Monday, 16 July 2012

Mongolian visa extension and 510 steps to Zaisan

Local children feed the pigeons.
Today I applied for a visa extension to allow me to stay in Mongolia for a further 10 days once my initial 30 day visa expires. I needed to do this so I can photograph a wedding in Terelj National Park, and cover the start of the world's longest horse race, the Mongol Derby, for the NGO Mercy Corps. This means I still have a further month in the country, and on Thursday I'm heading on a 16 day trip with the NGO Association for Parents of Disabled Children (APDC), documenting their work both with stills and video, which I'm really looking forward to. It's going to be an exciting month.

I'll describe the process for gaining a visa extension, which will only be of interest to anyone reading this blog who intends to do the same whilst travelling in Mongolia, as Google didn't really have the answer. The top Google search results all say that visas can be extended in a government immigration office near Peace Bridge in Ulaanbaatar, but everyone I had spoken to says they need to be applied for at an office near the airport, about 16km out of town. I am quite a stubborn person, I like to find things out for myself and if I could save myself a taxi ride to the airport then even better, so this morning set off for the office described on various web pages.

I was probably looking a little lost, scrutinising my map and gawping at the various buildings when a fat Mongolian man, who looked just like Vito from The Sopranos, asked me in English what I was looking for. I explained, and he was incredibly helpful. He took me to the building, asked around but I did not understand any of the conversations, except I began to understand from the gestures and expressions that the office had moved to the one I had been told about by the airport some time ago. At least now I knew for sure. He said he would get me a driver; there aren't so many taxis here and any private car also doubles up as a taxi, so you flag them down and see if they want to make a few quid by driving you somewhere. Vito turned out to be a retired lawyer, and said he used to work for the government's security department. He seemed well known when we went into the smart BMW garage to see if anyone could drive me, the manager greeting him personally and the security guard following his orders like a Private to a General. No one was about so he flagged down a car and negotiated a price a local would pay, 30,000 Tugriks, about £15, for a return journey to the airport and for the driver to wait an hour whilst I went through the application process. The car smelt like the driver was marinading a dozen dead crabs in a bucket of stale piss in his hot boot, but other than that it was perfectly fine. It's probably a delicacy anyway.

At the immigration office, which is a white-ish new looking building just by the airport, there were no real instructions as to how to go about the process, but I asked one or two people, and generally just copied all the other Europeans there who were applying for the same thing. I took a ticket from the machine like you do at a deli counter, but I never used this ticket. At the first counter (number 2) you pay a few thousand Tugriks, which is a couple of quid, for an application form, and for them to photocopy your passport and current visa. I filled in the form as best I could, glued my passport photo onto the top corner, and you need to write a letter (on the back of the passport photocopy) outlining why you wish to extend your visa. Once all these are completed I went to a second counter (number 4) where a woman checked all of the details, and gave me a couple of slips of paper and told me to go to the bank, which was in a room the other side of the entrance hall. I paid about 40,000 Tugriks (£20) for a 10 day extension, and then took these now stamped slips back to the counter I had just come from. Two minutes later the woman had given me the necessary stamps in my passport and the process was complete. It took less than an hour in total, as there were a few queues, and the driver took me back into the city.

After lunch in a French bakery, I decided to walk up to the Zaisan Memorial, which is on a hill on the south side of Ulaanbaatar, and is a Communist memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in the Second World War. The walk from the city centre took about 45 minutes, it took me over two bridges and it then became obvious where the memorial was. I counted the steps to the top, 510, I may have made a mistake counting, not that it matters, it's fairly arbitrary. It was tiring and humid, and counting the steps took my mind away from the sweat dripping down my spine and the burning in my thighs. The views from the top were fantastic, the whole city lay out before me like a model town; whereas closeup the buildings feel more like an unwanted mismatch of items at a jumble sale, and parts of the city resemble a war-torn Sarajevo, with big holes, broken pavements and lumps of old concrete everywhere. The artwork of the memorial was interesting too; though I'm never really one for statues or state portrayals of their heroes of history. They only really speak about the state, not the country, and it's always people I'm interested in, not propaganda. This memorial is circular, with Soviet artwork depicting their war heroes spanning the 360 degrees, with views of the city and surrounding countryside below the suspended mural.

A local boy gazes up at the Zaisan Memorial, with panoramic views of Ulaanbaatar below. 
Views over Ulaanbaatar, apartment blocks give way to the city centre high-rises, before the poor Ger districts slope up the hill in the urban overspill in the distance. 

I walked back to the apartment I have been staying at, and really became aware of the number of construction sites in the city - they mostly seemed to be apartment blocks. The walk was accompanied by an orchestra of hammers, tapping away at buildings which looked fit for demolition rather than new constructions. None of the cladding had gone on the buildings, so it was just the ugly skeleton I was looking at - I hope there is never an earthquake in this city, they looked as safe as a house of cards. I also walked through rush hour, and the chorus of horns sounded like Rome after Italy winning the World Cup - an endless blare of seemingly pointless cacophony. In the evening I went out for drinks and dinner in a Russian restaurant, as one of the girls was heading back home to Australia. The food was good, I had something resembling a shepherds pie, as the rain lashed and thunder cracked in the street outside.

My Australian hosts - Lauren (who's heading back home), Jess and Anna. 

1 comment:

  1. Was Vito wearing a little pin badge on a blazer-style jacket?