UB For Short

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Monday, July 9, 2012

Mongolia, the world's second-largest landlocked country after Kazakhstan, has proven to be a very large jump-start to our travel batteries. As we've wandered aimlessly through Asia, we've been amazed by the kaleidoscope of spectacular experiences offered up by each area we've visited but at the same time there always seemed to be an underlying similarity- a common bond. Not so in Mongolia. The architecture, fashion of the day, landscape, and even the food stand in sharp contrast to our earlier travels. The spoken and written language is also very different, the look and stature of the people is quite a change from their smaller Asian neighbours, and even the character and demeanor is a cold shower when compared to the unbridled warmth and hospitality we had experienced in much of Asia. Apparently you have a greater chance of seeing a Przewalski Horse in the wilds of Mongolia (look it up) than a smile on the streets of Ulaan Bataar. An American ex-pat told us that the Mongolians assume you are laughing at them if you smile too much and that seems as valid an explanation as any. I don't know why, but I found the scowling aloofness kind of endearing- perhaps I was just flashing back to my unsuccessful single guy days in the bars of Winnipeg? 

Russia has had, and continues to have, a large influence on Mongolia and it shows. Especially in the architecture and traffic. Mongolians drive angry- very angry! As pedestrians we've struggled with traffic chaos throughout our trip, so what's different about Ulaan Bataar? In other parts of Asia, we've been run down by drivers who pretend to not see you as they go whizzing by- in Mongolia, the drivers maintain eye contact and dare you to step off the sidewalk, and there's no discrimination- I suspect that you get more points for nailing a tourist, but locals, small children, and livestock all cross the streets with a look of sheer terror on their faces. And a Mongolian driver never 'toots' their horn; I'm actually surprised that they don't drain their batteries given the length of time they lay on their horns. We were wandering the city when the local constabulary started closing streets to allow the Queen of the United States, Hillary Clinton, unfettered access to the government complex (as an unrelated rant, why are the bumbling bureaucrats responsible for infrastructure messes never forced to experience them with the rest of us- if Hillary went through today's airport security mindless nonsense just once, you'd have to think that things would change). Mongolians responded to this unwelcome intrusion with the loudest, and longest symphony of horn blasting I have ever heard- at the point at which the average driver was bleeding from around his eyeballs, it was easy to see how Genghis Khan was able to harness the anger of this lightly populated country to conquer most of the known world back in the 13th century.

Over 45% of Mongolia's 2.75 million people live in the capital city of Ulaan Bataar And you've got to love a city that could care less how you spell and pronounce its name. As we toured the streets, we saw a number of officially sanctioned names for the city that were sometimes one word and sometimes two words and included Ulan Bator, Ulanbator, Ulaan Bataar, Ulan Batar, Ulaanbaatar, Ulaγanbaγatur- all of which was strange given that the city was named in honour of a specific national hero who, with the help of the Soviet Red Army, liberated Mongolia from Chinese occupation in 1911. Ever the pragmatists, most of the locals just default to "UB" as do any visitors who spend more than a day here.

UB would never be a serious contender in any sort of urban beauty contest but it probably takes more of a beating from it's critics than it deserves (admittedly I'm probably seeing it at its best- apparently the cooler weather locks in the smog from the coal-fired power plants giving the city a permanent grey ambiance). It was obviously designed by the same dude who did the urban landscapes for other Soviet era communist countries (the same dude who never met a square or rectangular concrete block he couldn't turn into an office tower or residence). Mongolia is no longer a communist country but that change has been fairly recent so it will likely be a while before the town experiences the beauty upgrades that come with the first Golden Arches. In addition to the Queen of the US, American influence has started showing up with an increased use of English and a number of restaurants with western menus- Mongolia is purposefully courting U.S. engagement given that they are completely surrounded by China and Russia (there seems to be a fondness for Russians but a dislike of all things Chinese) and don't view that as the secret to a long life and prosperity.

The annual average temperature in UB is 0C, making it the world's coldest capital city but we have timed our summertime visit to coincide with the biggest festival in the country so the weather has been great and a refreshing change from the recent heat and humidity we've experienced. During the day we attended a very formal wreath laying ceremony in the main square, and toured the Tibetan-style Gandantegchinlen Monastery which held some of the few buildings to survive the communist purges-. with the end of communist rule in 1990, Buddhism has experienced a massive renaissance. Our top wow was probably a 'fashion' festival that we stubbled across more by accident than design- it was an impromptu event in the main square that seemed to be a gathering of locals with many of them wearing traditional clothing (outside of the festival you would see tradition costumes but most of the residents seemed to be wearing the Russian version of western clothing- lots of hot pants, stilleto shoes, shirts undone to the belly??).

We filled our evenings with cultural shows and even took in a local circus (no animals!) that was set up for locals and their kids but it turned out to be one of the highlights of our stay here. With an obvious Mongolian slant, this circus was a cartoon come to life right down to the strongman lifting barbells with the ball shaped weights at either end, a magician executing the sword trick, jugglers with bowling pins, acrobats and their teetertotter launch pad- the only thing missing was Yosemite Sam as Ringmaster. Great fun and the local kids couldn't get enough of it.

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anne prince on

seems like not much has changed since 1982 when i as there in the depths of winter. The faces, costumes and colour was something lacking at -20oC. where to from here - we did the Transiberian to Moscow now called the Vodka Express


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