The City Within the City

Ulaan Baatar (Mongolia), 07.10.2013

To discover the capital of Mongolia, where over a third of the total population live, I had a day. Instead of rushing through Ulaan Baatar into the eastern plains without knowing how the weather would play out, I had decided to stay, and wanted to use the day for two things: drive a tank and discover the city.

DSC_0001In the morning I got into the car to find an army camp that according to the LP guide and some Internet resources offered tank driving, RPG and machine gun shooting. While the LP guide said it was 50km to the west, the other sources described it as 30-40 minutes to the East. I couldn’t find any exact description of the road or an address, so I just drove east towards Gachuurt and tried to find it. Obviously there were no road signs, or at least none that I could a) read and b) identify as such. At some point the road ended nowhere and I drove over a field full of waste, with some dilapidated industrial buildings at a distance. To my big surprise, there were people living in yurts and working here! The place seemed surreal, as if a war or catastrophe had struck a long time ago. Turning around, I tried several other roads, with no luck. I stopped at a big hotel complex to ask for directions only to find the place closed and nobody there. Strange strange… So no tank driving after all, what a pity! I later read on other web pages that it had apparently closed down.

DSC_0003Anyway, back in town, I found my way through the crazy traffic that apparently clogs all roads at any time of the day to the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan, the last Mongol emperor before communist rule. Surprisingly the whole compound was mainly built in wood, even the outer walls. It was in pretty bad shape, but being restored. The main building was different then the rest of the area, built in European/Russian tsarist style with buddhist decorations, while the other buildings were clearly Asian. The latter had amazing decorations in the form of carvings and paintings both inside and outside, depicting scenes of warriors and kings.

DSC_0011 DSC_0012 DSC_0015 DSC_0029Next stop was a temple complex, the Gandan Khiid, one of the few that was not destroyed in the 1930’ies by the Communists. I had to walk around half the complex to find an entrance, on the inside were several buildings in not too good shape. The main building was the Migjid Janraisig Süm, a white building housing an enormous golden statue in the center and hundreds of smaller ones on the walls. There were also many prayer rolls, and people walked clockwise around the statue turning the rolls. For a moment the scene reminded me of the Muslims in Turkmenistan that walked around a mausoleum touching the walls, although there they walked counter-clockwise.

DSC_0044 DSC_0048As I drove between these places and later back to the hotel, I noted there were many older monasteries, yurts, wooden houses in the middle of a city that at first sight seemed a Soviet town that is exploding over a decade or two and now gets a modern makeover, paid by the new money of a mineral resources boom. Yesterday I wrote that high rises pop up everywhere and how modernity is taking over. Well, in between this modernity and the grey Socialist legacy there are pieces of an even more ancient city, that seems to resist the steamrolling of modernity once more. From my hotel I took a walk, and right behind the 20 story Blue Sky Tower discovered a complex of wooden temples, that unfortunately was closed. Also, there were yurts all around town, between stone houses and glass towers. Some traditions just don’t want to go away here.

DSC_0055 DSC_0056

Trip data

– Km driven: 149

– Hrs on the road: 11h

– Diesel l/100km: 8,9

– Daily high: 13 degrees Celsius

– Daily low: 4 degrees Celsius

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