Friday, 30 July 2010

drinking and dancing in Ulaanbaatar (part1)

Ulaanbaatar dishes up a surprisingly wide array of nightlife. There is at least something for most tastes.

  • Monet and Sky Lounge - located on the top floor of Central Tower (Louis Vuitton, Zegna, Armani and Boss on ground floor) this is 'the' place to hang out with the beautiful people of Mongolia. Kitten heels and sharp suits are the order of play. Astounding views.
  • Veranda - again I enthuse about this place. The best place to enjoy a bottle of wine with friends.
  • Crystal Lounge - modernist, trendy hang-out serving only cocktails; decent ones at that.

Ulaanbaatar has almost as many pubs as Edinburgh. Most are wee vodka dens; a must for the more intrepid drinker. Most of the big bars are themed, sounds tacky but it actually works.

  • Dublin - even deepest Mongolia has its own Irish bar. This is a better and more genuine offering than many other countries boast. Good beer, great atmosphere and a leg of lamb for a pound - bargain! Miners love this place.
  • Dave's Place - a British pub that runs a pub quiz alongside decent football (if that's your thing). Nice outdoor patio.
  • Brau Haus - to Germany and as you'd expect: loud, big beers, hearty food and live music. Not for a quiet night.


  • Ismuss - weird weird weird. The multi-level club boasts a 7 metre high statue of Joseph Stalin! A throw back to Soviet-chic, worth a visit.
  • Zouq - the first Egyptian themed club I've come across. Catwalk dance floor.
  • Silence - late night trance music.
Mongolian of the day:- drink :: undaa

Thursday, 29 July 2010

bears and bulls in Ulaanbaatar

There is a stock exchange in Ulaanbaatar. The Mongolian Stock Exchange (MSE) must be the dinkiest, sweetest exchange I have ever seen. Indeed, it is the world's smallest stock exchange by market capitalisation. It is resplendent in red and used to be the children's theatre; how apt is that? Secondary market trading (basic trading in equities) began for real in 1996 after the transtion from central planned economy to market economy (from Communist State-owned to a more Anglo-Saxon structure).

Since 1996 the MSE has traded shares worth a combined value of 39bn tugrugs/US$32m/GBP21m. This compares with the London Stock Exchange which has a daily trading value of some 13trillion tugrugs/US$11bn/GBP7bn; and against the NYSE Euronext group which has a whopping combined daily trading value of 190trillion tugrugs/US$157bn/GBP100bn. The MSE is a fairly small outfit in the scheme of things, but it is growing.

Comparatively, the MSE is a large chunk of the Mongolian economy. Total GDP in Mongolia is around US$4.2bn, the same as Guinea, Montenegro and Zimbabwe; far behind the US with US$14trillion. However, there are a couple of particularly large mining projects underway in Mongolia such as the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine. Mining is widely viewed as the way forward and these projects are forecast to dramatically increase the size of the Mongolian economy, at a time when other economies are stagnant or shrinking, and catapult it onto the main stage of Asian business.

In Mongolia the National Development and Innovation Committee estimated that every US$1m output in mining generates: 51 new jobs; $115k demand in energy; increases imports by $404k; stimulates transportation and trade by $98k; $5k demand in agriculture/food; $27k demand in industry.

There is a feeling of electricity in the air around Ulaanbaatar. It has the feel you get before an enormous storm. This is a city that is about to change dramatically. It is already a great city so let's hope the change is for the better. The bull is most certainly in town.

Mongolian of the day:- money :: mong

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

life in Ulaanbaatar

Living in Ulaanbaatar means not being in a hurry. The city centre is about 5km from my apartment. Some days it takes 5 minutes, other days 1 hour; no rhyme or reason. We are a week into the (very) hot weather and having moved outside town is the smartest move we have made to date. Getting irked by traffic is not an option, it wastes too much energy; this is a commonly held view resulting in a pleasantly placid non-threatening atmosphere. (We are in the apartment block, the president's palace is the big white bulding)

At the bottom of our driveway the Tuul River meanders along the southern limits of the city. Tull means 'to meander through' in Mongolian. The 800km long river has long been held sacred by the Mongols, presumably because of the naturally arid nature of the country.

