The Transsiberian Railway – Part VII: The Coldest Capital in the World

(Arrival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia)

If there’s one thing I know about surreal experiences, it’s this: There is nothing in this world better than a morning spent sipping a frothy mug of Baileys and coffee while the Transsiberian railway floats you over the vast plains of the Gobi desert under a sherbet orange sky. It’s one of those moments so spectacular that you wouldn’t dare ruin it by reaching for your camera. So you’ll just have to take my word for it. It was out of this world.

As we continued drifting towards Mongolia’s capital, the sun was swallowed by clouds, dunes morphed into frozen, cracked earth, and miniature horses appeared, clinging to the exposed, fruitless plains. When the train pulled into the urban sprawl of Ulaanbaatar, it was through a cloak of mist under a frosted winter sky.

Ulaanbaatar (or, Улаанбаатар as it is known in the Funny Backwards and Upside-down Language, which some less educated folk like to call “Cyrillic”), is at an elevation of about 1,310 meters (4,300 ft). It is the coldest capital in the world. It is the centre of Mongolia’s road network and lies in a valley on the Tuul River.

Let me remind you of a relatively important little factoid here: It’s winter (well, it was winter when we we got here). Yes. Winter. Winter in the Coldest Place on Earth. So when we stepped off the train, the North Pole rushed down my spine. Just a tad chilly. (By some inexplicable freak of nature, Inquisitive Mongolian Visitor and his diaper-clad accomplice were doing just fine in the cold…… I’d rather not talk about it.)

It was easily twenty below. So it’s not our fault that we wound up guests at the warmest sounding place we could find: The Miami Hotel (I use the term “hotel” loosely – this place was far from glamorous, though it did have a palm tree). We only stayed two nights; on closer inspection, the palm tree was plastic and the room had a frightening space-ship capsule slash time-machine for a shower.

The city itself is a unique combination of haphazard and hazardous. Brand new modern skyscrapers erected amidst old wooden shacks. Huge Soviet-style plazas bigger than Tiananmen Square sprawling, empty, in the centre of the city. Street vendors, bundled to the nose in scrappy winter clothing, lazing on cardboard boxes or plastic chairs with missing legs, selling chupa chups and cigarettes with clunky rotary telephones from the 1960s in plastic bags or perched on a knee. Ancient Korean temples and wifi on buses. Internet cafes packed with gamers, yurts erected in the shadows of dilapidated apartment buildings, and not an ATM to be found. Men and women in Khovontei Deels, traditional Mongolian robes made of raw cotton and lambskin, walking alongside a younger generation in Parisian fashion. Gaping, unmarked holes in the middle of the sidewalk patiently waiting to swallow wayward pedestrians. Massive, deserted fairgrounds. And a temperature of twenty below.
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FYI: Ulaanbaatar has a strictly enforced ‘Saftey First’ policy.

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(Of which Children’s Fairgrounds are no exception.)
Creepy Fairground-2.jpgWith manholes like this, does it surprise you that nobody stops for pedestrians? We should probably step head-first into oncoming traffic.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that as far as steering-wheels are concerned… anything goes. If you want to drive on the left of your vehicle, go ahead! If the right-side is more your thing, nobody’s stopping you! Absurd.

So yeah, you’ll probably die if you go to Ulaanbaatar. I mean, what are the odds when you have gaping manholes, bitter cold, and a requirement to cross eight lanes of oncoming traffic with no stop light? Exactly.

So I consider ourselves lucky (or, more to the point – admirably intelligent) to have escaped Ulaanbaatar alive. ;)untitled folder 2.jpg
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