First Week in Ulaanbaatar

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week is not enough exposure at the Mongolian National Broadcaster to give a good description, and I learned in my communication studies class, first impressions are usually fallacies.  Therefore, I will withhold judgement . . . for now.  I blame my  mother for my judgmental-ness sometimes or a queer quirk of human nature that probably isn’t good but is innate.  This post will be about some Mongolian costumes and habits that I’ve noticed about the people and the country, so far.

I’m slowly getting used to looking on a city half-built, and most likely will remain this way for many years if not decades.  Mongolia is like an earmark of some senator who, during his campaign trail supports a project to help him garner votes but now that he sits in office and finds that the there is no money, abandons the project.  My Lucy (the white, rebuilt Mitsubishi that has faithfully taken me from point A to point B for years) would find its soul mates in the cars over here.  Most cars’ brakes squeak and squeal, they don’t always start properly but they some how manage to navigate the roads.  Roads.  Perilous.  That is really all I need to say about roads in Mongolia (and Russia if you read the Moscow post).  Cars are not like the fine grain of sand in an hourglass as it funnels through the narrow passageway to the other side, but drivers in Mongolia believe themselves to be just that – fine particles that can squeeze through any narrow opening.  There are no turning lanes or no neat dashed lines on the road.  It is everyman for himself like the days of Darwin.  I thought I was the only one that was scared for my life when I got into a taxi, but today I rode with a native Mongolian and even she panicked at times.  This probably shouldn’t make me feel better, but it did.

Russians like their vodka, and Mongolians like their alcohol and karaoke.  I took a stroll one evening around the block andevery few meters, you could find another karaoke bar.  I am tempted to go into one before I leave, just to see how popular these establishments are, but I notice they are usually advertised in English.  Mongolians use the Cyrillic alphabet, like the Russians, but name brands are always in English and you’ll see some buildings advertised in English, as well.  It makes me wonder if English-advertised establishments are only used by tourists.  Although, graffiti is painted in English – is America corrupting the youth of Mongolians for them?

I miss American bathrooms.  I know this experience should be a cultural opportunity to see how a large majority of the world live, but I like my sanitized bathrooms and toilet paper availability.  After my first visit to a Mongolian bathroom, I quickly bought a roll to toilet paper to carry around with me.  I will probably develop kidney stones because I just can’t bring myself to use the public bathrooms.  I was scared after my first visit.

It is the strangest thing to see, but you can walk down the streets of Ulaanbaatar and see women dressed fashionably like the Moscow women.  Lia informed me that some very popular fashion designer and guru for this part of the world encourages women to wear high heels, and like any trendy New Yorker, Mongolians strut through the dirt sidewalks and gravel roads, hoping potholes and navigating through untouched construction sites, in their stilettos and scarfs.  I find myself really wishing I had pack some cuter clothes, but comfort is my usual style and probably the smartest (at least thats what I’m telling myself).

The temperatures are fairly cool, even on sunny days.  I guess this is because we are some 1400 feet above sea level (roughly estimated number).  I’m trying to live on a budget (you know, what with the no income thing), but I may just cave to get a jacket (or not, out of spite, which can be as strong as the winds here).

Another thing I’ve noticed, there is not hand soap in the bathrooms/kitchens/anywhere by a sink.  This should not surprise since there is no toilet paper, but i still reach for the soap every time I rinse my hands.  Thankfully the BF bought me some hand sanitizer before I left!  I will never travel outside the U.S. without hand sanitizer and Kleenex.  It’s easy to take these small items for granted when they are provided for you, but they are very much missed when it is not readily available.  Also, I am sad to say there is no peanut butter, only Nutella.   I like it, but I always feel like I’m eating chocolate, which doesn’t count as “real” food.

When people ask if you like Mongolian food, they mean do you like meat.  Mongolians are very proud and strong people.  They love their meat, and they say their meat is the best quality in the world.  I’m not sure if this is true, but I did see a variety (including Bull’s Penis) on a menu.  Herding is a major industry in Mongolia, so there meat supply is very fresh – but I’m still not going to eat any animal’s penis.  Sorry, does that mean I’m uncultured?  I ate stripe, which is sheep intestine.  It was surprisingly good – on the chewy side but very edible.

People I’ve come across call Ulaanbaatar a very odd place.  It is an odd combination of old and new, bland and spicy.  I am told that the city life and the country life are extremely different.  My Russian friends even said that Ulaanbaatar isn’t really a part of Mongolia.  I will definitely need to plan a trip out into the country side to see this difference, first hand.  Like most places, urban and rural areas tend to foster different lifestyles and personalities, but I imagine Mongolia’s differences will be far more extreme than anything I’ve experienced.  I never left the city limits of Moscow, unless you count the train to and from the airport, but I think this difference can be found in Russia too.  My Australian mate Jed says his girlfriend, who lives outside of Moscow has to pump water out of the ground.  These extremes show how unequal development occurs in some Eastern nations.

As I write this, I can look out of the third-story window of MNB’s headquarters and see miles and miles of gers and shanties living on the edge of the city.  Beyond these miniature homes that have setup camp for decades, but still live without any infrastructure or running water (or electricity in some cases), is a mountain range that bares its brown shoulders blocking the desert life beyond.

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