For the first time in more than 100 years, a steam train was carrying passengers on the tube.
Category Archives: Travel
“I’ll get one of my students to show you around”, this was a nice gesture but I’d just landed from a journey that I’d set off on a over 24 hours before, I just wanted to go to bed. I was in the car with my new boss who’d picked me up from Genghis Khan international airport.
The airport, like just about everything else in Mongolia, is named after the great guy who was instrumental in forging the world’s largest ever contiguous empire which covered most of Asia, parts of Russia and Europe. Mongolians still talk about this as if it were last week and to be honest you can’t really blame them, for everything that’s happened in between had put them under Chinese and Soviet rule and those are generally eras the Mongolians wish to forget. So forgetting the last several hundred years of forced rule you end up back at the Mongolian empire which was, of course, initiated by Genghis Khan. In an effort at regaining national pride his name is on everything from the international airport to condoms and sits firmly on top of the nation’s conscience.
As we pulled up outside the university a fairly tall and, to be honest, quite strong looking woman was waiting. I was introduced to Yuumi who was a student of my boss at the university; Yuumi was tasked with showing me around town, taking me food shopping and giving me her phone. I didn’t want any of these things. I still wanted to go to bed. I felt very awkward taking her phone but she and Gumbo were very insistent and she apparently had another one, until I got a SIM card it did make sense. So, I wearily grabbed my bags and we set off, I hoped wherever we were going would be towards my flat. It wasn’t.
Yuumi is a fast walker. She also has the idea that I’m not very good at crossing roads and so whenever it’s our time to cross she pinches my arm and pulls me even if I go to leave the pavement the same time she does. I must have looked like a toddler who was sulking and being dragged around town by a tired, angry mother. In shops she would insist on pushing the trolley as though Westerners were too poorly equipped with our soft muscles and over polite attitudes to successfully navigate around a Mongolian supermarket . She would suggest things I’d never seen before holding them up for a millisecond “like?” then, before I could answer, throw the strange item into the trolly. I began to laugh at this and it seemed we both found this situation funny, although probably for completely different reasons. After a whistle-stop tour of the city at -20C, a new SIM card for my phone and some food for the house it was now dark as we step outside the supermarket. We walk over wasteland between big old soviet housing blocks for 5 minutes to get back to my flat. We hardly say a word, both our faces tucked into scarves to try and protect against the biting cold.
This is when I start to realise that I don’t quite know the Mongolian social etiquette of this situation. Yuumi comes into the flat and starts unpacking the shopping bags as though we’d lived together for years! I don’t know how to get around her city as well as she does but I’m pretty sure unpacking a shopping bag is a fairly universal skill, the bag’s the same as the ones back home and there is nothing special about the cupboards or fridge and freezer where the things will obviously be put. I just kind of go with it; just another day, me and Yuumi putting our shopping away. With her limited English and me unable to speak any Mongolian this whole thing unravels with hardly a word between us. Yuumi gets a pot of water on (?) and gets out some frozen things that look like little pies, asks me how many – I don’t know. Is that all we’re having or is this just part of the meal, is she eating with me? She’s still wearing her coat. I have no idea, she quickly suggests an amount and of course I just agree. She puts the little pie things on to steam. What is happening? Is she staying for dinner? Is she staying the night? Am I supposed to marry her after this? I should offer her a cup of tea! I wasn’t sure quite how to behave and this is what English people do when they are slightly uncomfortable in their homes “erm..would you like a cup of tea?” She shakes her head and points at the stove and indicates, and sort of says, 30 minutes. I gesture to her again to see if she wants a drink, again she shakes her head. “No” she says, “I go now”. And with that the whirlwind that was Yuumi who had shown me around, got me a working phone, taken me shopping and put my dinner on just left as abruptly as seemed fitting for her personality. I turned the stove off and went to bed.
Not everyone gets the chance to work far away from their native country in a place most people only know as some kind of legend, “…is it even a real place?” one of my friends asked, “I thought it was like Camelot or Lilliput or something”. I assured them it was a real place as I’d been to the embassy to begin the long drawn out process of getting a visa. Despite knowing it wasn’t just a myth I actually knew very little about Mongolia and until I arrived I, for the most part, wanted to keep it that way. I find no, or very vague, expectations work when travelling to somewhere I really don’t know much about. It turns out if I’d have had expectations of the normal excited kind you might imagine in this situation I would have been horrifically disappointed. The smog in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar is chocking – it ranks as the second most polluted city in the world, the open rubbish tips dotted throughout the city, which has no formal rubbish collection system that one can see, can be seen in the open wasteland gaps between buildings and down dingy side streets. But there is something odd about the place which appears contrary to this image. As a result of the arrival of some of the worlds largest mining corporations pockets of huge amounts of wealth are being injected into the city in poorly distributed spikes. You may be looking at a huge TV screen billboard with the backdrop of a very modern building owned by one of the developing mining projects while underneath this superficial vision of development is a huge pile of rubbish with three guys going through it looking for plastic bottles to take to a recycling depot. Again, there is no public service for this, the homeless are responsible for the only collection of any recyclable materials in UB. As you watch this scene you are stood not on pavement but on rubble. You will not be in front of the newly restored shiny government building as that happens to be one of the only places in the city with good paving, I mean really good. Shiny granite flagstones and UB’s only smooth road. The government building and square are symbols of that geographically uneven spike. Nope, you will likely be stood in one of the many areas of the city which is neither green space, for there is none, or developed; rather it is an area of degradation which has been left over from the soviet era which ended in 1991. It may have been a carpark or a building, the collection of rubble and concrete under your feet is clearly man made but doesn’t constitute anything any more apart from the first layer of earth. It fucks your shoes up considerably.
So you see, had I expected a land of rolling hills and open steppe spattered with herds of galloping wild horses I would have been way off the mark. Because I’d kept any real expectations firmly from my mind rather than being horrified at this, quite honestly, shithole of a city I actually wasn’t that bothered by any of it. In fact I spent the first few weeks braving the -20 degrees to take pictures of some of the nice buildings around Sukhbaatar Square where the government building is.
So I waddled about the place in 35 layers of Norwegian army issue thermals, didn’t feel particularly cold and started to like the place quite quickly. I took a map and just walked along the main streets and memorized the short distance to the State University building where my new office was. My flat was perfectly decent, a little large for one and quite barren, but very central and in an old pre soviet Russian two story block. The entrance had a large steel door with a number of dents so that it wouldn’t shut properly, it looked like a crack den and there was a pack of feral, and quite territorial, dogs to confidently walk past but aside from this the building was quite nice.