Tuul River is a very popular place for swimming, gathering and barbecues. In the evening groups of friends and families hang out on the riverbank; playing, splashing, eating, talking and generally having a nice time away from the stinging heat. The water comes from the mountains and retains its cool freshness. With temperatures remaining well over 35C during the day (and above 25C most nights) plunging into the water is the only way of keeping cool. Mountains surround our apartment, acting as an oven. There is no air-conditioning and little breeze. It may not be the Grand Plage in St Jean de Luz but without the river life would be a lot less tolerable; sharing it with horses and goats is simply a bonus.

Mongolian of the day:- good evening :: oroin mend

Monday, 26 July 2010

eating in Ulaanbaatar

When I told people I was moving to Ulaanbaatar they suggested I wasn't moving for the food; that every dish was mutton with mutton; that I would finally shed those extra pounds I've been carrying. How wrong everybody was. Contrary to popular belief the Mongolian capital has an exceedingly fine selection of fantastic eating places. So far my top 5 off-the-tourist-trail favourite haunts are:

1. Veranda: Overlooking the Choijin Lama temple be sure to reserve a table outside. The restaurant specialises in Italian-Mongolian fusion which is healthy, hearty and hedonistic. A great atmosphere and mixed clientele. The story goes that Veranda and the restaurant below were once the same run by husband and wife. They divorced, she took upstairs and is now kicking her husband's derriere. Tourists downstairs, locals upstairs.

2. Millie's: I thought I wouldn't like this place. How wrong I was. Millie has been in Ulaanbaatar for years and set up her cafe to cater for foreigners living here. It has none of the expat feel you get in other countries and there are rarely any tourists. It is for locals, Mongolian and otherwise. A fabulous selection of food given a Cuban twist by her excellent head Daniel. Millie herself is a delightful legend.

3. Sexy Jazz Lounge: I had to visit given its excellent name. It is a dark and moody place that serves up a suprisingly excellent burger and milkshake. A favourite haunt of office workers. I saw nothing particularly sexy other than the melted cheese and bacon topping and double-thick chocolate shake after which all sexy thoughts dissipated.

4. Hazara: A wonderful northern Indian restaurant situated behind the wrestling arena. My favourite restaurant decor in town, very zen inside your own tent. Too many fantastical spicy dishes to list; a great place to gorge over a number of hours if you have an afternoon or evening to spare. The best naans and saffron rice I have ever tasted.

5. Sakura: Masticatingly good Japanese cuisine at the Kempinski. A hefty menu served by lovely lasses. I ate the soba everyday while I stayed at the Kempinski. They also serve Chinggis in litre glasses; probably the most refreshing beer in the world.

I haven't included any overtly 'Mongolian' restaurants in the list, that's not to say the traditional, local food is not good, it is. Given the weather we have experienced thus far, Mongolian food is aimed at more wintery clientele, we will return when the ice comes. However, for the ultimate in snacking everybody should try huushuur, bansh, buuz and mantuu...

Mongolian of the day:- food :: khool

Thursday, 22 July 2010

hot daze in Ulaanbaatar

It is unseasonably hot in Ulaanbaatar. Definitely windows closed weather. An average summer will see temperatures knocking 30C, today we recorded 44C and it is getting hotter. For a Scotsman abroad this is testing the limits.

Having moved outside town at the weekend at least I get fresh air rushing in from the mountains but at the moment even that is hot. Hawks, buzzards and eagles seem to be revelling in the weather. They spiral upwards effortlessly on currents before plunging headfirst back to earth for a bite to eat.

