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.