Nov 172015
 

Slept in a little bit, and enjoyed one last breakfast at the Kempinski, complete with several more tasty mongolian dumplings. Had the hotel call a taxi for me, and negotiate the price in advance, so I was able to use the last of my local currency towards the hotel instead of having any leftover since I didn’t expect I’d be back in Mongolia any time soon. It’s probably not a reassuring sign that when leaving your room, this is mounted to the wall right outside your room:

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I was a little worried about my flight, because it had gone from showing as a 737 online to a Dash-8 a week before the flight. Now, as far as I could tell, Air China has no Dash-8s, but at the same time, they stopped selling business class seats even on their own website. I figured whatever was going on, they were going to downsize the plane to something that had less business class seats, so I better get there early.

Given the airport has like three international flights a day, I decided two hours was early, and was actually the second to check in, and no, it’s a 737. Strange. Who knows what was going on, but she confirmed it was sold out, but had no problem accommodating my seat request. No line at all for security or immigration, and it was soon into the holding pen that was shared for the few gates at the airport.

Upstairs in departures there were like four or five duty free shops mostly selling liquor and tobacco, as well as an entire store selling nothing but Chenggis Vodka. Since I decided I probably couldn’t drink an entire bottle in transit, I resisted the urge to bring back this unique souvenir. There are some disadvantages to taking the long way home!

After browsing duty free, I decided to check out the business class lounge. It was pretty packed, and there wasn’t much on offer, except reasonable WiFi, so once connected I actually went back out into the departures lounge (which had much more space) to wait for the flight. Given the plane only held 16 in business, I had no idea where all the people in the business lounge had come from, except maybe if they let Star Alliance Gold members in.

Boarding was right on time, and I was about to have my first experience on Air China!

Air China flight 902
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (ULN) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:05, Flight Time: 2:15
Boeing 737-800 Registration B-5500, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 95,131
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,133,737

Welcome aboard was satisfactory, but unfortunately the bubbles were warm. Ugh.

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The seats were a hideous psychadellic purple, and rather uncomfortable. I tried to move the headrest up to be more comfortable, and this happened. The flight attendants couldn’t get it back on, and the flight was full, so they gave me a choice: fly without a headrest, or middle seat in economy. You can guess which I chose…

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…business, naturally, with hot towels on a plate:

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Offered “Chinese or French wine” you can once again guess which I chose. While the Chinese had a novelty factor, after Mongolian wine on MIAT I went with the safe option…well not TOO safe, because they spilled everywhere while pouring it, including on my shorts. Not even a sorry…

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Starter was described as “duck” and pretty scary. It seemed like some sort of pressed duck coldcut or something…I tried one bite and was definitely unimpressed. The fruit was pretty decent, had flavour, and was mildly juice, so I consider it a success:

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The “beef” entree was pretty bad as well, as was the garlic bread. Overall, I’d rate it up there with United domestic in terms of meal service, but give them extra points for the real china and tablecloth…but take away points for not having a headrest on my seat.

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Short flight, watched a little bit of tv on the iPad, and soon we were arriving into Beijing Airport via the giant smog layer over the city. Right on time, bus gate, but no special bus for business class. It was quite a long walk to transit security and passport check (they do a full passport check for transit, but don’t stamp your passport) and unfortunately it was nearly 25C in the airport. Definitely gross. I was pretty much a sweaty mess by the time I finished formalities, and all I could think of was how good an iced Americano from Starbucks would be.

Asked the nearest airport employee, and yes, there was one about a five to ten minute walk in the opposite direction of the gate. Don’t care…must find nirvana. The Starbucks experience itself was frustrating, stuck behind two young American women who wondered “how much is that in REAL money?” I told them to just use their credit cards, it wasn’t expensive, and I was just anxious to get them moving.

Having procured reliable caffeination, I was left without time to check out the Air China business lounge, but figured I probably wasn’t missing a whole lot. Got to my gate 40 minutes before the flight, and there was no sign of an agent. Finally, 15 minutes before the flight, an agent showed up and an announcement was made – we were moving gates…another 10 minute walk back in the direction I’d come from. It was still sweaty, hot, and gross in the terminal, and my patience at China was running extremely low.