The local kids seem to be enjoying the scorching weather too and are jumping happily into the nearby river. The same river serves as a road in winter with ice nearly two metres thick. Given the dryness and altitude the sun is incredibly strong; factor 50 needs to be replenished every 30 minutes you remain outdoors.

At present my only option is to sit as still as possible in an effort to keep cool. With the view I have this is no mean chore.

Mongolian of the day:- river :: gol

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

people in and around Ulaanbaatar

Roughly 40% of the Mongolian population live in its capital Ulaanbaatar (some 1.2m people). About 20% live in the other various smaller towns dispersed around the vast country. The remainder are nomadic (over 1m people), that's a lot of nomads. It is a tough life that has changed little since the days of Chinggis Khaan in the 12th century. Almost all live in gers.
Gers are round thick canvas tents. They are designed to be resiliant yet transportable. Everything that needs to be done takes place inside the tent. Outdoors is often too daunting a prospect in Mongolia. Summer temperatures soar above 45C, in winter it plummets to -40C, a swing of some 80C!! The roof has a hole in its conical centre. A stove is lit in the tent for heating and cooking. Nomads sleep snuggled up together inside, take their meals together inside, undertake their ablutions and I suspect ensure the family line, all within sight and earshot of their extended family. The most important factor is warmth. Winter is the longest season and death needs to be avoided.
Despite the forced closeness family life in gers does contain its own more upbeat traditions and cultures. As is common worldwide alcohol plays an important part, generally vodka in Mongolia. Singing and playing musical instruments is surprisingly common and far more prevelant than in developed countries. It is a tough life. Herding horses and camels across the Gobi to market is not a life many can understand let alone choose. The nomads I have met remain resolutely upbeat. They know their way of life has outlived many others. They also know that the world is changing and that perhaps they are better suited than most to cope with some of the adversities that global warming will through at us.
Mongolian of the day:- cooking pot :: togoo

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Ulaanbaatar is the wild wild west

Last night, whilst enjoying drinks at the British Embassy bar in Ulaanbaatar, I heard something I have always wanted to hear. A wild haired gentleman sporting a robust moustache stood upon the bar. He beckoned the throng hush: "Yee-haw, I struck oil this morning, the drinks are on me!" I half hoped he'd pull out two six-shooters and dance a jig while firing them in the air! There was certainly something of the JR about this fellow. Sharing such a momentous occasion with him was a unique treat. For the past fifteen years his small exploration company has been working through various sites he wholeheartedly believed oil rich in Mongolia. Yesterday his dream came true. Congratulations.The Steppe Inne is something of an institution in Ulaanbaatar. The British Ambassador and his charming wife began the weekly gathering years ago as a means of bringing together the very few British citizens who were in Mongolia at the time. Since then many more have arrived: some working for NGOs; others pursuing copper, gold and oil; others dinosaur hunters etc. Membership to the club has long closed but our contact here has had a word and we are members for the duration of our stay.

The gathered crowd was a very eclectic mix: old-school Brits who have probably moved from country to country since the Empire was at its peak; entrepreneurial business and charity directors explore what is innevitably the next booming Asian economy; a wacky mix of artists and craftspeople; local Mongolians returned from overseas education with a love for the UK (this is a large group - I have met more Mongolians with PhDs than I have any other nationality). After several ales we were invited by friends to join them for a curry. It was a rather different take on the average Friday night out in Britain.

Mongolian of the day:- khookh :: wow

Thursday, 15 July 2010

sexy warrior princesses in Ulaanbaatar

Today I felt like a public shoolboy in Ulaanbaatar. It is not every day that you see three very pretty girls walking around dressed up as warriors of Chinggis Khaan - I was most taken aback!

