A Sprawling City of Contrasts

Old meets newWith the characteristic sound of the plane’s tires hitting the runway, it finally really dawned on us: we had reached Chinggis Khaan International Airport, and a month of adventures in Mongolia had begun.

This journey through Mongolia had been years in the works. There were logistics and funding issues to sort out before we could make it happen, not to mention finding the time to leave our daily lives for the considerable duration needed to explore this vast destination. Unknown to us at the time, the following weeks would provide quite a lesson in patience and flexibility, as a planned schedule in Mongolia should always be taken with a grain of salt.

A country as massive as Mongolia has much to offer. We knew for sure that we wanted to visit the Tsaatan reindeer herders in the northernmost reaches of the country. And with Amy’s lifelong passion for riding and riding cultures, of course we had to see the only remaining truly wild horse, the Przewalski. Finally, the iconic eagle hunters would be absolutely spectacular to experience for ourselves. The rest of the trip we would play by ear and fit in as many experiences as possible while learning the way of the Mongol.

Chinggis Khan SquareArriving in Ulaanbaatar or “UB” as most locals refer to their capital, you will immediately notice drastic contrasts. On the final approach just before landing we were mesmerized by the many Ger camps* surrounding the towering modern city of UB. Driving into central UB, weaving in and out of the bustling afternoon traffic, our senses were constantly stimulated. Herds of cows crossing the street, Buddhist monks casually walking along, busy businessmen in freshly pressed suits on their way to their next meeting, and beautiful, fashionable young women on their iPhones scoping out the next latte pit stop. The architecture is impressive in its diversity, with temples scattered between old communist-era buildings, ultra modern skyscrapers, and endless karaoke hangouts and dive bars. It quickly became apparent that a cocktail dress and a suit would have been a suitable part of our wardrobe; alas, our hiking gear would have to suffice.

Mongolian GerThe history of UB is quite remarkable and certainly unique. In true nomadic fashion, the capital of Mongolia originated as a large Ger camp and changed location at least 25 times between the earliest records of the city (dating back to 1638) and 1778, when it arrived at its current location. Today UB is a sprawling metropolis, home to around 1.4 million people—a staggering number representing roughly half of the country’s entire population. This really puts the vastness and the remoteness of Mongolia into perspective, being one of the least densely populated countries in the world.

Stove in GerIf you visit UB during the warmer periods of the year, you might be surprised to learn that UB is the third most polluted city on the planet. We arrived on a nice sunny day in early September, and the air quality seemed reasonably good considering the size of the city. However, there is a darker side to the story. The many Ger neighborhoods around the city do not have access to central heating of any kind. When the cold sets in, they heat the Gers using coal in their ovens. The coal fumes from thousands of Gers pollute the city heavily, and due to UB’s valley location surrounded by hills, the fumes have nowhere to go. It is a huge issue, and at this point government efforts to resolve it have proven futile. We had a long discussion with our fixer, Byamba, during our stay; he felt the only real solution would be to make it attractive for the Ger camp owners to move out of the city and back to the countryside where most locals used to reside. Increasing the land taxes in the city and reducing taxes in the countryside could accomplish this. It is certainly not an ideal solution, and it is difficult to promote removing freedom of choice from any individual, but a solution is definitely needed. Hopefully long-term there will be more affordable housing with access to central heating available in the city. A project that was aimed at providing nuclear power to UB was (sadly) recently scrapped after the Japanese tsunami showed once more the dangers that nuclear power can bring. Towards the end of our stay, as temperatures were dropping, the air quality worsened noticeably. I can only imagine how bad it gets when temperatures fall way below zero, which is quite common during winter.

State Department StoreWe would stay a couple of nights in UB before heading out into the wilderness. UB is a shopper’s paradise, and visitors should be able to find most things in case something was forgotten in the excitement of packing. Mongolia is also one of the best places in the world to bargain shop for high quality cashmere and leather products. A cashmere scarf that would cost hundreds of dollars in the U.S. can be bought for as little as $20 here.

A few fun days later we came to realize that UB has everything you could ever need or want. It was, however, time to leave behind the comfort of hotels, running water, toilets, and tarmac; for there were many exciting adventures to come.

*A Ger is a local hut built from a simple wooden structure insulated with felt, with an oven in the center for heating and cooking.

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