal with tourists that are robbed as they are the ones that need to replace passports and such. Fortunately, I still had my passport with me and we just ended up chatting for a while until one of them accompanied me to the police station. I must say it was quite the opposite experience in the mode of transport compared to the night before. The consular assistant and I were driven by a chauffer in a massive Ford Expedition through the streets of Ulaanbaatar where it seemed that all the other vehicles were about 1/3rd the size of our vehicle. I guess Uncle Sam spared little expense on that one.
The formal part of the investigation took about three hours. They had already arranged a court date for the two that robbed me, but the earliest they could get was still two weeks later. Given that my flight was leaving Mongolia this Friday, they took formal legal statements right there on the spot to be used in court later. Afterwards the consular staff that escorted me to the police station dropped me off at the "State Department Store" (a name from the old Soviet days) where she arranged to have my coat repaired which was ripped during the robbery.
1:00 PM, March 16
I was walking around town looking for a place to eat. Yesterday, while waiting for my coat to get sewn, I went across the street to a Chinese restaurant (easy to spot by the Chinese writing on the sign as all the signs here are in Cyrillic and everything looks alike). I had some beef with eggplant and it was absolutely delicious. It was a little greasy, but the extra fat definitely made it taste better. So after such a good Chinese meal, I decided that maybe I should try something local. After walking around town, I finally found a really good homely kind of place. I had no idea what the sign said but there was a picture of a plate of food on it, so I figured it couldn't have been that bad. I got in and was given a menu...again all in Cyrillic script. I can sort of read the script, but when they're spelling out Mongolian words, there's no chance of me trying to figure out what it said. So in my regular fashion, I randomly decided to go with the first thing that didn't look like a drink on the menu. While waiting for the food to come out, I eventually was able to make out the word "shuul" (Mongolian for soup) on the menu, so I knew that I was getting some kind of soup. When it arrived on my table, it looked like some fatty lumps on sheep fat floating in oily water. It didn't taste any better either. I have finally experienced first hand the terrible reputation of Mongolian food which incidentally has nothing to do with what is known as Mongolian food in the US. The taste was so bad that even though I wasn't hungry at all, I had to eat another meal just to get the horrible taste out of my mouth. It really was that bad and I'm not even picky about my food either. I always took pride in the fact that I would eat anything and everything, but this really tested me. I barely finished my bowl of sheep fat and ran out of the door.
I just got off the phone with the US Embassy and to my surprise they received a call from the national television station. Turns out that there was a front page article about me in the "Today" newspaper here regarding the robbery and they called the embassy to find me. The nightly talk show on the national TV station is focusing on problems in tourism in Mongolia tonight and they want to interview me! This should be really interesting.
12:54 AM, March 17
Walking into the National Television station in Ulaanbaatar was definitely an exercise in time travel back to the 1960's of the good old days of the Soviet Union. Just about everything ranging from the architecture of the place to the equipment to even the carpet screamed remnants of the old Soviet regime. The talk show had about 30 people in it, so not a lot of time to actually talk, but being the only non-Mongolian on the show, the host did ask me a few questions. The TV show was an interesting set up as the participants were split into two groups; one representing the government ministries and such and one representing the tourism agencies and other related people. So basically, to look at it in the post-Soviet days, the old state run enterprises and the new privately run commercial ventures. It definitely was a bizarre experience for me to share the stage with the police chief of all of Mongolia, the Minister of Culture, and the Minister of Transportation among other important people here. The show was an hour and then afterwards my interpreter invited me to join her and her Australian and American friends for a drink at a bar nearby my hotel. The bar was basically a modern equivalent of the typical Mongolian yurt except this one had a live band playing a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover song as we walked in. If things couldn't get any more odd, I spent the rest of the evening with two American guys, a couple of Australians and three Mongolian soldiers that just returned from Iraq while a Mongolian band was playing songs by the Cure and Coldplay right behind us. After the bill of 86,000 tugrugs arrived (US$72 or roughly the monthly wage of the average Mongolian) the night eventually ended when another Mongolian (with an afro...I didn't think Mongolians could grow afros) came and dragged away our Iraqi veterans to another bar.