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And So It Begins

Date: Thursday, September 14, 2006
Place: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

After four flights, one bizarre town in Inner Mongolia, one missed flight, several frustrating hours in Beijing airport and God only knows how many language difficulties — not to mention two whole days — we are in UB.

More on UB later. First, the journey. All was going swimmingly until Beijing, where we were to catch an Air China flight to UB. After standing in the check-in queue for at least half an hour, we were told that we had just missed the flight. (We later realised that the guys milling around the counter were on standby and that when they went through, we should have kicked up more of a fuss.) We were ropable, although I think it may be eternally to our credit that we didn’t lose our tempers, even when told that the next Air China flight with open seats was on Saturday. (Later note: This was taking place on Wednesday, since it’s not entirely clear.)

From there, it was a quick dash to the Mongolian Airlines offices in the back blocks of Beijing airport, which were closed. Given that, we went back down to the MIAT check-in desk, where a helpful lass tried to get us onto the standby list for that morning’s flight, only to be blocked by a very disagreeable manager, who further informed us that he couldn’t help us get onto a later flight.

We retired upstairs at that point to get on the Internet and consider our options. After some research, an option was found to go to Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, and then try to arrange a flight to UB. Very Amazing Race. (For the record, there were possibly options through Seoul as well, but they were prohibitively expensive. We also looked briefly at the train, but decided that a visa would be too hard to get at the border.)

So we ended up in Hohhot, with only a verbal agreement from an Aero Mongolia representative there to get tickets the following morning — the morning of the flight. Once there, we tried unsuccessfully to get tickets that afternoon and had a quick look at the city itself.

Hohhot city is an amazing experience. Everything is grey: the buildings, the roads (all concrete, not asphalt) and, most importantly, the sky. The smog is extraordinary — it’s up there with photos of the worst cities in the world.

I think the thing that really got to us was the glimpse of the lifestyle we got. There were no apparent entertainment options beyond standing around in the streets talking — people seemed like they were born, worked in the mines or factories, and died. In between they got to risk death on (or anywhere near) the roads and — well, stand around some more.

It’s hard to describe, really. The people didn’t appear to be starving, or destitute, but the vibe was just that of a city that went through the motions to survive, but that its people just didn’t have the ability to derive much enjoyment from their lives.

Enough cultural imperalism. We ended up at the Air Hotel, simply because it was walking distance to the airport. (Amazingly, there appeared to be no road access to the hotel due to roadworks.) After some massive communication problems caused by neither Jas, myself nor the reception staff having a language in common we were rescued by an Air China pilot who could translate for us. Astonishingly, the staff ended up taking Australian dollars over US dollars and a Visa card — we didn’t have enough Yuan and there was no currency changing available at the airport. Honestly, I think the unusual nature of the notes (being plastic and very colourful) was what got us over the line.

Lest anyone think we short changed them, we gave them about 20% more than the room rate, once you do the conversion. The room featured only half working lights, rock hard mattresses, an inoperative air conditioner, a busted TV, no room key (a staff member had to let us in) and, oddly enough, one of the better showers I’ve seen in a hotel anywhere. Very odd.

So, how nerve-wracking is it to fly into a place where English basically isn’t spoken? Pretty nerve-wracking. Now add in that we didn’t have tickets, our transit visas ran out that day and that our only money was in US dollars and credit cards, and we were pretty jumpy. (We also realised later that the only UB-bound train had left Hohhot the previous night.)

In the end, despite a flight delay, my friend from the phone call the previous day came through with two tickets to UB, accepted US dollars (to our surprise, after the hotel), and got us to UB. I can’t recommend Aero Mongolia enough at this point. The flight crew were great, too.

So, UB. It’s a bit early to make a call, but Jas and I have been surprised by it so far. It’s more cosmopolitan than we expected, and the food thus far has been far less stodgy than anticipated. Jas has noted that it reminds him of eastern Europe, and I can sort of see that.

Still, I think we really just want to get going on the trek now. We leave UB on Saturday (Dirk and Nick arrive tomorrow), and I for one can’t wait, even as pleasantly surprising as UB is.

Most random moments thus far:

  • The taxi driver taking us from UB airport to the city centre playing Kylie Minogue on his stereo system.
  • The Air Hotel in Hohhot. All of it.
  • The Mongolian teenagers at the State Department Store wearing gangster get-up. Quite incongruous.

One Response to “And So It Begins”

  1. Five Minutes » Blog Archive » Interesting Times, Airport Style Says:

    [...] pulled out the stops to make sure I got to Shanghai as quickly as possible. This isn’t like my infamous missed flight in Beijing, which I maintain was Air China’s fault to this [...]