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Ulaanbaatar in winter: a Steppe too far


The first thing to know about Ulaanbaatar in winter is that under no circumstances should you go to Ulaanbaatar in winter. As you would learn after even a cursory glance at Wikipedia, it is the coldest capital city on Earth. While this is a fairly abstract statement, and may be hard to wrap one’s head around, I can assure you that spending time in the coldest capital city on Earth puts something of a damper on your exploratory instincts. You may attempt to soak in the local culture, admire a temple or a monument, but after no more than three minutes your inner monologue will become distracted from the task at hand. How remarkable, you will think, staring up at the Zaisan Memorial, what an unusual juxtaposition of OH GOD I CAN’T FEEL MY HANDS OR FEET socialist realism architecture and GET INSIDE RIGHT NOW OR YOUR FROZEN CORPSE WILL BECOME A PERMANENT PART OF THIS INTERESTING TOURISTIC ATTRACTION. Really, the main thing to know about Ulaanbaatar in winter is that you would be better served going almost anywhere else in the world.

A statue? Must be Genghis Khan

Almost immediately upon arrival in Ulaanbaatar, you’ll realize the magnitude of your mistake, and resolve to get horribly drunk as soon as possible. Happily, there are a surprising number of bars in Ulaanbaatar. At first, seeing three bars on every block may startle those who, when they hear the word Ulaanbaatar, do not immediately think dusk-to-dawn party town. But after patronizing a few of these establishments, and handing over money with Genghis Khan’s face on it to purchase a Genghis Khan Beer at the Genghis Khan Irish Pub, you will realize that the vast assortment of bars in Ulaanbaatar is not really surprising at all. Somewhere between your third and fourth beer, it will dawn on you that, when it’s forty below zero for half of the year, there really aren’t that many things to do, and drinking oneself to death is infinitely more pleasurable than freezing to death. That, at any rate, seems to be the consensus among Mongolians, a fair number of whom you will meet when you bar-hop in Ulaanbaatar. An observation about said Mongolians: they are a proud and noble people. In practical terms, this means that they will not hesitate to start a fight with you if you steal their women, or talk to their women, or look at their women, or appear as if you might be preparing to look at their women, or if the right song comes on and they’re in the mood. This was my experience at the karaoke bar I visited on my first night in Ulaanbaatar, when a large drunken gentleman took exception to my brother and I standing within ten feet of the nice paraplegic lady whom he was escorting for the evening’s entertainment. He shoved my brother, I shoved him, his friend shoved me, and then we all started shouting while his companion rolled her way into the fray, frantically trying to separate the two parties.

After you’ve sampled the local brews, met the local people, and been attacked by them, you may well be hungry. It is at this point that you will experience Mongolian cuisine, by which I mean that you will gnaw on a charred hunk of dead animal, washing it down with a lukewarm mug of salty milk tea. There are buuz (pronounced booze, an altogether fitting name given that it’s only by drinking massive quantities of the latter that you can stomach the former), enormous flabby dumplings packed with meat and gristle in equal proportion. There is tsuiven, noodles and mutton in a delightful lard sauce. There is . . . well, that’s kind of it, actually. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can eat the head of a sheep, and while you’re jabbing fruitlessly at eyeballs and brain and hunks of partially-cooked skin you can wonder what ever possessed you to part with your hard-earned currency for the dubious privilege of eating a sheep’s head in the first place. As for a beverage, there’s the aforementioned salty milk tea, or you can try artz, a whey-and-curds concoction that tastes like cheese juice, only if the cheese had gone bad and if it was never terribly good to begin with. In warmer times of the year you can roast a marmot over an open fire, though of course you must be careful not to catch the plague.

Needless to say, Ulaanbaatar is not all cheese juice and marmots. There are numerous cultural attractions that you can enjoy; while few of them are inside, with proper planning and a brisk pace you should lose no more than three or four toes to frostbite. Given its central location, you may want to begin your tour at Sukhbaatar Square, notable for containing the only statue in Mongolia not of Genghis Khan. Naturally, said statue is of Sukhbaatar, a pivotal figure in Mongolia’s early 20th century independence movement, which achieved the signal success of turning Mongolia from a vassal state of China into a puppet state of the USSR. Sukhbaatar is Mongolia’s secondary national hero, but much of the oxygen in that particular room is sucked out of the air by the imposing figure of Genghis Khan. Genghis, of course, is everywhere: his name and glaring visage adorns airports, monuments, beer, and cash, for starters. An hour’s drive outside the city, near a place where the Great Khan is said to have found a mythical golden whip, now stands a colossal shining stainless steel statue of him on horseback, looking out onto the steppe. It all drives one to wonder why contemporary Mongolia has thrust itself so fully into the embrace of a bloodthirsty warlord who slaughtered millions. But, of course, he’s not just any bloodthirsty warlord, who are a dime a dozen; he’s Genghis Khan, the man who united Mongolia, the centerpiece of the Mongolian national mythos. From a branding perspective, he’s also virtually the only thing or person that non-Mongolians are guaranteed to recognize. We take our heroes where we can find them.

