Thursday, July 15, 2010
The first noticeable image on the road from Chinggis Khaan Airport to Ulaanbaatar is the billboards. Large, shiny, and all in English. Far from the land of Genghis Khan, this is the land of minerals and mining. The land of Western investors. But then we drive a bit further and start to notice something else: sheep. And goats. And horses, cows, and yaks. We see large white gers, or nomadic tents, and we feel like we’ve been fooled by these billboards of westernness. Start looking up from the herds and we’ll notice giant green hills, and above them a vast blue sky that climbs to infinity above the horizon. The air is clean. The landscape is bucolic. It might be pastoral paradise.
But no, not yet. We drive on and reach the edge of the city, where suddenly the fast, clear lanes of the highway give way to gridlock. Traffic in Ulaanbaatar is without a doubt the worst in the world, with inexplicable twenty minute stops on city roads being commonplace. But never mind that, we’re headed to the edge of the city, near the green hills, by the towering golden Buddha statue, beneath the watchful eye of a Soviet-era war monument.
In short, we’re headed to my friend’s house. 18 of us. In a convoy of four black SUVs with tinted windows. In Mongolia. It’s all a bit surreal.
My friend’s apartment is a gem, with views over the city and a lunch spread of traditional Mongolian food that could have kept me (me!) fed for a week. Mutton dumplings, potato soup, and cookies made from fermented cheese were all on the menu. We ate, wondering how our stomachs would like the new foods.
Back on the road, our convoy crawled like a line of big black ants through the traffic. We were headed to the Chinggis Khaan Hotel, our home for the next week and a half. We checked in, and, after a late night in Beijing the evening before, we were thankful for a nap.
Dinner that evening was at Hotel Mongolia, a resort on the outskirts of the city. We drove past two-storey concrete buildings nestled amid ghostly white gers and modern skyscrapers, old and new all representing Mongolia’s traditional past and mineral-tastic future. The hotel itself was a representation of both, with a building complex surrounding a clutch of gers and a restaurant that served everything from milk and mutton soup to Chinese specialities and Italian pasta dishes. In the distance a bus load of people wearing Canon T-shirts participated in team building events.
A few of us arose early the next morning to climb up to the Soviet monument near my friend’s apartment. It felt like we were walking back in time. Soviet tanks commemorating victory in World War II preceded a circular monument with mosaics depicting the defeat of the Nazis. The eternal flame in the center of the monument had long been extinguished, but the rest was maintained as if it had been erected yesterday.
After another lunch at my friend’s apartment, we headed to the Altai Cashmere Factory. In a bizarre twist of gender role reversal, the girls stood amazed as the guys donned sweater after sweater, modeling them and purchasing half the store. The highlight for me was the subsequent factory tour, where we were able to see the life cycle of cashmere as it went from raw wool to finished garments.
After the tour it took us over two hours to drive less than a mile to the Kempinski Hotel in Ulaanbaatar, where we had lunch at 4:30pm. Japanese was the cuisine of the day, and we feasted on tempura and sushi, all washed down with hot sake.
The twilight hours were spent walking through the city, visiting what must have been one of the last Lenin statues outside of Russia and admiring the monolithic parliament building with its impressive statue of Genghis Khan. On the way we passed by the first Louis Vuitton store in Mongolia. The store is said to have had the highest sales of any LV store in Asia in its first six months, a testament to the country’s growing importance as a mining powerhouse and darling of western investors.
Dinner that night was at Mr Wang’s, the Chinese restaurant at the hotel. It goes without saying that I ate too many pot stickers. Food was followed by karaoke, which took place in a private room on the lower ground floor. The room had an impressive setup, and Chinggis Khaan Vodka was flowing liberally alongside wine, beer, and, yes, whisky.
The following morning we toured the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar. Our guide explained the history of the monastery and taught us how to spin the prayer wheels to help our favorite World Cup teams win their upcoming matches (okay, so she might not have known the last part). We walked through a room with a large golden Buddha, and another full of chanting monks, two of whom were young boys that hid behind a drum to wrestle for command of a scroll. Ah, holiness.
From the monastery we continued out to Terelj National Park. We were back in Ulaanbaatar the following afternoon, at which point we got ready for a special dinner at our friend’s family’s home. We met his parents and siblings as well as some of his cousins, and enjoyed a lovely meal in a sophisticated setting. After dinner we promptly let our unsophisticated sides take over. We returned to our friend’s apartment and stayed up until 2:30am to watch Germany succumb to Spain in the World Cup.
The subsequent two days were mellow with a dose of rain. Mongolia boasts of 260 days of sunshine per year, but having had such an amazing trip up to that point, we couldn’t ask for perfection. We lunched at the Grand Khaan, a popular Irish pub in Ulaanbaatar. The food was surprisingly good, although the Guinness milkshake wasn’t quite what we expected (more Guinness milk than shake). We had dinner on Thursday night at the Sky Lounge, a swanky restaurant and lounge on the top floor of the building that houses Louis Vuitton. Friday we took a tour of my friend’s family’s office and visited the Mongolian stock exchange.
That afternoon we cajoled one of the drivers into taking us to the Black Market, rumored to be the largest open-air market in Asia. A friend of our friend came with us as a guide, and took us through all of the different areas. We saw the textiles section with its multicolored bolts of silk, the antiques area with its beautiful bells (apparently parents sew them to their children’s clothes to keep tabs on their whereabouts), ancient teapots, and big bowls of animal bone game pieces.
We walked through the clothing market, which was crammed with rows of traditional boots, hats, and furs. At the end we came to the most interesting part of the market, the ger section. Everything that was needed to build a ger was present, from the latticed wooden frame to the thick exterior wool padding to the colorful orange circles that make up the top. 1,000 US dollars would have bought us a ger. I wanted one.
After the traditional goods at the open-air market, our day took a sharp turn towards haute couture. That evening we attended the FashionTV party in Ulaanbaatar. Impossibly tall runway models, Altai Cashmere fashion shows, and Mongolian vodka were the words of the evening. I got interviewed while walking down the red carpet, but the guys were the big winners. They got to meet the models after the show. When the party wound down, 40 of us crammed into our SUV convoy and took off for Mass, a popular club in Ulaanbaatar.
The next day we were back in Terelj National Park, and the following day was our last one in Ulaanbaatar. And our best. It was the opening day of the Naadam Festival, an annual event in Mongolia that takes place over three days in July. Characterized by wrestling, archery, and horse racing, the Naadam Festival is the reason why most people visit Mongolia. And just to keep you in suspense, I’m going to save it for another post. To be continued…