Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Ulaan Baatar

Tuesday, 10th July 2012

View of Ulaan Baatar from my hotel room.

After a shower, change and breakfast, I decided to see some of the city. Our guide Baggi, who had met me at the airport, said we'd be visiting various places later in the tour so I decided to head for the Railway Museum (surprise!). I located the 'Train Museum' next to the railway on the tourist map I'd picked up on my way through the airport and explained to the hotel reception staff what I wanted to do, showing them the map. They phoned to check that the museum would be open because of the holiday surrounding the Mongolian National Day on 11th July 2012. "It's open 8 'till 5 today" they assured me so I asked them to book a taxi to take me there. I afterwards wondered who they could have spoken to.

In the taxi, I followed the route on my map as best I could but I thought the driver was heading too far west and was probably heading for the Railway Station itself. However, he pulled up at a building that could have been a museum and it certainly had a model of a steam locomotive outside so I paid the agreed fare and the taxi sped off. Well, it was a museum but it was locked and a cleaner working around the outside of the building assured me it was closed for the Naadam holiday.

On re-inspection of my tourist map, I found I'd been delivered to the Museum of Railway History (which I didn't even know about). Since the railway station was only a few hundred yards away, I thought I'd have a look there before deciding what to do next.

Heavy road traffic outside Ulaan Baatar railway station.

I was amazed at just how busy the roads around the station were. With the National Day and Naadam the next day, it seemed that everyone wanted to be somewhere else. I took pictures around the impressive station and photographed a passenger train arriving from Russia. As it approached, I realised it was the Eastbound 'Golden Eagle' - the train I was to board in a couple of days. I went through the subway to Platform 3 to have a look at the train and watch some of the passengers alighting.

After watching a couple of freight trains and a diesel-electric 'switcher' shunting around the station, I decided to return to the road and walk to the Open Air Railway Museum I'd been aiming for. The railway side of the road was lined with warehouses and lots of people were coming and going, transferring eggs, bottled water and all kinds of fresh vegetables and fruit between the warehouses and various vehicles parked at the kerbside. Further along, a dirt road on my right led to more warehouses and vehicles were gridlocked either trying to enter or leave the limited space. There was a lot of horn blowing, manoevring in odd directions and numerous near-misses which I eventually realised is the normal way of driving in Mongolia. A stream of pedestrians, some loaded down with purchases, were making their way to a footbridge over the railway so I decided to take some photographs from the vantage point. The bridge also carried a couple of massive steam mains across the railway. Ulaan Baatar, like much of Russia, uses District Heating schemes to distribute steam for heating from the network of generally elderly coal-fired power stations.

I continued along the road in the hot sun until I came to what looked like a locomotive depot. A line of rusting diesel locomotives stood outside. Not being sure what to expect, I wandered up to a small gatehouse thinking that an abandoned depot had been appropriated for the museum. After a few seconds of mutual incomprehension with the young security guard, I realised that the rather beat-up premises were, in fact, the diesel depot still in use and that my destination must lie further along the road.

Tramping further, I was rewarded with the sight of a narrow gauge steam locomotive out in the open. This time, I was in the right place. A fenced compound held a number of locomotives but it looked rather neglected and there was nobody around. I walked past the exhibits to where some roadworks looked similarly abandoned. There were piles of sandy soil and a section of steel pipe. To facilitate whatever work had been in progress, they'd taken down the museum fence at that end of the site. By climbing over the spoil, there was unrestricted access to the locomotives.

Ulaan Baatar Train Museum.

I spent a happy half hour photographing the exhibits and then started to wonder how I'd get back to the hotel. I'd harboured ideas of getting a taxi but, as I'd walked from the railway station to the museum, I'd passed people about every 50 yards, standing in the gutter with their arm raised, trying to hail a taxi. They didn't seem very successful so I didn't rate my chances. It seemed that on the day before Naadam, everybody wanted taxis. I didn't know how far I was from my hotel - I guessed three miles - and I was rather hot and bothered. However, you see so much more on foot so I thought I'd give it a shot and see how far I got.

A missing manhole cover in Ulaan Baatar.

Walking in Ulaan Baatar is not for the timid. Every step provides some sort of trap for the unwary, changes in level, unseen steps, potholes. I found a manhole near the middle of the city with a missing cover. Oddly, the two bolts and washers intended to secure the cover had been carefully replaced. I think it took me about 90 minutes to get back to the hotel, pleased that I'd seen so much of the city.

The day concluded with dinner at the Khar Khorum Restaurant in the hotel an an opportunity to meet Tatiana, the Tour Manager, and my fellow-travellers.


Ulaan Baatar.
Railways around Ulaan Baatar.
Ulaan Baatar Train Museum.

Additions made 24-Jul-2012.