Mongolia, a land of contrasts and blue skies

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Last week I had the privilege to visit Mongolia, a country that I now know is blessed with beauty and kindness. I’m jumping ahead a bit, I have wonderful things to say about Punta Cana, Basel and Amsterdam as well, and stories to tell about Tunisia. I visited all of them before Mongolia but I’m so excited about this exotic destination, I just can’t hold it in. The capital, Ulaanbaatar, is just one layover away from Helsinki, and many other European cities. The flight time wasn’t bad, 2+6,5 hours but with a 7-hour layover in Moscow – I’ll write more about my experiences with Aeroflot later…

Mongolia has never been on the top of my bucket list. I’m ashamed to admit that my knowledge of the country was limited to the educational content in the Renny Harlin movie Skiptrace. The reason I traveled to this exotic destination was to attend a conference and oh am I happy I did. When I woke up in the plane somewhere over the Mongolian desert, I couldn’t help but gasp at the breathtaking landscapes. Soft-looking brownish hills, a few snow-capped mountains and numerous white yurts (portable, round tents covered with skins or felt used by nomads) that shone bright in the sparkling sunlight. With over 250 sunny days per year, Mongolia is known as the land of blue sky. Then out of nowhere, what seemed like a modern metropolis with buildings that puts many European cities to shame emerged as we approached Chinggis Khaan International Airport of Ulaanbaatar.

 

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The airport was small, but everything worked well, I got my baggage quickly and the passport control was painless. Right after entering the arrivals area there was an ATM, which worked great. During the 30 minute drive from the airport to Ulaanbaatar city centre we passed impressive mountains on the outskirts of the town, modern skyscrapers, camel statues, a lot of cashmere commercials, numerous what seemed to be half-finished buildings and old buildings in terrible shape. Really the city of contrasts: on one hand you see modern buildings that aren’t found in e.g. Helsinki and on the other you see people living in yurts with a disk on the roof and their horse and car parked next to it.

 

We stayed at Springs Hotel, which was a nice basic hotel, not the same standard as we are used to get for that price in Finland, but then neither are a lot of hotels in e.g. Amsterdam. Hotel sites offered a wide range of different accommodation choices at rates from a mere 36 euros up to 40.000 euros for the same period of five nights. So something for all tastes and levels of adventure lust. However tempting the 36 euros for five nights sounded after spending way too much on travel this spring, I’m too much a wuss to dare to try it. Much to my surprise, Ulaanbaatar turned out to be a modern capital with all the services that includes, from luxury brand stores and loud trendy night clubs to high-speed wifi. I’d like to say that I didn’t have any expectations, however, I have to admit that I did have some prejudices especially concerning hygiene, which were proven quite unnecessary. You manage quite well in English. Of course there are people who don’t speak a word of any language I’ve ever heard of. However, some people are extremely fluent in English, probably as a result of attending the British School of Ulaanbaatar. I understood that there are at least two international schools in Ulaanbaatar. Even paying by credit card worked better and in more places than in many Western countries. There are top-notch restaurants with everything from pasta, burgers and pizza to local Mongolian dishes. Globalization has reach Ulaanbaatar as well and if you feel like it you can indulge yourself in for example some KFC chicken wings. However, it truly is a city of contrasts and a lot of things need to improve before it could compare to European standard.

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Traffic was horrific during peak hours. You could be stuck for ages and overtaken by pedestrians. In general, the cars were fairly modern. It felt like almost every second car you saw was a Toyota Prius. I learnt that a lot of people import used cars from Japan and get tax reliefs for hybrid cars, hence the overload of Priuses. This also explained why every second car had the steering wheel on the right side, although the traffic is right-handed. I was told to be careful when hailing a taxi and only use clearly marked taxis. In Ulaanbaatar almost every car is some sort of taxi and hopefully slowing down for pedestrians. You should think twice before accepting a ride, especially at night.

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The traditional Mongolian cuisine primarily consists of dairy products, meat (a lot of mutton) and animal fats. I don’t mean to disrespect anyone, but there is a limit to what my western welfare palate can endure. A little too much stringy meat and vomit-tasting dairy products and too little vegetables and greens for my taste. I tried almost everything that was offered; fermented horse milk, abhorrent forms of cheese (and I love my cheese),  mutton in all forms and I mean all – lungs, stomach, intestines and many organs that I didn’t really recognize but also didn’t enjoy. And don’t get me started on the yogurt snacks, I feel a lump making its way up my throat just thinking about these sour pellet-like candies. And to someone who generally drinks cow milk, other types can taste quite vile. I shudder by the mere thought of lukewarm camel milk. Of course, Mongolians also like to drink their milk heated with a lot of salt, which doesn’t make it any less repulsive. Time to change the subject. To be fair, it wasn’t all bad. I did enjoy the Russian-like, mutton-filled dumplings and meat pies and the half of a potato I got with my mutton. And of course the better meat parts were fine, I’m just not used to all the tendons and bones on my plate. The vodka was surprisingly good as well. I usually don’t like my vodka straight up but the local brands I tried were really smooth and nicely cleansed the palate after tasting the local dishes.

