-35˚ at Mongolia

This is my most exotic and extraordinary business assignment.
When my friends and colleagues heard about my Mongolian assignment, many thought I was crazy. Some envious ones came to “congratulate” me. And a few even think I won’t survive the harsh winter – losing my ears, nose and balls. Despite my aerophobia, I convinced myself that it is stupid to miss such a rare business opportunity to visit such an exotic country. The name Mongolia sounds so exotic (I am not talking about the beautiful fair Mongolian beauties).

This is the land of the nomads, home of the world’s greatest conqueror “Genghis Khan” who founded the largest land empire in human history. This is also the world’s lowest density populated country where you find 1.5 inhabitants per sq km. It is the world’s 19th largest country with only 3 million people (yes, lesser birthrates than Singapore and Hong Kong). And not to mention, it is a land of the most extreme climatic conditions. This is the coldest time of the year to visit Mongolia. Day temperature drops as low as -35˚ and -45˚ at night.  No wonder Ulaanbaatar is also the world’s coldest capital city (annual average temperature is -1.3˚!).

My adventure began at “Erenhot” – a quiet Chinese border town along the Chinese-Mongolian Gobi Desert border. On the plane, I saw nothing but a vast white desert. It was so beautiful. It wasn’t snowing or foggy, it was sunny and clear. It may not be so cold, I thought. Seconds after I stepped out of the airport, I experienced my first freeze-attack. Water in my nose froze and my face turned numb and unbearably painful. I couldn’t last more than a minute out in the cold. Gosh! It was dry and brutal – not the kind of “cold” that I used to experience on the snow mountains.

Crossing the Chinese-Mongolian border, we saw a lot of dinosaurs statues. Lots of life-sized dinosaurs scattered along the long quiet road. It is amazing to find such an exhibition here. (There are more dinos than real people here!) This is also known as the “Dinosaur City” because Erenhot is the home of many world famous dinosaurs. The Eren Basin, site of the dinosaur fossils, lies 8 kilometers outside of the city, where many other fossils are buried, and where many of the world’s most famous dinosaur fossils of the late Cretaceous have been found.The town holds the biggest and best-preserved dinosaur fossil collection in Asia.

We spent 8 hours at the Mongolian border. I was pleasantly surprised to know many Mongolian speaks good English. I was happily taking photos of the place when a young pretty Mongolian girl came by. She was pretty but what happened next shook me. She gave me a hard punch on my chest cos’ I was blocking her way. (Good thing I was wearing thick winter clothes cos that was a very hard punch). She must have mistaken I was taking photos of her. Damn it.

Nightfall and the temperature dropped sharply. It was too cold for me to handle my DSLR camera. We were done with our job at the border and we took the 12-hour Trans-Mongolia Railway, crossing the harsh Mongolian Plateau to the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. It was an unforgettable ride traveling with the Mongolians! There were many traders on board. They filled their cabins with goods from China (toys, clothes, food, Christmas trees etc). It was packed and very noisy. There was no heater on board, we tucked ourselves warmly on the small cabin bed. (Good thing I brought a lot of chocolates and snacks to keep myself warm. I am not a fan of vodka, goat milk and mutton.).  It was full-moon that night. Under the moonlight, the white snow dunes outside looked so beautiful and calm. Twilight was mesmerizing.

We finally reached Ulaanbaatar. Traffic jam was bad and the air quality wasn’t good (due to the coal-generators outside the city). It is a modern city with a lot of big malls and hotels – shopping and food are no problem. We tried exploring the city during our free time but I gave up as I could not endure the cold wind (my body, feet were warm but not my face). It was difficult to walk on the streets as the pavements were coated with a thick layer of ice. We saw people walking and gliding on the icy walkways. People on the road were looking at us as we were visibly over-dressed – like ninjas. The Mongolian dressed little as they have accustomed themselves to the harsh weather.

Overall, this is a rich and eye-opening experience for me. And yes, I want to come back to Mongolia again – not on business but to discover the other parts of this vast Nomadic land. And certainly not in winter.

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