A post on food!

I know you are all curious about the food here. We have eaten Mongolian food for ten days now and are still alive, even though we are happy we brought some of our own food.

First of all, you can not drink water from the pipes here, which means either buying bottled water – which we never do in Europe – or boiling it, waiting for it to cool down and only then drink it. We were extra careful, even brushing our teeth with drinking water from the bottle, but keeping hydrated was not easy. I think the most critical point was the second aid station during the race: we had been told that there would be drinking water at each aid station (and mind you, there were only three over the 42 k course), but they only had boiling hot water at the 24 k aid station, which meant we couldn’t drink or refill our bottles. Luckily we still had most of the water we had carried from the beginning.

The food we had in UB was good. The first night we tried a Mongolian grill restaurant, where we picked our veggies, meat and noodles and brought it to the chefs for them to sauté it. The second night we had my favourite meal so far: we decided to be brave and give a try to a wonderful street food stand where we were given huge beef skewers with pieces of fat in between the chunks of meat. The end of the world.

At the camp we alternated between the food we had brought from home (dried meat, parmesan, crackers, tunafish and ready-to-eat rice salads with tuna and veggies, biscuits, chocolate and nuts) and the local food. Breakfast was usually one egg plus two slices of some sort of sausage (which we tried the first day and decided to avoid, as they were impossible to digest), and some sweet fried bread (boortsog), but sometimes we complemented with bread peanut butter and jam. On race day I stuck to my typical pre-race breakfast (banana + peanut butter), as I really wanted to avoid tummy issues as much as possible. Lunch was always some kind of soup + one sandwich. The soup was usually very unappealing, as it was some kind of broth with floating, unknown vegetables in it. Eating sandwiches every day for a week is tough too, especially when you are getting ready for a trail marathon and are trying to get all the nutrients you need, so we were once again grateful that we had brought food that we knew would sit well in our tummies. The dinners were always the same: beef stew or minced meat with rice or pasta and stewed vegetables. At the end of the week we were a bit tired of that as well, but we enjoyed the last dinner we had at the camp. It was a traditional Mongolian buffet dinner and we had sooooo much food. It wasn’t much different from what we had been eating all week, but we could have as much as we wanted, and we made the most of it.

Yesterday we had the final dinner in a typical Mongolian restaurant in UB, where we had some of the local delicacies, which unfortunately tend to always feature mutton meat (which I can’t eat). We had steamed dumplings (buuz) and fried ones (khuushuur), and khorkhog, which features a stew with sheep bits (head included) and veggies that are put in a huge pot with hot stones for a long time. I had beef tsuivan noodles, and they were undoubtedly the best noodles I have had in a long time. We were also served fresh salads and steamed and roasted vegetables, which we enjoyed very much. They brought us way too much food, so we asked to pack some and we had leftovers for lunch today. It was still good, even if re-heated, but I must say everything is quite fatty and fried, and definitely not the easiest food to digest.

We have also tried some local chocolate!

In a nutshell, if you are interested in Mongolian food, expect plenty of meat loooooots of mutton and no chicken whatsoever – and fried dumplings. Vegetarians might have a hard time in Mongolia, but we have been told UB has several excellent vegan restaurants.


Where eagles (and marmots) dare

We have to leave soon because we are on a mission – eat at the only authentic North Korean restaurant that we are ever going to find (with all likelihood, but never say never). Update by Francesco: we couldn’t find it, so we decided to “defect” to South Korea…worth it, we found a nice spot at the end of Peace Avenue, with menus only in Mongolian and Korean. We do not know what we ate, but it was basically beef with rice…

But we wouldn’t leave you without an update. In a nutshell, today we went up and down a mountain. The most dangerous and adventurous part was definitely having to catch the bus to and from there (and buying the transport card). We felt much more like locals that way than if we had taken a taxi. We will publish the picture of the card needed to ride the bus, so you know what to look for if you need one. It is a prepaid magnetic card that you have to recharge at bus stops or bus stations. One ride costs 500 T and the same card works for more than one people if you wish so (tell the driver how many people you are)…then find a spot to sit very fast and brace for the ride!


