13 October, 2011

Off the Beaten Path: Mongolia

13 October, 2011

I couldn’t remember when was the last time I had seen big white puffy clouds with such a deep blue backdrop of sky. The cool breeze from the east swept across my face and through my hair and not a sound except for the wind could be heard. Hills and valley surrounded the Tuul River in the distance and I could see tiny gers speckled along the hillsides and close to the river.

Hard to believe that the beauty in Terelj was not far from the crowded, dirty, bumper to bumper traffic, pot hole covered streets, of Ulaanbaatar. 

Ulaanbaatar, or “UB” as the expats call the most populated city in Mongolia, is probably one of the ugliest cities I’ve ever seen. Its overpopulation and underdeveloped infrastructure make for quite a difficult time to maneuver through the city center. Hitchhiking is the norm and minor assaults on the streets (pickpocketing and public drunkenness) are not surprising. In the winter, I hear that the pollution is overwhelmingly bad.  The families who live on the outskirts of UB in their traditional gers, burn coal to keep warm during the below 30 degree Celsius winters. This makes UB not only the coldest Capital in the world, but the most polluted.

You can see the city is trying though, and you have to give it credit for that. An eyesore stands tall in the middle of the central square, the latest property development called the Blue Tower juts out of the  surrounding communist era style building blocks like a sore thumb. Across the way, an out of place Louis Vuitton store stares directly into the eyes of the Chenggis Khan statue in Sukhbaatar Square. Peace Avenue hosts a plethora of eateries, I recommend sticking to Chinese and Korean as they seem to have mastered these two cuisines in UB due to the heavy tourism coming from these two countries. There is not one hotel with four star accommodations, but they are working on it. Apparently a Shangri-La is in the works, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Some of the best cashmere in the world is here in UB. Go to the “Gobi” factory outlet just a few kilometers outside of the city center, any taxi driver or hotel concierge knows where this is located. Prepare to spend some money because most items are 100% cashmere, but to me, this is definitely worth the cost.

Getting back to the beauty, it only takes about an hour by jeep to get outside of UB and into miles and miles of rolling green hills, rivers and valleys as far as the eye can see. Since 2.5 of the 3 million Mongolians live in UB, you have a pretty good chance of getting away from people and being one with nature if that is your goal!

We only had one day to experience life outside of the city where we hiked, rode horses, hung out with a Mongolian family, and had an afternoon coffee in a traditional ger. This was an experience of a lifetime rolled up into just a matter of hours. My favorite and most memorable part of the trip was spending time with the Mongolia family. The father led us on a 17km horseback riding trip with his 3 children. The eldest daughter is a professional jockey and seemed quite smitten with us. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day…so much beauty surrounded us that afternoon I wish I could have stopped time to have allowed us to stay longer.

I couldn’t have been happier with the Tour Company that set this day up for us. Nomads can coordinate a week to two week tour of Mongolia and give you and your family a unique experience.  If what they did for me in a day was the experience of a lifetime, I’m sure a week would change my life forever.

What I learned on my quick trip to UB is that life is pretty tough for those families stuck in the middle of their nomadic traditions and the growth of an emerging country. What their instincts are telling them and what they actually have to do to survive are at a constant conflict. The country is mineral-rich which means prospecting and loss of beautiful land is almost imminent. Someday I hope to return to see more of the country before it becomes too overdeveloped and the Mongolian traditions are lost.

To read more about Jessica’s travels, check out her fab blog, American Girl in Hong Kong!

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