© 2006 jim


There’s a mental picture created in my mind by the expression “the back of beyond” that conjures up certain cities: Timbuktu, Mali; Alice Springs, Australia; and Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Nowadays they prefer the spelling Ulaanbaatar, but the change in spelling hasn’t made it any more accessible.

The approach to the airport is dominated below by parcels that seem separated by mud or brick walls. Some are empty, some have a house on them, but most have at least a ger, what we Americans call a yurt.

Driving into UB on the bumpy road from the airport you see more gers. This is how a large proportion of the population of Mongolia lives. Every city has a “ger district”, where people still live in houses designed for nomads.

Still, UB is a largish city of 800,000 people, so as you move nearer the center you see quite a few more conventional buildings. There are no really tall ones; maybe the biggest one I’ve seen is 15-20 stories. There are lots of Soviet-style apartment blocks with that same falling-apart feel you get when seeing the older ones in Russia.

UB has a ramshackle feel to it. Buildings seem to be oriented randomly, at random distances from the streets. Still, there is the hustle-and-bustle of an economy that appears to be doing well for itself. There is quite a bit of new construction, and while definitely not a spruced up place, UB is definitely booming.
The Bayangol hotel where I am staying however is an oldish place, probably built in the Soviet period or shortly after. (I refer to the Soviet period because, even though Mongolia was never a part of the Soviet Union, it was effectively anther Soviet republic in all but name during the period of 1925-1989).

Anyway, the hotel is a four-star, which in Mongolia means that the rooms reek of cigarette smoke, the internet connection is marginal, and the toilet paper appears to be made of a mix of recycled bubble-wrap and styrofoam (is toilet paper supposed to stretch? I think not….) And did I mention the bed? Those of you in the know will cringe when I say: “Ilhabela”.
Outside is a jumble of broken sidewalks, potholed roads, and open manholes leading down into the sewer where, according to what I have read, legions of homeless children live.

The northern sun goes down at about 5:00pm here, and the bitter cold gets even more bitter. At around 8:00am it comes back up, revealing that it has snowed during the night. And it’s time for me to pack it in and walk the fifteen minutes to the office. More later.

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