From the train the Mongolian countryside appeared to be continuous rolling hills with nomadic herders dotting the landscape like small islands in the ocean. After missing our original train from Beijing and having to wait 3 days for the next we were excited to be en route. As we approached the capital of Ulaanbaatar the view changed. Dilapidated block buildings, soot, dust and sprawl scarred the picturesque view. UB has the dubious reputation as the world’s ugliest city. As we drove through the streets I could not imagine a single counter argument to refute the claim. The bumper to bumper traffic offered plenty of time to observe the surroundings. It reminded me of a movie set from a post nuclear war flick.
Within an hour of arriving we made arrangements to leave for Terelj National Park first thing in the morning. The drive there required a 4×4 and passed dramatic alpine and countryside landscapes. We stopped at a local family’s house for lunch. We were given “milk tea” which tasted like warm seawater mixed with milk that had been left out on the counter for several days. This was accompanied by biscuits and “cream” in a 5 gallon bucket. The cream was a curdled concoction with more farm animal hair than milk based liquid. It was not edible by our antiseptic western standards.
We chugged the tea as fast as possible to keep from being rude but drew the line at the creamy mess. We pushed on to a local village where we were set to spend the night in a ger or yurt as the Mongolians refer to them. I climbed the mountain behind the village to watch the sunset. It was a wonderful escape from the wasteland of a city we had left earlier in the day and I was blissfully unaware of the horrors that awaited me later that night.