Welcome to Ulaanbaatar!


city scene

We’ve been in Mongolia for a week now, and I finally have a bit of time to sit down and write. I wanted to write about our first day here, because first days are always significant, before I forget everything in the flood of new experiences. I already have at least five other posts floating around in my head, but first things first.

Compared to Beijing, arriving in Ulaanbaatar was a dream. I had an aisle seat on the plane, so I didn’t really get to see much of the scenery as we were descending, but what I saw was green and very sparsely populated, except for a glimpse of the city out the other side of the plane. Only five international airlines fly into ULN (Air China, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific, Aeroflot, and Turkish Airlines), so Chinggis Khaan International Airport is small, but it’s quite modern. I learned later they are building a new airport scheduled to open next year, but for now this single runway is it for international flights.

On our short walk to immigration and baggage claim, we saw a large, brightly lit sign for Emma’s school, the International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU). Emma’s response: “It’s too big!” (I’ll write plenty more about her school later, and I hope she will too.) Immigration in Ulaanbaatar was a breeze; the official looked at our visas and stamped our entry without a word.

One of my bags was the last off the airplane. Then we passed through customs without a glitch, even though everyone was walking through the red line. Gerelee, the secretary of my department at MIU, was there to greet us, along with a driver and van. I was so happy to have help with our suitcases! I’ve always seen people at airports with several ridiculously huge suitcases, on their way to or back from a long stay somewhere, and now here I was, one of those people. Granted, only two of our suitcases were really big – a huge red American Tourister we bought at Target specifically for Emma (her other checked bag was a matching carry-on size), and my good old extra-large Aloha-print duffle from LL Bean. But with the rock collections in our carry-ons, the assemblage was a bit much for the two of us, and after lugging things around in Beijing, we were tired of it.

The ride from the airport into town was not very long; it’s about 20 km from the airport to MIU. I took some photos from the van with my phone, but my impression was green grass and trees on the mountains lining the valley that Ulaanbaatar is in – I was surprised at the extent of the forest on the mountains. The buildings along the way ran the gamut from yurts, called ger locally, to modern highrises. There is a lot of construction going on in Ulaanbaatar, especially of highrise residential buildings, and we saw plenty in the southern part of the city that we drove through.

Ulaanbaatar has a crazy amount of traffic, and the driving is interesting. For me, it was reminiscent of Cairo or Addis or any large city where the painted lines are just a suggestion and people are trying really hard to get where they’re going no matter what. I got to spend a lot of time in the MIU van that day and was really impressed that we only saw two or three car accidents. It turns out there is a particular traffic jam Emma and I will encounter regularly between MIU and her school, around what is called the Black Market. It’s not really a black market – its formal name is Naran Tuul. Across the street from it is another large market, more like an indoor shopping mall, with lots of traffic as well. There is a traffic light, and a traffic cop standing in the middle of the intersection, but it can take a while to get through the area.

We arrived at the MIU campus around noon. The campus only has four buildings, plus a sports complex that’s under construction. One of these buildings is the dorm, which just opened last year. Our apartment is on the 5th floor, and there is a shiny elevator with a woman’s voice that talks to us in tinny Korean English. “First floor. The door is closing. Going up. This is the fifth floor. The door is opening.” We just managed to dump our luggage in the apartment, when Gerelee suggested that we go for lunch. We went to the dining hall, which serves lunch for the faculty and staff, with a selection of Mongolian, Korean, and sometimes Russian food to cater to the tastes of the school’s population. There aren’t any vegetarian options, needless to say, but I picked the Korean option where the meat was sequestered and was able to avoid it. The food was very healthy and tasty. Emma wasn’t hungry, but she ate some of my rice.

We had planned to do some shopping with Gerelee in the afternoon; she was going to show us the supermarket and housewares store nearby. But the visa specialist for the school, Gereltuya (who also goes by Gerelee, apparently), decided we needed to register with immigration right away. We had to get our pictures taken, since I had not brought the right size photos with me. We went to a place near campus and watched in an exhausted stupor as the photographer photoshopped the travel muss out of our hair and trimmed Emma’s stray locks that don’t quite fit in her ponytail yet. He also lightened up my skin – I’m too tan, apparently.

