We book- marked our Mongolian trip in Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia. Like other emerging Asian cities (see Phnom Penh down in August), I was prepared for a rough place – particularly since Mongolia is thriving off China’s hunger for coal, oil, and minerals of all kinds as they prepare to bring the next 600m people out of poverty. 1.8m in a city built to handle just 600,000. (thats more than half of Mongolia’s overall population of 2.9m) Massive inversions in the winter locks in the black pulsing from the coal fired electric and steam plants – that are now right in the city given its expansion.
When not mining, the boys are pickpocketing or
drinking. “UB” was indeed thuggish on
first view – clogged with traffic, officially a Left Hand Drive country but
with equal number of cars using LH and RH (“it’s a cause of most of our fatal
accidents”). Pedestrians and drivers use
traffic lights as mere guidance, a really young city with lots of stylish women
(3 woman to 1 male in the city), drunken businessman, and punkish twenty-something
boys. Data plans have arrived and
everyone’s heads are down into their phones like in other Asia cities. We holed up in the Ulaanbaatar Hotel, a relic
of the Soviet domination in the 20th century, cleaned up, but still
with more promise than execution.
|The temple with the puja|
But the city became softer in the morning. A visit to the Gandan Monastery, with many older Nomads in
traditional Mongolian wear, children and pigeons, older monks –
a bit plumper for all their years in this harsh clime, but experienced. These
older lamas are teaching the younger ones Mongolia’s unique blend of Buddhism
and Shamanist practices. We walked into a puja – the rhythmic chanting
of Buddhist text in the original Tibetan – and we were welcomed. Now, we experienced many puja’s before, but
this one was intimate; we heard the breath of the lamas and smelled the dust on
the ancient texts. We were both very moved – Ricky was in tears.
UB also saw the great resorting of stuff, cleaning clothes from our 700 mile road journey around central Mongolia and the cleaning increasing numbers of body folds from eating and drinking plenty of terrific nomadic and Mongolian fare. We are here on their first hard freeze of the coming winter (“everything is about preparing for winter”); summers like Denver (high 90’s F), winters like Gunnison (average January is -20F). A continental climate they call it. And the place looks like it would look better in the cold and snow.
Indeed, UB is a great walking emerging city; plenty of European style bistros, Asian hawkers, and American Imports; Coca Cola and BD’s Mongolian Grill (There’s nothing Mongolian about it). We walked and walked – and helped shore up the locally plunging Mongolian tungret with stuff only available here (wait till you see our yak sweaters).
There are remnants of domination
everywhere, Stalinists in the 20th Century, Chinese and Manchurians for the seven
centuries before that. Then there was Genghis Khan. He conquered the world from Siberia to Hong
Kong and from Beijing all the way to Austria in the 13th
Century. And, Y chromosomes tells us
that 1 in 200 males today may trace
their lineage to Genghis and his sons.
|Genghis on the left|
Beautiful people; men yes, but beautiful women. I was told about the beautiful Mongolian woman beforehand from colleagues in Singapore to Shanghai, from Tokyo to Beijing. I really can’t say what it is but there is something that rings true in the young women and men. Maybe it’s a life on mare’s milk, and meat with all that calcium and protein, maybe sun and wind exposure with no south asia obsession with white skin, maybe the tall frames, the high cheekbones, long black hair and a thin muscular fitness from being raised on horses. Every woman in stretch jeans doesn’t help dispel the mythology on the Mongolians.
And the smell of Ulan Bator. The winds the blow up the dust, the moisture that is captured by the surrounding mountains that cools but never hits the ground, the wind blowing in fresh air from Siberia, the dust of a city under construction, and the smells of the ever present barbeque of beef, yak, camel, house, mutton and lamb. Combine that with the light that hits at 47 degrees north latitude. Shared with Seattle, Quebec City, Salzburg. It’s a defining light at this latitude that brings a higher contrast, a higher definition. A languid dawn and a lingering dusk - to the mountains all around us and to the city and to its people.
Ricky and I will miss these Asian cities. We are comfortable in these places we have never been, moving seamlessly and effortlessly through their lifestyle, their culture, their residents and their history.