Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Mongolia. A tough nut to crack.

As I reflect back on my last 3 nights in Mongolia, I'm kicking myself for two things. Firstly for not allowing myself a lot more time to spend here, and secondly for not making more of the time I had. While it's been a great experience, it hasn't been the highlight of my trip so far.

Attempting to see Mongolia by staying in Ulaanbaatar for 4 days is a bit like trying to see Australia in 4 days by staying in Canberra. You won't have much fun in Canberra itself and the logistics involved to see the "real" Australia in that timeframe simply make it impossible.
Mongolia looks like a beautiful country and the Mongolian people I had long conversations with on both overnight trains in and out of the country were wonderfully warm and friendly. In that respect it was all I hoped for.
But to be blunt, my experience of the city of Ulaanbaatar itself was pretty ordinary. The Mongolian culture is a long and unique nomadic culture of living on the land, one the Mongolian people are totally justified in being proud of. However their "city culture" is still in it's infancy and shallow by comparison. The traditional Mongolian culture doesn't seem to blend well with city life, UB is trying to play catch-up with the west and the only place traditional culture has in the new Ulaanbaatar seems to be in the souvenir shops, not real life. I'm not saying they shouldn't move with the times, but the UB I experienced just wasn't a particularly nice place to live. As a city it hasn't found the right balance yet. In my humble opinion of course.
Unfortunately in Ulaanbaatar you will find some of the problems of cities many times it's size (crime, traffic, poor housing, etc) while not finding many of the cultural riches or character found in many other capital cities.

In many ways I think parallels can be drawn between Mongolia and Australia (and UB and Perth in particular). Both are large places with small populations disproportionately located in the city (over a third of Mongolia's population live in UB alone). Both have a long and rich traditional culture, but in both cases these traditional cultures are about living on the land, not living in cities. Yet all the money, infrastructure, and opportunities are now located in the cities, so it's no wonder people are drawn to them. As such, there are numerous problems to be faced when trying to merge these traditional cultures with modern western life. After 200+ years of European settlement in Australia, we're sadly still generations away from being able to claim success in solving many of the challenges created as a result of European settlement. I hope Mongolia has an easier road ahead of them.

But getting back to the point of this blog. Travel.
To appreciate Mongolia properly, you need lots of time to get out of the capital and really get lost. You need to be gone for weeks, not days.
Without the luxury of time you are either stuck in the drab, frustrating capital, or else you can get shipped out with a bunch of tourists to an overnight package tour to a ger camp in the "suburbs". I didn't go on one of these tours, and part of me regrets it, but I don't want the forced smiles and dumbed-down explanations reserved for tourists. I would much rather meet real Mongolians being themselves and have real conversations, not be led around as if I were on a school tour of the museum. It might not fit the picture postcard of Mongolia, but that's ok.
Thankfully that is where the Trans-Siberian railway comes in. This is no tourist railway, it's full of real people taking proper journeys for proper reasons. So far I haven't seen anyone except me resembling a tourist. I might not spend the night in a ger camp while in Mongolia, but I suspect sharing a cabin on the trans-sib with a school teacher, seismologist, artist, or tradesman and having many hours to talk in broken English and share photographs and food really is one of the more authentic Mongolian experiences.
Sadly my amazing luck in being able to bump into random interesting strangers who are looking for a good chin-wag seemed to fail me in Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolians are known for their friendliness and hospitality, so it came as a surprise to me that nobody seemed to make eye contact while walking down the street. In terms of trying to extract a smile or, god forbid, a "hi" from anybody on the street, I might as well be back in Australia. Even the hotel staff, while being polite and attentive enough, would offer no more conversation than was essential.
I'm still not exactly sure why, but It really took me the first 2.5 days to relax into Ulaanbaatar. Not only does the city look pretty bleak, there are constant warnings of pickpockets posted everywhere which kept me on edge, the open manholes that seem to be everywhere with no warning ready to swallow up pedestrians and even cars, and the drivers are the worst I've ever seen anywhere. Vietnamese drivers might be crazy, but their system works. The traffic flows, everyone gets where they need to go and everyone's happy. In Ulaanbaater, a city of just one million people, there is gridlock from 2pm to 8pm every day. People just don't care. They push into intersections they have no hope of crossing, completely blocking them for all other traffic, they speed up when they see a pedestrian, they straddle 2 lanes to prevent people getting past, and when they invariably hit a wall of traffic they just sit on the horn for 5 minutes as if they can somehow move the cars through audio telekinesis.
Because of all this, I was probably walking around with a big scowl on my face for most of the time I was there. No doubt I looked pissed off. I was pissed off. No wonder nobody wanted to talk to me.
Ironically the one thing I was most worried about; the weather, could not have been better. Yes it was cold, but it was so bright, clear, still, and sunny that it was a pleasure to be outside. I found I didn't need as many clothes as I thought, and feel a bit like I was worried about nothing. Mind you, when you wander around the "State Department Store" (think Myer in Australia) and see full-on hardcore one-piece arctic explorer suits on a rack beside bikinis and women's fashion, it reminds you where you are.

After being a bit uptight for most of my stay, finally on my last day I felt a lot more at ease (I think because I was looking forward to getting back on the train) and so enjoyed that day the most. To the point that when finally boarding the train that evening, I wanted to stay. For some reason the people seemed more friendly that day too, again making me think it was my body-language that had made me seem unapproachable before.
I think how much I enjoy each new city comes back to that first lesson I learned in Saigon; when I relax and go with the flow of the place I'm in, everything falls into place and becomes much more enjoyable. It's a leap of faith.

It's just a shame my leap into Mongolia wasn't sooner. Now I'm back on the train bound for Russia.

ps: One of the cool things about Ulaanbaatar is that garbage trucks drive around playing Mr Whippy music like an Ice Cream van! Seriously. I think it's even the same tune. It's to tell people to bring out their garbage.

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