In preparation for arrival at Ulan Bator I get up at 5.00am and do the Indiana Jones thing over the open tracks to get to the washroom in the next carriage. I am unprepared for the sheer intensity of the cold; overnight it has reached minus 30C and the air feels like a biting thing that searches out every piece of exposed skin. This is about 10 degrees colder than the inside of a domestic freezer; my hand sticks to the metal door handles and the toilet erupts in a cloud of steam each time it is flushed.
At Ulan Bator I am met by my guide Nasaa, by which time the sun is up and it has warmed to a balmy minus 20C. She takes me on a tour of the city starting with the statue of Chingiss Khan (correct spelling). Chingiss is still revered here and it is clear that the Mongolians take much of their national identity from him and still greatly prize the three ‘manly’ sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing.
If this makes Mongolia sound like a distant outpost of the Klingon Empire then that is not wholly inaccurate. The Mongolians regard themselves as a warrior race with a direct connection to Chingiss Khan, not only through their lineage but also their connection to the land. The Mongolians scratch a tough living from a hostile landscape and they regard this as the source of their strength. Two thirds of the 3 million population still live as nomads (Ulan Bator itself moved location over 30 times before settling in its current position in the C19th). As well as formal architecture, many city dwellers still live in nomadic Ger (a sort of felt tent stretched over a wooden frame and with a coal fire) which are found pitched all over the city and which can be put up or taken down within an hour.
By this time Nasaa has marched me around about 5 miles of the city centre and she is cracking jokes about feeble Japanese women who get tired quickly on her tours – I daren’t even contemplate sitting down lest I be impaled as a weakling.
When we do sit down it is to engage in the other favourite Mongolian pastime, food. Nasaa selects a restaurant largely on the grounds that it serves large portions. Main fare seems to be meat dumplings, meat stews, fried meat, meat soup, meat noodles and meat with meat on the side – I ask Nasaa how Mongolians stay warm in the winter, she thinks for a moment and says ‘we eat a lot of meat!’ Right, no kidding!
For lunch we settle on horde-sized portions of noodles and beef (my vegetarian principles having been parked at the border) washed down with salted milk tea – which is actually a lot nicer than it sounds.
After lunch we depart for the national park; leaving the road outside the city to cross miles of open country which is both snow covered and completely arid at the same time. It is so dry that the snow billows around like dry dust clouds and we experience a complete white out where the sky and the land have no discernable horizon between them.
We arrive at the Khuiten Camp where I will spend the night in a Ger. Inside they are extremely comfortable, equipped with high beds so that the sleeper lies in the warmest part of the room. Outside the area is thick with snow and surrounded by high mountains. It is the very definition of the words ‘no signal’.
I am really enjoying the company of the Mongolian people I have met. They are tough, funny, strong and hospitable and if they decide they want to invade somewhere anytime soon then, I want to be on their side.