Ulan Bator, Mongolia
After 33 days on the road, covering more than 8,500 miles, numerous countries, four flat tires, several bouts of food poisoning, and more greasy mutton than a man should devour within his lifetime, we reach the lovely, sprawling Shangri-la that is Ulan Bator.
Our van arrives a few hours before Andrew and the Justy. There’s enough juice left in the car to drive it to the impound lot, where we donate it to charity. We bid our trusty chariot goodbye and get down to the serious business at hand: celebrating!
“To be perfectly honest,” Andrew says, “I never thought we’d make it this far. I was expecting our car to gloriously fall apart, leaving us stranded and prime picking for vultures.”
“Let’s not celebrate with Mongolian food,” Mims says. “I can’t eat any more mutton.”
He doesn’t need to. Ulan Bator, which holds the honor of being the coldest capital city in the world, is quite the cosmopolitan metropolis. Italian restaurants, burger joints, Mongolian barbecue hangouts, and even bars called Atlanta and Detroit abound. After six beers, you too can feel like a laid-off autoworker.
Team Dinosaur skips the Motor City and instead travels to Korea House, which specializes in Seoul food.
“Oh, God, please don’t let this be a Mongolian interpretation of Korean food,” Andrew moans.
Korea House is a one-level restaurant, with multiple rooms and vents to suck up the do-it-yourself barbecue smoke. We’re seated at an eight-person table in the main dining room and immediately order soju.
“To not dying,” I say, toasting the team. We drink up and dig in. Korea House’s menu is an all-star list of my favorite treats. We order haejangguk (hearty beef soup made with coagulated ox blood), gimbap (a sushi variant made with ham), bibimbap (hot pot of rice, veggies, and egg), naengmyeon (cold, spicy buckwheat noodles), and several cows’ worth of braised short ribs.
“I think I’m going to cry with happiness,” Mims says as our prim, bespectacled waitress delivers our armada of food, including a dozen bowls of banchan—the small side dishes of kimchee, pickled cucumber, and radish that accompany each meal.
Those are the last words Mims says for the next 15 minutes, as his chopsticks attack each dish in succession. We devour a dozen round slices of warm gimbap, finding it innocuously flavored and heavy on the rice. The short ribs are as soft as tofu, with a rich, meaty broth. I gnaw the bones with all the grace of a caveman. The haejangguk’s a touch too extravagantly flavored for my palate.
“Blood sausage? Why did we order something filled with blood sausage?” I plead. “Haven’t we had our fill of meats of dubious distinction?”
All is redeemed by the naengmyeon’s slick buckwheat noodles. They’re chilled with ice, their supreme spiciness preventing us from slurping up more than a slim bunch at a time. We bicker over the last strand, then distend our stomachs with the bibimbap. The bowl is burn-your-fingers hot; the rice at the bottom pleasingly crunchy. The egg is gooey, sunny-side-up goodness, while the greens are actually, well, green.
“This is one of the top three Korean meals I’ve ever eaten,” Mims says, searching for more short rib shards.
Like the trip itself, this meal is an unlikely delight. Who knew superlative Korean grub existed in Ulan Bator? But though this meal is unlikely, it’s not unexpected. On this trip, food pleasures have revealed themselves everywhere from Kazakhstan gas stations serving fresh-fried mutton buns to Russian roadside smoked-eel stands to nomadic tents high in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan offering dried cheese curds. The key to travel-eating is keeping an open mind (and stomach), asking the locals a few questions—and having plenty of Imodium on standby.