Thursday, August 25, 2011

Between A Hammer And A Sickle

Heading southeast from UB towards the Chinese border the monotonous landscape is broken by a few small, run-down towns amidst the unending, patchy steppe. (The curious thing about the Mongolian steppe is that, when seen from a distance, it looks lush and green, but up close you discover that there is in fact more barren ground than there is vegetation.) Pretty unassuming and rather boring by and large, although there is a wonderful curiosity just off the main road. Not signposted or marked on any maps and surrounded by a rusting barbed-wire fence some 25km north of the town of Choir are what is left of what was once the largest Soviet airbase. All the jets and really exciting equipment has, of course, been taken away, but the 50 or so domed hangars and slowly crumbling support and command buildings are still there, testament to both the sway that the Soviet Union once held over Mongolia, as well as to the frostiness of relations between the former and the other great Communist power, China. Although the site is abandoned militarily, a handful of families occupy the base with their gers and herds of goats, their only reason for being there to shoo out pesky tourists who come nosing around (why I have no idea). So although I managed to sneak under the barbed wire without much problem and even poked around a few of the hangars I was inevitably caught (ambling around with a 20kg backpack is not particularly stealthy) and politely escorted off. A shame, as there's certainly a business opportunity going begging there.

One of the hangars in the abandoned airforce base outside Choir. Once they housed MiG 25s, now they just house goats.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Climb Any Mountain (Just Take A Map)

In palaeontology the thin, iridium-rich, band that marks the K-T boundary is indicative of a cataclysmic event that wiped out the dinosaurs and changed the face of the world entirely. Similarly in archaeology, throughout Eurasia there is often a band of ash that is consistently found towards the beginning of the 13th century and which marks the Mongol conquests; from Novgorod to Nishapur and Kiev to Korea. They did a truly thorough job. Yet despite their prowess at razing cities the nomadic warriors were less adept at building them. Under Genghis's successor, Ögedei, they realised that their sprawling empire needed a capital and so they founded Karakorum. By all accounts it wasn't that impressive and housed mainly foreign subjects - artisans, merchants, clerics and envoys from all over the dominions, whilst the Mongols preferred to continue living in their gers on the outskirts of the city. One astounding aspect of the city, and the Mongol empire in general, was its liberalism and tolerance regarding religion. Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam, Manichaeanism and Shamanism were all represented and coexisted equally, each with their own places of worship. Something that European civilisation still hasn't really managed to properly do today.

Holding history. A fragment of 13th century, glazed, clay piping from the Karakorum ruins. Bits like these lie scattered around the site whilst most of the ruins remain under the soil.

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.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Buddhist Travelling

Most visitors to Mongolia, even backpackers, form groups and hire a van and driver to travel around the country. If there are four or more of you this is barely more expensive than taking public transport, allows you to get to those hard to reach places (of which there are more than a few in Mongolia) and saves a lot of time. The latter aspect was made all too clear to me when I popped into the tourist information centre in Moron to get some info about getting to, and hiking around, Hovsgol lake, Mongolia's second-largest and the little sister to lake Baikal just across the border in Russia. The information centre was staffed by a Czech and a German volunteer and so, pleased at finding a fellow countryman, I ended up spending about an hour with them chatting about this and that. A topic that invariably cropped up was visas, as they were having problems with theirs. I still had 9 days left on mine and was feeling relaxed about getting to Ulaan Baatar in time to extend it ... until they informed me that applications for extensions must be submitted four working days before expiry and that the application can only be done in the capital. There wasn't a hope in hell that I would make it to the lake and back in time so I quickly altered my plans and plotted a new course heading east.

Empty vodka bottles littering the steppe. Mongolian men are more than a little fond of the hard liquor and you will often meet some that reek of alcohol, even early in the morning. Usually they are harmless, but sometimes they can get aggresive.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Helicopters And Shamans

As I've mentioned before meeting different people, from all walks of life, backgrounds and cultures is one of the most enriching aspects of travelling. A while back my mother sent me the contact details of a nephew of one of her friends who she said lives in Mongolia. It turns out that Hamid doesn't just simply live in Mongolia (actually only part-time, during the summer), but he has studied their culture extensively and films documentaries about Mongolia and its people and even runs a camp out in the far north of the country. Here was an encounter I really didn't want to pass up.

Gers, forests and mountains in the evening light.