Friday, August 12, 2011

The Giant Red Hero

Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world with less than two people per square kilometre. This comes as no surprise after travelling through it for any time. What is surprising though, is that the capital, Ulaan Baatar (which means Red Hero, in honour of the Communist revolution), or UB as it is affectionately known by locals and expats alike, is home to roughly 45% of the population; which means that for the rest of the country there are fewer than 1 person per square kilometre. Capital cities are often markedly different from the rest of the country, and here in Mongolia that difference reaches true antithetic levels.

Despite being a country of boundless space the traffic in UB is atrocious with gridlock affecting the main arteries throughout most of the day, exacerbated by the majority of cars here being large, space-hogging SUVs (Landcruisers are the vehicle of choice, but not a day goes by when I don't see a good half-dozen Hummers as well); high-rise buildings and apartment blocks are the norm whilst the highest building in the rest of the country is a solitary 16-storey block of flats in Darkhan, Mongolia's 3rd city; expats are as common on the streets as flies on cow-pats whereas in the rest of the country you can go weeks without seeing another white face; boutique shops abound whilst in the rest of the country you'll be lucky to find new (rather than second-hand) Chinese clothes; and it's possible to find educated locals who speak either English or Russian so communication can ascend above the level of gesticulations and mimes. Indeed whilst chatting to a young Mongolian I met in a bar a few days ago I mentioned that I was half Czech, to which his response was, "oh, the land of Jan Žižka!" Jan Žižka, though the Czech national hero, and undoubtedly one of the greatest generals in history, is little known outside his own country except perhaps to military enthusiasts. I was certainly impressed. There is even urban sprawl with districts of ramshackle gers oozing along the Tuul valley.

All visitors to Mongolia are almost obliged to pass through UB, either as their arrival or departure point; to organise onward travel; to sort out paperwork; or just simply because, like Rome, all roads lead to UB. There are a few interesting museums, it's a good place to stock up on supplies (you can even find fresh fruit here, which is difficult to find in the rest of the country, but at above-Western prices) and to find travel companions to help reduce costs. But ultimately why stay in a city when you have the limitless Mongol steppe calling? and so after handing in my Chinese visa application I'm headed off into the wild once more, this time to the south and the legendary Gobi Desert

(Although for those who like to collect superlatives then UB is an obligatory stop as it is the coldest capital city in the world, with an average annual temperature below freezing).

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