July 25, 2008

Misadventures in Mongolia

This is the story in which I fly to Mongolia for $44, get kicked out of my guesthouse after midnight, and visit the Genghis Khan brewery. Sounds like fun, right?

Well, yes. But I should first explain that in my world, a misadventure does not always refer to a bad day or an unfortunate series of events. Some misadventures can certainly turn out that way, and I’ve had my share, but more often than not a misadventure is just something that did not really go as planned.

Here’s how it all went down, written as it happened:

Due to how my complicated series of plane tickets works, I had to come back to Seattle from Asia instead of Europe, and I wanted to arrange a stopover to somewhere I hadn’t yet been. Korean Airlines is the most reliable carrier flying to Ulaan Bataar, the capital of Mongolia, and for just 25,000 Delta miles you can fly there from anywhere in South or East Asia. The taxes ended up being $34, with a $10 fee added on. It’s really a fantastic deal, assuming you want to come to Mongolia.

(If you don’t want to go to Mongolia, you can use the same strategy to visit other places in Asia. Check out the Delta Awards chart for details.)

Back to the story. I arrive at Genghis Khan International Airport (isn’t that awesome?) late in the evening on the Korean Airlines flight from Seoul. After clearing immigration, I head into the throng of people in the arrivals area. I had arranged to stay in a small guesthouse for $15 a night, and since I was arriving so late, they had promised to pick me up. I look around and don’t see my name on any of the signs being held by drivers. Instead, one of the drivers comes up to me and asks, “Are you Mr. Bruce?”

“No, I am Mr. Chris. Do you know where my driver is?” I hand him the email printout with the guesthouse name on it, but he doesn’t know anything.

I wait around for ten more minutes, then decide to take matters into my own hands. I go outside, find a taxi driver, and we negotiate the rate with a calculator.

In the taxi, the driver is sending text messages the whole time we are driving into the city. I help him drive (!) for a while and we finally come to where he says my guesthouse is located. I don’t see any sign and am not sure I believe him, but I get out and start walking through an apartment complex.

He turns out to be partially right. I have indeed arrived at the central office of the guesthouse, but the owners have buildings scattered all over town. Before learning this information, I walk up five flights of stairs with my bags. (This will become a theme, you’ll see.)

The girl who works at the office says that my building is “very close by,” but when we’re back on the street and she hails another taxi, I wonder how close it actually is. Anyway, we ride in the taxi for a while.

Lost in Translation

On the ride over we have the same exact conversation that travelers always have all around the world. There are a few variations, but today it goes like this:

“Where you come from?” she asks.

“Well, today I came from Korea. But I live in America.”

“America, very nice country.”

“Thank you. But Mongolia is very nice too.”

“You like Mongolia?”

(Well, I think, it’s 11:30 at night, I’ve just arrived and I have no idea where I’m staying. But so far, so good.)

“Yes, Mongolia is great.”

We ride in silence for a while, until I decide to break it.

“Thank you for helping me,” I say.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she replies. (I think she means “You’re welcome.”)

***


Your Basic Guesthouse Bed

We come to the real guesthouse, also located up five flights of stairs (hang on—more to come). I pay the bill of $15 and move into my room, which is your basic guesthouse setup. Nothing to write home about, but nothing to be afraid of either. I take a few pictures, brush my teeth in the bathroom down the hall, unpack my things, and get ready for bed.

All of the preceding events are quite normal. Lots of places I go, I end up getting lost, figuring out a place to say, cross-culturally communicating, and so on. This does not count as a misadventure; it’s just part of the overall travel experience.

The misadventure, in this case, starts when a group of three guesthouse staff knock on my door just as I’m getting into bed around midnight.

I open the door and look at them. In addition to the three staff, there is a fourth guy—another foreigner like me—standing with his bags.

The designated English speaker of the group does not look happy to talk to me, but he has obviously been given orders.

“You have to leave this room,” he tells me.

“What did you say?” I ask, even though I’m pretty sure I understood.

