By the time I cleared immigration and customs at Ulaanbaatar airport last night, it was just on midnight as I exited the arrivals hall. I thought my office had arranged for someone to meet me, but nobody was there, so I had to take a taxi.
I saw lots of taxi touts hanging around the arrivals hall, so I asked at the information counter how much a taxi into the city was. The girl behind the counter said “9,000 tughriks,” (about US$8) but then she added: “but those guys will want at least 15,000 or 20,000,” gesturing towards the taxi touts.
I wondered why she was bothering to tell me that because I knew there was a proper taxi rank outside, so I headed out the glass doors towards the taxi rank ignoring the touts on the way. One of the touts followed me, and when I got to the taxi rank I could see why, because the ‘official’ taxi stand had been taken over by the touts. There were no proper taxis in sight. Just a line of beat-up old cars with young guys sitting on the bonnets waiting for weary travelers who had no other way to get into the city. It looked like the normal taxis don’t bother to come out to the airport at night, so the touts had taken over the taxi service completely.
The guy who had followed me started to put my bags into the boot of his car, which was the first one on the rank. I said to him: “How much to the Ulaanbaatar Hotel?” He replied: “30,000.” I said: “No way, the fare is never more than 10,000,” to which he replied: “Okay, I’ll take you for 20,000,” and we settled on that.
I had already decided that I would pay him 20,000 because when taking unlicensed taxis in the middle of the night, I don’t want the driver to think I have screwed him down too much otherwise he might be tempted to rob me on the way (although I don’t believe that Ulaanbaatar has a reputation for that – if it was Russia I would be much more apprehensive).
His car was an old right-hand drive Nissan Bluebird (probably a second hand import from Japan where they drive on the left hand side of the road) with a cracked windscreen, no seatbelts in the back, and no shock absorbers. He drove into the city on high beam all the way, with a red engine warning light flashing on his dashboard. It was a bumpy ride, but I must say he drove quite safely – I’ve experienced a lot worse in other countries.
When I woke up this morning, I drew the curtains of my hotel room to find I was right next door to the headquarters of Mongolia’s ruling party that had been set on fire by an angry demonstrators last month after the announcement of the election results (they believed that the ruling party – the MPRP - had ‘fixed’ the June elections).
The demonstrators also alleged that party members were getting rich from ‘donations’ from Russia and China for giving them preferential access to Mongolia’s natural resources, whilst the rest of the people in Mongolia remained poor.
A state of emergency was declared on 1 July, but that lasted only four days and things settled down quickly after that. Most Mongolians I have spoken to feel ashamed of what happened and now the burnt-out headquarters of the MPRP seems to be the only reminder of this blot on Mongolia’s history. Five people died on that night.
I wondered how I would have reacted if I had been staying in room 403 of the Ulaanbaatar Hotel on 1 July. I guess I would have started taking pictures from the window at first, but it probably would have got quite scary after that.