Once we got there, it was clear that there were no signals, no marked paths, no nothing, so we just went up the mountain where we could – and of course we happened to choose the rockiest, steepest way up. It took us more than half an hour to get to the top. It was less than 2.5 k, but with an elevation gain of about 500 m (we went up to 1.850ish metres). The way down was no easier, but Francesco enjoyed it better because he was able to spot not one, but two marmots (he’s the one into animals – and dinosaurs). I was able to spot the giant eagles who were flying alarmingly close to us (but they were probably after the marmots, not me with my blue tank top, or I wouldn’t be here writing). It is quite easy to navigate on these mountains: there are few trees so you can basically go wherever you want. There are many paths (marked with flags or bulks of rocks), but they can be very steep and not easy to follow. Anyway, the experience is mesmerising: plants, animals, nice views… If you wish to see the marmots (NB you can also taste them in a national dish, no kidding), head to the last part of our hike. There is a valley where the road ends and there will you find the marmots’ dens. By the way, the bus stops (we took no. 8) in what is still a working site. It looks like the authorities are trying to move people from yurtas (there are many of those in the outskirts of the city) to houses. Living conditions are pretty basic here, with cattle pasturing among yurtas, but there are markets, schools, and playgrounds.


We also circled the traditional ovoos three times, anticlockwise, as instructed. It appears to bring good luck and we’ll definitely need plenty of it on Wednesday for our race – even though I bet Francesco is much more afraid for the internal flight we are taking tomorrow than the race itself. We are going to take it in few hours…looking forward to the second we touch ground again…


Francesco took beautiful pictures so I’ll leave you with them.


Interested in our hike? Here comes the map!


Second day – Meetings with local people and city tour

NB: Chiara’s tale, Francesco’s remarks.

Went for a run in the morning. Let’s just say that if yesterday I felt I was going to die, today’s run was a thousand times worse. My legs were a dead weight, I couldn’t breathe and had to cut my run short by 10 minutes. It was with all likelihood the combined effect of a ginormous lack of sleep, the jet-lag, and the altitude (we didn’t know that, but UB is at 1300 above sea level). There were perks to it though! When I stopped I was so breathless that a local runner who happened to be close to me came to check whether I was all right. We started a conversation and were soon joined by Francesco, who had been wandering around desperately looking for me around the track (but I had managed to take a wrong turn and found myself running anticlockwise). It was incredibly nice to chat with a local who was able to communicate in English and who directed us to a trail up the Zaisan Hill, which we will check out tomorrow if I feel a bit better. We asked him about the milk mystery and he laughed at us because apparently you can find it everywhere. Sure enough, we bought some later in a supermarket. I woke up with tired legs, just as Chiara did: the flight and the long day had taken their toll, but I was determined to run in the park at my pace just to check how fast I could run. So, after a brief warm-up with Chiara, I changed gear and tried a 20′ medium pace run at 3’30″/km. My tummy did not like it so much, but it wasn’t terrible, and after it I looked for Chiara for about 10′. I found her chatting with a local runner and it was nice to exchange views with someone from the place… By the way: he was running shirtless, in shorts, but with gloves, sunglasses and a mask to filter the air. Why on earth did he use gloves? Does someone know why a lot of people here wear gloves in the sun?!


After my disastrous run we had to take a nap for the second day in a row. In the afternoon we finally set out to explore the city, and were not disappointed. First stop: the central square. Huge, completely exposed to the sun and located right in front of the parliament, it is a stunning view. I took a couple of pics, even though I’ve always been against taking pictures of monuments (I prefer people)…

More (first) impressions: the streets are super clean and there are no pets in sight (which surely contributes to the cleanliness of the streets…); there are benches everywhere for people to sit down when they get tired, which I find very helpful; playgrounds are super well-equipped, original and common; the extremely dangerous cars are even more so because the majority of them are hybrid Prius and make virtually no noise, so that they can run you over with ease. By the way, everyone drives a hybrid car even though fuel is quite cheap in general, around 50 or 60 cents per litre. Is it because here people seriously do care about the environment? Or are Prius simply the cheapest alternative? Ah, Toyota is clearly the leading brand here.


As for the sights, we went to the National Museum of Mongolia, which gave us a good overview of the history of the country from the Stone Age to our days. It had no air conditioning whatsoever, and every step of the stairs had a different height, making tripping extremely likely, but it had a drinkable water fountain, which we appreciated. Should you be thirsty, just head there!


