Monday, 24 September 2012

Mongolia - Ulaanbaatar

Genghis Khan

The capital city of Mongolia is home to 1.5 million people (about half the population of the entire country) and is a world away from the mountains and steppes we had left just outside the city. We had two nights in a hotel in central Ulaanbaatar before catching our last train on the Trans Mongolian railway ending up in Beijing. The train only runs twice a week and we were catching the Thursday train.

As we arrived by car we could see there were building works going on all over the city; huge cranes dotted the skyline and along every road on the way to our hotel they were building houses, apartment blocks, and commercial buildings. It was development on an unprecedented scale which seemed to be taking place at too quick a pace for a country with such a small population. Although Mongolia is a country rich in a variety of natural resources and was reported to be the fastest growing world economy in April 2012, the level of development was alarming. It seemed Ulaanbaatar was one massive building site.

We checked in at about midday and first took advantage of the en suite shower facilities. Living in a ger camp at the end of summer when there is a definite chill in the air is all very romantic but on a practical (and personal hygiene) level, not really all that great! So having hot running water for a couple of nights was a real treat.

The square in front of the Mongolian Parliament Building
As we had to prepare for another long train journey we headed out to try and find a supermarket of some description. As you head further east it is more difficult to find a decent supermarket (Tescos hasn't conquered Mongolia…yet). You also find that you recognise less of the food available (or you may recognise it but, as in the case with some sausage, it is not clear what it is made from and whether it requires cooking before consuming).

One of our staples is cheese. This was actually more available and more palatable than we thought it would be throughout Russia, although you pay a premium for anything that is obviously shipped in from Europe, but we could only find huge blocks of what we believed was cheese in fridges at the back of the Ulaanbaatar supermarket, with no price or labelling whatsoever. We hadn't a clue how to actually purchase it so cheese was out then. We settled for bread, something labelled salami, biscuits and lots of crisps. As we lost our cutlery we couldn't opt for noodles so resigned ourselves to the fact that we would be eating in the restaurant car of the train. We did, however, grab a bottle of Genghis Khan vodka which, at the time of writing, remains sealed but is likely to be called upon during a Chinese train trip as a means of knocking one or both of us out! Figuratively speaking, of course.
The man himself in pride of place on the steps on the
Mongolian Parliament Building

(UPDATE: The seal was now broken and the contents were indeed partly consumed on our first overnight train trip in China. I am happy to report that the vodka is very smooth and I highly recommend it I slept quite well too.)

Negotiating traffic was also becoming increasingly treacherous. Everywhere we have been has similar traffic control systems in place (traffic lights and pedestrian crossings) but the further east you travel, the more reckless the drivers become and the less they are to abide by the rules (as we understood them anyway). General advice is to cross when the locals do, but often they stream across six lanes of highway, dodging cars, bicycles, buses and trams when the red man is clearly telling them not to!

The truth is, there seems to be very loosely adhered to traffic controls, and it seems that you just take your chances and hope for the best, but when it's a case of playing chicken with a truck I get decidedly nervous! It often takes a day or two just to get used to the mood of the traffic in a city and Ulaanbaatar was no exception. Often we were the only pedestrians still waiting to cross when the green man eventually indicated we could cross, but it seemed that somewhere there was a light giving certain cars the go-ahead at the same time, particularly if we were at a crossroads. You just had to march confidently ahead and just hope it was apparent that you weren't going to stop and that the car eventually screech to a halt. How we didn't witness any accidents I'll never know.
One of the Cavalry guarding Genggis Khan

After a restful night and a terrible breakfast (standards of service dropped in the city) we set off to the main square where we gazed upon the main parliament building which sports a gigantic statue of the man himself: Chinggis Khan.

(Note: There are various spellings of the Mongolian great hero's name and there seems to be no preferred method – even in the museum they spell it at least three different ways!)

Chinggis is flanked by his son whose name escapes me, and his grandson Kublai Khan. Chinggis was the khan who united Mongolia's tribes and started the pursuit of the Mongolian Empire (what became at its peak the largest land based empire before or since). His son wasn't so much of great a conquering emperor, spending a few short years carrying on his father's work of invading, slaughtering and overpowering more people and lands, before choosing to build a city and retire in comfort rather than follow the nomadic battling lifestyle of his father before him.

Chinggis' grandson, Kublai, was more like his grandfather and doggedly continued to pursue the Mongol dream of taking over the world with a zeal that would have made Chinggis proud.

