A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Outer Mongolia for a consulting job.
Having never been that far north before and also having never visited any of the countries of the former USSR I wasn’t entirely certain what I was going to find.
What I did find was a stunningly beautiful place with a definite utilitarian edge to it, a land of compromise and a country that was making its debut, both as a destination for tourism and for doing business. The long and the short of it is that I had a great time, with some surprises along the way.
The first thing that you notice is that Mongolians are big guys, I mean huge. I am 6’2″ and a solid 100 kilos, and I felt small in comparison to the vast majority of the people that I met during my four days in the country.
The next thing that becomes very rapidly apparent is a tremendous sense of national pride. The Mongol Empire was once one of the largest in the world and this fact remains, to this day, something that the citizens of the country hold in very high esteem.
The strangest thing I noticed was listening to the language. Now while I’d never been to Russia I’d worked with a number of Russians in Hong Kong and I’d lived extensively in China. To an ear attuned to English, both Mandarin and Russian are impossible to decipher and Mongolian, to my untrained ear, sounded like a combination of the two.
The Mongolian population is small and the country is vast, so this means plenty of wide open spaces, unfortunately I only spent a day outside of the city of Ulanbataar proper but I can say that the parts of the Terelj National park that I did see were absolutely and without question some of the most striking scenery I’ve ever seen.
The city itself is like so many others that are emerging from regimes that stifled development, a mix of old and new. Behind glistening monolithic skyscrapers sit rows of soviet-era walk-up blocks of flats. All of which are in poor repair and look exactly the same. There are also statues of the great Genghis Khan everywhere you look, the majority looking to the south at, you guessed it, China.
The town square retains that sense of excess that the likes of Tienanmen and other large city squares in the old communist world have. With wide open spaces, huge overstated edifices and tributes to the rulers of the nation.
Look around though and you will see not only extremely modern skyscrapers but a huge amount of development. The skies full of cranes reminded me of Hong Kong when I first got there in the mid 80s and it was experiencing its building boom. Quite literally on every corner there is a new building going up, each one striving to be bigger and more impressive than the last.
Hotels are modern and reasonably priced but, depending on the time of year, availability of fresh produce can be patchy due to the frozen earth. For this reason Mongolian’s eat a lot of beef, lamb and mutton.
Unfortunately on this very brief trip I only had a few hours to myself to do some exploring, the rest of the time was spent in those skyscrapers I mentioned earlier. That said, I would love the chance to return one day. Mongolia is a fascinating, friendly and diverse place with such a terribly interesting history.
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