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Published: August 6th 2019
The roads are completely empty when we drive from Chinggis Kahn Airport to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
‘Why it is so empty’, I ask our taxidriver.
‘It’s because of Naadam’, she says.
Naadam is the world famous Mongolian festival, full of horse racing, arching and fat men wrestling eachother to the ground. And ofcourse full of ceremonies and colourful exotic costumes.
‘Usually there are jams’, she says.
Indeed several days later we’ll see the city in full action. So bad even that the smog takes my breath away. I’m told that it is even worse in winter, when the smoke of ger camps merge with the exhaust gasses of the cars.
But now the air is clean. We are passing modern buildings, wide boulevards with six lanes, flanked by pine trees. Pine trees in the centre of the city! I have never seen that before. Then I realize that it’s because of the dryness and the poor nutrients so near Gobi desert. Pine trees can bear that. Actually Ulaanbaatar is a beautiful city. As long there is no smog.
‘Why are you so late’, asks our taxidriver, ‘I waited more than an hour at the airport.’
that we missed our connecting flight in Moscow, because they changed the time schedule. That we had to pass the customs in Moscow again, that there was just one porch, that about 50 people had the same problem and that they also missed their flight.
‘So, you came with this Russian company?’
‘Yes, with Aeroflot. We miss also our luggage. And we were not the only ones. Tens of travelers were complaining at the counter in Ulaanbaatar.’
‘I know. It’s every day the same with this company. I know people who skip Aeroflot. Rather they fly via Beijing and then back to Ulaanbaatar. Tomorrow I’ll pick up your luggage.’
When we arrive at Lotus guesthouse, we are shocked. It looks so shabby from outside. But inside it’s clean and fine with a warm atmosphere. Anandi sits at the reception. She is friendly and helpful and speaks English. We prefer these kinds of guesthouses above big hotels. It’s more personal. And usually you get good information.
Besides being a beautiful city Ulaanbaatar is also a cultural city. There are statues around every corner. Ofcourse there is Chinggis Kahn himself, sitting on his horse, Mongolia’s national pride who once ruled
the biggest empire of the world ever. But apart from these heroic statues there are a lot of more sophisticated ones. Like the herd of camels traveling across Gobi desert. Or the derwisj near our guesthouse at Baga Toiruu street. Like a real derwisj it can swirl around its axis. It can, but it doesn’t, because electricity isn’t working. So I push it a little and yes there he goes.
All around the city are big squares. Sometimes they are used to do exercises in the morning before going to work. We can easily see it from our room at Lotus guesthouse. Usually it's full of skating kids, biking kids, kids who are driving an electric car. At least they think they are driving the car. In fact papa or mama is walking behind it with a joystick in their hands. Like at the Freedom square in front of the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. In the ‘good old’ times it was the Lenin Centre with statues and pictures of Lenin, describing Lenin’s life and surrounded by red flags. Everyone had to know these things by heart ofcourse.
But in 2013 it was Goodbye Lenin. The mastodont was
replaced by something much bigger and with a deeper historical timeline. Tarbosaurus bataar, the Asian version of Tyrannosaurus rex. It used to live in the Gobi desert about 70 million years ago, when the Gobi was still full of swamps and rivers. It was as aggresive as his American mate. The specimen we see at the museum was once smuggled out of the country and sold in Texas (USA). But the Mongolian governement discovered the crime. And now he stands here in the former Lenin Centre, together with its eggs and other dinosaurs like the duckbilled dinosaurus and protoceratops. All found in the Gobi desert. It’s a small but beautiful museum with good information.
Luckily the captions at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs are in English. That is not always so. Often we try to decipher the Cyrillic writings. But that doesn’t make sense, because the language is still Mongolian. A woman from Europe we met, thought to be well prepared by learning Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet. But when she finally arrived in Mongolia she discovered that though the writings are in Cyrillic, the Mongolians don’t speak Russian at all. Most of the people don’t speak English
either. The happy few who do speak English will impress you by calling their capital UB, like there is an US and an UK.
Another museum with English captions is the National Museum of Mongolia. It offers an excellent overview on history of Mongolia. It’s about the ancient states: the Hunnu’s, the Turkic and the Uighurs. Ofcourse it is about the Mongolian Empire which stretched from Siberia to South Asia and from Korea to Bulgaria. A big map compares the Mongolian Empire with the empire of Alexander the Great, the Roman empire and the empire of Napoleon. All peanuts ofcourse. Chinggis Kahn is the ultimate emperor of the world. Long time Mongolia was under Soviet control from the 1920s up to the 1990s as we see in hall 8 of the museum. In the next hall (hall number 9) we see how people began the demonstrate against the governement and how socialist Mongolia changed in democratic Mongolia.
The last museum we visit is the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts. And it was the most impressive one. The Thangka paintings which depict Buddhist deities, specially on silk appliqué and the mandala’s are mind boggling. The museum is called after
Zanabazan, spiritual leader and artist in the 17th century. The Michelangelo of Asia. Most famous are his Five Dhyani, his White Tara and his Bodhi stupa’s. Another famous artist is Balduu Sharav. The museum shows his One day in Mongolia
which represents daily life of Mongolia, and his Airag feast,
the feast around the fermented horse milk. The last one looks a bit like a painting of Hieronymus Bosch. The frightening tsam masks with their big eyes, teeth and fangs, used during religious dances, are also on display.
We saw these masks back during an one hour show in the evening at the Tumen Ekk theater. The show represents cultural life of Mongolia in a nutshell with traditional dances, folklore songs, throat singing and traditional costumes and music instruments.
So Ulaanbaatar has a lot of culture. The only thing we didn’t like so much was the Mongolian food. But there are a lot of Western and Asian (specially South Korean and Japanese) restaurants in town to feed tourists and maybe even Mongolians who also don’t like their own food either.
Thus prepared we were ready to discover the rest of this immense country and to meet the
The Chinggis Kahn Stone in front of the National Museum of Mongolia.
This stele of the 13th century is the most ancient monument with Mongolian script. It was found in Siberia. The original is in the hermitage in St Petersburg.
other half of the 2 million Mongolians. The Altai mountains will be our next destination. But before we'll do that we'll first visit the Hustai National Park near Ulaanbaatar, to see the Przewalskii horses.
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