Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ups and Downs in Ulaanbaatar (Days 1-3)

Driven. Impulsive. Erratic. The DSM-IV would say quite confidently that Ulaanbaatar is having a manic relapse. Of course that implies that Ulaanbaatar (The Red Hero City) has a whiff of bipolar about her. 

Clear blue skies with bright sunshine snap into snowfalls with wind chills of -10deg C. Horns blast as cars, trucks and buses wrestle angrily for road space. Cyrillic stands proud across shop fronts while Louis Vuitton graces the main square. Concrete apartments blocks with Soviet stylings in all their distressed, fraying glory line the streets. Homeless, orphaned and unemployed wander. Yet kilometers away, organized ger camps with pit-toilets and no running water house healthy, happy kids living and eating traditionally*. Finding our feet in this labile city would be a nice challenge...

Our first step in UB was learning how to cross the road…on foot. Traffic is chaotic, unlike the ordered insanity of Seoul. Dust and grit and gravel abound. Pavements are broken and the majority of manholes are missing or ajar (they are the frontdoor to the huge underground homeless population). Ali pondered whether locals would often ask ‘What would Chinggis Khaan do?’ when struck with a decision to make. We think invading nearby lanes, intimidating foreigners and leaving a cloud of dust in his wake is what Chinggis would do…and maybe he could be a bit more considerate.

On Saturday we were invited to take part in an English conversation class. We swapped stories of Uluru and meat pies for those of living in Mongolia and buuz (we’ll divulge more about this late on). It was quite a fun morning for everyone. We then saw some of the UB sights including the Sukhbaatar Square where a mighty statue of Chinggis sits on his throne and the National Museum of History where we began to piece together the many armies, races and countries that have lay claim to Mongolia over the centuries. That night over the dulcet tones of Steve Quatermain and Luke Darcy on the Australia Channel (St. Kilda were playing Freo in AFL) we put the Surlies back together. We did this in the comfort of Idre’s Guesthouse, which feels more like Idre’s family’s living room than anything else. 

In between finding a French CafĂ© sporting NGO working expats and the best long black so far, we’ve ridden far-from roadworthy buses with backpacks strapped to our fronts to foil the reported pick-pocketers and bag-slashers. We’ve negotiated a visa extension from the shiny new Immigration office, built in a dusty field, 18km out of town, in the middle of nowhere. We’ve gathered tales of the countryside alternating between vicious dogs and drunks, and welcoming Mongolian nomadic hospitality. Oh, and we finally mastered crossing roads.

We’re starting to understand this mixed up developing-world capital city. Yet, we don’t think there’s much in the way of treatment for it’s mania…we’ll just have to ride it out.

*This is based on our brief experience. According to other sources, up to 60% in the ger districts live under the poverty line.

Ulaanbaatar Days 1-3


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