Snow, Thieves and Sickness: Down and Out in Ulaanbaatar
It was a questionable start to my time in Mongolia’s capital.
Lou, Sarah and I disembarked the train and decide to walk the 3 kilometers to the center of town. My first impression was just how cold it was: it was May, but only a few degrees. The sun was out, offering brief respite. But entering the shade felt like walking onto the dark side of the moon - the temperature about 10 degrees lower than it was away from the shadows.
Freezing, we plodded on.
After just a few moments, all three of us were subjected to the most bizarre, relatively benign robbery you could imagine.
A few disheveled men came over to us, and started snatching at the water bottles all three of us were carrying. I assumed they might have thought the bottles were full of spirits, and they were longing for a swig. But no - they were just thirsty. They forcibly snatched the bottles from our hands, racing back to their friends and sharing the loot. They downed the water with such vigour it was as if they hadn't quenched their thirst in days.
It was a sad start. I know Mongolia is a poor place. But I’ve been to poor places. Usually, poverty doesn’t prohibit people from, at the very least, remaining hydrated.
Lou, Sarah and I parted our ways. They were great travel companions, albeit for only 24 hours. I was happy to have shared the train from Zamiin Uud, and a cheap bottle of vodka, with some familiar folks after a month in China almost entirely void of conversation.
Ulaanbaatar gets a bad wrap. After our initial burglary, I was pleasantly surprised. The air warmed that first day, I found a very cheap bed in the 3rd story of an apartment complex, and hit the streets.
UB, as the locals call the capital, is bustling for a town of its size. There is a thriving food and cafe scene, offering so much more than the traditional meat-heavy cuisine the country is often pilloried for. I spent my first 24 hours getting my bearings, drinking coffees, and eating tasty Korean food - there are endless Korean restaurants in Mongolia.
I woke my second day and opened the dorm room window to a flurry of snowfall. This trip was meant to be one in which I chased summer around the world. The snow surprised me. It was beautiful, though soon turned to a grey slop slushing in the gutters. Buy afternoon, the snow had ceded to bright sunshine, which would remain for the next week.
Reporting from Ulaanbaatar
On my second full day in the city, I received a commission from the South China Morning Post. I was to turn in a piece outlining what Mongolians thought about potentially playing host to the upcoming Trump-Kim Summit.
Just before I arrived, speculation that UB would play host was raised to fever pitch. Though in the middle of my reporting, Trump effectively crushed Mongolians hopes that they would host. Most in the capital seemed genuinely disappointed - hosting such an historic event would have been an enormous win for Mongolia, and help vault it onto the international stage. You can read my report here.
Reporting is a great way to see and feel a place. I spoke with dozens of locals about the issue: baristas, tourism operators, random students in the street, and my friend Minga who I’d be introduced to by a contact back in Sydney.
This entire period - ever since I’d been on the train to UB - I’d been feeling a little under the weather. After I filed my piece, I succumbed, coming down with an excruciating sinus infection. Growing throughout my time in UB, the infection soon spawned a constant, debilitating pain that had me bedridden for 4 full days. My nose dripped incessantly - often with blood as well as mucus. I was forced to spend extra on my own room in a hostel to save my fellow dorm-mates from the discomfort of having to sleep next to someone who was wretchedly ill and unable to hide the fact.
So severe and consistent was the pain that I even headed to a doctor, forking out an insubordinate sum for targeted antibiotics and a bunch of other stuff to keep me from passing out in agony. The entire sordid affair was extremely frustrating. Ulaanbaatar is a relatively interesting city, but not somewhere I intended to spend more than a week. In the end, I spent the Saturday to Wednesday sleeping, taking pain killers, and waiting for my swollen face to return to its normal state. My time in the city, initially vibrant and interesting, faded into washed out, fever induced haze that turned almost a week into a weird, fuzzy memory.
The moment I regained some strength, and the pain subsided, I got out of UB, headed straight for the Mongolian countryside I was so longing for during those lonely, painful days in bed.