Ultimately, of course, the adventure had to come to an end. As my friends and I closed in on the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar – the finish line – I began planning out the final chapter of my trip.
My plan was to spend the frequent-flier points I’d been collecting to fly from Ulaanbaatar to Seoul, South Korea, where I would visit a friend. From there, I would fly home to Canada, just in time for the warm summer to give way to a chilly fall.
Unfortunately, this plan hit a pretty significant snag when I began looking at flights from Ulaanbaatar to Seoul. While I had no problem finding flights that were compatible with my frequent-flier points, the dates that I could choose from were few in far between. In fact, the earliest I could leave Ulaanbaatar was roughly two and a half weeks after I arrived – a far cry from the visit of several days I had originally planned and budgeted for.
Suddenly, I had to come to grips with the fact that I would have to survive for almost three weeks in the Mongolian capital. I would have to do so with dwindling finances, and somehow save enough to enjoy my shortened visit to South Korea.
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar a week or so after all of this dawned on me.
My first few days in the city were lovely. I had my friends with me. By day, we explored the city on foot. By night, we got drunk with the other travelers. But then, after a few days, my friends began to depart, pulled out of Ulaanbaatar by obligations back home, or by other travel plans. By my fourth day in the city, I was totally alone.
Traveling alone was nothing new to me at the time. I’d done a bit of solo traveling in Europe, and I’d traveled all over Canada by myself. Being alone, in one place, for weeks on end, however, was a new experience. And given that I was short on cash, it was a fairly daunting one.
All the same, I was determined to make the best of the experience. I moved from the hostel I was staying at with my friends to a cheaper one, a little bit outside the city’s touristy nucleus. Once I’d found a bed I could afford, I visited a grocery store, and stocked up on ramen noodles, bread, and other cheap snacks – my fuel for the coming weeks.
With a roof over my head and enough food to eat, I settled down a bit. I spent my days wandering the city alone, looking for cheap – or better yet free ways to keep myself amused.
I walked the length of Peace Avenue, the city’s main drag, countless times. I found an English book store, where I bought a book of short stories about Malaysia, a novel called Tigers in Red Weather, and another novel called Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (who I was familiar with). I read these books at a local coffee shop called Coffee Kid, where I was a frequent enough visitor to reap the rewards of two customer loyalty cards. I visited the city’s Dinosaur museum, which was wonderfully affordable. I visited the infamous Naran Tuul black market, though I really just looked around instead of buying. I visited the Canadian embassy and had a quick cup of coffee with the woman who manned the front desk.
I also met many, many other travelers. I met a Swedish couple who were spending a few days in Ulaanbaatar before heading on to China. I met a group of bearded Italians who were spending the night there before heading out into the Gobi desert (something I would have done if I could have afforded it). I met a British guy who claimed to own one of the most popular bars in Taipei. I got along wonderfully with all of them, and yet eventually, they would leave, and I would stay.
I remember, sometime around the end of my second week in the city, when the owner of the hostel began to look at my like some kind of bed-growing mould rather than a valued guest, I began to feel a real urge to get the hell out of there. My time in the Mongolian capital had been wonderful, but I was ready to go. I couldn’t wait to get to Korea and see the familiar face of my old friend. And yet I was stuck there for almost another week, with my bank account emptier than ever before.
At that point, a real anxiety started to set in. I felt a trapped. I felt foolish for planning my trip so poorly – almost embarrassed. And yet I constantly reminded myself that by the time I was back in Canada, I would undoubtedly wish I was still in Mongolia. And so I focused on spending my time there wisely.
The fruit of my effort not to waste my time in Ulaanbaatar was an impromptu walk across a massive section of the city, to what looked like the nearest of the many mountains the surround it. When I reached the base of this mountain, I began climbing it, with no idea what I’d find on top of it.
What I ended up finding – completely inadvertently – was Zaisan Memorial, one of Ulaanbaatar’s most recognizable attractions, and one that I later saw on the show Departures.
The view from the monument, which sits atop the mountain like a crown, was incredible. Ulaanbaatar sprawled out below me for miles and miles and miles. At the risk of sounding preachy, I felt a real clarity as I looked out over it all. I realized that I’d experienced the city as few others do. Not as a in-and-out traveler, and certainly not as a local, but somewhere in between. It was almost as though I’d become a part of the scenery. I was just there, floating around aimlessly, watching, while travelers passed through, and locals went about their lives.
Eventually, of course, I made it Seoul, and before long I was back home in Canada.
As I looked back on my strange and disorganized visit to Ulaanbaatar, I realized that I had inadvertently discovered a really special way of seeing a city. Though it was never part of my plan, I had stopped and smelled the roses while I was there – I mean really smelled them. I’d ground the petals into a fine dust and snorted them, and I was happy about it.
A year or so later, I set off on my next adventure. This one would start in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and after visits to Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, it would end in Singapore.
By this point, I was making my living exclusively as a freelance writer. This meant that I could work on the road (I’d have some money coming in while I traveled), and that I had no job to rush back home to (I could travel for much longer). As such, I decided to attempt to emulate my experience in Ulaanbaatar by spending three-straight weeks in Ho Chi Minh City.
I could not have made a better choice.
I found a hostel that I liked, and set up camp. I explained my plan to the hostel owner, who said she was more than happy to accommodate me for the duration of my stay.
I spent the first few days of my visit checking the key tourist attractions off my list: the war museum, Cu Chi tunnels, etc., etc.
By the time the second week rolled around, I decided it was time to just flow with the city.
During the days, I would go for long, aimless walks, fording the rivers of scooters that surge down Ho Chi Minh City’s streets. I ate as much street food as I could stomach. I chugged Vietnamese coffee and coconut water to combat the relentless hell-heat of Southern Vietnam, and surrendered to the fact that, so long as I was there, I’d be coated in a perma-glaze of sweat. I kept an open mind, and let the city reveal itself to me however it wanted.
At night, I would find comfortable patios in the backpacker district, and drink beer after beer, writing in my notebook, watching fire breathers busk for backpackers, and street hustlers hock bracelets, sunglasses, knick knacks, and if the coast was clear, maree-wanna.
By the time I left Ho Chi Minh city to travel north through Vietnam, I had resolved to spend at least three weeks in one city on every future trip I took. While there’s a lot to be said for seeing as much of a country as you can during a visit, you never know what you might experience if you allow yourself to stay put in one place for awhile. Take it slow.
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