Tuesday, 10th July 2012
We landed at Chinggis Khaan International Airport about right time. As soon as we'd turned off the runway we stopped on the taxiway, which revealed signs of extensive cracks that had been repaired. This reminded me that Mongolia is not a rich country. A high-wing two-engine turbo-prop was cleared onto the runway we'd vacated and he took off, in the opposite direction from our landing (the black and white windsocks indicated no surface wind). But we remained halted until a small 4-engine jet (a BAe 146, I think) followed the turbo-prop onto the runway. Then we were allowed to taxi to the terminal, passing an 'elephant's graveyard' of stored aircraft. I spotted two elderly-looking single-engine biplanes and at least three Russian-looking helicopters in their typical "sit up and beg" attitude when parked.
The airbridge was attached and we all piled off the aircraft. It was hot! Ulaan Baatar enjoys the distinction of being the capital city with the lowest average temperature in the world. There is a summer when it can be hot but the season is quite short. It didn't take long to pass through Immigration, manned exclusively by young ladies, but at Customs, the Green Lane was barriered-off. All the passengers were being directed through the Red Channel, which was being ignored by the group of Customs officials standing around.
In the Arrivals Hall, there was the usual group of 'Meeters and Greeters', most with signs. I quickly spotted my name and met Mr. Baggi, our guide, and the car driver. We waited for one other arrival for the 'Golden Eagle' tour who'd travelled on my flight (an Israeli gentleman who's a Civil Engineer) and then went out to the car for the journey of around 18 km into the city and our hotel - the Kempinski Khan Palace.
As we'd flown into Mongolia, I'd seen tall, inhospitable mountains and much of the plains where we landed looked barren with little cultivation. The view from the car was of a rather bleak, industrial landscape. Although hot, it was overcast. I could see what looked like the headworks of small mining operations dotted around. With the mountains forming a backdrop, I was reminded of Longyearbyen which I'd visited on my Arctic Adventure.
Mongolia is rich in a number of minerals, including copper and gold but this doesn't seem to have translated into prosperity as yet. The roads were badly maintained and, since our car seemed to lack effective shock absorbers, the journey wasn't too comfortable. We passed three or four small power stations, apparently coal-fired. Mr. Baggi confirmed my guess that they were Russian design. Mongolia is the second-largest landlocked country in the world but its population is only around 2.8 million. Almost half of that population lives in Ulaan Baatur. There were plenty of the characteristic round tents called 'ger' visible ('yurt' is the Russian term) in evidence but we also passed massive building projects producing long apartment blocks a few stories high, rather reminiscent of the Russian style. I'm told they're currently building around 100,000 new homes!
As we made our way through the city, various building styles could be seen, mainly modern, with a lot of tower blocks up to about ten stories in height and construction cranes everywhere towering over new projects. We passed a few buildings struggling to be 'iconic' - the 'Blue Sky Tower' clad in blue-tinted glass was probably the most successful, but not really to my taste.
The Kempinski Khan Palace is housed in a fairly undistinguished modern block but, even though it was not yet 7 a.m. we were made welcome and I was given the credit-card sized electronic key to a spacious 9th floor room and an invitation to take breakfast. The room had both Wi-Fi and a physical network connection so I was quite content. After a shower and putting on fresh clothes, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. Then, I had to decide whether to catch up on my sleep or explore the city. Regular readers will have no trouble guessing my decision.
My room commanded a good view of an important intersection controlled by traffic lights. Cars, diesel buses and trolley buses streamed past. The, as I was getting ready, I noticed that the traffic had come to a standstill and numerous police cars had appeared. Footpolic lined up on both sides of the street opposite, spaced about every twenty yards. Silence reigned for about 15 minutes (punctuated only by the horns sounded by increasingly impatient motorists). Then, a convoy of about twenty vehicles swept by along the closed street, including a number of police cars with blue and red lights flashing. After this interruption, the traffic started to flow again. I afterwards learned that the convoy was for Hillary Clinton, paying a very brief visit to Mongolia on her way to Laos.
Miscellaneous aircraft pictures (like the one of the terminal building above) are in the set Up, Up and Away.
Pictures of the Kempinski Khan Palace are here.
Pictures around Ulaan Batuur are here.