The first stop on my two-week sojourn in Mongolia was the exotic-sounding capital, Ulaanbaatar. I had pictured a frontier kind of town, a high-altitude patchwork of nomadic ger tents and hulking concrete apartment blocs, jumbled together in a hazy valley. Part of that vision was accurate, but I also found sparkling glass skyscrapers, quaint Buddhist temples, an old Soviet department store, and upscale malls in this city trying very hard to be the next swanky Asian destination.
Founded in 1639 as the headquarters of the leader of Mongolian Buddhism, Ulaanbaatar (“Red Hero”) became a permanent city in its current location on the Tuul River in 1778. The city lies in an east-west valley surrounded by four sacred mountains and is still home to hillsides full of gers, the traditional Mongolian round tents, on the edges of town.
In 1990, when Mongolia emerged from Russian communist rule, the population was only 500,000, but UB now has 1.4 million residents, almost 50% of the country’s total population. (The escape from Soviet grasp also marked the change of the city’s spelling from a Russian-based transcription to the current one, for those who have known this capital as Ulan Bator.)
As a result, the capital city of this young democracy is growing by leaps and bounds, creating marked contrasts between old and new. The Choijin Lama Temple sits in the shadow of the glimmering Blue Sky Hotel and other glassy towers.
The posh Shangri-La Mall, opened just 6 days before my arrival and the site of the country’s first IMAX theater, rises up from a weedy field.
On the other side of that scrubby grass and trees is another anomaly: a colorful amusement park in the middle of the city.
Huge construction cranes teeter over a battered log cabin.
Humble venders sit in shabby kiosks less than a block away from a Louis Vuitton store, and the Gandan Buddhist monastery peers down upon a sea of those boxy Soviet buildings as well as the shiny new high-rises.
I loved the city. I expected to tolerate it in between forays out into the countryside, but I found myself looking forward to our sporadic returns, and not just because it was a respite from sleeping in a tent with no running water or electricity! It would be a tough place to live permanently – it’s blazing hot in the summer and the coldest capital on earth in the winter – but I enjoyed every minute we spent in this curious mix of the traditional and modern laid out under a huge canopy of blue sky.
Stay tuned for the “real” Mongolia: the steppe landscapes and the nomadic families that live there, a glimpse of the Danshig Naadam cultural and sports festival, and the Gobi Desert – all coming up in future posts!