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Mongolia, The Land time forgot And I won’t soon!

August 18, 2010

In May, 2009 I had the pleasure of travelling to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar pronounced oolaanbaatar where the sound of “T” is passive as opposed to the pronounced “T” as in Tata.  Mongolia is an amazing landscape of immense raw natural beauty that has yet to be spoiled by “progress” and production. From a historical perspective the Mongolians have suffered an identity crises of sorts. After having been declared independent from China back I think in 1912 Mongolia, still and ever since has been a pawn and a yoyo between the will and whims of the Russians and the Chinese. The result of which is that China and now perhaps Russia are not on the Mongolia’s most favored nation status list. The brunt of it however, is reserved for the Chinese a fact that does not go unacknowledged by the Mongolians who out right hate the Chinese. So much for a history lesson!

The ride to the airport which includes the plane ride from Beijing and the ensuing aircraft approach for a touch down and the ride from the airport out to the city could best be described as a training routine for astronauts. I had the utter misfortune of taking Air China into Ulaanbaatar because either the pilot of this particular flight was out for a joy ride or the turbulence was simply treacherous like I had never experienced ever before as a result we approached the airport still undecided whether to land or stay in the air. The routine could best be described as a scene out of a comedy flick where a single engine plane from the early days of aviation flutters and farts through fields and unpaved ground lacking the juice to lift off the ground. In our case however, it was the opposite where we managed to get in the air but could not set ourselves down. The result was a barf bag nauseating experience that ended safely through I am sure sheer luck. We then had a one hour respite that included a health check basically a routine that resembled you Ok, Iam ok, and immigration that seemed not too concerned with the Al qaeda types.  After that exercise our training for a space mission continued with a ride from the airport except this time on machinery that resembled a van, it still had some of its old features left over after years of battering.  After climbing on to this machinery our driver insisted was “road worthy” we embarked on a drive on a road that felt like the moon surface going constantly in and out of small craters, except these crater were made of asphalt (our driver insisted it was not his fault but the asphalt..corny). Never, eat a full meal and drive anywhere in Ulaanbaatar for that matter. You will promptly lose the meal. Good if you suffer from bulimia bad for all normal folks.

Ulaanbaatar is for a lack of a better description a land where time creeps and its people struggle to keep up. Sense of urgency is a nonsense Mongolians hastily dispense with.  All things in good time my good man and time is a plenty. In Mongolia fast food means see you in say 40 minutes give or take an hour and please don’t rush me it is after all Mongolia. My personal opinion was bad food served slow. Speaking of food Mongolian’s literally eat everything regardless of whether it moves or not. Yes indeed the Mongolians eat everything served in a typical non vegetarian restaurant but in addition other such delectable’s as horse, wolf and other four legged gentle souls. Gentleness by the ways is no excuse for not being slaughtered, it just happens to be the frivolous ways of the non-Mongolians that the Mongolians in turn pay little or no attention to.  All methods of hunting are utilized sort of like equal opportunity killers or EOK. However, one such instrument of brutality is committed with the use of a well trained hawk. Yours truly had the undeniable privilege of holding one such trained hawk. The Hawk trained since very early as a chick taken/stolen and then taken through months of training to become a killer hunting Hawk. A trained Hawk (a formidable creature up close) is used to kill other birds, small mountain goats and of course the wild Wolf of Mongolia. In a typical hunt the Hawk approaches a running Wolf from the rear and while still in the air positions itself to land on the Wolf’s head. Once perched with its paws firmly clasping the wolf’s head it immediately sinks the talon into its brain. The rest as the Mongolians say is ouchie mama lovely steaks.

Life staggers and swerves to keep some sort of pace. With Daylight dawns a new day and it seems activities that got left over from the night before resume all in good time though.  Mongolians kids are all little Angels for they never harass their parents with the question “are we there yet?”. Speaking of travelling would it surprise you to know that the airport in the “Capital” city The Chinggis Khan International airport is not open 24 hours a day?  As a matter of fact the airport opens for business (give or take, mostly give) at 9 A.M., and promptly closes like around 5 P.M.  In Mongolia the phrase for “banker’s hours” is localized to “airport hours”. Then, when I say closes I mean just that cause they turn of the lights promptly at 5 P.M., and the ever consciences staff promptly disappears like a ghost in a sci-fi movie.  And unlike Motel 8 no one leaves the light on for you, I suppose energy consciousness.

