Looking back 12 years to my first days in Ulaanbaatar
Rich Beal is a tour manager at Koryo Tours and leads tours to Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and North Korea. Rich has visited Mongolia more than 80 times. You can follow Rich’s adventures on Instagram @adventurerich.
I first traveled to Mongolia 12 year ago as a tour leader on a trip across the Trans-Siberian Railway ending in Beijing. Called to Moscow at the last minute to cover for a sick colleague, I had worked in Russia before but Mongolia was something new and largely unknown to me. I was excited, of course, but also a little nervous recalling my schooldays and stories of Genghis Khan, boiling his enemies to death in oil and wiping their cities off the face of the earth. Little did I know of Mongolia’s recent history as a Soviet satellite, followed by promising economic reforms, not to mention the country’s rich traditional culture. As we traveled across Siberia, everyone we met would say in vodka fuelled chats: “Ah Mongolia, very tough people, very tough.”And this was coming from Russians.
Eventually the day came we said good bye to Siberia and crossed into Mongolia. The journey didn’t disappoint especially when the train snaked down silver birch covered valleys, themselves opening up the famous Mongolian steppe and its hours of countryside punctuated by small towns, family gers, and the occasional herders working away.
We arrived early to Ulaanbaatar, known as just UB for short, and were meet at the station by our local guide, ushering the tour group off the train with luggage packed like an expedition. I was surprised as UB had an exciting vibe – a city in transition and filled with energy. UB was and still is in a flux old meets new, east meets west, Mongolia meeting the world on its terms.
At the city’s core is Sukhbaatar Square, home to an enormous bronze statue of Genghis sitting upon his throne and flanked by generals in front of the Soviet-era parliament building. This square area is, in turn, surrounded by a mix of older Russian-style buildings, more modern hotels and shopping malls, eventually giving way to new and old apartment buildings seemingly constructed with any thought of city planning. Amongst all of this is constant construction, fueled by mining money and seemingly a bank on every corner.
Above the city, a sea of gers, the traditional tent home of Mongolians on the grasslands, covered the hills surrounding UB on three sides. These, we were told, were not summer dwellings, but semi-temporary housing for the recent influx of Mongolians crowding to the city. The uncertainties associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and drought in the countryside had sent people to the city in search of work. Unable to fit immediately into city life, the ger city is a transition for many looking for a new start. Some make it, some don’t. Still years later they still exist some of the gers now have given way to brick buildings but life is still hard.
I spent my first day exploring the main thoroughfare, gazing at the range of local attire. Many Mongolians dress in the latest fashion from Europe, the US, or Russia: sophisticated ladies in slinky skirts or men in punchy suits. Some Mongolians dress as if they are from a gangster rap video, carrying the look surprisingly well, walking with attitude and a swagger which exudes toughness. Still many choose traditional Mongolian attire with a long dill for men, chunky belts, and large boots all topped off with traditional western fedoras. My tour group first thought it was a show or national holiday, but the guide cut them short to explain it’s their choice and right.
UB sometimes gets a bad rep for being a wild and unpredictable city. Like anywhere most visits are incident free, but you still need to stay aware of your surroundings. My first trip was no exception.
At one point of the trip, laden with a load of supplies for the week in the countryside, I hailed a local taxi. In UB a majority of the taxis are private cars which you flag down on their journey and if they’re headed in the same direction, they’ll take you for a small fee. The driver of a small car very kindly stopped and helped me load the trunk, I then fill the back seat and shut the door to sit in the front.
The problem was that once I shut the door, he started up and drove off. Convinced he was making away with my worldly possessions I made chase sprinting down the central high street shouting “thief, thief stop…”
In the mean time in his music filled car he drove blissfully on until he turned thinking I was in the back seat, before turning around to ask my exact destination. Surprised to see only a stack of sleeping bags and goods with a hat on the top he hit the brakes. Outside I continued running, straight into the rear of his stopped car.
By this time a small group of Mongolian locals had gathered around to see the entertainment. The poor driver opened his door and walked around the car to find me in a heap around the back. He helped me up and once we had both exchanged stories we couldn’t stop laughing along with the growing group of spectators. He was so concerned he even volunteered to help me with my goods to our hotel rooms and refused to let me pay.
My first visit to UB was much different than I expected and an overwhelming assault on my senses. The next step of the plan is into the countryside, Russian 4X4s, bumpy roads, fresh air and nomadic family visit, which would prove to be a different kind of adventure.