Will The Real Mongolian Please Stand Up?


This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, August 18, 2004 was originally posted on August 24, 2004.

DAY 305:  Being of Filipino descent, my physical appearance blended in pretty well in South America, making me able to walk amongst the locals “undetected” — until I tried to say something and my cover was blown.  I bring this up because I sort of blended in as a Mongolian as well (as long as I kept my mouth shut), and I contrasted my guide/driver Tatiana, a blonde, pale-skinned European Russian-born mother who was fluent in Mongolia, having lived in Ulan Baatar for quite a while with her baby son.

Traveling with Tatiana was an interesting experience because from what I gathered, people assumed it was me that was the local showing her, the foreigner, around.

AFTER A POST-BREAKFAST HIKE up one of the big boulders near camp for a final view of the Mongolian steppe landscape, Tatiana picked me up in her SUV to take me from the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park to the site of the former Manzshirkhiid Monastery to the south of Ulan Baatar. 

There was no direct route between the two and so we had to go back to UB and then out again, on a road behind the Ulan Bataar airport.  Along the way, Tatiana explained the little difference between her and her Mongolian neighbors:  1) that she rode in a car with a seatbelt on, and 2) she didn’t drive like a guy who had too many beers and was rushing home to the bathroom.  On the way through UB we saw two car accidents in a row, just two blocks away from each other.  The first was so bad, Tatiana thought the driver might have been killed.

Back in the countryside I marveled at the big countryside and the big big sky with its big fluffy clouds — as much as I’ve seen them, they never get old.  Paying a toll to get into Ulan Baatar was so surprise but the surprise came when, in the middle of a deserted road, there was a tollbooth for what we didn’t know.  It couldn’t have been for road repair fees because the road was so full of potholes.

The gatekeeper approached us from my side of the car first, probably on the assumption that I spoke his language.  I didn’t say anything because Tatiana spoke to him in Mongolian.  She had been accustomed to possible Mongolian scams against foreigners and was very reluctant to pay the 500 tögrög “toll” on principle.  She argued and argued over what the fee was far — the road was in desperate need of repair — and asked for identification.  They furnished it, all the while another van full of Mongolian faces whizzed on by without paying anything.

“[You just let them go past!]” she argued in Mongolian as she started to inch forward.  But the guard wouldn?t let go of the car without a fee.  She just paid it in the end, got a receipt, and was frustrated for a while on the continuation of the drive. 

A similar situation occurred at the entrance gate of the Manzshirkhiid Monastery.  The entrance guard approached to my window, only to have foreigner-looking Tatiana do all the talking from the driver’s side.  After the fact, she told me the conversation went something like this:

GUARD:  The entry fee is 10,000 tögrögs, so 20,000 for the two of you.

TATIANA (after recovering from the shock that the price suddenly jumped five times from what she paid before):  I’m a guide.  I’ve seen your museum fifty times.

GUARD:  Okay, no fee for you, but 10,000 from him.

TATIANA:  That’s outrageous.  It was only 2,000 last time.

GUARD: But now you get to see this.  (He pulled out a cheesy brochure of the cheesy nature museum on the monastery grounds, which wasn’t new anyway.)

TATIANA:  Ten thousand is still too much.

GUARD:  Okay, five dollars (about 6000 tögrögs).

TATIANA:  It was 2,000 last time.

GUARD:  Okay, five thousand tögrögs. (He continued to use the nature museum as his excuse to jack up the price.)

I paid the 5,000 and we drove up to the gate to be opened — but then stopped when Tatiana read the Mongolian sign on the fence that stated that the entry fee for foreigners was 3,000.

She got out of the car and walked to the booth and argued for me in Mongolian.  In the end, she didn’t get my money back; just a name to report to the Ministry of Tourism.

“I think he just put the two thousand in his pocket,” a furious Tatiana told me.

THE REST OF THE VISIT wasn’t as annoying; Tatiana was not only my local travel agent and driver, but she was also my tour guide on the former monastery grounds.  She led me around Manzshirkhiid, which used to be a big city-like Buddhist monastery in what is now the Uul Strictly Protected Area of evergreens, cedars and birch trees.  Build in 1733, it once held two temples and 350 monks — but all of that was decimated to the ground during the Soviet anti-religion purges of the 1930s.  All that remained now were the ruins of the main temple and a lone surviving building, now a religious museum, complete with a model of the way things used to be.  Perhaps my Asian-faced façade came in handy in the museum; I snapped away taking photos with no problem, while a white tourist had to pay the photographic rights fee.  (That or people didn’t realize I was taking photos with a little spy camera.)

Behind the temple were two prayer houses on the hill dedicated to the Gods of the Rocks, which I climbed to see while Tatiana waited below.  On the other side of the museum, the only other main artifacts that survived were a big cauldron, chipped but still in fact after the Soviet attack, and a couple of statues (picture above). 