We also went to the Tourist information centre. It was virtually useless, but the people there were friendly and we got a couple of free maps. In exchange for the maps we had to take a 5-minute survey about our trip to Mongolia. We even got a keyholder when we gave the survey back… 😀


After that we headed towards the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs: it was tiny, but had air conditioning, and we could have stolen the precious T-rex baatar because while we were in there there was a blackout and we were all left in the dark (there were no emergency lights). The entry ticket costs only 1 euro, so if you’re into dinosaurs it’s worth a visit. In case you are wondering, I’m the one into dinosaurs. 😀


Our shopping experience has not been great so far: we went to the State Department Store, which was on the list of the to-dos of our Lonely Planet guide, but were disappointed. It was nothing more than a sad, old shopping centre. Too. Many. People. But you get a sense of how locals are.


Close to it is the Beatles Square. I had to take a couple of silly pictures and the people around us looked at me laughing…probably they just thought “here comes another tourist”. People still pay attention to you, even if you are a tourist: it is not something so common in today’s globalised world…


We had the best dinner there! We had street food for the first time since we arrived here, and it was awesome! We had beef shashliks, giant metal skewers of beef, mutton or chicken with pieces of fat that make the meat ever more tender and juicy. Heaven! Francesco has also picked a personal battle in trying to make a ranking of the best Mongolian beers. You will have the results before we go back to Europe. Working on it… 😀




First impressions

We got off the plane with the wrong foot. None of us had managed to get even a single minute of sleep and we were cranky, terribly jet-lagged and exhausted.


But you never get a chance to have a first impression, right? Today I can only give you a patchwork of snapshots. We’ve been here for about 12 hours and everything is still a bit overwhelming.


First of all, the most striking aspect of Ulaanbaatar, or UB, is its unbelievable traffic. Everybody is honking all the time. Pedestrians have no rights whatsoever, not even on pedestrian crossings with a green light. Every time one has to cross a street they put their lives at risk. There are pavements almost everywhere, but they are full of holes and represent a serious threat to anyone’s ankles. Public transport is virtually non-existent, but the distances within the city are walkable (if you can avoid being run over by a car on your very first attempt to cross a street). Remark by Francesco: We will try to shoot a video while we cross the street because it is unbelievable: it recalls the old videogame where you played a frog that had to cross the street without being run over by a car…I was not even good at that game!!!

There are skyscrapers, and there are huts that sell sweets on the pavements. We have seen KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and a few other chains, but the “supermarket” opposite our place does not sell milk. You can only find yoghurt. Toilet paper is a luxury item. F: other remarkable items were: Nutella (apparently it is everywhere) and the jams made by Bonne Maman… If you are looking for a coffee and a good WiFi, head towards a shop of the Tom and Toms chain: for 2 euros you can have a very good coffee and a fast wifi.


After a controlled nap of 90 minutes, we reluctantly got up and headed out for a run. It was the only way to sweat off all the crankiness from our journey and to reset our minds and bodies. And it worked. The first 2 kilometres proved challenging: we had to run in the traffic, even though – surprisingly – the drivers showed more respect towards runners than pedestrians, even stopping to let me pass on one occasion. And then we bumped into a small miracle: a park with a 3000 m tartan track… which abruptly ended after 1500m. From there we had to do some cross-country running to get to a smaller track, but all in all the entire park was a pleasant surprise. And they have public toilets in several spots around the park! I didn’t check if there was toilet paper available though. And although we only met two Mongolian girls who were running (quite hard, actually), we were encouraged by a couple of kids. Others looked at us in a curious way, but I guess the sight of two Westerners running around in UB must not be extremely common. F: by the way, the park has other entertainment options: archery fields, water games for children, places where you can rent a bike or eat a burger…definitely worth a visit, even if you are not running. It is the National Park located south-east to the city centre. Fun fact: you have to cross the train line to get there and it is easy that you will spot a long train either on your way there or on your way back.

Now that we have pushed the reset button, we are ready to make the most of this incredible place. Stay tuned for more 🙂 c

Here comes the map of our run, so you know where to go! 😉 f