Ulaanbaatar: The Places and The Faces

The Mongolian People’s Republic

August 13, 2010

Dear Family and Friends,

Sükhbaatar Square is perhaps the most attractive spot in this capital city (pop. 1,100,000). The government palace sits at the head of the square.  Under the eaves of the palace entrance, a seated Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227) presides over the square grounds.  Damdin Sükhbaatar, the leader of the 1921 revolt, sits on his horse in front of the palace. A phalanx of warrior horsemen attends the hero of this republic.  (cf. Chinggis Khaan International Airport.)

The enormous open space of the square is surrounded on three sides by a variety of attractive, pastel government buildings, theaters and banks.

In the morning hours, local citizens crisscross the square on their way to work.  During the day, retirees sit and chat.  In the evening, in the summer when there is a slight chill in the air, kids dash around on bicycles and skateboards.

Situated on the banks of the Tuul River, and far, far, far from anywhere else in Central Asia, Ulan Bator is located at 1350 meters (4430 feet) above sea level, slightly east of the center of Mongolia.  Due to its high elevation, relatively high latitude, location hundreds of kilometers from any coast, and the effects of the Siberian anticyclone, Ulan Bator is the coldest national capital in the world with the average daily temperature of - .7C or 30.7F.*

Ulaanbaatar, Улаанбаатар, is a mixture of small apartment buildings and shops, multi-story elevator-less Soviet style apartment blocks reminiscent of the drab buildings in Eastern Europe, (Mongolia was indeed a Soviet Republic), large department stores (I’ve got my eye on a Mongolian cashmere sweater), and here and there, architecturally modern skyscrapers and hotels. 

The city is “developing.”  There’s lots of construction and road repair.  Streets are noisy and congested.  The air is filled with an interminable chorus of low-pitched moans and groans emanating from the brakes of the fleet of Korean-made public buses.

The winter here (nine months of the year?) is harsh with temps in the minus 23C to minus 40C range (-13 to -40 F) so I can only imagine the outdoor wardrobe.  Now in summer, on sunny days, (modern) folks decide to bare what they can.  Handsome young men sport tee shirts and caps.  Many tall, stunningly beautiful leggy girls display their elegant figures with short shorts and high heel shoes.

Mongols are very friendly.  Some are shy.  Most smile and pose for my camera.  And with not a word of Mongol in my vocabulary, I tried the alternate “spasibo” (thank you) and “horosho (OK!).”   I got a big laugh and the cheerful response, “Ruski, Ruski!”  

I am most surprised by the variety of faces and physiques. Mongols can look like white Caucasians.  The majority have light complexions with a hint of tan.  Folks from the countryside are deep dark with square faces and muscular bodies.  Eyes are round or narrow.  Mongols, like most Asians are slim, but many of the men are built like Sumo wrestlers since wrestling along with archery and riding are the national sports. 

The Gandan Khid, the Gandan Monastery is an important site. The Gandan, a complex of buildings and temples, was restored after the destruction by the Russian purges in 1937 and is now home to six hundred Buddhist monks.  At prayers, they chant and strike drums and cymbals in the incense filled hall.  

The Migjid Janraising Sum is the monastery’s main attraction.  “Lining the walls of the temple are hundreds of images of Ayush, the Buddha of longevity, which stare through the gloom to the magnificent Migjid Janraising statue.  The statue is 26m (85 ft) high and made of copper with a gilt gold covering.  The hollow statue contains 27 tonnes of medicinal herbs, 334 sutras, two million bundles of mantras, plus an entire ger with furniture!” **

Depending on your point of view, the Mongolian language, Монгол, is either a member of the Mongolic language group or the larger Altaic group, certainly not Indo-European.  The mouth, throat and tongue-contorting sounds bear no resemblance to any language I have heard before. 

Mongolia abandoned its ancient script and has adopted the Cyrillic alphabet so I also cannot read a sign.  And since most of the stores have no glass storefronts, I have to peek in to find out what’s on offer.

Restaurants are easier. To accommodate the many travelers, menus are in Mongol and English.  And to accommodate the expatriate community, there is something for everyone:  fajitas, pizza, pasta, calzone, churrasco, phad Thai, teriyaki, kebab, crepe, smorgasbord, steak sandwiches and lemon pie. I met a British woman who owns a restaurant called Sacher’s Cafe.

I opt for the local cuisine that includes lots of bread, fried unleavened bread, salads with tomato, carrots and turnips, cream soups or clear hot broth with potatoes and meat.  My favorite dish is tsuivan – lightly steamed noodles with fried vegetables and bits of meat.  One evening I had dinner at a Ukrainian restaurant.  I chose the varenyky (pierogi in Russia) that are semi-circular dumplings stuffed with meat. 

The meat here should not be mistaken for Kobe beef.  The beef, or mutton or lamb (or horse? or camel? or yak?) is just slightly “chewy” and is at home on the range.

After Ulan Bator, that’s exactly where I am headed.  To the range, to the mountains, to the desert.

Enjoying my jacket and scarf,


PS  From time to time, I have to "pinch myself."  "I am in Mongolia!"  "Mongolia!"  Amazing.


* The Mongolian People’s Republic (pop 2,800,000) is a sovereign nation that won its independence from Russia in 1990.  Mongolia (in the past known as Outer Mongolia) is not to be confused with Inner Mongolia that is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China.

** Mongolia. Lonely Planet Publications PTY Ltd.  2008. pg 74.

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