March 5th. My night is mostly sleepless, and the sleep I get is mostly restless. I have the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) from about 9AM to noon, and after that, some furious last-minute packing before a flight literally to the other end of the earth. It'll be Phoenix to Mongolia, pretty much a full day spent in one of various airports or on one of the three flights (Phoenix --> Los Angeles --> Beijing --> Ulaanbaatar) I'll be taking.
The MPRE goes pretty smoothly. It's a little trickier than I'd imagined, but I find the testing site on time, get registered (by a man who bears striking resemblance to Tony Stark), and go through the exam with few problems. Packing is likewise uneventful.
Things get a little more interesting at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. The first terminal is the wrong one; I'm on Alaska Airlines, so it's back into the car and over to the Alaska ticketing area. Problem is, Alaska doesn't operate domestic flights; turns out the first terminal was the right one all along. Good thing I arrived early. Baggage check is a cinch, and I breeze through security, hop onto the plane, and have a quite uneventful flight to Los Angeles.
Off the plane in L.A., there's an adorably short Guatemalan fellow, Cheto Guzman, who clearly doesn't speak a word of English and has no idea how to get to his next flight, so I take pity on the poor fellow and spend a little while helping him to his terminal. The layover in the City of Angels is fairly significant, so I grab a burger at the Route 66 Roadhouse, check my email, and do a bit of chatting and text-flirting while I wait for my flight.
This is the fifth time I've been aboard a Boeing 747, and the size still impresses me just as much as the first time -- as does the shaking and quaking the entire aircraft undergoes in its thunderously long takeoff sequence. The Air China flight is reliably boring, with nothing really to note except a truly horrendous in-flight meal that made the whole cabin reek of rotting ginger, and a few pretty lights from isolated northeastern Russian settlements poking out of the darkness below. I sleep for most of the flight. We land in Beijing without incident, in the twilight before dawn.
The layover in Beijing is about eight hours. Luckily, it takes an hour just to get through customs, and I meet a very sweet Mongolian lady, Tseka, who's on my flight as well. We talk about Mongolia and world travel for a while, putter about the airport for a while, and she goes off to get a ceremonial bottle of vodka for her family while I wrestle with the maddening exercise in frustration that is the Great Firewall of China (free airport wireless, but you have to SCAN YOUR PASSPORT into a kiosk to get an access code, and keep a browser window open that tracks your access and such... fuck communism). Giving up on the internet, I marvel at the spotless modern architecture -- and by spotless, I mean that someone immediately rushes into your bathroom stall to clean as soon as you exit -- but also spend some time turning my nose up at the featureless urban ugliness that is everything I can see of Beijing from the airport.
Eventually Tseka comes back and we decide to go get a bite of breakfast. Because I love to see what foreign places do to domestic establishments, we nip into the airport's Pizza Hut. Naturally, the breakfast menu has nothing whatsoever related to pizza or Italian food. I order some eggs, toast, coffee, and bacon, fatally forgetting that Asian nations have zero concept of what "crisp" means when it comes to the latter. Fortunately, the eggs and toast are passable, giving me the gastronomic leeway to pass on the wobbling, pale, blubbery sheet of pork fat on my plate (I dare not dignify it with the term "bacon").
The flight to Mongolia is long, but it's in full daylight, and I thus get a bird's-eye view of the entire journey. Most of it is just brown, flat, formidable Central Asian steppe. The desolation and isolation and inhospitality of the land tightens my chest; there is still true wilderness in our world.
Then up ahead there's a spectacular streak of white against the clay-brown of the steppe. Almost imperceptibly, the land has been sloping upward, and now it stands at an altitude where the frozen north begins to join with the plains. The streak grows slowly larger until it engulfs all the land in a sweep of white, now increasingly dotted here and there by a bright red or green roof of a Mongolian ger (yurt). And then mountains rear up unexpectedly, occasional dark rocks piercing through the pervasive snow-cover like broken bones through skin. We are near Ulaanbaatar.
The city itself shows through as a greasy grey smear against the white landscape, nestled in a valley surrounded by tree-studded mountains. It is a bustling community of well over a million people, but even from the air it's easy to see that it has not yet achieved the homogenization that dulls the landscape of the American metropolis. Colorful roofs and quirky street designs abound. As the airplane drops in altitude, it also becomes apparent that the city has a cracked, blasted, weathered look, almost as though it stepped off the set of a Soviet version of one of the old Star Wars movies.
The landing at Chinggis Khaan International Airport goes smoothly. The airport itself, renovated around 1990, still shows its Communist heritage quite plainly in the industrial realism of its architecture (as indeed does much of Ulaanbaatar itself) and in the grim quasi-Russian-ness of the police in their furry ushanka hats and long trenchcoats. I find my luggage and my driver, Bulga, without incident, and we set off on the 40km drive from the airport to downtown UB.
The cars on the road are packed thicker than bone cells (both car-to-car and in terms of number of passengers per car) and are mostly Japanese and Korean, with an occasional ancient Mercedes here and there. What is immediately apparent is that the Mongolian people have not, as a culture, yet developed a solid concept of right-of-way. Traffic signals (where they are operational) are obeyed, but that's about it; the traffic does not recognize any fixed lanes, any order of stopping for a turn, or any regard for unwary pedestrians. The chaos is, however, at the same time a marvel of spontaneous order, since each car thunders along at will yet I observe not a single traffic accident. The yearly cost of brake maintenance in UB must, however, be truly awe-inspiring.
We eventually arrive at our destination, Khongor Guest House, where I get another distinctive whiff of the highlights of the communist regime. Up two flights of filthy, crumbling stairs, down a hallway with a random pot of tea and cabbage in the middle, and into my room, about the size of a solitary confinement cell with exposed pipes, peeling wallpaper, and a clothesline hung overhead. The Mongolian folks are sweet and friendly; my accommodations are not.
That said, just being in UB for the short couple hours has already been one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. This is a city where trendily-dressed girls in fur coats shuffle down streets lined with crumbling Soviet architecture; where Buddhist lamas run cafés next to Japanese electronics stores; where Western consumerism meets nomadic austerity. It looks like I'm in for an interesting three months.