The Nature Museum, as the brochure implied, was well cheesy with more taxidermy stuffed animals and glue and glitter drawings of local plants.

“I’M NOT GOING TO PAY AGAIN,” Tatiana told me as we drove back to Ulan Baatar.  She drove passed the supposed tollbooth without slowing down and then continued the hour back to the city.  I dropped off my bags at Vera and Gotov’s and then hitched a ride from Tatiana back to the city center. 

We said our goodbyes in the car when she dropped me off at a cafe.  “I’ll see you the next time I come to Mongolia,” I told her.  I didn’t know when that would be, but I knew whenever it was, it’d be good to have a Mongolian resident — as foreign-looking as she may be — on my side.

Next entry: Chopsticks and Train Tracks

Previous entry: Wild Wild East

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Comments for “Will The Real Mongolian Please Stand Up?”

  • first . . . yup, i want to go to mongolia.

    Posted by Alyson  on  08/24  at  07:18 AM

  • HEY ALL:  There you have it, the end of days that end in Mongolia… Hope to have China stories up within the next 24 hours… 

    Bear with me, I caught a cold or something the past two days…  I’m better now; seems to have just been a 24-hour SARS thing…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/24  at  07:18 AM

  • ALYSON:  If it makes you feel better, the call did drop, and he had to wait for the caller to ring again…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/24  at  07:26 AM

  • Erik - go and try some Chinese medicine to get rid of that cold… that’d be a great adventure.  Is there a medicine market in Beijing?  Are you even still in Beijing?  If there is a medicine market, that is my challenge for you - go to the market, buy something, take it and report back on whether or not it works. smile

    Posted by Liz  on  08/24  at  08:46 AM

  • i think i’m all “rocked” out in mongolia….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/24  at  01:25 PM

  • AR5 Fans (without giving too much away, Liz).  A couple of weeks ago I thought Mirna was just being Mirna when she commented that Colin had a Napoleon complex and Christie was too submissive. But last night I realized she was right.  Colin was such a jerk and treated her like crap to cover his behaviour and she ended up apologizing to him not only once but twice! I hope he doesn’t win. Go Chip & Kim and Bowling Moms! Also, that hotel in the United Arab Emirates was amazing! I wonder how much a night to stay there?

    Erik: Can’t wait to see pics from Bejing.  Hope you are feeling better by now!  Don’t have any rellies in China - sorry - only Japan!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/24  at  04:02 PM

  • Jan - 1200 bucks US a night and that is the cheap room.  I checked - I wanted to stay here on our RTW.  My jaw pretty much dropped.  Apparently it is the only 7 star hotel in the word.  http://www.jumeirahinternational.com/  (I am of course assuming it is the Burj Al Arab that they show in the opening credits.

    Posted by Liz  on  08/24  at  04:31 PM

  • JANICE - yeah colin is a total ass….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/24  at  05:18 PM

  • I tapped AR5, so I’m in the same boat as Liz.

    Erik: I know about the 24 SARS!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/24  at  05:48 PM

  • Hey erik, Mongolia looks a lot like Colorado! (without the attitude) hope you’re feeling better and looking forward to the pictures of china smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/24  at  05:55 PM

  • Liz: So how many nights are you staying at that hotel? smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/24  at  08:49 PM

  • Hey! I’m heading to Taiwan soon - please tell me about the 24 SARS.  Is it something like Montezuma’s revenge in Mexico or the “Blue” flu in Canada?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/24  at  08:52 PM



    - Move your mouse left and right and keep the drunk walking straight for as long as you can!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/24  at  11:51 PM

  • JANICE:  The SARS thing was an attempt at dark humor; there is no cure for SARS.  So… DON’T GET IT!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  04:12 AM

  • Ok…..I know what SARS is…...it was the “24” part that threw me off!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  05:13 AM

  • Wow - that first two pictures look amazing.  Must have been magical being there.

    Posted by Dan  on  08/25  at  06:50 PM

  • DAN:  A note about being on the road for so long; when you see so many incredible things, you become overstimulated and things aren’t so “magical” as they might have been if I started in Mongolia.  Sebastian (Morocco) called it the Law of Diminishing Returns…

    Be warned when you go on your RTW!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  07:16 PM

  • markyt: where on earth do you find those links?!?

    ERIK: Should call it the Law of Diminishing Wows. I know what you mean. In Italy the first 8-9 churches are amazing. By the 15-16th, you’re like “yeah, a sculpture, a window, a fresco, a relic, a dome. So what ELSE ya got?”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/30  at  02:15 AM

  • Christy - I don’t find them, they find me grin

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/30  at  02:37 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Chopsticks and Train Tracks

Previous entry:
Wild Wild East


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