Fortunately, the new gate was a bus gate, and this time there was a business class bus. Interesting security feature, when they scanned your boarding pass at the gate, your picture came up on the screen. I hadn’t noticed, but when transfer immigration was checking boarding passes they also took a picture of you to match things up. Pretty slick system.

Air China flight 115
Beijing, China (PEK) to Hong Kong SAR (HKG)
Depart 15:30, Arrive 19:00, Flight Time: 3:30
Airbus A321-200, Registration B-6363, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 96,365
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,134,971

Welcome aboard again, and this time with a reasonably cool glass of bubbles:

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There was a Chinese-American older couple seated in the row in front of me, and the gentleman was absolutely hysterical. For pre-departure drinks he asked for “as many small bottles of vodka as you can fit in a glass with two ice cubes” and was told no vodka until we were in the air. He laughed loudly, said something back to them in Chinese and then just said “fine, bring me alcohol.” He found himself incredibly funny, but his lady friend was clearly less than impressed. He leaned over the seats and started talking to me, and was absolutely hysterical. Fortunately he was the friendly funny drinker type, and not the obnoxious drunk, and once airborne settled down.

I tried the “Chinese red wine” which was almost drinkable, and actually better quality than much of the stuff United serves. Plus, warm salted almonds, which unlike United’s which tend to be a bit mushy they were still firm and crunchy:

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Meal served all at once, including some sort of chicken curry which looked vaguely like vomit, but actually tasted really good…I might have eaten the whole thing, including the scary warm salmon snack starter:

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All in all, the flight was exactly what I’d expected. I went into it thinking it would be roughly the quality of a domestic flight in the US, and that’s exactly what it was. The crews were a mixed bag of mildly friendly to downright grouchy just like crews in the US, and the catering was…well, roughly what I would expect for an upscale prison cafeteria or maybe a mid-tier middle school. Well, except the fruit, which was definitely above average, but again…Asia…and I expect that.

Problem on the second flight was…they forgot to load bread! I decided not to eat the butter alone, however, so sadly it went to waste đŸ˜‰

Three hours went by pretty quickly, arrival in Hong Kong was on-time at a bus gate, and soon it was off to enjoy my rather short 20 hour transit of Hong Kong!

Nov 132015
 

Got checked into the hotel around 6pm after a drive through Ulaanbaatar’s (also known as just U.B. by the locals) horrible traffic, and the room was much larger than expected. It was suffering from a bit of 70s hotel fatigue, but was large, super comfortable, and clean, and a reasonable temperature, so overall the Kempinski impressed me.

I walked the area around the hotel a little bit, finding a small grocery store, but nowhere I really felt like eating at. I was too tired to walk very far or get a taxi, so decided to try the hotel’s Mongolian restaurant for dinner. Went down, and only one problem…the restaurant was closed the night for a private event. Figures with my luck! The hotel felt relatively empty, but the restaurant was booked out. But never fear…the hotel has two other restaurants…BOTH Japanese! I guess it’s the “in” thing in Mongolia?

Started out with an eel salad, which was super, super tasty:

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What’s the local beer called? Chenggis of course…there was also Chenggis energy drink, etc…

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The restaurant even featured authentic decor and waitresses in authentic Japanese attire:

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Tableside grilled kobe beef filet…try not to be TOO jealous…it was absolutely amazing…the right level of marbling and fattiness:

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Crashed early, since it was going to be a very long day of touring with my one full day in Mongolia. Up early, and checked out the hotel breakfast which was included in my rate. Pretty wide selection of foods, but the quality didn’t look amazing. They did have some super tasty local dumplings, but the western offerings (especially the breads and pastries) were a bit lacking. That said, there were plenty of options so it was pretty easy to find something I liked. Plus, coffee came in individual small pots, and was pretty tasty!

My driver picked me up right on time, and he was driver and guide. Nice younger guy who’d actually studied in the US for a couple of years, and decided he wanted to go back to Mongolia. As we started to drive out of the city, the thing that surprised me was just quickly the quality of the road deteriorated. Yes, it was still asphalt, but pretty badly rutted to the point it seriously affected how fast we could go.

