29 September 2009
Pulling Out All The Stops
If anything can be said for present-day Mongolia, it is that the people and the nation pull out all the stops for their visitors. Our 1pm arrival was met by free hostel pick-up (thank you UB Guesthouse) despite our paying a whopping $8 per night to stay. Nearly an hour later (though covering barely a mile in the most painfully grinding traffic I have ever experienced) we reach the hostel, drop our bags and inform the owner - Bobby - of our hope to travel outside the city. She sits us down, flips open a map of the entire country and proceeds to highlight every possible trip in the entire country. “Well, there is here and here to see this and over here for this and...” We interrupt to explain that we only have three days. “Oh, well I’ll finish telling you all of these for when you come back to Mongolia then we’ll talk about options for this trip.” Splendid.
A good fifteen minutes of one-on-one time later and we’ve decided on two nights with a nomadic family in a national park two hours from the capital - Ulaanbaatar. Since we’re leaving the following morning if gives us all afternoon and evening to explore the capital.
Despite a history crowned by the power and prosperity brought by Genghis Khan, the last century hasn’t been to good to Mongolia and - in turn - the capital. They only overcame oppressive Soviet rule in 1990 and a horrible drought led to famine in 1999 that drove nearly HALF of the entire population (just over 3 million people) to the capital, where they set up their yurts, popped open the satellite dish and began looking for work that just didn’t exist. High rises and traditional gers seem to coexist in what can only be described as one of the strangest clashes in civilization I have ever seen.
Despite this fundamental shift in lifestyle, Mongolians still manage to impress and inspire with their history, culture and way of life. In Ulaanbaatar we saw the world’s most preserved and complete dinosaur fossils for 85 cents. That evening we attended the Mongolian culture show (expecting a kitschy, over-the-top, tourist-centric jive) only to be blown away by the nation’s top vocalists, bands, throat singers, contortionists and - wait for it - the 120-strong National Symphony Orchestra playing “Barber of Seville.” It was without-a-doubt the best value for money I have ever spent ($9).
Even at the yurt camp, this same level of commitment shown through in the lack of show and pizzazz. No electricity, no running water, no toilets and no one stoking our fire all night (which led to our nearly freezing when the temperature dropped 45 degrees in 12 hours from a hot and sunny 80 to a frigid and snowy 35). Save for one hot meal a day and hot tea, we got what we wanted - a glimpse into nomadic life.
The history, culture, energy and mystery are addictive. I have no doubt there will be a return to Mongolia in my future. After all, Bobby at UB Guesthouse has already planned my six-week nationwide trek!