11 Mar 2013

Ulaanbaatar: A modern gateway to an ancient way of life

Touching down at Ulaanbaatar airport was not the way we had planned to arrive, but it did at least give a bird’s eye view of the vast mountainous plateau that extends all the way South from Ulaanbaatar to the Gobi Desert on the Chinese border.  Officially the coldest capital in the world, Ulaanbaatar was surprisingly mild as we weaved through gridlock traffic to the centre.  This congestion was also unexpected as another pub quiz fact is that Mongolia has the lowest population density in the world.  But as far as Ulaanbaatar is concerned, that is a misleading statistic – almost half of the country’s 2.6m population is located in the capital, which also hogs the lion’s share of the measly 1,500km of tarmac that has so far been laid nationwide.

It turned out that the reason for the heavy traffic on this particular day was that it was the eve of a popular bank holiday Friday – Women’s Independence Day.  This is a celebration that Mongolia shares with Russia and many others, and we had previously witnessed the corresponding Men’s Day on the Trans-Siberian Express back in February.  Men’s Day was then characterised by men getting drunk on vodka and, oddly enough, here in Mongolia Women’s Day was also characterised by men getting drunk on vodka!  But also by red roses and tulips being given by these inebriated Casanovas to their wives and girlfriends – crushed stems and petals littered the pavements the next day.

Ulaanbaatar is a frustrating city in the winter season as most of the museums and temples keep irregular and unpredictable opening hours.  It took us several attempts to tick off the National State Museum and Natural History Museum, while the Fine Arts Gallery proved even more elusive and evaded us all together.  The State Museum in particular is one of the best we have visited on our travels so far.  Largely dual language, it provides a good overview from Mongolia’s earliest tribal history through to its exit from Communism and its entry into the world energy markets.  As with everything in Mongolia, centre stage is given to Chinggis (Ghengis in English) Khan and his epic empire building in the 13th Century, stretching from the Pacific to the Mediterranean.  His mantra of “Those who resist shall be annihilated, those who comply will be spared”, just about sums him up.  While he did unite the warring Mongol factions and introduced written script to Mongolia, his grand-son Kublai Khan arguably left a greater legacy, being responsible for the outline of modern day China and still managing (allegedly) to play host to Marco Polo for 20 years.

The three principle temples of Choijin Lama Temple, Gandan Temple, and  Winter Palace and Temples of Bogd Khan are each impressive in their own way, although of the ancient temples, only Choijin Lama endures in its original state – all others were razed by the Soviets.  

Winter Palace Temple

At the Winter Palace of Bogd Khan
Gandan Temple


But even surviving the Soviets has not spared it from Ulaanbaatar’s almost equally unsympathetic town planning policies – semi built concrete high-rises litter the city, many of them seemingly abandoned mid construction.  This is at odds with Mongolia’s current economic success, and we did not manage to find out why so many building projects seemed to be stalling.  We learnt that the Japanese have won the contract to build Ulaanbaatar’s subway after 5 years of negotiation.  We also enjoyed the views from the new Blue Sky Tower – an office and hotel complex with great views of the city from its top floor bar. These modern glass towers seem incongruous in a city where many of the suburbs still comprise ger (or yurt) settlements.

London? New York? No, Outer Mongolia!  (Blue Sky Tower) -
the times they are a changin'!
Sunset over the city
Petty crime is an obvious annoyance in the capital.  Within a day of arriving Josi found someone’s fingers tugging at her pocket zip, and later that day we saw a fracas at the Naruntuul Market which ended with a very inept thief receiving a stick beating from a woman whose sunglasses he tried to snatch.  Naruntuul Market is the spralling, open-air black market through which a mind-boggling array of clothes, household items, antiquities and general haberdashery passes every day.

One of the oddities of Mongolia is that its currency (the Tugrug) has no coins.  Instead it uses some truly worthless notes, such as the 1 Tugrug (about £0.005).  John’s long standing hatred of pocket shrapnel welcomed this, although the flipside is the illusion of having more cash than you actually do, as each time you break a note you end up with wads of ever lesser Tugrugs lining your pockets – useful insulation in Ulaanbaatar’s icy climate.

Sukhbaatar Square
Chinggis Khan
Enjoying a Lassi & other delicacies at the famous Hazara Restaurant
A hang over from the Communist era in Mongolia
Our main reason for coming to Mongolia however was to experience something of its nomadic culture.  So 5 days after arriving we set off alone to Terelj National Park.  The Swiss NGO we had arranged the trip through had assured us that “at the last bus stop” an ox-cart would be waiting for us, and so it began…


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