Early morning strolls are out of the question...
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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So what of Ulaan Baatar? After 32 hours on the train we were happy to reach this place tucked in a valley and surrounded by barren, snow-dusted hills. Our city guide Puji met us the station and from there we lurched through a post-lunch traffic jam in the centre of town until we reached our hotel in the city's east. 70,000 cars have hit the streets in this town of 1 million inhabitants since the downfall of Communism here in 1990, so its hard not to be in a traffic jam on these narrow salt and ice covered streets.
First on the time-table (Mongolian for agenda) in the late afternoon was a brisk city tour. (Please note that some of these photos were taken early the next morning, hence the differences in mood lighting).
The Sukhbaatar Square is the centre of town and is actually more in line with my impression of grand city squares than Tianamen was, being completely lined with close-knit buildings which gives the huge space defined boundaries and a truer sense of scale. A statue of Monsieur Sukhbaatar (Sukh the Hero, leader of the peasant revolution that gave Mongolia its independence in 1921) stands proudly adjacent to the large dial like fresco that marks the actual centre of the city. Kids were having a snow fight around the place which livened the otherwise sombre atmosphere.
As mentioned, a number of large buildings surround the square including the Stock Exchange, Government ministerial offices, some large banks and hotels. The old theatre (above left) and the Cultural Ministry (above right) shine nicely in the afternoon sun, although many buildings around here have a distinctly Russian style and heaviness that we will only see more of over the next few weeks.
Still, there are a few examples of some pretty nice architecture around town and if you can dodge the traffic long enough, it is possible to appreciate it. I have no idea what the latter buildings in this series are, but they certainly improve the overall cityscape here.
There isn't a great deal to do around UB it seems, apart from keeping warm in the multitude of drinking dens that lay behind tow or three doors to keep the cold outside. Still, some culture can be found in the back streets, including the array of strange totem poles behind the theatre and next to the Culture Ministry, the unknown monument to some musician (I presume) and some nice parks that I guess would be a lot more hospitable in the summer. No doubt there is ballet, opera and the like somewhere around town if you know where to find it too. Mod cons like internet access, convenience stores and statues of Lenin are easy to find.
Certainly the most interesting aspect of the place is the people. I wouldn't say they are friendly - the harsh environment and centuries of being wedged between Russia and China (with all the accompanying diktats that this would bring) since the demise of their influence 5 or 600 years ago has bred a hardy but gruff Mongolian that now unfortunately combines many of the less appealing aspects of their neighbouring cultures - impatience and self-importance, addiction and boisterousness (yep, look who's talking). City slickers fiercely claim a unique culture that can really only be found on the steppe well beyond the city, but hey, that's the same pretty much everywhere these days...
Anyway, the traditional dress that is often seen around town, the walking (mobile?) phone booths, high impact fireworks being sold by vendors on the roadside and the walls of Vodka found in every supermarket show a curious mix of the old and the new. Whilst Mongolia will continue to hurtle into the future of consumerism and reality TV, visitors need only worry about adequate clothing for the season (avoid going outside before 10am and after 8pm in winter!) and being continually stared down on the street, even more so than most other places I've been.
That said, I along with travelling companions Amanda and Leigh have enjoyed Mongolia on the whole more than our time in China. Whilst it doesn't have the millions of things to do and see, it's a very relaxing place of great natural beauty that makes for a day here better spent than in the bustle of Beijing.
Merry Christmas and a happy new year all.
Next entry -> Ger village on the steppe
Great brands of the world - Mongolia
The Mongolians seem to have a wide range of brands, many of which are presented in English despite their official use of Mongolian cyrillic. However it is the manufacturers of biscuit products that deserve the accolades in this pat of the world.
Firstly Lu with their Disko bikkies. Such a ring to the name, accompanied by simple but effective design and a smooth, rich taste. So many people in the west would appreciate these qualities and the nostalgia for past good times, that they couldn't munch just one. So much so that I'm surprised the big names haven't already come to the party. Keep an eye out - I might get distributor rights and start importing Lu's Disko bikkies to a location near you!
Special mention should also be made of Super Windy Sandwich Biscuits. I have noticed some additional flatulence after consuming half a packet in one sitting, so Leigh and Amanda might have to regulate my consumption, especially when we hop back on the train. So at least the manufacturer is honest, although probably accidentally so.