The drama unfolds over the next 15 minutes. They tell me that I do not have a reservation and therefore I have to leave. But I do have a reservation, I tell them. I show them the email printout, which they were obviously not expecting. They talk among themselves and then call the guesthouse owner, who it seems was the one who issued the eviction notice.

Since the owner speaks English, they hand the cell phone over to me for some more protesting on my part. I’m wasting my breath, because even though I had a reservation and have already paid, they clearly want me out. They give me my $15 and point to one of the guys, who is supposedly willing to take me somewhere else to stay.

By this point it has dawned on me that the other foreigner waiting for my room was probably willing to pay $5 or $10 more, and thus the room is going to him. Whatever; there isn’t much I can do about it.

I pack up yet again and leave with the driver who is taking me to an unknown location. We talk down the five flights of stairs and out to his car.

He takes me to another random building about 10 blocks away, and we walk up five more flights of stairs. I have been doing the push-up challenge for several weeks, and I have the sudden thought that if someone ever makes a Mongolian Stair-Cllimbing Challenge, I’ll be in great shape for it.

This turns out to be the last set of stairs I have to climb for the night, and for that I am certainly grateful. This place is more like a small hotel than a guesthouse, and it’s not bad. I put my stuff down and crash on the bed. Even when I’m exhausted, it usually takes me a while to fall asleep… but this time, I have no trouble.

At some point during the night—or actually about 8:00 a.m., but it feels like night to me—someone knocks on the door to collect payment for the room. The bill comes to $16, just $1 more than the other place would have been. I can live with that. I pay $20, get some Mongolian currency back in change, and go back to sleep.

***


(Click to enlarge any image): Beatle Cafe; Chinggis Khan Brewery; Local Movie Selection; T-ilet?

Waking up a few hours later concludes the misadventure portion of the trip to Ulaan Bataar. Everything else was fine, but somewhat uneventful. I walked around the city, off and on, for about six hours the next day. I met some NGO workers at a café and talked with them for a while. We were going to head to the nearby black market, but after we got in a taxi, we learned that it was closed for most of the week. We got out of the taxi and said goodbye as I continued my walking tour.

I stopped in at the Genghis Khan brewery (they spell his name Chinggis here), but no free tours or samples were on offer. In fact, they thought it was strange that I came by—oh well. I went to the State Department Store, bought some fruit on the street, and listened to Mika on my iPod.

Back at the new-and-improved guesthouse, I notice that it is located above a themed disco called Beatle Cafe. When I walk down to the basement, I also notice poker machines and card tables peeking out from behind a door that is partially open. A bouncer is at the door and doesn’t look friendly, so I decide against doing any gambling.

As this was the last stop of the two-week trip, my thoughts turned towards home as the end of the weekend arrived. Last weekend I was in Northern Iraq, I remembered, and this weekend I’m in Mongolia. As crazy as it sounds, it all feels so normal.

Back at Genghis Khan’s airport, I board the same Korean Airlines jet I came in on, and fly back to Seoul for the last time this trip. From Seoul I go on to Narita, outside of Tokyo, and then a direct flight back home to Seattle.

###

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12 Responses to “Misadventures in Mongolia”

  1. Another great story. Are you going to go to the Olympics in China by chance? I’ll be there for about two weeks.

  2. Really interesting … do you think the first guesthouse have let you keep the room if you had offered to pay more than the second guest?

    It sounds like the rest of the visit was a little dull …

    I am totally up for the Mongolian Stair Climbing Challenge – I live on the 3rd floor, work on the 3rd floor, and pick up my daughter from the third floor plus climb up and down from the subway all day long. Hmmm … maybe I’m already living the stair climbing challege :-)

  3. July 25, 2008

    jes billings

    As always, I enjoy vicariously joining in your travels. This is one of my favorite blogs.

    However, if you don’t get rid of that pop=up offering a newsletter, I’m going to stop visiting here. At least put a checkbox on it with the option to say ‘don’t show this again.’

  4. When I first saw the title, I was like “uh-oh!” (I just realized your essay titles tend to provoke some sort of reaction out of me. A good strategy, since I usually want to find out what happens.)

