And so my travel adventures or rather, misadventures continues. Apparently even in a distinctively Asian Country, my vulnerable and suspicious tourist behaviour did not go unnoticed. After my pretty awesome 6 days 5 nights tour in the Gobi Desert, I found myself with 2 more nights in Ulan Baatar; Capital of Mongolia. The city was reminisce of Singapore in the early 90s but with really bad air pollution and close to zero form of public transport.
Mongolia weather has always been erratic, it could be sunshine one day and hail storm the other. In October, snow flake flurries come and go. I had prayed to God to give me a bit of my first snow experience and he answered it by giving Ulan Baatar negative degree weather that day. I jumped awake 730am in the morning to the weather report on my sparkling new Samsung Note 4. My phone said UB was snowing, I looked out of the window and … it was snowing! i grinned like a kid and looked across the bunk to the only roommate awake. I gestured and excitedly mouthed the word "snow" to avoid waking anyone up. He didn't even bother to fake enthusiasm, much to my dismay.
However what came with the snow was freezing weather. And without a good idea of where to go, I stayed indoor until noon. I jotted myself out of the hostel and experienced snow for the first time around 11am. Fluttering effortlessly across the air, they were ethereally beautiful ... and unbearably cold!
As a capital of the 18th biggest country, UB’s public transport is frustrating for a foreigner(and even the locals really). The bus stops shows no bus numbers while mini buses work the same ways as Jeepneys in Philippines; drivers shout out the destination in rapid Mongolian and you board if it's your way. Taxis came in the form of cars - anybody’s car. You just put your hand out, tell the driver your destination and haggle a price. While they say there is an established Taxi system/company in UB, I never once spotted one. There are no Metros.
For an alien like me with no knowledge of the local language, the only way I could get around was walking. Which actually wasn’t too bad since I enjoy walking amongst the locals to experience the country in the most authentic way possible. Here are some photographs of the city when I still had the mood to tour it.
I used Google maps to guide my way and it works for the most parts. Kudos to Google for that! But it was a very very cold day and my icy palm hurt so much I had to put gloves on to pacify them. But gloves meant getting anything from the bag was a hassle as you can't feel them so I did the silliest thing possible; I placed my phone into my front pocket.
I wanted to get some antiseptic creams for my saddle burns. We did Camel and Horse riding in the Gobi desert and man does my ass hurts! I saw a pharmacy and decided to check it out. I happened to tail behind a lady on the stairs to the pharmacy however, just at the entrance of the pharmacy, she stopped and turned around to go out. Banging head on into me in the process.
I remember feeling really frustrated at her blatant rudeness and weird out at her strange course of actions. Didn't she climbed the stairs to enter the pharmacy, why did she back out now?! Silly me didn’t suspect more. After all, she was standing nonchalant outside the shop like she was waiting for someone; maybe her friend had a change of plans?
30 minutes later, in the UB State Department Store, I was looking at chocolates and decided to calculate the conversion rate with my phone and to my massive dismay, it couldn’t be found ! Distraughted but hopeful, i decided to retrace my steps and go back to the shops I've been. Maybe I left it in one of the shops.
I had a hard time retracing my steps since my dubious sense of direction was of no help. But after a lot of effort, i managed to find the pharmacy again. i went in and gestured to the pretty staff, asking if she had found a mobile phone lying around. since this was my 2nd attempt at charade with her ( first being the time I tried to buy antiseptic cream), she was visibly uninterested in this ugly and poor looking alien and flat out rejected me . She might have thought I wanted to borrow a phone but either way, i have seen the end of this path. And the truth finally sank in me.
I decided the next reasonable course of action was to report this to the police - after all, I have travel insurance to claim this time. In a foreign land however, that turned out to be a lot harder than expected.
I saw a few traffic police and asked if they knew where I could find a Police Station. English stumbled them. He gave me a blank look for a moment before looking away and dismissed my presence, I almost couldn't believe his attitude. There were 3 police and they seemed busy with a civilian driver. I stood by and waited for a chance to speak to them but after a while, i realise I was just wasting time. So I moved on.
Can't remember how I found my way into a cafe/bar, but I did. I had been pretty proud of my charading talent but it took them a long while to understand what i was saying. The language that proved most useful however, was my beyond broken Japanese - picked up from decades of Anime watching. My otaku acquired skills is saving my life! What do you have to say about that? Life works in strange and mysterious ways doesn't it?