Our first stop outside town was a traditional rock gathering called an ovoo. The tradition is when you are traveling, you stop at the ovoo and walk around it three times, always in a clockwise direction. Historically ovoos were made of wood, and now lots of them are stones, wood, and miscellaneous…stuff. Our ovoo was also the home of several wild dogs. I love this shot with the clear blue sky behind:

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Our next stop was the 100 monks cave, where supposedly at one time 100 monks hid out during the Russian occupation. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have a happy ending because they were eventually found and killed. My guide climbed to the top and went in, but I only went about 2/3 of the way up because the rocks were tricky, and I was still being careful with my shoulder post-surgery:

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Back to the bottom, we went across the road to visit with some local nomadic people…and their yaks!

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Their goats seemed fascinated by me:

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We drove a bit longer, and our next stop was a place called Turtle Rock. Note again just how amazing the blue skies are…and you can see why it’s called Turtle Rock…really does look kind of like a turtle!

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Not sure it looks as much like a turtle up close, but again, the wide open spaces, changing leaves, and the sky just wowed me:

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The view into the valley from Turtle Rock:

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At this point, my guide announced I should try the most Mongolian of activities and go for a horseback ride up to the temple at the top of the mountain. Now, keep in mind, it has probably been 30+ years since I’ve been on a horse. However, I survived the nearly 90 minute ride. I look much happier at the end than my poor horse:

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A regular Chenggis Khan I am:

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Having survived horsing around (see what I did there?), it was time to walk up to the monastery. There were something like 100 signs on the walk, each with a saying from the Buddha on them:

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Approaching the monastery. Amazing the leaves were so colourful in September:

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Inside the monastery:

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After a visit to the monastery and sitting and reflecting for 30 minutes or so, we started the trek back down the mountain. Scary bridge? No problem!

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On the way down, I spun the prayer wheel to see which of the 100+ verses I should meditate on:

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I spun lucky number 13, so on the way down, I stopped to contemplate it:

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After the monastery we drove a bit longer to a ger (the Mongolian word for yurt) camp for lunch. The accommodations were so luxurious I regretted not being able to spend the night đŸ˜‰

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View of the gers against the sky and hills:

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Mongolian food isn’t known for being very fancy and is generally very heavy – lots of dumplings, meat, etc, but the lunch was delicious. I thought I’d taken some pictures, but apparently I was too busy being polite and chatting with my guide who ate with me. It was a nice four course lunch at the tourist ger camp, consisting of a starter, soup, dumplings, and some fruit for dessert. Nice and filling and tasty!

After lunch we headed to our last stop, the Chenggis Khan Memorial and museum. In the middle of nowhere, it was build recently and seemed to be a prime attraction for tourists, including busloads of very noisy and rude Chinese tourists. It was so crowded, and they were so loud, that it made the whole thing unpleasant that I asked my guide if we could just hang back for 30 minutes and walk through after they were done. He was completely fine with this, and off we went.

First, the “largest boot in the world” – no clue why, but:

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Hanging in front of the giant Chenggis Statue:

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From below…yes, the shot above is from the “observation desk” on the horse’s back, lol:

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The museum was actually super interesting, and basically told the history of the Mongolian Empire and the Khans, including Chenggis. I had no idea the empire had been so vast at its peak, basically reaching to Europe and most of Southeast Asia as well. After spending around 90 minutes or so at the museum, we began the long flight back to UB. Toll booth on the way back into town:

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Gate/arch entering the outskirts of town:

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On the way into town, I convinced my guide to let me stop in Chenggis Khan Square for 30 minutes to walk around. Fun fact, wanna know why UB was founded where it was? Supposedly in Mongolian tradition, where your horse stops to pee is good luck. Well, Chengis’ horse stopped here and decided to take a leak, and voila, UB was founded. Not kidding, from MIAT magazine:

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Fun architecture:

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Sukhbaatar statue in the middle of the square:

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Local kids hanging out in the square:

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There were lots of booths set up too selling miscellaneous stuff. The architecture was also pretty wild and modern:

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Chenggis statue, yet again!

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Back to the hotel, where I finally got to eat at the Mongolian restaurant, which was honestly a bit of a letdown. It wasn’t bad, but certainly nothing special, and the food I’d had at the tourist ger camp was actually better. When I got back to my room, there were fireworks going off out the window:

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With that, the day was a wrap. I was super impressed how much I managed to cram into one day, especially considering we drove something like 300 km on roads that were often pretty awful. I can’t wait to go back some day for the Nadam Festival, but I feel like I made the best of a bad situation (thanks Turkmenistan!) and got a really good introduction to Mongolia. Next up, the long, long way home!