On May 25th, a group of us gathered to participate in the official celebration of Buddha’s birthday in Ulaanbaatar. We walked to the stadium and waited in line with our tickets. Eventually they started admitting people from a few gates and we were ushered in and urged to get to close to the front and center. We were a little skeptical because we were not sure what we were doing. It appeared that everyone was sitting behind a single candle mounted on a post in the ground – presumably a thousand of them.
After well over an hour of prayers, chants, and speeches (no disrespect intended but nothing was in English so we were not too sure of what was going on), we were able to light the candles and then wait some more. The temperature had been dropping and while it was late May that meant that it would be getting pretty cool. Fortunately we all had little fires to use for some warmth now.
Finally the attendants started handing out the paper lanterns. We each expected one since we each had a candle but it turns out that there was about one for every 4 people. The lanterns were unfurled and stretched out over the flames to catch the fuel packet alight.
The rest of the evening was paper lanterns drifting off into the air.
(Well, a few moments of panic when people let go of the lanterns too soon and they drift horizontally toward people instead of the sky!)
Buddhism in Mongolia is very closely aligned with that of Nepal and Tibet. On the full moon of May they celebrate Buddha’s birthday which also coincides with his enlightenment and death. Last year, we caught a glimpse of it from afar when a massive collection of paper lanterns drifted off into the sky. This year we were more proactive and got to participate in the event.
Tickets were 12,000 tugrik (about $8.25) and I think only 3,000 were available. At about 6:30 we arrived at the Naadam Stadium (where the annual wrestling and archery competitions take place) and found ourselves in line with our tickets in hand. We really had no idea what to expect. After getting through the gate we were each situated next to a brazier on a wooden post. For the next two hours we listened to prayers, chants, and instructions entirely in Mongolian. A chill and slight breeze cooled us as we sat on the ground. Eventually it was time to light our fires. Then another 15 minutes of prayer. Soon the helpers pulled out large paper lanterns and small groups of people affixed stickers with prayer requests to them before lighting the wax rings below to inflate them with hot air. Then the sky was full of paper lanterns…
I have applied four times for Chinese visas at the China embassy in Ulaanbaatar in the past year and a half. Things have changed a little and are bound to change more. As of right now here is what you need to do to apply for a Chinese visa if you’re not a Mongolian citizen.
You will need to fill out two different forms. The standard visa application form and the supplemental form. Be sure to fill out all of the sections as accurately as possible. On the supplemental, you need to fill out the last section since you are applying for a visa outside of your home country.
A photocopy or printout of your flight itinerary.
A printout of your hotel reservation.
A letter of invitation.
For expats in Mongolia – a photocopy of your Mongolian resident alien card.
A passport-sized photo.
So far not necessary but probably wise – a photocopy of your passport ID pages.
They will give you a bill which you then take to the Golomt Bank (Голомт банк) that is just around the corner. Exit the embassy, turn left until you get to the corner, cross the street (continuing south) and the bank is to the left a few hundred feet. They will give you a receipt you’ll need to present to receive your visa-fied passport.
The embassy is open to visa applications from 9:30-noon on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Pickups are done after 4 PM on the same days of the week. Normal visa processing time is one week from the submission. An additional $40 and it can be ready the same day or $20 gets the visa ready not the next day they are opening, but the following opening. Fees are $140 for Americans regardless the number of entries. Sometimes you need to provide evidence of multiple flights and associated accommodations but the most recent time I applied I was offered dual entry without that documentation needed. Residents of other countries (except Mongolia and Romania) are $30 per entry.
Of special note is that starting in January of 2013, Beijing and Shanghai both allow 3 day entries without a visa. You can just fly there and receive the visa on arrival. I would have printouts of the departing flight and hotel confirmation and not just something on your mobile device or laptop to show them to minimize hassle. Up until then you could get a 24 hour transit visa as long as you had proof of continuing flight although many American ticket agents were not aware of that and would scour our passports looking for a valid visa to enter China. Calmly asking them to ask further up the chain worked well for us – someone on the other end of a phone call knows that it is acceptable! I hope word of the three day visa on arrival has spread.
The map below pinpoints where the embassy entrance is that you need to use for the visa application and pickup.
Today was vehicle-free day in areas of downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Every year some of the city streets are off-limits to vehicles for one day. It is to promote healthy living, bring attention to pollution, and expose the traffic hassles UB has. We were excited to get out and walk down the middle of streets you can barely cross. When we woke this morning there was heavy snow coming down and a few inches of accumulation though! By the time we were out walking around the snow had slowed and in many places it had started to melt.
