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Back Roads Beat

Crashing Corporate Christmas Parties in Mongolia

By Published: January 10, 2007
Bush-league misadventures in the land of Genghis Kahn

Whether it's warfare or window shopping, Mongolia's beauty can be rugged and brutal.

Mongolia made a rare appearance in global headlines last November when George W. Bush became the first U.S. president to visit the former Soviet satellite country. The trip was motivated partially because Mongolia was one of the last remaining supporters of the Iraq war, with the 136 deployed Mongolian troops ranking third per-capita among U.S. partners. Perhaps coincidentally, FOX News was the U.S. news station fed in by satellite to where I was staying, unlike most other countries that carry CNN.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also has Mongolian ties, receiving a horse a few months before Bush's visit. As a result, according to The Wall Street Journal, Bush was so concerned he'd be honored with a similar gift that he couldn't take home on Air Force One and didn't want to care for from afar that the question "occupied not one but several meetings at the National Security Council."

Ultimately, the president didn't get a horse, depriving him of what's still considered the best means of transportation in Mongolia (along with camels). Terrain ranges from Siberian forests in the north to vast deserts only a couple hundred miles to the south, but nearly all of it is arid as the Central Asian mountains block off humid air from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Temperatures range from more than 100 above to 50 below Farenheit.

There's only about 1,000 miles of paved road and even those are congested and full of potholes due to an explosion in vehicle traffic, which increased 450 percent between 1990 and 2000. In Ulaanbaatar, it's often a bumper-to-bumper melee.

"Many of the current microbuses, which already endanger public safety, often carrying 20- plus passengers on bald tires, look like they're on fire as they roar down crowded streets," an editorial in the English-language UB Post notes. Traffic lights seem to be optional and the accident fatality rate of 28 people per 10,000 vehicles is higher than nearly all other central Asian countries, with one-third alcohol related. Collisions with pedestrians, the newspaper adds, are even more alarming.

"Darting between cars like a game of Frogger," the Post states. "Drivers often stop for the elderly, but even that common courtesy is becoming rare."

There's a web of dirt roads, but many are just wheel tracks leading to rural tourist camps. There's no train service except a single, albeit famous, international track. Small airplanes make regular flights to a number of outlaying areas, but are expensive and winter service is often spotty or nonexistent.

Getting to Mongolia can also be a pain for a Westerner. I was coming from Central Asia, about 500 miles away with one other border to cross, except that border belonged to China. A U.S. resident needs a visa to enter China, even to change planes in Beijing. The "easiest" alternative was through South Korea or Japan, requiring three long flights over four days. Direct flights from Germany, Italy and Russia are also possible.

For a return trip I plan to get a visa, but for Russia so I can take the Trans-Siberian Railway from the east and connect in Moscow, where the line turns south for Beijing. For those who want to keep going after Mongolia and see China, there may never be a more tourist- friendly time than before the 2008 Olympics, as they're putting fresh paint on everything (including the grass) and sweeping the "undesirables" off the streets.

Left numb by the opening act

Coming off the plane in winter, the cold hits like a gunshot.

Passengers walk across the tamarack to the Ulaanbaatar terminal, just long enough for an initializing touch of painful freeze to be felt in a multitude of areas exposed by those dressed for the comfort of a pressurized cabin. At the exit of the smallish but reasonably modern terminal is the usual Third World melee of touts trying to hustle tourists into taxis and rooms.

I passed them expressionless and got into a tiny beat-up car with a skinny old man behind the wheel, figuring he'd be the most trustworthy. Using an exchange of numbers and symbols written on a notepad, he agreed to take me into town for what seemed a reasonable price. As he started to pull out, one of the touts got into the front passenger's seat and started to talking rapidly to him. My "escort" then told me in broken English he'd get me to town for four times the fare I had just arranged and asked where I was staying. Experience has shown basic civility doesn't apply in such situations and the last thing Westerners with money need is a hustler knowing anything about them. What ensued was 30-seconds of shouting amounting to my saying "Get. Out. Now."

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