Eventually one of the staff was ordered (yes, ordered) to show me the way, thanks to the kindness of whom seemed like the manager despite the unwillingness (lol) of the guy. The guy escorted me a distance, pointed to the abstract direction of the police station and gave me some directions in Mongolian. Unable to foretell the struggles I was about to surmount, I happily thanked him and made my way.
Unfortunately for me, the way to the police station was not as direct as I hoped. After going into dead ends and seeking help from a security guard , I eventually found what seemed like a police station and made my way in.
The security officer spotted me before I knocked and opened the door for me and I explained that I wanted to lodge a police report. I'm not sure how much of my words got through but he let me in. I then found myself standing in front of a counter with a bunch of ladies dressed in civilian clothings. Took them a while to attend to me and even more time for them to understand me. I told them I would like to lodge a report and they expectedly, gawked at me like I was a Cretaceous T-Rex riding a bike.
I looked onto their smartphones with yearn and wondered why none of them bothered trying Google translate. Maybe they already knew Google was going to fail them or maybe they just couldn't be bothered. Anyway, they asked me where I lost my phone and unsure of how to answer that, I told them "around this area". And we spent the next 5 minutes in awkwardness as I tried to describe where "this area" was.
Eventually, the nice lady brought me to an officer in a room. The important looking officer was a clean shaven and handsome young lad. After the agony of losing my phone and finding my way around, I was more than ready to end this pursuit and wondered if this smart looking officer was going to be the Prince to end it all.
It was just the beginning.
The beginning of shifting my wrath from the pickpocket to the Mongolian police and the counter productive justice system.
The nice lady explained my plight to the officer , or at least that's what I think she did. The officer was a fair Mongolian man and looked to have grown from a well to do family. Perfectly coiffed black hair and glowing, blemish free skin - exactly how I envisioned a prince on an ivory tower would look.
I'm not sure why I bothered describing his appearance. I guess I just wanted to highlight his nonchalance to this annoying tourist's request. I wouldn't go as far as saying I was snubbed but I definitely couldn't sense his enthusiasm. But of course, who am I to expect help? He is an important officer there to serve the people, not a foreigner like me. But I suspect experiences like these was what made me left Mongolia; routinely touted as the land of the friendliest people on earth, with a tad bit of bitter aftertaste. Of course, losing my two month old mobile phone that was an early Christmas present from my Dad didn't make things any better and I could have childishly allowed my own mistake to cloud my perception but hey, feelings are what they are.
We came out from the room and the nice lady told me I needed to go to another police station to lodge a report. They drew me a map and helped me write my requests in Mongolian on a paper. I could sense the tinge of helplessness in their eyes and I'm grateful for that. Armed with a hazy understanding of their directions, I stepped out of the station not quite sure how to feel.
After the experience in the station, I decided to return to the pharmacy to take some pictures, lest the next station ask me the same questions again. I'm so glad I did.
By some pure stroke of luck (thank God for his guidance), I managed to find my way to the second police station. Went in and approached the first police officer I saw, the poor guy guarding the way to the important offices. I tried to tell him I wanted to lodge a police report and was given the same T-Rex reaction which by now, I was starting to grow tired of. I cannot remember why I didn't approach the staff counter first or maybe I did and was redirected but all that memory is hazy now.
I only remembered the police officer calling someone on his cellphone and getting the guy to be the translator. The guy spoke pretty decent English and for a while I saw hope! Finally, someone who understands what I'm saying can help me with this very simple process of lodging a report and I can move on from this sucky incident! At some point, I was probably brought to the officers working behind the glass window and some attempts at communications was made. The translator kept asking the same question "Where did you lose it?". I rambled on of my experience and went into as much detail as I possibly could. Only to be asked the same question again "So exactly, where did you lose your phone?". –_____-|||
I showed them the photo I took of the UB department store - the mall was directly across the pharmacy. And I showed them the photo of the Pharmacy store front. I told them I lost my phone here in front of the stairs and they fell into silence, holding concerns I would only find out later.
It was soon decided that this station wasn't where I was supposed to be and a police officer was tasked to bring me to the responsible station. I only found out afterwards that I would be 'kicked around' because different stations was handling different 'geographic' areas, pretty counter productive considering how close everything was.
