I’ve been in UB now for 6 days and finally feel that I can begin to write something coherent about this vibrant and confusing capital. If one’s impression of a place is the average of a collection of experiences gathered over time, then my understanding of Ulaanbaatar is quite confused. Every day I have spent here has been largely different as I respond to new challenges and, usually, gain small victories.
I travelled to Ulaanbaatar in 2007, but used the city mostly as a jumping off point to travel around Mongolia’s vast countryside. In some ways I was prepared for this chaotic city, but I have also been surprised by the way the way it has grown – perhaps a bit too fast.
Despite its sizable population, just over 1 million, Ulaanbaatar feels more like an extremely large village rather than a city. In fact, many of its residents might actually feel more comfortable in a village atmosphere rather than a major metropolis. Based on my initial observation, it seems that while major developers are building shiny high rises in the city center, basic public goods such as clean and safe streets, safe lighting, and public transportation are being ignored.
Streets here are more often not paved than paved. Some are cracked and crumpled remainders of a once-paved promenade. Others are straight up dirt. And, aside from a few key roads, no one seems to know the names of most of the streets. Mongolians rely mostly on landmarks when giving and receiving directions, which is particularly difficult for a new transplant to the city like me. My first three days, I relied on the major landmarks: Sukhbataar Square, the State Department Store, or the National University of Mongolia. Now, I’m able to better discern between buildings and roads and am slowly learning their proper names.
Crossing the street is a daily life defying feat – as many drivers will actually speed up to pass through the intersection before pedestrians can get to the other side. It’s a constant game of “Chicken”, as one of my new friends put it, and the pedestrian always loses.
Graffiti decorates the soviet-style buildings. Sometimes it is playful, but more often than not it will be an English profanity or even the occasional swastika (which, I’m told, are markers of the rising nationalistic sentiment here).
Nothing is as it appears here. The ‘rivers’ are not more than trickles of water in wide ravines. Many of the nicest apartment buildings will appear rundown and unsafe from the outside, but exceptionally comfortable and well-taken care of internally. There is a billboard advertising a fitness center and boxing lessons near my apartment. I was interested in checking out the facility and spent two days looking for the building. I finally asked a Mongolian friend to help me. We spent another thirty minutes walking around and asking everyone we saw where the building was. It turns out it is directly next to the apartment. Inside is a perfectly decent workout room and a boxing instructor who proudly displays his world championship belt in the windowsill.
KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
Almost anything I have actually been able to accomplish in the past week is due to the kindness of strangers. As a foreigner in a strange land, who can barely handle counting and basic greetings, accomplishing simple tasks like buying a cell phone or trying to retrieve my lost tripod turn into overwhelming challenges. My new Mongolian friends have been more than happy to assist me as I become comfortable in UB.
After only six days, I’m finding it difficult to count the displays of Mongolian generosity. Yesterday, my big task was to register with the Office of Immigration, located near the airport about a 45 minute drive from the city center (depending on traffic). One of my new friends was kind enough to accompany me, and as we waded through the bureaucracy and partial information, what I though might take two hours turned into six. Despite the frustrating experience, he was happy to assist.
The eagerness to help isn’t limited to Mongolians. All of the expats/foreigners I have met have an abundance of warmth and excitement for newcomers. They have taken me around town, invited me to events, shared meals, bought movie tickets, and simply been a familiar face in an unfamiliar city. Perhaps the culture of generosity has rubbed off on them, or perhaps these are the types of people Mongolia attracts. Whatever the reason, I am forever thankful to the kindness so many new friends have shown me this week.
I feel lucky to be looked after as closely as I am and to have already started to adjust to my new home, before the jet lag has completely worn off.