For lunch we went to hot pot. One of their employees must have gone out on a roof and made this little snowman that is wearing a pot for a hat.
We went into the State Department Store and took some photos of the streets from the top floor. Then we went down to Sukhbaatar Square and went into the Parliament building which has only been open to the public for a few months.
I miss the old Coke ad that was on the building above. Now just a dingy silhouette of the bottle-shaped ad is left.
Last year Pepper and I went on a walk specifically to photograph some of the street art we have seen around town. I have shot some since and wanted to gather some of the work. This spring we’ll go out on another photo walk because we have passed by some cool pieces in the months since we went for that walk.
There is a nice combination of stencil work and freehand spray painting.
Last night we finally went to a restaurant near our place in downtown Ulaanbaatar. We’ve been planning to try it for months. “Caucasia” serves Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani food. We tried their appetizer that is similar to chips and salsa, salads, dumplings, pizza-like dish and kabobs. Everything was quite good. Prices were reasonable – Pepper and I rang up a bill of almost $50 but we really over ordered food. We have leftovers to feed all three of us lunch today.
Especially exciting is that they had three beers on tap that we have never seen before. There were three Austrian beers from Salm Brau.
In preparation four our second beer tasting tournament (our first beer tournament was last year), Pepper asked if it was possible to bring a container back later and have it filled with their beer. Pepper did this at three Ulaanbaatar microbreweries last year – one she had to provide her own plastic bottle. They said yes. Then five minutes later they came back with one of their pint glasses full of beer and wrapped in cellophane. Not quite what we were hoping for but great to know they trust that we’ll bring the glass back (we will!) and that you can get take-out beer!
The restaurant had great service, great atmosphere, great food, and is in a great location for us. It is great! They are part of teh Nomad’s chain (Nomad’s restaurants, BD’s, and others) but it seemed distinct enough. They had wonderful videos of Caucasus dancing playing, the staff wore great uniforms, and some even spoke English quite well.
Don’t believe me? Read Becky’s review of the place. She has a better picture of Pepper there too.
We’ll be back. Plenty.
Open 11 AM to 11PM daily. Phone – 77119900 or 314433
It is Mongolian National Dress Day. Mongolian students of all ages are wearing dels and other traditional clothing. People from other countries are also wearing traditional clothing from their countries. Pepper and I bought dels this year so we’re not just wearing blue jeans and American themed sweatshirts…
We’ve been going to the Ulaanbaatar Opera House and theater many weekends. Tonight we went to the ballet Spartak (think Sparta) which was an excellent show. About two hours long including an intermission there was great costumes, some fantastic ballet, and a gripping performance by the live orchestra.
We also saw Scheherazade last week. Here is a photo of Pepper on the balcony – our seats were actually the second row just behind the violinists.
Shows are pretty cheap – as low as 5,000 tugrik (about $3.50) but we splurge for the good seats.
We went to the opera La Traviata a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, we missed some shows we wanted to see but some play again later next year. To read a bit more thorough assessment of our ballet experiences check out Becky The Great’s blog.
We also went to Hamlet at the national theater. That was really long and had no intermission and frankly, since it was all in Mongolian we found it a little long to just be looking at costumes, the set, and listening for words that we might know.
We said goodbye to Liz, Lisa, and Scott after Pepper made a feast of green chili enchiladas, beer bread, and dozens of cookies. Enkha took us to the train station in Ulaanbaatar which is just a few KM from our apartment. We met Jay there. He is on the same train as us but is not going the whole distance with us.
With our tickets in hand we just had to wait for our train. We were on train 263, carriage 1, bunks 13-16 (a second class compartment). Our home for the next 36 hours.
Jordan carefully stowed our bags – three backpacks, three day packs, and a duffel bag of food for the train. It was about 9 PM.
The train rolled west out of UB, stopping occasionally. We settled in, experimenting with light switches, testing out the restrooms, and finally digging into books. Pepper is reading Stalin’s Ghost. I have a book on drugs, society, and human behavior. You know, light train reading.
With our compartment window open and darkness settling in we let the train’s rhythmic movement and sounds lull us to sleep. I woke for a few stops – once in a panic wondering when we would arrive at the border, what we needed to do, how long we would be there… our guidebook was able to answer a lot of my questions and let me ease back to sleep.