Hayley, says the sheet of paper held up by a ponytailed Mongolian boy at the arrivals gate.
I greet him enthusiastically, only to discover that his English skills are limited at best. I learn, to my delight, that his name is Dolt, and give up on any further attempts at conversation. Unfortunately the only Mongolian word I know is the word for ‘hello’, and when I say it to him he laughs hysterically. I decide not to say it to anyone else, and follow him meekly outside into what appears to be Northern Ireland.
Seriously, it is COLD. I got on to the plane in South Korea wearing a strappy top and fanning myself wearily, and now I can see my breath on the air. It is such a novelty that I start breathing heavily just for the amusement of it, and Dolt looks rather suspiciously at me. I shiver slightly and then grin at him in delight. It’s COLD!!, I tell him ecstatically, waving my arms around to feel the bitter night air make the hairs on them stand on end. You have no idea – the feeling of cool, fresh outside air was one I’d genuinely forgotten.
Dolt and I travel in silence in his rattly old car, him occasionally laughing at whatever they’re saying on the radio, me peering out of the filthy, streaky windows with the greatest interest. For a capital city, Ulaanbaatar seems rather more dilapidated and less developed than I was expecting. Buildings are crumbling and ugly, and roads are not so much roads as dirt tracks with numerous alarming potholes scattered around as if it’s some sort of assault course. There are no road markings, and cars simply tear along at breakneck speed, dodging each other (and potholes) and leaving clouds of dust behind.
Dolt goes into fits of giggles when we get caught in the wake of a speeding truck, and find ourselves driving blindly through a billowing cloud of dust. I sorry! I sorry! he keeps repeating before laughing the hysterical laugh of a 9-year-old girl again. I begin to get a little concerned that I am travelling at 80mph through the dirt tracks of Outer Mongolia with a stoned teenager behind the wheel, but thankfully he slows down and pulls into a dark alleyway. We are here. I look around doubtfully. Are we here? There are piles of rubble surrounding the rundown old buildings, whose doors are covered in graffiti. One of these doors is in fact the door of the most recommended hostel in Mongolia.
It creaks eerily as it clanks open, like the door to the building of the tenement flat I lived in in Glasgow. A sign on the back of the door reads: PLEASE DO NOT GO OUT AFTER MIDNIGHT. OUTSIDE IS NOT SO SAFE!!
This is going to be fun, I think to myself.