Friday, August 19, 2011

[KHAN-UUL] A Palace, a Park, and a Hill in Three Hours

I had plenty of time yesterday but as I said, “There’s always tomorrow!” It’s funny how until now I don’t seem to have an idea on how I behave in such situations. It was pretty obvious I'd be waking up late again. I was planning to wake up at 6 AM but I only did so at 11 AM, just giving me enough time to take one last shower for the day before my long train ride back to Zamyn Uud. What’s left for me to explore were: a) the big park a few blocks away from the guest house; b) Winter palace; c) Buddha Park; and d) Zaisan Hill. Although they're not that far away from one another (maps are often exaggerated), some of them (the park and the Winter Palace) require some time for you to enjoy them. Since I stepped out of the guest house at 12, I only had three hours to make it back so that the train would not leave without me. And so I skipped the big park (It has a Ferris Wheel! It has a Ferris Wheel!) and walked.

Walk south away from Sukhbaatar Square. Along the way you'll find a peculiarly pink building which is the National Academic Drama Theater and the National Library on the opposite side of the street. Take a photo. Those two buildings look cool. You can ride a number 43 bus when you reach Bayangol Hotel. I got there in five minutes with pauses for taking photos and a video. Since the map made it look so far apart I thought the Winter Palace won’t be that far either. It took me around 20 minutes to get there on foot. What’s the catch? Of course I was a bit tired when I got there. The traffic was heavy going back to Sukhbaatar Square but the road was almost empty going to Zaisan. If I took a bus I could have arrived there in five minutes or so and had a lot of time for a palace excursion that didn’t seem too rushed.

The Winter Palace has been converted into a museum. This is the only Khan palace you'll see in UB. The others are in some distant province. This palace is rather small and a bit modern thanks to the Russian inspired residence beside it which is still within palace grounds. You have to buy a ticket and the info at the booth also indicates that there is a fee for photos and videos. I did not get this. The tourists inside were taking pictures of the palaces but not of the interiors since there is a blatant sign there saying that photography is prohibited, which made me think that taking photos and videos of the palace grounds was ok, and that was what I did. Maybe what they wanted to say is that there is a fee if they give you a camera crew to follow you around as if you were hosting Discovery Channel? That sounds absurd but I like it. Haha.

Anyway, moving on to the layout, there is a big red gate. There are four figures by the entrance but I don’t know who they are. This trip has really left me with a mission to get to know Buddhism as a religion. Maybe I’ll start with Wikipedia. There is a square with a palace to the north (not accessible), a mini temple to the west housing silk arts, and a temple with Buddhist paintings to the east. Enter the northern gate and you'll see a similar setup. The two temples on both sides have more Buddhist art, while the one to the north is accessible this time, still with some exhibit on Buddhism. Take the exit to the right to see the Russian inspired house.

After the Winter Palace I decided to take the bus to Buddha Park which was a stupid decision once again because the ride only lasted three minutes. Yahoo! The park itself is already done but there is ongoing construction of the residential area around it. Zaisan is the area for UB’s nouveau-riche and I envy those soon-to-be residents because a combo of those hills and the river greeting you in the morning as a fixed view is simply awesome. There is a Grab and Go at the park and this time they have a restaurant aside from their typical stall. It’s a good stopover for refreshments to pack in some energy before climbing Zaisan Hill which is already visible from that area. In fact, you can capture the Golden Buddha and the Zaisan Hill Memorial in one frame, depending on the angle.

There are two giant bells housed in gazebos not far from the golden Buddha. Taking pictures was quite difficult because of the sun. It was also surreal because I was seeing the Golden Buddha but the park had the Pussycat Dolls on loudly playing on the speakers. Weird, I know. Go back to the entrance and head east for the steps leading to Zaisan Hill Memorial. Along the way you’ll see the Korean embassy to the left and a billboard of a mall, or I think it was of a hotel, that will  soon rise by the foot of that hill. The steps are to your left next to the military tank. You can also find food stalls if you snubbed Grab and Go at Buddha Park and then realized that you are hungry after all.

The climb is not that steep and relatively easier than most hills I’ve climbed before. The thing was I didn’t bring water with me. Good news? There’s a Grab and Go stall at the parking lot, again. They are everywhere! So I grabbed a Minute Maid orange drink which never tasted so good! They don’t sell water but you will find out that there is some sort of convenience store halfway up the hill. They sell water and snacks there. Tourists traveling in groups are usually taken all the way up to that parking lot, cutting their climb in half. Your advantage is that you get more exercise than them, while they spend more money than you do.

I was trying hard to take a picture of the memorial from afar but there were tourists going down the hill and I just couldn’t wait for all of them to disappear because I was under time pressure. One of them started waving her hands wildly because she thought I was taking a picture of her. Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought you were part of the hill! Why don’t you accidentally fall down the cliff first so I can take a better shot?

Whoever thought of the design of the memorial is plain genius. The walls don’t cover the whole structure. In fact, they seem to float. What makes them so good to look at are the murals depicting friendship between the Soviets and the Mongols. The cool part is you don’t just see those frescoes, you also see a panoramic view of UB below them at the same time. Cool.

Although UB still needs to add some interesting buildings for a more impressive skyline, climbing up this hill is still worth it because of that feeling of achievement, the exercise, and the relaxation if you find a good spot away from the sun. You’ll find both tourists and locals frequenting the site. It is a must-see if ever you find yourself in UB one day. Besides, it’s not that far from the city center. Just try to skip rush hour.

I was back at the guest house by three to retrieve my stuff. The bus going to the station was nowhere to be found. I am really clueless when it comes to bus routes. UB has no metro. They don’t need it. Yet. So I just took a chance on the various buses plying Peace Avenue and finally arrived at Ulaanbaatar Train Station by 4 PM, just in time for boarding and for a big bottle of Bonaqua. I was in a cabin with three Mongolian women who were friendly, but again, communication was hard because of the language barrier.

Crossing the Chinese/Mongolian border for the first time to go to UB was an adventure. Regardless of the hassles, you see it as a fun experience. Going back, you now see it as a chore and if you are not patient enough, you might just have to do something to kill time. It took a while for us to cross the Mongolian border. You can check the Budget and Itinerary post for the exact time but I think it was around two or three hours of waiting. Everything went smoothly after that. The trip cost RMB 100 this time which was 20 Yuan more than when I first crossed the border. The three Mongolians with me on the jeep also paid the same amount, so I think it is really the rate. Whatever, I just wanted to go back to Beijing and take a shower.

And eat! I haven’t had time to eat lunch and the fried rice I ordered at the resto in Erenhot never arrived so I just walked out with a Fvck You All expression written all over my face. I was waiting for half an hour. How hard was it to cook fried rice? More than 24 hours and all my stomach had to go on were Choco Pies and Pepsi. The bus will cost you around 200 Yuan. A woman approached me and offered a ride by car for 300, sharing it with a Mongolian family of three also headed to Beijing. The trip took ten hours and I arrived in Beijing by half past 10. We departed from Erlian at around quarter to one. The best thing about it? It wasn’t a scam. The journey is long and boring with nothing to see but grass. Try your luck with a book if you can endure the headache you’ll get while reading it.

I’d love to go back to Mongolia to see what’s outside UB but I am not taking the train again unless the trip is connected to Moscow. Or maybe I would, if someone would go with me so we can play Harry Potter, as long as I get to play Voldemort and there’s no cap on Avada Kedavra.

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