IMG_5576It was the end of our first week in Ulaanbaatar and my colleagues and I were looking forward to getting out of the town to refresh battered senses with some idyllic countryside. But we still had a Friday evening to kill, and another few hours nursing beers at the Grand Khaan Irish Pub didn’t really appeal. Luck for us, due to the recent presidential inauguration, there were some festivities going on, including a wrestling bout in the arena just down the street from the hotel, so we decided to check it out.

Wrestling is one of Mongolia’s three “manly skills,” along with horsemanship and archery, and it’s also the most popular sport in the country. It’s said Chenggis Khaan thought it was a good way to keep his troops in shape. And from what we saw, he might have been on to something, although I feel for the horses these men might have been riding back then.

IMG_5577Inside the wrestling arena, just down the street from our hotel, we happened upon a strange site. Some 20 hulking men, dressed only in small blue briefs and red jackets of a sort or just red sleeves sans any jacket, were in the center of the arena, amid a few robe-and-hat wearing men. To my untrained eye, it seemed they were just walking around somewhat aimlessly. Maybe every now and again two of the men would lock arms and pushing against one another. All of this was accompanied by a constant drone of a Mongolian announcer. Sometimes one of the wrestlers would fall, sometimes not.

As I was standing in the stairwell, failing to make heads or tails of anything, I suddenly felt a hand grab my shoulder and pretty much jerk me backward, almost off my feet. I turned around indignantly, ready to rail against the rudeness of it all, when I saw that that hand belonged to a man about the size of a tank, whose way I was apparently in.

IMG_5574Our chosen stairwell turned out to be the one through which wrestlers who’d been knocked out of the competition, or maybe just taking a break, returned to their seats. In any event, they weren’t smiling and didn’t appear like they’d be receptive to a lecture on stadium etiquette.  I kept my mouth shut and made sure I noticed who was approaching from behind so I could meekly stand aside in time.

These were big guys, some with Sumo wrestler stomachs, others solidly built like moving brick walls. I did find the uniforms odd – kind of like a Wonder Woman meets the Incredible Hulk.

IMG_5796I didn’t have any idea about Mongolia’s capital before coming here — I mean, who does? Ulaanbaatar is far removed from, well, pretty much everything. It’s light years away from the Paris-London-Barcelona tourist circuit and even those who do venture further afield generally don’t make it as far north as the world’s coldest national capital. And after being here a week and a half, I can see why.

I don’t want to be unfair. This windswept city on the steppe emerged from seven decades of communism less than twenty years ago. Seventy years of Soviet-style city planning and architecture would take the shine off just about anything. But, my god, UB (what those in the know call the city) takes being dreary, dowdy and down-at-heel to new heights, or lows, as the case may be. I wonder what the proud Chinggis Khaan (the current spelling of Mongolia’s national hero, Genghis Khan) would think of the administrative and cultural capital of the country that descends from his massive Mongol empire – at his death, it stretched from the Caspian Sea to today’s Vladivostok. Well, truth be told, UB didn’t even exist when he was around. All the better.

A fairly representative apartment building

A fairly representative apartment building

I’m not recommending saying no to a trip to Mongolia – the countryside is spectacular. The wide steppe—startling, empty landscapes rolled out under a towering sky broken by occasional herds of sheep and horses—is overflowing with austere beauty. But the built landscape, that’s another thing. I’d relish a week out on the steppe, living in one of the traditional yurts, the round, felt tents that many Mongolians, especially those still living a nomadic lifestyle, call home. I’d even put up with the boiled meat and dairy products that make up the traditional diet for a while.  But I’d likely give the capital, something of a sore on that mightily impressive landscape, a pass.

What to say? It’s mostly a collection of concrete, prefab buildings in various states of disrepair, dropped around crumbling sidewalks and murderous traffic. Once you get maneuver the open manholes and rock-strewn walkways, its takes a powerful death wish to attempt crossing any street. Drivers actually appear to speed up when approaching pedestrians and one more than one occasion I’ve almost been taken out by a packed city bus whose driver took a corner like he was trying to keep his lead in some urban Grand Prix.

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Crossing the street is like a real-life game of "Frogger"

The ugliness of some of the city is actually oppressive, and not just to the effete aesthete whose idea of nirvana is sipping espresso among the lovingly restored medieval buildings of Paris’ 4th arrondissement (err…not referring to me, of course). Once I spent the better part of a lunch break looking for a café to get a break from the meaty, greasy stuff that Mongolian cooks at the Press Institute provide. It was apparently just around the corner from where we’re working, in a particularly unattractive corner of this unattractive city.

After spending half an hour tripping over crumbling concrete, dodging accelerating vehicles, squinting at faded street signs in Cyrillic mounted precariously on cracking facades, I gave up, and got back to an interior as soon as I could (almost losing a foot to a car in the process), anxious to leave behind the urban landscape outside. All the better, again, since I later learned the last trainer to find that particular café spent the next two days on the toilet.

Best to ignore the ground and focus the gaze upwards

Best to ignore the ground and focus the gaze upwards

The city of one million (which got its current name, “Red Hero,” from the socialists in 1924) is ringed by mountains, which are lovely. The city is growing fast, since many traditional nomads are finding they can no longer sustain themselves herding animals, so they move to the city and further strained the creaking infrastructure. (About one-third of the country’s population lives here.) UB is ringed with these new settlements, ramshackle collections of yurts, or gers, and small houses, often without electricity or plumbing or much of anything. They are heated with coal and I’ve heard that in the winter, the city lives under a thick blanket of smoke. That, in combination with temps that drop to -40 degrees, is a concoction that must be pure hell.

It's dinner time!

It's dinner time!

And the food…don’t get me started. Perhaps consuming fatty, boiled meat all winter and dairy products all summer was a diet that appealed to Chinggis’ marauding armies or sheep-herding nomads eking out an existence in a hostile climate, but I and my heart don’t want any part of it.

Still, there’s some great cashmere sweaters and blankets to be had. We’ve met some very cool Mongolians, who are trying to make the most of a difficult situation. Corruption is rampant in the country and is hindering development. The global economic crisis has snaked its way into the steppe, with crashing demand for costly cashmere hitting herders hard. But democracy is established, the country is eager to overcome its geographic isolation and join the international community. And, UB now has two vegetarian restaurants. Things are looking up.

We met some Australian women who have been here working in Ulaanbaatar for about a year. They took us out on a trip to the countryside on the weekend. One of them summed it up for me: “Well, UB is kind of a shithole, and I probably won’t ever be back. But in the end, I’m glad I came.”