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It’s kind of hard to refuse tasting an unidentified dish or drink, however repulsive, when a Mongolian person offers it to you with the kindest and most sincere smile you have ever seen. You can sense that they have the highest respect for you, and want to share with their guest of honor the best of what little they have got. The hospitality and willingness to help is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced anywhere. The conference I attended was sort of a big thing in Ulaanbaatar with its 3.500 participants from 51 countries. One of the participants had lost his wallet in a taxi during the conference. It contained a lot of important cards and around 3.000 euros. Can you imagine a local person found the wallet and returned it to the lost&found at the conference, with all the money and cards. Would this happen in your city?

Geographically Mongolia is a big country, according to Wikipedia 1,566,000 km2 big (for comparison Germany is almost 4,5 times smaller with its 357,168 km2). Luckily, I also had the chance to escape the city into the beautiful Mongolian countryside. I visited the 40 m tall statue of Genghis Khan on horseback, wrapped in 250 tons of gleaming stainless steel. This world’s biggest equestrian statue is located 54 km east of Ulaanbaatar on the bank of the Tuul River where, according to legend, Genghis Khan found a golden whip. You can take a really narrow staircase up to the head of the horse through its chest and neck, where you’ll have a breathtaking panoramic view of the mountainous landscapes and yurt-filled fields. The Genghis Khan Statue Complex was erected in 2008 and the cost of the complex is reported to be $4.1 million.

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From the statue our tour took us on a very bumpy ride (and I mean extremely bumpy) to the 13th century live museum, located approximately 100 km from Ulaanbatar. There was sort of a road through the dusty hills, but some parts were in extremely bad shape and the driver ended up taking all kinds of shortcuts and detours that made your heart jump. The live museum consists of different camps (educational, herder, shaman, craftsmen) and the king’s palace where we also had lunch or “the King’s Great Feast” where we got to devour a traditional feast just like Genghis Khan did. More warm milk and tendons for me, yay!

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The camps are clearly designed for tourists, obviously, but I was very pleased by the fact that it wasn’t your typical tourist rip-off. You get to enjoy the craftsmen’s art work, Mongolian calligraphy, practice archery, ride horses and camels or simply sit back and enjoy the beautiful landscapes and blue sky at no additional cost. The only thing I saw that wasn’t included was a cover for the complimentary stamped sheet with your name written in traditional Mongolian script (Hudum Mongol bichig). The cover was 10.000,  which is less than 5 euros. At the herder’s camp you could see barrows used by the nomads to transport their yurts. Our guide explained that before the barrows were pulled by oxen but obviously this isn’t the case anymore. Today they use camels! Ok, some even have motor vehicles.

 

The Mongolian winters can be extremely cold and harsh. I learnt that because there isn’t much wood to go around for heating purposes, they burn dried animal feces to heat up their yurts. Throat singing is also big part of the Mongolian culture. You should listen to some samples on youtube for example, it’s quite relaxing. I got to hear a modern version of throat singing with a groovy vibe, which I really enjoyed. I could even imagine myself listening to it outside of Mongolia. Protip: When visiting the camps, be sure to take advantage of every chance to use a toilet before the camps. There are sort of toilets at the camps but they really do offer the authentic 13th century experience…

 

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Voilà, two toilets at your disposal

The Mongolian nomadic way of life has had a big impact on the Mongolian culture. For millennia, the Mongolian people have adopted a pastoral way of life, moving in the search of the best pastures and campsites, and the yurts are still a big part of the Mongolian identity. Even today a large share of Mongolia’s population lives in in these comfortable tents, even in Ulaanbaatar. I even saw yurts on the balconies of apartment blocks in the city. The majority of Mongolians in rural areas live in yurts, some of them equipped with a variety of modern amenities. During my stay in Ulaanbaatar I had the opportunity to have dinner with Finland’s honorary consul of Mongolia and he told me that every citizen of Mongolia gets 700 square meters of land for living. When driving through the so called rural areas you could see areas of about this size, demarcated by fences. Inside the fence you’d see yurts, stock, dogs, sometimes cars or even houses. The consul also talked about rural poverty, which is a recent reality in Mongolia. Most rural poor people are herders, and herders are among the poorest of the poor in Mongolia. Poverty is a recent problem and a direct consequence of the transition to a market economy in the 1990s making the herders dependent of the public economy. Presently, one in three people in Mongolia are poor, and the number of poor people grows as the income gap widens.

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Summa summarum, I’m really happy I got to experience a piece of this beautiful country. The kindness I met was something I’ve never encountered anywhere else. The landscapes are impossible to put into words, you need to be there to really imbibe the beauty. The capital’s skyline is decorated by magnificent mountains and modern skyscrapers, at the same time tarnished by tangible poverty. To say I didn’t like the local cuisine would be an understatement, but I’m still very grateful of having experienced it. That’s what traveling and experiencing new things is all about. You don’t necessarily love everything you try but it gives you a wider world view and understanding of other cultures. I’d definitely go back to Mongolia if I was offered the chance, but not for purely touristic purposes. It’s a wonderful, beautiful, magical country that is worth visiting at least once.

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