Mongolian food: best served dead

I’ve already mentioned Sukhbataar Square – in which the centerpiece is, naturally enough, a large statue of the man himself – and the massive monument to Genghis Khan, but without a doubt the strangest memorial in Ulaanbaatar is Zaisan, located across the south bank of the river on the outskirts of town. The memorial was built in honor of the undying friendship between the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union and their Mongolian counterparts, and to that end features numerous eye-wateringly garish murals depicting scenes of fraternal socialist brotherhood. Maybe it’s due to the influence of Zaisan that visiting Russians are still accorded a warm reception in Ulaanbaatar to this day, though during your visit you’ll probably be focusing on more prosaic matters. You will be panting and gasping from the three-hundred step climb you’ve taken to get there in the first place, and vowing to cut down on your nicotine intake, possibly while smoking a cigarette. You will be looking at the vintage WWII-era tank parked at the memorial, wondering both how they got it up the hill in the first place and also whether the keys are still in the ignition. Finally, you will look once more at the memorial, a tribute to bad artistry and bad architecture in equal proportions, and you will wonder if you can pee on it. You can, but only if no one is looking.

Mongolia has recently rediscovered Buddhism, both as faith and as tourist attraction. Temples and shrines dot the city, and the Chojin Lama Monastery, a historic and architectural landmark, has been turned into a museum on the history of Buddhism in Mongolia. Perhaps the most interesting of these assorted religious sites is the Gandan Monastery, the largest in the city and a still working complex where monks chant scriptures in sing-song monotone and devotees come to pray. The complex shares space with representatives from older faiths as well. About halfway up the long, gravel-strewn hill on which Gandan is located lies the Ulaanbaatar Shaman Center, where for a nominal fee you too can supposedly have a personal consultation with Shaman Zorigtbaatar, whose fiery preaching style has inspired the masses. In reality, I huffed and puffed my way up that hill at least three times to the ramshackle collection of huts that bills itself as the Shaman Center, nervously edged my way around the large eagle chained to a post outside, and ventured into the largest of the huts, only to be told each time that Zorigtbaatar was, regrettably, not receiving visitors that day. Honestly, the temples are possibly the least interesting part of Ulaanbaatar; one can learn much more by wandering around the city than one will by visiting its most famous tourist spots.

Granted, wandering around Ulaanbaatar in the dead of winter is a spectacularly bad idea, but simply going to Ulaanbaatar in the dead of winter in the first place is a spectacularly bad idea, so while you’re there you might as well compound your error. The city itself sprawls along a river, the name of which I do not remember and thus will not trouble you with, from east to west. That sprawl gets a bit more pronounced every day as Ulaanbaatar sucks up migrants from the rest of the country, who arrive seeking fortune, opportunity, and the chance to find employment that does not involve yaks. Ulaanbaatar has mushroomed in size, doubled in population and then doubled again; in a country of three million people, roughly half of them live in or around the city. The wealthy denizens of Ulaanbaatar can take refuge in one of the many new modern apartment blocks sprouting up all over the city. The less fortunate, a category which comprises most of the more recent arrivals, often wind up in one of what are somewhat euphemistically referred to as the ger districts, and what are less euphemistically described as slums. Most of the homes in the ger districts actually aren’t gers; instead, they’re cabins slapped together out of whatever was on hand, clustered together in haphazard arrangements along pitted dirt lanes. In the winter, the smoke from their fires blankets the city with smog. But on the whole, Ulaanbaatar has adapted to its status as a rapidly growing metropolis with surprising good cheer. I think in particular of the charmingly ad hoc system of public transportation, which essentially consists of walking to the corner, sticking out your arm, waving wildly, and waiting for a family to drive by in a car held together with duct tape and give you a ride, at the end of which you attempt to negotiate a price before giving up due to language issues and just handing them a pile of money.

Think the city's ugly? Try a park..

You should, at some point in your travels, make a trip outside Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia’s main draw is its natural beauty, as I discovered when I took a day trip to Terelj National Park, located about an hour’s drive outside the city. It’s best to go with a local guide, who will drive you there and, once you arrive at the park, will provide you with an opportunity to board a small and crotchety horse that likes nothing better than ignoring your repeated entreaties to move at a pace faster than “snail,” and then, when you least expect it, bolting for a clump of trees. It’s really quite gorgeous; far from being an endless steppe stretching out to nowhere, the landscape of Terelj is home to steep valleys and craggy mountains that pop up seemingly out of nowhere. The sky overhead is so blue that it almost hurts to look at, and in a split second you realize that it’s all worth it, that you’ll never forget this trip. Then you start shivering uncontrollably and realize that you’ve sprouted two snot icicles from your nose. Yes, Terelj is gorgeous. It is also best appreciated on a day when it isn’t forty below zero. I really can’t stress this enough.

Once you return home, whenever that may be, you’ll have a chance to reflect a bit more on your time in Ulaanbaatar. You’ll realize, somewhat to your shock and surprise, that you really enjoyed the trip. Maybe you would even write about it, had you not lost the use of your fingers due to frostbite.

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