Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Getting around without running aground

Greetings viewers, and sonin saihan uu bain? (What’s new, pussycats?)

We are between gallivants to the country just presently- back from a weekend at the ger of some pals on the Tuul river, and about to head way, way west to Uvs aimag on Thursday- consult your local atlas, almanac, or AA map to see where these spots are, but be assured they are more than a day’s ride. Full rendering of the west be provided in the fullness of time, but for the instant your Mongolian comestible du jour is a quick sketch of the capital’s transportation systems.

In addition to the buses which come in diesel or electric flavour (the latter apparently referred to at goat horn buses due to their poles, according to the good people at Lonely Planet) and microbuses (matatus by any other name), the great staple of the city is the taxi. This is largely due to the fact that it is really cheap- cost of living up in here isn’t much to shout at, but even allowing for yawning inequalities between local and expatty fundage, taxis still represent a pretty fair bargain. A kilometre is 250 tegregs (1 USD= 1190 T). Travel within the city centre which is less than a few kilometres is generally rounded up to 500T for the driver’s trouble, which is fair enough really. Otherwise, the meter ticks over and one pays accordingly. A pretty good system, if one accepts the prevalent standards of driving, which includes a casual attitude to which side of the car the wheel should be on (it’s an even split), open minded attitudes to vehicle maintenance and upkeep, and the seatbelts which show their user how much they love them by leaving a wide dark dusty band of nastiness across your chest and lap. Drivers have been known to bust out laughing when you put one on. There’s nothing so funny as seatbelts, viewers. A little comedy tip from the steppe for ya.

Anxious parents inclined toward strict upkeep of western safety standards for kiddie transport are encouraged to visit Mongolia with a good supply of soothing herbal remedies close to hand- or perhaps a blindfold. Kids are allowed to sit anywhere in the car, including the driver’s lap, where the view is best. One enterprising SUV parent has solved the problem of kiddie car boredom by allowing the kids to ride around standing up through the sunroof, surveying the scene like a tinpot despot. Why more parents haven’t applied this innovative idea must have something to do with the fact that most cars don’t have sunroofs.

Having said that taxis are a key slice of the transport pie, the cost of cars here is very low- once cars have put in a few years of service in Korea or China, they come up here to move through their autumn years in the congestion of Ulaanbaatar traffic. Four wheel drive cars can be found for as little as 4000 USD, and saloon cars with a variety of bogus and real identifying brands can be found for even less. It’s reasonable to assume that once a car is done with Mongolia, Mongolia is done with the car, and it’s off to the happy Hyundai grounds to sleep a dreamless auto sleep.

But the real blast on the horn of this citywide merry-go-round, the thing that makes it all so Ulaanbarilliant is this: to get a cab, you raise your hand/arm in the internationally recognized gesture for ‘I require conveyancing’. Faster than you can say ‘chop chop, for I am expected at the Proconsul’s residence’, cars will begin piling up on your sidewalk. Not only yellow taxi coloured cars, but all manner of cars, marked taxi or not. You see, in Ulaanbaatar everyone needs a few extra tegregs, and all cars are potentially taxis, so pretty much anyone stops. Although most of the available rides will be Hyundais in various states of excitement, occasionally other cars stop- on one occasion, one of the town’s Humvees rolled up and did a door to door. Anyway, so you get in whichever car stops, muddle your way through explaining where you want to go (it does help to know where that is, and the words for left, right and straight (zum, barum and chigiree, viewers)), and you are delivered thither as fast as its shattered shocks can carry you. Same payment scheme as with other taxis applies, with the odometer reading serving as taximeter. And you’re there.

The whole system seems to work relatively well, and there are remarkably few horror stories resulting from using either mode of taxi. Once you get over your firmly entrenched instruction not to get in the car with strangers (after all, what then is a taxi?), it’s a painless system to use.

And with that, we’re off to cruise around the city in a vehicle of our choosing. We hope you’ll keep in mind what’s funny about seatbelts, and remember to round up to the nearest hundred tegregs when exiting the vehicle.

Sain yaraad ireree, (go well and come back soon, viewers),


Stop press: T-shirt update. It is not my intention to keep bringing this up, but if the torsos of the city continue to sport these items, then it is my duty to bring them to your attention. And so ladies and gents, I give you Godstupid superstar, spotted last Friday. Interpretations, theological, blasphemous and otherwise are welcome.

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