Article Published! – Ulaanbaatar Through The Eyes Of A Foreigner

My last-but-one article for Montsame News Agency was published in last Friday’s issue of the ‘Mongol Messenger’ newspaper. My final article for the agency is about the National University of Mongolia and will be published in the magazine that comes out in June.

It can be read here: NUM

Tomorrow I leave Mongolia to come back to England, so this may be the last post on this blog, although I might put up a little slideshow of photos (including some with me actually in them!) in a few days time. For now, here are my thoughts on the city of Ulaanbaatar, which I am surely going to miss.

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ULAANBAATAR THROUGH THE EYES OF A FOREIGNER

Expectations Vs. Reality: When I applied for a Projects Abroad internship in Ulaanbaatar, I had no idea what to expect. Booking my plane ticket felt like I was diving blindfolded off a precipice, and my apprehension was compounded by the reactions of my friends and family to the news. Some laughed, some almost choked, some even let out an involuntary gasp of horror. Everyone looked bewildered. “Mongolia?” they would squeel, “Why on earth are you going to Mongolia?” The notion that I would willingly leave Somerset to travel 4,380 miles to what they believed to be a frozen wasteland was completely unfathomable to them. Some refused to believe it entirely, writing ‘good luck’ messages for my trip to Samoa or Thailand. Others tried to convince me that I had embarked on a suicide mission and that I was inevitably going to be kidnapped and exchanged for a yak on the Mongolian steppes. One person even tried to convince me that the Mongolians were cannibals.

But whatever my expectations of Mongolia were, they were demolished within seconds of touching down at Chinggis Khaan Airport. Here I was met by Zulaa, whose big smile made it known to me that the Mongolians are a nation of kind-hearted, sincere and hospitable people. I could not have anticipated the warm welcome I would receive from my host family and from my colleagues at work, who offered me sweets, tea and ‘buuz’ the minute I stepped through the door. (I also did not anticipate the efficiency of Mongolian central-heating systems, as is apparent from my suitcase plump with fur, fleece and thermals. As a consequence, I’ve sat in my apartment every evening feeling hot as a steamed dumpling). I have been humbled by people’s compassion and generosity, and impressed by the pride they demonstrate for their country and their values. All of my anxieties have been dispelled by the knowledge that the Mongolians do not wish to make a foreigner uncomfortable in their country, but to welcome them as a friend.

Comparing Mongolia with England: In some ways, Mongolia and England are not too dissimilar. The skylines of London and Ulaanbaatar are both dominated by glinting glass buildings, and certainly, the Blue Sky Tower bears some resemblance to London’s famous ‘Gherkin’. Also, both nations share a love for tea that is rivalled only by the love one feels for one’s closest family members. Arrive at the door of an English or Mongolian home, and a steaming cup of the brown elixir will be served to you within minutes.

But there the similarities end.

The snow-capped mountains of Mongolia are a far cry from England’s green hills, and certainly, you are unlikely to see soaring eagles in the skies over Derbyshire. You may spot a wren. A chaffinch if you are lucky. The seeming endlessness of the Mongolian countryside was what struck me the most upon arrival here (apart from the traffic, which struck me on the back of the leg as I crossed Peace Avenue). The steppes stretch for miles and miles until they blur into the blue sky they lie so magnificently beneath. Contrastingly, in England the land is divided by hedgerows, fences and country lanes, portioned up into squares of green like patches on a quilt. This is to describe the parts of England which actually are green, for England is a country of towns and cities to a much greater extent than Mongolia, owing of course to the difference in population size between the two countries. Which landscape do I prefer? The verdant valleys of England will forever be my home, but I think a space has opened in my heart for wild Mongolia. Its mountains will loom large in my memory for many years to come.

Of course, the apparent absence of any road rules in Ulaanbaatar was something I couldn’t fail to notice as soon as I arrived, when a car swerved spectacularly in front of us, blaring its horn and missing us by mere centimetres. This erratic swerving to the left and right is less common in England, with the exception perhaps of Swindon on a Friday night. Maybe it is because the English are a nation of people who will apologise profusely even if someone propels them sideways off a pavement that they stop their shuddering cars at the red lights regardless of whether there are pedestrians crossing or not.

Mongolian cuisine is also very different from the British food that I am used to. In England, chicken, steak and bacon is generally preferred to mutton, and the Mongolian ‘buuz’ which I was immediately treated to upon my arrival here was a novelty for me. My surprise at sampling what I thought to be a gherkin that turned out to be a tomato was quite considerable. Do I prefer English food? In actual fact, I do not. Mongolian food has a wholesomeness that you cannot really get from your beer-battered cod and chips, and a mug of warm Mongolian milk beats a cup of semi-skimmed any day.

One final and crucial comparison to make is that between Mongolian and British beds. Perhaps this is a gross generalisation, since I only slept on one bed in Mongolia, but they seem to be a lot harder than British beds. I realised this very soon after arriving at my host family’s apartment where I, an exhausted over-heating traveller laden with heavy luggage, plonked myself down on my new mattress, and in doing so, nearly broke my back in four places.

