One of the things that I love most about traveling is the shift in perspective one gets when he visits a new place. I find that I am able to see my home town and country in a new light as I compare it to other places. It is easier to notice the things I take for granted in my everyday life as well as the things I do without.
Over the past five months, I’ve noticed my perspective of Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia slowly change. When I first arrived, I was surprised to see the state of the streets and sidewalks: potholes abound, uncovered manholes, debris everywhere, gaping holes in the pavement, etc. I felt like I had to wear my hiking boots just to walk around the city. Driving in the countryside inevitably means the road will be nothing more than some worn tracks in the ground. Buildings at first appeared rundown from the outside (even though the interiors were quite well kept), making it difficult for me to find places. Food variety seemed limited as did shopping for clothes or household goods.
But as time marched on and I became more comfortable in my new habitat, I began to see things differently. After making a few trips to the countryside, I began to see Ulaanbaatar as a modern metropolis. I mean, there is a Louis Vuitton (as every article written about Mongolia in the past two years states) after all. If that’s not a sign of the modern city, then I don’t know what is. I began to realize that there was nothing that I wanted that I couldn’t find in UB. I began commenting on how nice a road (despite its potholes) was and how well-kept the exteriors of certain buildings were. I was impressed that I could eat almost anything I wanted in UB: Korean, Pizza, Generic Western, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Turkish, and French are all available.
And so, when I flew out of Ulaanbaatar on my way to Beijing a few weeks ago and caught an aerial glimpse of the city and its sprawling ger district I thought to myself, “Wow, UB’s actually really big.”
Then I landed in Beijing.
It was hard to get a sense for the city from the air because of the smog. But, the fact that you can see the smog a solid 30 minutes before landing at the Beijing International Airport is a good indication of just how big that city is.
I lived in Nanjing, China for a year (2006-2007) visiting Beijing a few times, and so China itself is familiar. The language and various cultural differences aren’t so surprising. But when I emerged from the subway in the center of the city, I was astonished.
Shiny. Huge. Fancy. McDonalds. Loud. Clean. Warm. Organized. Vibrant. Fragrant. KFC. Wide Roads. Highways. Limitless Skyscrapers. Street Cleaners. These are the things that stood out.
I might as well have been in Manhattan (if Manhattan were better kept).
I spent the next three days wandering around China’s behemoth capit0l, avoiding the tourist attractions I’d already seen once. I was perfectly content to explore my way around the city, eating and window shopping along the way.
On my second day in Beijing, I stumbled upon an indoor food market. Ulaanbaatar has plenty of markets, and so the scene isn’t so unusual for me. What really left me with a gaping expression was the variety and amount of food for sale. Every nut you can imagine. Vegetables I forgot existed. Vegetables I don’t even know the English name of. Fish I’ve never even thought to try before. Hundreds of teas. Grubs. Fresh fruit.
In a word: stunning.
After three days in Beijing, I headed back to the airport and boarded a plane for Brisbane, Australia to meet up with some friends down under. The detour through Beijing made the transition from UB to a place so similar to home easier. It also reminded me of just how big this planet of ours is. It’s a little unbelievable for me to imagine that right now there’s a herder in Mongolia protecting his sheep from the spring winds, a student riding her bicycle through the busy streets of Beijing, and a surfer catching some waves on the coast of Australia. It can feel overwhelming to realize just how many of us there are. But it can also be reassuring. We’re all just living our lives, trying to get by in our own way. There’s something comforting about that.
When I flew back from Brisbane via Guangzhou then via Beijing, I met a lovely young Russian man. He’s also itinerant: lived in Israel for years and now in Australia. He told me about an experiment he had recently read about. A group was asked to choose 2 ice cream flavors out of 4 and then rate their satisfaction with their choice. Then a group was asked to pick 2 flavors out of 21 and rate their satisfaction. Members of the first group were almost always more satisfied with their choice.
I’m back in Ulaanbaatar, which feels like home. And, while it sure would be nice to be able to buy hummus at the supermarket or find fresh radishes, I think I am a member of the first group. It’s easier to be content with fewer choices. It’s easier to not want what you don’t even know you can have.