Mongolia is never somewhere I’ve had a burning desire to visit. In fact, it was so far off my travel radar that when I was sent there with SPAR International, I didn’t really have a clue where I was going. A grueling 6 day journey from Moscow on the infamous Trans-Siberian rail soon amended this slight flaw in my world geography, and hurtled me seemingly slowly but surely right on the countries doorstep.
My experience was a bit of a strange one. A 4 day stopover between Russia and China, starting with a phenomenal and highly irresponsible dodgy-Vodka-great-company Mongolia border crossing shindig, and the consequentially phenomenal hangover. Day one of the Country’s capital and all I wanted to do is crawl into bed, only to be disturbed with the news of the invention of a miraculous cure to the effects of excessive drinking.
When I finally dragged myself into consciousness, I discovered that the home of 40% of Mongolia’s population was surprisingly modern, fairly Westernised and, well, just like any other major city. Unlike Beijing, Hong Kong and Bangkok however, I found Ulaanbaatar struggling with its own identity somewhat. It seems as though its citizens are torn between traditional, nomadic routes and a strongly independent culture, and a distinctly Western, urbanised culture.
People walked around in clothes that wouldn’t have been out of place on my local high-street whilst others – generally the older generation – strolled around in highly typical Mongolian attire. As my visit clashed with a national holiday, the city’s iconic centralised monument of Genghis Khan was swamped with wedding parties… again, displaying a contest of culture; the bride and groom resembling the cliche plastic wedding couple you see perched on top of the wedding cake, whilst the family stood around in an array of colours, materials and clothes that I don’t know the name of.
With this identity clash, you’d have thought that the city would be welcoming, or at least accepting, of tourists, right? Well no. I was fully expecting a Chinese style reaction, mainly stares, smiles and a general sense of interest. Instead, the reaction we received was cold stone hostility.
The cherry on the proverbial cake of hostility was found in the black markets. Okay, okay, so I wasn’t expecting to be showered in warm greetings and flowers, but the reality was the antithesis of welcoming. Staring eyes brimming with a bitter mixture of disgust and resentment created an overwhelming sense of self-awareness.
I was minding my own business, concentrating on not being too overwhelmed by this new awareness of myself I had been forced to discover, when an old man with a saw stopped in front of me. As in a meter away from me. After waving the saw around a little, he then proceeded to shout, put his cigarette laden hand in my face and push me away. I’d had enough by this point, and acting like the little girl I am, I made the executive decision to run away. I don’t know why I felt it appropriate to run, maybe it was the saw (which was actually still in it’s cardboard packaging, but it sounds much more dramatic…), but either way the man chased me. He chased me! Through the black markets of Mongolia. Chased by a (
packaged) saw wielding white-woman hating mad-man. After my friend being rammed into by a shopping trolley by an equally mad mad-man, we were out of there.
It wasn’t all saws and scares though. The city itself was nice, and some of the restaurants we found were amazing. Cheap, dingy and out of the way but serving some of the tastiest food of the whole trip. And all, strangely, named peculiar things. The best we managed to discover was ”Garlic Corner”… which doesn’t seem like too absurd a name for a restaurant. But when considering this restaurant was 1)In the middle of Mongolia. 2) Not situated on a corner. And 3) lacking any notable use of garlic… well it’s safe to say it tickled us.
Looking back on my Mongolian experience it’s hard to see why I haven’t written about it before now. It’s been 7 months since I was there, and like most places that make an impression, the memory is still clear as day. Ulaanbaatar, at least, is not somewhere I would particularly recommend, but if you ever get the chance, then I’m sure that like me, it’ll leave you with more than just an expansion of your world map knowledge.