It was a miserable day, cold and drizzling (this was an improvement on the snow we saw falling outside in the morning at breakfast - Mongolia is a country of extremes and went from 25 degrees to zero within a day!). However we sat in the huge square contemplating the enormous parliament building for a while when were approached by an elderly gentleman asking us for a light for his cigarette. It turned out he was originally from Kazakstan but he had lived all over the place, including Russia, over the last 50 years or so. He spoke no English and we obviously spoke no Mongolian. However we established that he spoke some Russian so we were able to have a stilted conversation with him for about 20 minutes or so.

Another member of the Khan dynasty (Kublai maybe?)
We managed to glean from him that he thought the changes in Mongolia (and Ulaanbaatar in particular) were happening far too quickly, that there was too much building going on, and that although young people were being educated to a higher level, there were no suitable jobs for them in Mongolia when they were ready to start work. Younger people were also beginning to turn their backs on the old ways and moving to the city in droves. Our friend said that there was no real organisation or rationalisation for all the changes that had been happening over the last 20 years or so since the fall of communism in Mongolia, and while it is a rich country in many ways, it is in danger of failing.

I should mention here, that I had no idea that Mongolia had been communist. Or to be more accurate, it just hadn't occurred to me. I learnt more about Mongolia's history when we visited the museum later that day, but my general ignorance has never ceased to amaze me at various points during this trip.

The old man seemed to be mirroring the views of some older Russians we had met, who often believe that things were better under the communists (no unemployment, no homelessness etc). The older generation believe capitalism has brought new problems to places like Russia and Mongolia, and many have seen their pensions devalued (worthless in some cases) and find themselves living in poverty after working hard all their lives. The younger generation tends to approve of capitalism and the freedom it brings with a nod to the some good elements of the old regime.

A statue in the centre of the Parliament Building Square
Clearly nothing is perfect and I'm certainly not qualified to get into a political debate with my limited knowledge of world history, politics and economics but the human stories bring these subjects alive. After speaking to people who have lived through these changes it makes me want to discover more because the history becomes far less removed and the consequences more real.

The old man eventually went on his way and we both agreed that it had been worthwhile learning Russian after all, even if Russians didn't seem to understand us in Russia!

Our next stop was the Museum of Mongolia which is what I would describe as the perfect museum – doable in 3 hours, with a clearly marked timeline trail which you can follow easily. It doesn't house exhibits from Egypt or Rome (or anywhere else for that matter) that you would be able to see anywhere in any good museum anywhere in the world.

We were in Mongolia, and we wanted to learn about Mongolia, and that is exactly what this museum does. It takes you through the history of Mongolia from the first pre human settlements (they reckon about 60,000 years ago) up to the present day. It was fantastic and if you ever find yourself in Ulaanbaatar with a morning or afternoon to kill, I would highly recommend it.

There is a lot about Chinggis, the conquering hero (although a lot of glossing over the details such as the wholesale massacre estimated at 40 million). Quite a few rooms are dedicated to his "work". Interestingly, it seems it's just as well he died when he did because the entire Mongolian army were called back to Mongolia to vote for another khan, just as they were about to invade what is now western Europe. It is believed they got as far as Hungary. So successful were the Mongolians, it's likely that they would have captured at least some of Europe if they had carried on but as it turned out the timing of Chinggis' death spared the continent.

The Chinese couldn't keep them out though, despite that Great Wall they built, and at its peak the Mongolian Empire stretched from the Yellow Sea on China's east coast to the eastern European border.

Today, while half of the population of Mongolia live in the capital, 43% still live a traditional nomadic lifestyle, although usually with a nod to the 21st century – gers have access to power either by plugging into the national network or using solar power which they use to run televisions and other hi tech appliances. Few gers are without a satellite dish!

The museum was really very interesting and not at all overwhelming, taking a little over 3 hours. However we were unable to consider visiting the nearby Natural History Museum as one museum a day is enough in our book.

For lunch, we sampled some Mongolian cuisine by visiting a pub on the main road and pointing at a couple of pictures. I think Paul had beef which he enjoyed and I was assured by the waiter that I had chicken but it was a bit bony for me so Paul finished that off too.

After a few beers we had an early night in preparation for the early train to Beijing the following morning to complete our mammoth railway journey across Europe, Siberia and Mongolia. We were up bright and early and braced ourselves for the madness that we were expecting in China as we were due to arrive at the beginning of the Chinese week long autumn holiday. We left Mongolia with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, having been warned to expert absolute carnage everywhere in China as the whole country (all 1.4 billion of them) set off on holiday. We braced ourselves for the worst.

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