Part Three: Ulaan Bataar…What is this place?
Probably someone’s home.
After arriving in Ulaan Bataar (photos) it takes about 30 seconds before you begin to refer to it as UB. Along with Wulumqi (Urumqi) in Xinjiang Province, UB is one of those places I encountered in my young days surfing through Atlases at breakfast. “What a weird place…how do I pronounce that? Whatever, I won’t be going there”.
Yet there I was, standing on the train platform, being swamped by guesthouse representatives, each pushing the qualities of their facilities and showering me in a swath of pamphlets, name cards and maps.
UB is a dirty, dirty city. It is a decrepit, run down, soviet dinosaur of an age long gone. Parks are over grown, asphalt and concrete potholed and cracked, buildings blocks are laden in grafitti, gray and lifeless. Sand swirls endlessly, trash piles in the open sewers as well as everywhere else, the odd dead animal is pushed away into the overgrown and dying green spaces. In typical communist fashion, this city was constructed by a government to a planned perfection and provided with all the bells and whistles…forty or so years ago. Having traveled now in two former communist nations (I don’t really consider China to be communist) I’m convinced that the word maintenance and upkeep was stricken from the local vocabulary as being a reactionary and imperialistic noun during their respective revolutions.
Yes, UB is possibly one of the most run down, dirty and rapidly expanding urban environment I’ve visited. But Mongolia is also one of the poorest nations in the world, and country which was controlled by the USSR for the later half of the 20th century and Russian and Chinese overlords for the previous half. Just by observing UB, it is obvious that the government has little if any money, for anything.
Despite being excessively poor in many areas and spatially filthy, as a traveler/tourist I loved UB. After the fall of communism in the 90’s, Mongolia, unlike many Asian nations, fully embraced democracy like it was the long lost love it hadn’t seen in years. As a bastion of democracy sandwiched in between a not so democratic China, a lost, bitter and increasingly authoritarian Russia, and closed, bubbled and nuclear crazy North Korea, Mongolia has received a massive amount of American aid in the past 15 years. I suspect at good proportion (after reading Robert Kaplan’s Mongolian piece) has been sunk into improving their military and rebuilding old Soviet bases for possible American use. With probably the remainder being used to provide loans allowing people to purchase SUV’s (I’ve never seen that many SUV’s concentrated into one area…and I notice these sorts of things). I suppose providing people with quality vehicles is a more cost effective (although somewhat of a bandage solution) approach to improving transportation infrastructure.
Mongolians claim to be of Asian origin but of Western culture mixed most recently with Japanese and Korean fashion, television and music. This combined with a long Russian presence and a recent western interest in Mongolia, has created a plethora of incredibly good food and drinking establishment. Mongolian weather is pleasant and the relatively small population of UB has maintained a blue sky environment. Perfect ingredients for an incredible pub patio scene. In between searching for travel buddies, I would chill on the patios of various establishments, sampling a large variety of local brews (unlike China, different beer brands offer remarkably different taste experiences) and watching the UBians go about their business. The urban Mongolian is also surprisingly liberal, relative to say, your average urban Chinese dude. Fashion and music habits are also strongly influenced by Western and Korean/Japanese themes. UB is extremely energetic, yet relaxed. I believe that within UB there is a feeling among many, that this is the beginning of a golden age for Mongolia…for some at least.
*finally got around to fixing my archives link which Jeremy had informed me was broken about 5 months ago.