    I hope you stuck your tongue out at the guy who got your room, at the very least. I probably wouldn’t have been near so pleasant or adaptive to the situation.

    But then again, who can say? I’ve never been in that situation (or anything similar, truthfully), so who knows how I’d react.

    Also, Ghengis Khan Brewery = awesome.

  5. Amazing journey.

    You are obviously well suited for this kind of travel.

    I don’t have the patience or flexibility and would have come unglued at some point which would have led to even more misadventures.

    Keep on going.

    peace, Rick

  6. July 25, 2008

    Kimberly

    Chris, I’m so glad your “misadventure” turned out the way it did. The lesson I took from your story is to remain calm and be open to change. I’m sure many people may have argued the point that you had a reservation and paid the fee at the first place, but I like how you handled things. It seems as though you have good instincts when it comes to handling such situations during your travels.

    I CANNOT WAIT until you tell us all how you travel the way you do. I love to travel, and I am always looking for ways to do it more and cheaper. Like you, I am not a “5-star” traveler, and I prefer to really experience the people and culture of the places I visit.

    I have been reading you for a few months and I can’t tell you how inspiring your essays are. Thank you for reminding me that I can truly live the way I want, and I am not bound by societal norms.

  7. Chris:

    I continue to live vicariously through your travel experiences. I noticed that the tone alternated between present tense and past tense in the same story. Was that on purpose?

    I think you should pay heed to what Jess Billings said about giving your readers the option to turn off the pop-up newsletter. It startles me every time it pops up on my screen and I’m not exactly fond of these intrusions.

    Because I very much enjoy reading your stories, I don’t want to be disturbed while I’m imagining myself in far off lands, traveling with you. Every time that blue thing scares me, it breaks that mood, even altering it a bit. Sometimes I struggle to regain my footing afterward and continue to read.

    This in no way reflects my love of your blog and your stories. My readers at Adversity University loved your first interview with me earlier this week and are looking forward to Part II next Wednesday. But that pop-up is not very exciting and I would love to have the option of shutting it off. There are other, less intrusive, ways to get people to sign up. Pop-ups remind me of less than desirable marketers trying to force you to do something you don’t want to do.

    Just my honest two cents worth.

  8. I’d join you in a stair-climbing challenge. Funny you write that, cause I had a similar experience in Kiev (a city with lots of stairs it seemed). Chris, I’ll follow your example and pack lighter next time… :)

  9. Only you, Chris! What an interesting story. You seem to have something crazy happen everywhere you go; maybe that is the joy of travelling?

  10. That is some guesthouse drama. Why didn’t you offer to pay more money? LOL.

    Seems like you had an interesting time there. I have only ever heard great things about mongolia. Supposed to be a beautiful, wonderful country. Would you go back and spend longer than a weekend?

  11. Hi Chris, I have been following a lot of your stuff, and I have been really enjoying this travel story (it was the first one I read). Now I wonder, how long do you usually stay at one place and how many places do you try to visit in one trip? Or in other words maybe, how much time do you spend in your home in Seattle between your travels? Is this determined by coincidence (on how trips work out or so) or is there a routine/schedule that you follow?

    If you may have given the answer to this in any other of your travel stories, sorry if this might be double.
    I have seen that you had been to Germany too. :-) Where there? Since I am German and living in Berlin, I would like to learn what you think of my country.

    Thanks for answering.
    And BTW, I like and enjoy reading your blog/manifestos etc a lot!. This has been the coolest catch this year! Very delightful.
    Keep on rocking Chris!

    I am following you and learning on how to get my own business going now and soon I will take my step! So exciting.

    Cheers,
    Brit

  12. After you commented on my blog, I felt like I should go back and reread this post. Still a great one!

    Let’s see, lotta stairs…orange floors…English speaking owner…impossible to find (I had to ask some kids playing basketball after I passed it 3 times)…if memory serves, that would be the UB Guesthouse. What do I win?

    Always such a hard choice while blogging: relate one moment and have it stand in for the experience, or try to give an impression of the whole experience but bypass the details of each precious moment. Well played on this one…

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