It is an interesting city that has not failed to surprise me. Today is my last day before checking out of the hotel (the Kempinski is excellent if anyone finds themselves here). I have been confined to my room trying to get some work done. Other than odd stolen minutes leaning out of the window to take in daily life I have been glued to my screen. The stolen moments were beginning to feel normal: I have grown used to the physical appearance of people here (very striking); the erratic driving is becoming passe; the changing light as thunder clouds steal the sky from the searing sun though still special is almost expected. However, as I enjoyed watching a group of older gentlemen chewing the cud I raised my line of sight above and beyond the buildings nearby. It is in so doing that I am constantly reminded that I am not in Kansas anymore.

Peppered along the surrounding mountains are a multitude of gers. Where suburban sprawl and 2.43 kids would occupy the fringes of a European city; nomadic Mongols and their horses take up station in Ulaanbaatar. It feels as though we are surrounded by people from another age who are laying seige to us. I can't wait to explore more tomorrow...

Mongolian of the day:- camel :: temee

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

moving house in Ulaanbaatar

Today we found an apartment in Ulaanbaatar. The Russians took control of Mongolia from the Chinese in the 1920's. The Chinese had been long-term rulers and very unpopular with the locals. The Russians were hailed as saviours and are still regarded highly, despite Mongolia breaking free from their hold at the fall of the Soviet block. Anyway, while the Soviets were in place the Politburo (governing body of the Communist Party) needed somewhere nice to stay while they were in Mongolia. And so they built some lavish apartments in the mountains overlooking the city.

The apartments came complete with pool, sauna, snooker room, private cinema, gym, gardens and high security. It just so happens that since the fall of the Eastern Bloc these apartments have been in need of some TLC. That TLC appeared in the last few years and the apartments have recently become residence to some of the more interesting Mongolian families, as well as a couple who normally live in the Basque Country that are moving in on Friday...

Mongolian of the day:- thanks :: bayarlalaa

Monday, 12 July 2010

horseplay in Ulaanbaatar

Every year just outside Ulaanbaatar there is a horse race. It is a horse race quite unlike any I have ever heard about. Two hundred children aged between five and twelve set off on five year old ponies across the breathtaking Mongolian countryside. After rounding several hills and rising several valleys their final furlongs come into sight some 25 kilometres later. Streaming down the last valley they are met by the tumultous roars of an eager crowd. The entire city comes out to watch the spectacle. After almost two hourse of racing several more able riders break from the bunch and charge with lung-bursting effort towards the glory and fame that awaits one of them. Horses are a big deal in Mongolia and this event is the pinnacle of horse related matters. After the race for five year old ponies comes the more important race for two year olds, again ridden by children.
For several days in advance rich horse-owning Mongolian families will have been camped in their gers readying their horses for the event. Gambling is prohibited but you can tell this is as much of a money game as it is a sport. The child-jockeys are incredible. Let alone it being tough for a pony to run for 25 kilometres, having a child ride them at full pelt while retaining full control is some feat. Each year half a dozen or so children fail to complete the race; generally they are trampled asunder as the race commences with few surviving. To win a race though means grace and favour for the jockey and his family. Until recently the sweat of a five year old pony was deemed to bring good luck with multitudes of supporters thronging the horses as they neared the end of the race. This resulted in further accident so the last few kilometres now have a small makeshift fence. The atmosphere is one of carnival; one of the most wonderful carnivals I could ever imagine. If you ever get the chance it is well worth the 5am alarm call and two hour drive.
Mongolian of the day:- horse :: moir

Sunday, 11 July 2010

war games in Ulaanbaatar

Today in Ulaanbaatar, the annual festival of Naadam began. It is based on Mongolia's love of war games with competitors boasting their skills at wrestling, archery, horse-riding and ... anklebone shooting (?). War is a big theme, Ulaanbaatar means Red Warrior.

The opening ceremony was a loud colourful affair with enormous credit paid to the country's father and hero, Chinggis Khaan (known as Genghis in the West). A packed stadium, presided over by the president, cheered and whistled as contestants walked the arena accompanied by a bevvy of supporters and pretty girls. Traditionally dressed warriors fired arrows at full speed while others chopped off would-be heads with their swords. It was exhausting to watch with so much happening at once, all set to traditional throat-singing Mongolian music. A wonderful entree into cultural life here.

