It’s All About Perspective

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.

A 'pretty nice' road in Khovsgol Province

Typical apartment building entrance in UB

The main drag in UB

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.

Bags of nuts and seeds for sale in a Beijing market

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.

MORE PHOTOS:

Retirees playing mahjong in a park

Some Chinglish purses for sale

Soviet-Era Skyline

Ulaanbaatar: A Village of 1 Million

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.

Panoramic

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

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.

Football

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.

Ger in the City

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.

Smokestacks

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.

Post-Soviet Skyline