Day 36: Sükhbaatar to Ulaanbaatar , First impressions

Snow dusted mountains tower above apartment blocks and temples.
Nature steals the show.

I awake to darkness, a necessity as our train gets in at 5am.

Sleet clings to the cold glass. Leaving our over-heated carriage doesn’t seem like such an appealing idea anymore, and I nervously wait our arrival.

Finally we reach Ulanbaatar Railway Station. I lug my gear off the train, and bid a hasty farewell to my room mates.

As expected, it’s cold, dark and freezing. Thankfully I’ve pre-booked a night at the Town Yard hostel, on the recommendation of Simon in Irkutsk. The owner, Gan, is waiting for me on the platform. He’s super friendly considering the hour!

He helps me carry my heavy and unwieldy gear a few hundred meters to his car. Then we drive, through falling snow, poorly lit streets and lawless traffic, to the hostel. It’s only a few kilometres away, but I’m so glad that I didn’t have to navigate this on my bike.

Driving up an alleyway, we unload at the Town Yard, leaving my disassembled bike in his garage. After a warming cup of tea, I try to figure out my bed sheets, eventually crashing out on top of them for some uninterrupted sleep.

When I awake, four hours have passed.

I’ve missed the 9am cut off for breakfast, so, after a shower and a shave, I set about cooking up some porridge and noodles on the portable gas stoves in the common room.

Other guests started to filter in. I meet a bunch of Swedes including a man named Eric and a fellow New Zealander named Mark.

Mark has quit a tunnel building job in London to travel through Russia, Mongolia and China, before returning to New Zealand and on to Hamilton. It used to be that everyone went to London to do their OE and get a head start on their mortgage, but he hasn’t seen many Kiwis at all and we wonder if Australia is more financially attractive these days.

Pointing at the Road Network Map of Mongolia on the wall, Gan asks if I I’m planning to ride around Mongolia and if so, where I want to go. I have a rough idea, but when looking at my plans in the context of just Mongolia, the country looks so BIG.

At 3pm, after two coffees, I am finally ready to brave the daylight outside the hostel.

The Town Yard hostel is in the Bayangol district.

It’s a scant couple of blocks away from a large square containing some amazing architecture.

Buddhist temples, they’re evocative of the Tibetan monasteries I’ve only seen in Tintin books. Numbering ten or so, some have grand multi-story exteriors, while others are shy, single story affairs. Most of them have the signature smiling eaves, stretching skywards.

But out in the open like this, it’s the epic snow-frosted mountains which take my breathe away. Visible in all directions, they cradle the city in their icy embrace. Winter is coming.

Today’s cold snap, however, is fleeting. I snap pictures of dramatic snap-frozen icicles clinging to gutterless tin roofs. A couple of hours later, the day is sunny and mild. It’s hard to dress for!

Craving home comforts, I head to the Bumbugur Trade Center to buy a couple of apples for a couple of dollars. The price is right and they look fresh and crunchy, but when I bite into one, it’s floury and horrible.

Home comforts may look the same, but I’m pretty far from home right now.

Heading on towards town, I’m surprised to find a modern city.

Out there, the barren steppes and powdered slopes, but in here coffee shops, organic supermarkets, luxury cars and traffic rules, more or less. The traffic is mad but I’ve seen three people on bikes – albeit taking the safer footpath option.

And, whiles there’s dirt here and there, this capital city isn’t the smog-filled hell-hole that people say. The sun is shining and all is well with the world, or so it seems.

The busy city streets are bookended by the Selbe Gol river, and block after block of apartment blocks.

I pass a couple of Dutch tourists from the train and some drunk play-fighting Mongols, as well as many other people who are just heading home from work.

The scale of the city is exhausting, but I’ve learnt to expect this. I tell myself to relax, that it always takes a few days to get my head around new places.

Travelling with a small laptop, I’m keen to find out if I can support myself as a Digital Nomad.

The term has been doing the rounds on social media lately. With remote working technology now portable and affordable, more and more people are questioning why they need to be tethered to an office to do computer-based work. And if not their office, then why their home town? And if not their home town, then why their home country? After all, for Western travellers foreign currency usually goes a lot further than the local wage.

So, when a web contract came up while I was cycling through Russia, I seized the opportunity.

Some research led me to the Nomad List (opens new window), and I paid USD 50 to access the secret society of those trying to nurture a sustainable combination of work and travel.

Over the next few days, I hope to validate some of the suggested working locations around town. My goal is to get out of my comfort zone at the hostel and propel myself into ‘the scene’.

Top of my list is Café Camino. The recommendation for this place was !!!, which I take to be a complement.

The staff are polite but not as hip or happy as I’d hoped. There’s no sign of the garden area that I’d seen in photos, so I find a table inside, then head to the counter to buy something to justify my presence there.

I grab a coffee and several snacks. They’re expensive and don’t even seem to touch the sides. I’m playing it cool, but maybe it’s my nerves.

My seat is hard, too. Extended coding sessions here would come at a different price. But the Wi-Fi is reliable and the cafe quiet for this time of day. The only sounds come from the coffee machine and some nondescript electronic jazz, playing quietly in the background.

It’s doable, but I’d prefer somewhere with better value for money. After all, I’m here to earn money, not to spend it.

I pack up and head out. An exploration of the surrounding area reveals something of an expat enclave. I suppose I should be encouraged by the assurance of reliable infrastructure, but it just feels out of place.

Heading around the corner I discover an upstairs lounge.

Buying a pleasantly cheap (3500 Tugrik) beer, I seat myself next to the window. It commands a fine view of the outside world. Unfortunately this consists of a constant flow of traffic, two lanes in either direction. It’s almost funny.

The other clients chat happily among themselves. Unlike Russia, no one bothers me, so I drink my beer alone, and question my motives for coming here.

Luckily they have Wi-Fi, so I write up my daily diary before taking my leave.

I walk down towards Peace Avenue, past the neon lit State Department Store and then home.