We arrived into Mongolia in the morning after crossing the Russian border - a lengthy, harrowing experience due to the lack of toilets, the baking heat and the long, suspicious looks of the Russian border guards - and made our way through the certifiable drivers towards our hotel. The traffic is worth going into in more detail as the Mongolians have roads and they have cars and the rest is pretty much negotiable. Red lights mean nothing, pedestrian crossings mean less than nothing and Mongolians aren't afraid of using their horns. It's mental.
Other than that, the city has been fantastic. Laziz had freaked us all out on the train by telling us that Ulaan Batur was a hive of scum and villainy comparable to Mos Eisley, but the reality couldn't be further from the truth. UB is amazing, a surprisingly modern, characterful city, full of friendly, open face Mongolians who try their best with English, my terrible attempts at Mongolian and seem genuinely happy to meet you. As is swiftly coming par for the course, we had a quick shower and a freshen-up (I think that's girl-speak for going to the toilet), we wandered into the city and got oriented. Most of us made our way to the Gandan Monastery, a well worn but dutifully maintained series of temples that are the Buddhist heart of Mongolia. We were allowed to listen to the monks as they chanted prayers, and spun a few prayer wheels for good luck (or what we hope was good luck). Without getting too theological, I have to say that Buddhism seems very peaceful compared to other religions I've seen. I know that sounds obvious, but the minute you set foot inside the temple precinct the serenity hits you (rather ironically) like an sledgehammer. There's no hustle or bustle, everyone seems content to let everybody just get on with their own business and even the chanting has a melodic simplicity to it. There's no overtly grandiose ritual (or at least none you're forced into going along with), no finger-pointing sermons and nobody looks like they'd shout if you got things wrong. There's just an air of profound spirituality pervading everything, the people, the place and the wider environment, that's really quite affecting, even to an atheist like me.
After the temple, we went for lunch in a great little café, Café Amsterdam, where I made a shocking discovery. Mongolian food is awesome. After the dirge that was Russian cuisine, it was so exciting to rediscover spice again. I had a great sandwich with salami, fresh lettuce, tomato and cucumber in a light, savoury roll but the real star was the goat shish kebab that was ordered by Shaffi, but was thankfully shared around the table. Well seasoned and generously spiced, the goat was tender and delicious - thankfully an accurate portent of Mongol food in general. Happy and full, we visited UB's premier department store and had a look at some of the souvenirs available. The craft arts and traditional dress were amazing, but I was less convinced that the 18" bust of Michael Jackson could be classified as a genuine 'made in Mongolia' souvenir.
We sauntered back to the hotel and got ready to go for dinner with our decidedly less 'soviet' group. Before food our local guide had arranged entry to a Mongolian cultural show which was astounding. We saw traditional dance, including performances from the happiest Mongol in the world, heard folk songs (including some of the most bewildering musical instruments I've ever seen), heard throat singing (which might have killed me if Nick was sitting next to me) and even saw a frankly terrifying display of contortion from a young girl that left me feeling a little queasy. Afterwards, with everyone on a high on Mongolian life, we made our way to the restaurant where the menu was equally exciting and eye watering. Just about any part of the standard Mongolian herd animals was available (including cow, lamb, goat and *gulp* horse) and our end of the table decided to go all Spanish and order a few dishes for sharing. The food was great, tasty and fresh, but I do have a confession to make. I did eat horse. And, what's more, I enjoyed it more than the beef. It's almost exactly the same texture, perhaps a little tougher, but the flavour is stronger, comparable to venison. It was served cooked in a lightly spiced gravy, and was delicious. A few beers and, you guessed it, vodkas later and we were on our way back to the hotel for some much needed shut eye... Alas, it wasn't to be.
I did get some sleep, but I awoke just after midnight to find the little fella above crawling up my leg. In a panic, I managed to skewer him with the complimentary hotel pen before realising that I had several insects, of various sizes, crawling over me and whilst I gave it my all, like Maximus at the end of Gladiator, I was destined to lose. I retreated to the bathroom, where I slept (in the loosest sense of the word) on the tiled floor until 6AM when I showered, dressed and legged it out of the hotel as fast as my little, lice-infested legs could carry me. I didn't suffer any long term injury, and I know I should have complained (even though it would have been thoroughly un-British), but I thought it'd be another little adventure to add to my collection, even if it is making my feel itchy as I write about it.
After all that, I still love Mongolia, although I have a little less sympathy for insects now. And that can't be good for my karma...