And so I stepped precautiously into the police car for the first time in my life. Sheepishly congratulating myself for 'accomplishing' an unexpected life experience sans the crime; half amused and half ashamed of my "oh-so-touristy" amusement that really serves no logic at all.
So I was ferried to the third police station where I was dropped at the counter and had to begin my struggle from scratch again. Here I met a young lady who spoke English who, probably surprised at the presence of a foreigner in a Police station, inquired my purpose . Apparently she had lost her phone just 20 minutes before around the area and she's there for exactly the same reason as I was. She soon scuffled out of the police station with a police officer, probably to the place of the crime. While I was loitering around the counter (I was left hanging a lot), I befriended a local man who seemed to be in his thirties. He was around when the lady spoke with me and thus knew I was a foreigner. He then started conversating with me in, guess what? Japanese.
Apparently he thought I was Japanese and well, Japanese was the only foreign language he knew. Not sure how I managed to miraculously hold a conversation with my extremely deprived Japanese vocabulary but I did. He turned out to be an angel in disguise as he lent me his cellphone to google for the number of my hostel. I had saved all my travel/ hostel information on my cellphone, losing it meant losing all those information too.
With the phone in my hand, I clicked on the Internet app to start the surf and the default homepage started loading first. From just the loading URL, it was easy to tell what kind of site it was. It was undeniably, a porn site. Lol.
I quickly typed "google" in the address bar, hoping to load over the embarrassing site. But the phone was slow and adamant in loading the homepage first. By then the man had realised what was happening and quickly off loaded the phone from me to do some quick manuvres as I feigned ignorance of an Oscar level.
I found the number of my hostel, wrote it down and got the police officer to call the number. We hooked up with my hostel owner who became my translator and things were finally looking up! I was going to proceed with this simple procedure of declaring my lost and then I could go out and explore the city again! Hurray!
But no. Life rarely goes as planned and I was about to find out.
After more charading and attempted communication, I say "attempted" because we tried to communicate but without success. I soon found myself in a second police car going back to the previous station. My driver (a police man) even managed to find some chummy smoke time with his bros before starting the engine. I could almost be mistaken as a part of the family as I stood side by side among them in a circle, awkwardly.
I was dropped off at the second Police Station and left on my own after a brief introduction. It had been more than 2 hours since I tried to lodge a report and I no longer found any amusement in my situation. The only thing keeping me afloat was gone and I was sinking. The overwhelming frustrations that I wasn't getting anywhere with a seemingly simple police report was pulling me down. Getting ignored and kicked around didn't help ease the anxiety either. My frustration towards the judicial system begun to take over my anger towards the pickpockets and I allowed it to show.
The second station (which I visited twice) had a small seating area with a bunch of people waiting . My angry pacing while mumbling did not go unnoticed as I felt everyone staring down my back. Something I was fine with as long as I was able to force some action on the part of the police officers. The last thing I wanted was for them to forget my existence! Yes, I know they are busy and I probably shouldn't have expected them to be more helpful. But after getting kicked around so many times with no sight of completion, anxiety and frustration were heavy on my back. Not to mention this was my only day left to get the report - I was scheduled to leave tomorrow morning!
My memories are hazy at this point but I think I managed to make a call to my hostel again and my awesome hostel Mistress agreed to come down to the station to clear things up. After a frustratingly long wait, I was ushered into yet another police car to be brought somewhere. I have no freakin idea where we were going but I wasn’t in a position to ask, so I just move myself as instructed. I only remembered feeling sick and tired of this entirely unnecessary ordeal which really should have been painless if I was a local but alas, such is the problem of travelling in a country you cannot communicate.
This is also probably the only time I'll ever experience the fringe of what it's like to be a refugee running away from war and hoping someone will save you. Not like I'm trying to make light of their dire situation by comparing it to my ridiculously trivial experience , but travelling in this manner really does humble you sometimes as you constantly find yourself at the mercy of others.
The sun had already gone down before I realised. I thought we would be going to yet another police station but the car abruptly stopped at the kerb beside a road and someone jumped in. It was my hostel Mistress! Turns out she had arranged to meet with the police officers to follow me to the scene of crime to determine the next course of action. I can't say enough how thankful I was to finally have a translator!