A newbie in UB: Of course I felt like a foreigner in Ulaanbaatar. I could hardly have looked more Western if I’d draped the Union Jack around my shoulders and launched into a stirring rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’, and everywhere I went I attracted attention. But most glances were of intrigue, not menace, and I’m sure that I too was guilty of a little staring. Feelings of vulnerability were only aroused when I thought about getting a bus or a taxi, which my hosts repeatedly warned me against, or when I visited one of the markets and was advised to hold onto my bag. Walking home late in the evening clutching a pillow was probably not the wisest idea, but I think I already mentioned the bed situation. I felt lost in any part of the city which wasn’t Chinggis Square, and Mongolian money baffled me — I looked painfully English at the bakery in my first week when I handed over two 20,000 Tugrik notes for a sandwich that only cost 6,000 T.

And I did miss England a little. I missed my family and friends for example, and my pet dog and cat. I could have stroked one of the dogs wandering around Ulaanbaatar, but I think this would have been inadvisable, resulting either in mange or the total loss of a forearm. I also missed the colour green. That’s not to say that there isn’t some green in Ulaanbaatar — the ‘Unitel’ sign for example is quite a brilliant lime. But I missed seeing trees bursting with leaves and fields covered in grass. In Ulaanbaatar, I felt like I was living inside a snowglobe — one that had been shaken very vigorously — for often I was walking around completely disorientated.

But my overall impression of the city was a positive one. The lighting-up of Chinggis Square ignited feelings of excitement in me to be in Mongolia, sharing incredible and happy moments with the beautiful Mongolian people. From the vibrant colours of the market-stalls to the pristine whiteness of the snow, from the wild roaring roads to the peaceful hill-top monasteries, Ulaanbaatar is a city which cannot fail to captivate a foreigner’s mind, and I’m glad that I came here.

First Day In Mongolia

Hi everyone,

Sorry for not putting anything up on here yet. Needless to say, the past three days have been full-on, and I am very sleep-deprived! I hope to establish a routine soon though, and then I can get to writing some blog posts.

For a start, here is a description of my first day in Mongolia:

The frosted windows of the plane blazed gold as we descended through the clouds above Mongolia. As we came in to land at 7:10am, all that could be seen for miles around were snow-dusted mountains glowing orange under the morning sun. It was breathtaking. So was the air upon stepping out of the plane – minus 14 degrees when we landed at Chinggis Khaan Airport.

Ulaanbaatar, which translates as ‘Red Hero’, is an intriguing city – ambivalently modern and dated. Interspersed between the dilapidated high-rise blocks lie small pagoda-style huts and bronze statues. The city is surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides.dsc00862-2

Stray dogs wander the slush-covered roads, pawing away at the ice, and the name ‘Genghis Khan’ is everywhere. The Mongolians can be seen wearing a variety of styles of clothing, from the traditional ‘deel’ (long silk robes in vibrant colours, tied at the waist with a sash), to leather jackets and jeans. As I was driven through the city, I noticed huge icicles cascading over the rooftops of the run-down shop-fronts. Walking to work this morning I could have come to a very grisly end, as one gigantic icicle fell and smashed right in front of me on the pavement.

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Deadly

Road rules in Ulaanbaatar are non-existent. Cars swerve to the left and right, blaring their horns at each other and at the pedestrians weaving between them. Thankfully, there are a few traffic lights and pedestrian crossings which show not only the green man symbol, but also a clock counting down from 20 to 0. This is handy, as you know exactly how long you’ve got to get across before you are annihilated by a crazy taxi driver.

The apartment block where I’m living pokes up from behind the wrestling palace. From the outside, it looks quite intimidating – huge mounds of rubbish burst out from the ground-floor windows and the doors are made of thick steel and guarded by barred gates. But inside, it is warm and pleasant. I have a lovely view of a children’s playground from my window, and every morning so far I have seen the same little boy arduously doing his laps around the snow-covered basketball court.

My host family, sisters Saruul and Enkhzul, couldn’t be nicer. As soon as I arrived on Saturday I was served the traditional Mongolian tea, made with hot milk, butter and salt. It tastes just like popcorn, and is insanely delicious. Seconds later, a dish of the traditional ‘buuz’ (steamed dumplings) was served up in front of me – again, surprisingly tasty. Dumplings are a staple in the Mongolian diet, along with bread, chicken, tomatoes (which are green and pickled and taste like gherkins) and eggs.

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A few hours after arriving, I heard a timid knock at my door. It was Enkzhul, wondering if I wanted to eat bananas together.

Enkzhul asked me what we usually have for breakfast in England and, spotting a bag of muesli on the table, I pointed to that. Immediately, the packet was opened and offered to me. Not wishing to offend, I sat politely consuming a handful of dried oats for the next quarter of an hour.

Just before bed, I was presented with my own pair of blue rubber slip-on shoes to wear around the apartment, of lotus flower design. If I have left them lying around somewhere, I usually find that one of the sisters has picked them up and placed them next to their own pink and red ones by the door in a neat little row.