Friday, June 14, 2019

It's been a busy week. On my last day in Moscow, I got up early and headed to the archive to work on my last set of documents. Then I headed back home, had a quick lunch, then set off for the airport. My destination? Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. 

Central State Department Store, Ulaanbaatar
Why Mongolia? Good question. I had originally been thinking about taking the Trans-Siberian Express out from Moscow, because I'm really interested in seeing Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, and Ulan-Ude. The idea had been to drop down into Mongolia for 2-3 weeks after Ulan-Ude. For a variety of reasons, though, such a trip wasn't really possible for me this year. So, I'd pretty much resigned myself to forgetting about Mongolia, and trying to get here some other time. 

But then I remembered Lebanon. Several years ago I was invited to give a talk at the American University of Beirut. For reasons I won't get into now I declined--and I've regretted it ever since. I'm turning 50 this summer and, while I seem to be in pretty good health, nothing is certain at any age, let alone now. Even though spending just two weeks in Mongolia strikes me in some ways as a bit silly and self-indulgent--how much of such an enormous country can one expect to see in such a short time?--I decided to do it. So here I am in Ulaanbaatar. 
Cengiz Khan Square
Not for long, however. I spent two full days in the capital and then, earlier this week, headed out on a ten-day tour of the Gobi and central Mongolia. So, by the time you read this, I'll already be out in the hinterlands, far away from an internet connection. 

I had little idea what to expect from Ulaanbaator. It's a city of over one million people--almost half of Mongolia's entire population lives here. Like a lot of post-Socialist cities, however, it feels smaller than what I'd normally expect from a population this size because many people live far from the city center in neighborhoods that most people wouldn't go to unless they knew someone who lived there. 

In the center of town there's a main square--now named after Cengiz Khan--and a few main boulevards that are connected by a few dozen cross streets. In this area there are numerous shops and apartment buildings, but not much (that I've seen so far) in terms of green space or--a staple of other post-Socialist places I've been--shopping centers. I guess in some ways it reminds me a little bit of Saigon or cities in provincial China that I visited 20 years ago, but even in the latter case there was probably more development back then than there is in Ulaanbaatar today. There's a fair bit of traffic in Ulaanbaatar, and certainly some wide discrepancies in wealth are visible. 

I would imagine that in a city that's growing so fast, probably anyone who was born in Ulaanbaatar and owned an apartment here would become an 'elite' of sort sort, simply by dint of rising real estate costs. And, as was the case with other post-Socialist countries, it was typically the elites who lived in the best apartments in the most desirable locations. So, cultural and political elites from Socialist times--when the most important currency wasn't necessarily money, but rather the connections that come from being an elite--become economic elites due in part to where they live. 

One thing that's interesting is how few buildings devoted to organized religion that I've seen. There are a couple of historic Buddhist temples in town, and one new church. According to half-assed online research I've done, relatively few people in Mongolia seem to adhere a religion, or at least one that requires buildings to be constructed in their name. 

My first day in Mongolia I walked around town in a daze. My plane had left Moscow at 6.30 pm, and after six hours of flying we'd arrived at 5.40 am in Ulaanbaatar. It was a nice, comfortable flight--I love the fact that the stewardesses on Aeroflot wear white gloves--and I had no complaints. But I never can sleep on flights and there were many crying babies on board. My guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar offers an airport pickup service for $12 which was definitely worth the money, and when I walked out of customs I saw a young woman holding a sign with my name. Her English was limited--very few people in service jobs appear to speak much of anything other than Mongolian, although everybody seems to know enough English to do their jobs when dealing with foreigners--but we chatted as much as possible during the 20-minute drive in to town. 

I was then given a nice breakfast at the guesthouse and headed off to check out the town. I walked around for what seemed like hours before being overcome by fatigue. I decided to head back to the guesthouse to rest for a while, and was stunned to see that it was still only noon. I napped for a few hours then headed out one more time, again basically wandering up and down Cengiz Khan Street and Peace Street, the two main avenues downtown. 

Goodbye, Memorial Museum to
the victims of political oppression
The next day I saw some sites--the Mongolian History Museum and the Modern Art Gallery--and made it to two others that were closed. One of these--a Buddhist temple--was only temporarily shut to tourists, while the other one--a museum dedicated to the victims of political repression during communist times--appears to be closed for good. It was located in a little old house surrounded by shiny new office buildings, and appears to be slated for destruction. 

Mainly, I've been doing what I did during a lot of my spare time in Moscow--walking around for hours on end. I come home at night with aching feet, and my legs feel brittle and stiff like toothpicks. But I put my feet up for hours and work in the late evening--I'm still sorting through archival photos on my computer from Amsterdam and Istanbul, so there's work to be done. Ulaanbaatar has, apparently, a nightlife scene, but I'm frankly not much interested in exploring it, at least not now. 

A "whirling dervish" on Ankara Street
As I mentioned above, I've signed up today to take a ten-day tour of the Gobi and central Mongolia, which frankly is a bit daunting. But, it's kind of what I was looking for--something very different from Bozeman, Montana. I was also looking for something that would contrast with my usual trips to Amsterdam, Moscow, and Istanbul, not that I'm complaining about going to those places. But, in recent years, I have been trying to complement my visits to these places, which I know pretty well, with more touristic trips to countries I've never been to before. Two years ago it was Morocco, and last year I was in Iceland for a couple of weeks. I've got ideas for next year, too, and the year after that--hopefully I'll be lucky enough to actually act on them. Mainly, I think I'm just looking for experiences that I can think about and draw upon during the months September-April when I'm in the US. 

And whatever the next 10 days bring, I imagine it will be pretty different from my life in Bozeman, or in Moscow for that matter. 

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

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