The sun had long ended his shift and traffic was at its peak on the always congested Peace Avenue. The shop couldn't have been too far away but the traffic was making the journey much longer than needed as we moved bumper to bumper. The police driver was visibly upset with the traffic too and before I knew what was happening, he blasted the police siren, shifted his steering wheel to the right in one swift motion and cut the car into the oncoming lane to the right. He proceed to speed up the car and made a quick turn at the cross junction ahead. Did my police car ( the one I'm in) just broke the traffic rules? How rad is that?!
It was an indescribably hilarious moment for me. A memory I will take delight in recounting for the rest of my life despite the asset loss. But hey, what's a phone compared to cruising on a police car and making the sirens ring without committing any crime XD? I made the police siren rang in Mongolia because the traffic was so bad and my police driver was a bad ass. My grandchildren would be thrilled (I suppose) and I bet no one can barg the same story!
We soon found ourselves inside the pharmacy and the officers were talking to the slightly bewildered staff. The only thing I could make out was them asking for her account of my presence in the shop that day, which she confirmed. They requested to see the CCTV Footage - the shop had a cctv anchored up high though it's unsure if it can see the door. Either way, since it was already 9pm, there was no way they could access the cctv footages as the manager with keys to it was not around. The entourage of two police officers, my hostel Mistress and myself then proceed to analyse the situation based on the findings in a nearby Super market because the other stores were closing. Oops, I mean, they analysed, not me. Without an ounce of Mongolian on my tongue, the only thing I could do was pretend to look involved. However I soon find myself strolling down the aisle of the snack corner hoping to pick somethings interesting up. Man! They probably hate me for that but I doubt they noticed I was gone.
With the help of my hostel Mistress, things have finally started rolling. She told me what the investigation had found this far and what they intend to do for me. They would bring me back to the station to get my report lodged so I can have an official statement to claim my insurance. It would be in native Mongolian with an official stamp and she would try to pick up an English version for me the days after. We were worried a police report in a foreign language would prevent my claim but thankfully, NTUC made no fuss over this exotic language and paid out the maximum refund to me.
But before that, I went on my fourth police car ride to the station. It would be my fifth time arriving at a police station which in this case, happens to be the second station I visited.
Apparently I was jostled between stations because I was pickpocketed on the stairs between the pharmacy and the road. One station was in charge of the shop while another was in charge of the road and nobody knows who is in charge of the stairs in between. Wow, and people say Singapore is an overly bureaucratic nation.
I also remember my hostel Mistress asking me why did I tell the police officers that I was picked at the UB Department store since that seemed to have messed things up. I tried to explain to her I only said the pharmacy was across the department store and had even drew maps to clarify that. Not sure how things got so twisted in the end lol.
Back at the station, we soon found ourselves in the room of an important looking policeman. After asking a few technical questions such as my phone model and the time of crime, he proceed to fold an A4 paper in half, tore it down the middle and fed it into what seemed like an ordinary consumer printer. And with the chucking sound of the inkjet, my long awaited report has finally arrived.
By the time I got the report in my hand, the stores had all closed and the city was almost ready for bed. It was a record time of more than 6 hours and a memory that will last a lifetime.
I still can't decide whether I should laugh or cry over this experience. I couldn't help but feel disappointed at some areas of the experience and it definitely exposed me to the pitfalls of travelling in a country where you cannot speak their language. I can't believe I wasn't more careful (don't put your valuables in places pickpockets can see!) and my friends never allowed me to forget my own naivety. But I guess experiences like this is what makes up an interesting life. We make mistakes and we learn from it. We learn to be more cautious and vigilant and we learn to take care of other people now that we've experienced the agony first hand.
It also reminded me to appreciate Singapore’s relatively safe society, where after decades of residence, have never seen me a victim of petty crimes before. The Singapore police has also never sent me off to another Police Station when I try to lodge a loss report. They just take my testimony patiently instead of harrowing over the location of the crime - a benefit of being a micro nation I suppose.
Before anyone plummet me for being ignorant or throw any other negative adjectives they found pleasing to them on me, let me disclaim that this is just an account of my experience. I understand different places do things differently due to different systems and demands. This blog entry serves only to document my travel experience and perhaps, offer other Travellers a heads-up.
It’s been one year since the ordeal and looking back now, I’ll say it was all pretty rad 8D.