I had two days in Mongolia and spent one day exploring Ulaanbaatar and one day being driven around the countryside. Mongolia’s countryside is breathtaking; it’s capital city, on the other hand, is one of the strangest cities I’ve ever visited.
Ulaanbaatar has an official population of just over a million but it’s clear that people are migrating to the city at an astounding rate. The city is a strange amalgam of “ger” districts (ger being the Mongolian word for tent or yurt), soviet era concrete buildings, and new apartment block high rises. With the increased population comes the increased strain on infrastructure; traffic is a nightmare and pollution seems to be a constant fact of life.
For most of the 20th Century, Mongolia was not only isolated by geography but also politically. Allied with distant Moscow from 1924 to 1990, relations with China have only recently improved and with that has come increased investment, mainly in natural resource extraction. Mongolia is rich in gold, coal, and copper and China is their biggest customer. This increase in investment has seen an acceleration in the population shift from the nomadic countryside to Ulaanbaatar over the past 10 years.
The first thing I had to do in Ulaanbaataar was find the travel agent who issued my train ticket for my onward trip to Beijing. The instructions to their office were not very clear and the accompanying map looked like it was created using MS Paint. After about 45 minutes of wandering around, I finally found it in a run down apartment block.
With that task out of the way, I then went to check out the very fine National Museum of Mongolia. Afterwards, I walked around Chinnggis Square and the parliament building. Walking around proved to be occasionally hazardous due to the horrific traffic, poorly planned sidewalks, and lung strangling smog.
I saw firsthand three traffic accidents in the short time I was in the city. No surprise since driving for most people seems to be a newly acquired skill and the majority of cars are from the used car market in Japan. This means that the steering wheel on most cars is on the wrong side.
I went into a grocery store that appears to have been built twice as large than needed as half of the space was cordoned off by a glass partition. There wasn’t much in the way of fresh fruit or vegetables but there was a whole section of small Kirkland brand water bottles. Finding Costco’s house brand of water in one of the most remote places on Earth was exceedingly puzzling.
In most places, I’ve been able to quickly acclimate to the currency. The Tugrik, however, was a little difficult. I think this is due to 1 dollar equaling about 2000 Tugriks and that the numbers on the bills are very hard to read.
There are very few western style franchises in Mongolia; one of them is a Round Table Pizza. Apparently the other two are KFC and Cinnabon. Gross.