We spent the next couple of hours driving around and mostly sitting in traffic. At some point I will write a post about traffic and driving here, because it’s fascinating. I’m not clear exactly what we were doing, but we picked up the visa person and a young eastern European (Russian?) looking man, who got in without speaking, and then we drove off to another neighborhood and picked up another young man. They were new students who also needed to register with immigration. After that, we sat in the van outside a building for about 40 minutes. Then we drove, in somewhat horrendous traffic, back out to the airport, because it turns out the immigration building is (quite sensibly) right next to it. While Gereltuya disappeared into the main building, the driver led us around the side and up some stairs to a locked office. Then the driver ran off to look for the guy who was supposed to be there, while we all stood around breathing fumes from a construction project going on behind another door off the hallway. Finally, the guy showed up, took our pictures and printed them out on copies of our passports, and then took our fingerprints (except for Emma’s, because she was under 14). The fingerprinting device was much more sensible than the one in Beijing, though more time consuming, since it just did one digit at a time.

We went back downstairs and into the main building. There was a bank where I could change money. I had planned to change $500 because I wasn’t sure how much I would need to settle in, and I hoped it would last a while. But the bank teller rejected five of my 20-dollar bills because they had been creased down the middle – they were “bad dollars.” So, if you are planning to come to Mongolia and bring cash, make sure that your bills are fairly pristine. I got plenty of money, anyway. The exchange rate was something like 2400 Mongolian tugrik (MNT) to the dollar, so I left with quite a pile of 20,000 MNT notes.

Then I found out that our carefully photoshopped photos were rejected because they didn’t have a blue background. I had known at one point that they were supposed to have a blue background, but I’d forgotten in my post-international-travel stupor. I think the one universal in the modern world is the bureaucratic mentality. Things have to be just so, or they get rejected. So we left and headed back to MIU, but I no longer had our passports. I guess Immigration accepted those.

We got back too late to go shopping – Gerelee had called Gereltuya to let her know that she had had to go home. Emma fell into a fit of unpacking and organizing, while I made plain macaroni for dinner from one of the boxes of mac’n’cheese I had brought (Emma sensibly didn’t want to use the cheese sauce without milk and butter, so I saved it for another day). We also had a large stash of granola bars and a substantial amount of Swiss chocolate we’d brought back from our recent trip to Switzerland. (The chocolate, though, is meant to last as long as possible, so we are carefully rationing it.) Fortunately, the previous tenant had left a pot and some dishes behind, so we had something to cook with and eat off of.

So ended our first day in Ulaanbaatar. First half-day, really, though it felt like several days packed into one. The one thing I couldn’t help feeling, in our brief moments of walking around and our hours spent in the van, was that I had come home. Not Ulaanbaatar, specifically, but the world of opportunistic driving, the hodgepodge of ramshackle houses next to shiny new high rises, crumbling apartment blocks next to fenced-in mansions, people dodging across the street between moving cars, signs in a foreign language that I can’t yet read, the strong smell of diesel fumes, vibrant street life, kids selling lottery tickets in traffic jams, what seems like chaos but really isn’t, the mixture of the strange and the familiar that you get in many cities around the world, but that I associate with my experiences in Cairo, Addis Ababa, Mekelle, Dar es Salaam, and Nairobi. Each of these cities, and Ulaanbaatar, are completely different, but there is a feel to them I can’t quite articulate yet that seems familiar to me, and that I feel more at home in than I do in the manicured suburbs of San Diego.

7 thoughts on “Welcome to Ulaanbaatar!

  1. I’ll leave driving to the pros! It’s a lot like driving in other cities around the world – drivers communicate with each other directly, and negotiate on who has the right of way. I’m more nervous about being a pedestrian, where you don’t have the protection of a vehicle if you’re hit. Emma chides me on my caution in crossing the street, and I’m probably a lot more cautious with her than I would be on my own. Usually I wait for someone else to start out across and then stick with them.


  2. Such a great description! You capture that feeling so well of the apparent chaos with an underlying system. And indeed bureaucracy is never easy to navigate. Hope that you got some rest and will soon have more adventures to share with us…


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