I travelled a lot in the late 80s/early 90s, including to many countries that might be considered risky by your average westerner fed on a diet of England the Great; Outer Mongolia was one of them and the only one in which I experienced anything remotely approaching a ‘culture shock’. Most countries I visited; the people, the sights, sounds, smells, they were all, as I saw it, just variations on a theme and so I was rarely brought up short.
Outer Mongolia was a continuation of the China trip I mentioned in another thread. In Hong Kong, I purchased tickets for the TSR via a company called Monkey Business (long since defunct, I suspect and probably a tad dodgy). Guy there offered me $100 to go to a state office in Beijing and purchase several tickets. This I did and good to his word, I got my hundred bucks and a Gov. scribble in the back of my passport. I suspect that whilst legal for me to do it. it probably wasn’t for a business and I was told I could only do it once, thus the scribble.
Anyway, the other bonus was that somehow Monkey Business managed to get your Russian transit visa to start the day you left Outer Mongolia and not, as it should be, the day you left Beijing. This meant that you could have four days in Moscow without the tourist visa that would have required you to stay at prohibitively expensive state hotels. (I stayed in some cockroach-ridden apartment on the outskirts of Moscow for $5 a night.)
At that time, although newly democratic, Outer Mongolia was Communist and in order to visit, you had to have a state representative with you. We (myself and about 7 others who were also going to Moscow) never knew where we were staying until about an hour before, including at one hotel miles and miles from anywhere, where the showers ran red (rust?, ore?). We also ate mutton for breakfast, lunch and dinner day after day after day. The highlight of the four days was probably an overnight stay in a yurt with a lovely Mongolian family.
The low point was in Ulan Bator. We were out having lunch at a restaurant when I heard a commotion outside. Going to look, I saw there, in the square, an awful fight going on, with two guys on one, kicking the hell out of him. There was a crowd watching. This was no street punch up, no pub fight; brutal, primal, protracted, kicking, punching, blood everywhere, I was terrified the guy was going to be killed and so I rushed to the Gov. rep and implored to him to call the police. He nonchalantly walked over to the window, looked around and then said, “Look, over there, the police are already here.” I looked and indeed they were, arms crossed, watching, totally unfazed. I found it utterly terrifying.
One final thing to relate; I had gone from Hong Kong to Shanghai via the South China Sea, then overland via several towns to Beijing. From there to Ulan Bator and then finally on to Moscow before flying home. That took in over several weeks, two continents, three countries (two communist and one very recently not), numerous time zones, numerous modes of transport and all without a hitch bar that one incident in Ulan Bator; it was a joyful breeze. All those risky countries! However, ironically, after all of that, in a sense, the biggest risk (at least symbolically) was yet to come. From Heathrow I got the tube to Victoria to catch a train for the last twenty minute leg home. Except I couldn’t and was stuck in Victoria station for four hours. Why? IRA bomb scare.