Like most nations and cultures of the third world looking for some sense of identity and or past glory. The Mongolians too are clinging to the memories of Chinggis Khan with dear life. They have erected a bigger than life size steel plated statue of Chinggis Khan along with his horse and armor.  When I say bigger than life size I mean just that because the dog gone thing is as high as a 10 story building where you need to take an elevator to get to the head of the horse. The statue is then conveniently located in the middle of no where. Well, if you call raw landscape a cozy neighborhood.  It takes about two hours from the nearest town to the monument. Not exactly a stone’s throw away. The choice for the spot apparently is based on the fact that this is where Mr. Khan got his inspiration to murder, maim and destroy with a reckless abandon. The man nonetheless is loved and revered like a God. Every third establishment regardless of nature has khan next to its name. Case in point the hotel I stayed in an International chain called Kempinski.  However, in Ulaanbaatar this hotel is lovingly called Kempinski Khan Palace. For my Indian friends that’s not extolling the virtues of Sharukh Khan.

A vast landscape unspoiled by urban jungles. It is however, a land that under went some very violent natural events in the shape of earth movement and the resulting earth quakes. The reason for this observation is the vast and the unending chain of rolling landscape with endless mountains. One such hilltop referred to as Turtle Mountain aptly named cause the darn thing looks like a giant turtle and entirely, the work of Mother Nature with no helping hand from the humans (That’s what they told me). Incidentally there are a few other little “turtle Mountains” I suppose the Mongolians Gods had a soft corner for the little fella’s. Legend has it that these mountains played a crucial role in providing a safe haven for the Monks when the Chinese were fast on their tails.  See now it comes together why the Mongolians are not too keen on having the Chinese over for dinner any time soon. The natural beauty in Mongolia is however, breath taking with rollicking mountains and gently flowing streams all over the landscape. At higher elevation you can see snow capped mountains tops.  Speaking of snow the weather in Mongolia is the most unpredictable than anywhere else in the World. One day you have the Tee-shirt on with shorts and the next day you need cover from snow flakes literally. In Mongolia the old adage “if you don’t like the weather stick around it will change” fits to a tee.

A very hardy Nomadic people by lifestyle these Mongolians are not a very picky lot. Home is where the tent is pitched. Even today as you leave the airport the landscape is crowded by tents locally referred to as gears.  White in color gears come in all sizes and round in shape with an elevated center to help dissipate moisture from rain and snow. Inside, the gear looks like any other tent from Wal-Mart for lack of better description except very, very cozy. In the center of the gear there normally is a wood/coal conventional stove used both for cooking and heating and I suppose choking if you happen to be visiting.

Mongolians in some ways are interesting people. Idle traits of the underdeveloped World are on display and exhibited without remorse or reason. For example I had the urge to workout and sought a place where there would be some steps I could utilize for my workout.  I had no idea that my workout would cause such commotion and spark such interest. Unaware of the impending theatre and barely into the workout I was surrounded by onlookers as I was the madaari (showman) performing unusual acts for their sheer pleasure.  About twenty minutes into the workout I had Mongolians of all ages, sizes (mostly small) and gender joining me as if to say brother we share your pain and will participate to relieve you from this ailment.  With the onset of claustrophobic feeling being crowded out by 50 people on a 10 foot wide stairway needless, to say I immediately turned about foot and ran into any direction that would provide me immediate cover. I gained a lot of weight in Mongolia.

There clearly is a distinction of socio economic classes because one gets to see and experience both.  There seems to be a conspicuous absence of the middle class, my impression is that in Mongolia either you are very rich, or poor and destitute.  Generally a good lot the Mongolians though not to be confused or even accused of being tactful let alone polite people. They shoot from the hip and call it as they see it, an admirable trait in a judge or the jury however not so well for PR or to portray the image of a gentle noble people.  Service is shall we say not their forte. Aren’t you just happy that we are letting you stay at our hotel?  

In summation, I hope the Mongolians find ways to better utilize their natural resources and find their path to prosperity and better life. On the other hand it would be just fine if they feel that status quo delivers them from the perceived evils of the Modern world. No matter what they choose to do it is my earnest hope that they find a way to protect and preserve the largely unscathed natural beauty that Mongolia possesses from the unwary and uncaring tourists.



  1. alvin permalink

    Cool blog. Just curious but what kind of workout was it that had you surrounded by locals?

  2. William McGill permalink

    Well, I think this is beautiful. A very well-written travel log. Is it wise, however, to let your wife know you’re flying around some of the most remote parts of the world in the hands of a pilot who may be texting on approach to the airport?

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