Ulaan Bataar: Emerging From Behind the Curtain

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
Trip End Sep 12, 2010

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Thursday, July 15, 2010

We rode the Trans Mongolian Express for a memorable 31 hours from Beijing to Ulaan Bataar.
Our first look at Ulaanbaatar from the train was of brightly colored roofs of houses that looked like polka dots decorating a grassy hillside. We disembarked at the clean, modern station and stepped into a brilliantly sunny day. The city skyline, a hodge-podge of Russian-style apartment blocks, silver skyscrapers and puffing smokestacks, looked intriguing. A driver from our hostel, Khongor Guest House, met us and we piled into his small sedan. Traffic was clogged on the main artery, Peace Avenue, where our driver joined the fray of cars aggressively cutting each other off and veering around pedestrians. Quite a shock after long leisurely hours traveling on rhythmic rails. 
We checked in to Khongor Guest House, a basic and cheap ($22/night) hostel specializing in multi-day driving tours to the "countryside", which includes everywhere outside of UB (the local abbreviation for Ulaanbaataar). We quickly got swept up in the energy of Khongor's, a hive of activity. A revolving door of backpackers poured into the office to find rooms (the hostel was fully booked), arrange tours and find companions to travel with to lower costs. Toro, Khongor’s owner, conducted the action deftly, insuring that several tours departed daily. As there are at least 20 tour companies in the city, we worried that the tourist trail in "remote" Mongolia would be as clogged as Peace Avenue. Choices were to join a packaged tour of six or seven, to hire just a driver or just driver and guide (drivers speak no English), or to take a private tour, including driver and cook/guide. We opted for the latter. The price, the equivalent of $60 day including transportation in rugged van or SUV, accommodation in a ger (more on gers later), food, cook and driver seemed like a bargain! It was, especially taking into account that in Mongolia, there is no such thing as "luxury" travel, and the tour we took, barring the hyper-deluxe Nomadic Expeditions, was superior travel by Mongolian standards. 
We arranged to depart the following day on a four-week circuit of the south, center and north of the country, starting with the Gobi Desert. We followed this with a week in the West, hiking out of Olgii. Including several days in UB, we spent a over five weeks in Mongolia. The following four entries cover our travels in this fascinating land.
Our first evening in UB an angry storm moved in and settled over the the city, and flashes of lightning and booming thunder kept us awake for hours. 
The next day, we visited Suhkbaatar Square, the core of UB's administrative and cultural center. It was almost deserted in the drizzle, a scaled down Red Square in look and feel. Bronze statues, three times larger than life, of Chinggis Khan flanked by his son Ogedei and grandson, Kubulai, are formidable reminders of Mongolia's past glory as conquerers of a vast empire in the 12th century.
Mongolia was never part of the Soviet Union, but fell under Russia’s sphere of power in the 1930’s. In UB, Russian influences are evident in the crumbling soviet era apartment blocks,food choices and lack there-of (lots of pickles, potatoes and vodka),  wide spread use of the Cyrillic alphabet, and a huge outdoor “Black Market”, that sells everything INCLUDING the kitchen sink. 
Corruption and back door deal making are another inheritance from "mother" Russia. 
For example, Mongolia's rich natural resources include rich mineral deposits of gold, silver and copper. Foreign mine companies have thus far managed to "arrange" land leases" enabling them to extract and export minerals to China, Korea, Australia, Canada, the US and the Mid-East bypassing pesky environmental and tax laws. To serve UB's burgeoning "nouveau riche" sector, steel skyscrapers and western-style luxury condominiums have sprouted up it near the city center. Gleaming shopping malls, boasting Armani and Gucci boutiques, offer valet parking to Mercedes and BMW-driving clients. 
UB is a young city. It is home to the country's only university, which accepts all applicants. Nomad children receive solid education in provincial capital cities, attending as  boarding students living away from their families during the school year. Increasingly, ambitious young people are not returning to their parents' countryside farms, staying in UB to find a better life, UB is grappling with serious social issues, including a housing shortage, unemployment and an upswing in crime. Meanwhile, rural populations are rapidly declining, altering the Mongolian landscape both physically and culturally. The next generation will be the most educated and worldly in Mongolia’s history, portending change that will hopefully be beneficial to Mongolians.
We took a trip out of the city to pay a visit to The Lotus Children's Center (www.lotuschild.org), an orphanage run by an Australian called Didi. She came to Mongolia as a yoga teacher 17 years ago and ended up founding an orphanage for street children. These kids, notoriously, lived in communities of orphans in heating ducts under the city, having been abandoned by their parents during the economic collapse of the earl 1990's. (Many kids still live in tis underground warren of warmth; open manholes where kids access heating ducts are a hazard on the sidewalks of UB.) Didi and a few volunteers house and care for over 100 kids in a large house that was purpose-built with donations and volunteer labor. The kids gave us a happy welcome and gathered around us wherever we went. They all appeared healthy, and seem to have everything kids need: a warm, safe home, plenty of food, a well-stocked school, a surrogate family of 100 siblings, and a Mom named Didi.  Every now and then the police show up on Didi's doorstep with a van load of homeless kids they hope to leave at the orphanage. Then Didi has to make a tough call; taking only the very young and the girls. It breaks her heart to send away the older boys, but she lacks the resources to care for them all.
After the abrupt departure of its Russian bosses and protectors in 1989, Mongolia fell into economic and social disarray. Under Soviet rule, Mongolia was organized into vast farming and manufacturing collectives and provided and cared for by Russia. Today, Mongolians are in the midst of a slow, often painful, learning curve of organizing themselves into autonomous political and economic systems. A democratic government was elected in the late 1990’s, but since then, the populace has lost confidence in democrats, too. The general opinion is that both communist and democratic governments are corrupt.  Many, especially older folk, long for the return of communism.
The “holes” left by the sudden departure of the Soviets are seen in the closed factories, and abandoned villages and cooperatives. Perhaps Mongolians were left with psychic “holes” as well. As Michael astutely commented, “UB is in a period of transition. I just can’t tell if it’s headed up or down”... Time will tell.
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Katie on

Never in my life have I even considered going to Mongolia, but you make it sound so accessible and doable! I love that you are on this adventure. I can't tell you enough how much I enjoy your travel notes. xo

Martha Klein on

so enjoying your writings - I have never known anyone who went to Mongolia.

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