Our big plan for Ulaanbaatar was hiking across a nearby national park, camping at the peak of a small mountain. The hike started out reasonably well, excepting a few blisters and some complaining from you-know-who, but we couldn’t find the trail. So we just set off. We had a couple hours of not unpleasant walking, mostly under pine trees, before we happened upon the path. Around that time, it started raining, though not hard. We arrived at the peak as the rain set in harder and had just enough time to gather some damp wood and seek shelter under an overhang.
Colin, fighting wind and rain, started a fire so we were able to have a hot dinner (corn, baked beans, and fish from a can). Rain dripped in during the night, making for a sorry night’s sleep.
The next morning we chose not to follow the trail, thinking it was headed in the wrong direction (the “map” on the sign didn’t say UB at the end). So instead we traipsed through the soaked ankle-high grasses—I had water sloshing around in my boots within 20 minutes.
We never found any trail. Trails are important. The terrain was rocky, bouldery, occasionally with a thick blanket of pine needles and dirt over the rocks, hiding holes in the earth that would take you up to your knee if you weren’t being mindful.
That lasted six hours. Finally Colin’s GPS said we were 1 km from a road leading to UB. We’d eaten all of our food save a handful each of raisins and chocolate-covered peanuts, and we had only a liter of water between us. But no worries, because it’ll be smooth sailing from the road!
Oh, but there’s some barbed wire. Is the only part of this hike that gets mentioned in the book that we’re able to find the area you’re supposed to avoid? There was no question in our mind that we’d found the back of the president’s mansion.
When my emotional appeal to cross the barbed wire (i.e. having an anxiety fit) didn’t persuade Colin, I tried an appeal to reason. It was near 5, and we needed to be at the train station at 8. We couldn’t afford the time trying to skirt around the property.
Making it very clear that we weren’t there sneaking around, we walked straight up to the first (sleeping) (machine-gun-toting) guard we saw. He examined our passports and called for backup. The second man (no machine gun) led us to a guard shack to be questioned by a third.
Trying not to be distracted by an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie playing on the TV, we handed over our passports, cameras, park tickets, train tickets, and the card to our guest house. They took their time examining it all, but were kind enough to offer us cold water. Finally, after a call to our guest house with both Colin and the questioner talking to one of the daughters, we were free to go. The warning we got was about all of the dangerous animals up in the hills.
With still 6 km to go to the guest house, we had just enough time to get food and a shower before catching a cab to the train station.