Following the ceremony, the games began. The wrestling competition was a pyramid with winners progressing to the next level. Many fought at the same time. The winner was the person who threw the other to the floor first. There were lots of wee guys up against giants, but size didn't always win. After winning the fighters do a half embrace and slap each other's bottoms before the winner is given a hat to wear and runs off towards the presidential area to perform an eagle dance. With so many fights taking place simultaneously it was almost impossible to pick and follow a favourite.

The stadium next door housed archery. Archers shot some 100m towards a series of coiled ropes, each 15cm in diameter, that were set out on the ground. The centre coil was coloured red. A group of men stood (dangerously) around the coils and their response to each shot signified success or otherwise. Again we saw the eagle dance. Next to the archery several groups of men sat at what could have been makeshift craps tables. At one end three small bones were piled like cricket bales. Three or so metres away sat the competitors each with a flat piece of wood and a squared chunk of anklebone. The challenge was to flick the anklebone at the targets. This seemed to be the most male oriented of the sports with a good deal of masculine noise being made. A unique experience that promises to be even more so tomorrow...

Mongolian of the day:- war :: dain

Saturday, 10 July 2010

underway in Ulaanbaatar

Arriving in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, the last remnants of daylight lit the mountain tops that create a natural bowl around the city. As the plane neared the runway I could see innumerable round tents that are known elsewhere as 'yurts' but in Mongolia are known as 'gers'. The population was once entirely nomadic. Although there are towns other than the capital Ulaanbaatar, there are still many nomadic people travelling the mountains and deserts.

On landing I was informed that there are two reasons why I would have seen so many gers. Firstly, this weekend sees the main national festival Naadam so many people will have travelled to stay with their family for the events (more over the coming days). Secondly, last winter was one of the harshest in the country's history. As such many people have been forced to give up their nomadic ways and move to the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. They have erected the Mongolian version of a shanty town. It looks a lot prettier than those I saw in India or South Africa.

Time for some sleep. Mongolian of the day:- hello :: sain bainuu

Thursday, 8 July 2010

from St Jean de Luz to Ulaanbaatar

I am leaving St Jean de Luz to undertake a long adventure in Mongolia. My family and friends have been exceedingly supportive; in part I assume because it means they get a free holiday cat sitting in my absence. It says something about St Jean de Luz that within a week of mentioning my trip I now have guests staying every single day; so keen are people to experience the town. I hope they enjoy it as much as I do. In the meantime Basque Bylines in Mongolia will be taking up the mantle.

Basque of the day:- adventure :: abentura

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

things you learn in St Jean de Luz

My best lesson from 18 months in St Jean de Luz is that no matter how busy and stressed out you are, everything gets done a whole lot easier if you instead sit in the sunshine with a good friend and enjoy a cool, refreshing beer.

Basque of the day:- relax :: erlaxatu

Sunday, 4 July 2010

covering your ears in St Jean de Luz

Sometimes in St Jean de Luz all you want is a bit of peace and quiet. I fully understand that the season has started and shopkeepers are eagerly rubbing their chubby little hands together in anticipation but the biscuit has been well and truly taken this weekend.

3 blokes with 3 instruments have installed themselves for 3 days in the little square beneath my front terrace. Their enthusiasm should be admired, their expertise should not. Castrating cats makes a more harmonious sound.

I have varied musical tastes but have no idea what the instruments they play are called. Nor do I care. The noise lies something between a silent movie piano-score and a drunken Bulgarian mother-in-law singing of her love for dumplings. It is with some trepidation that even the dreaded accordionist seems a better option than this. I can't hear myself think; a plan is needed.

Basque of the day:- war :: gerla