Today (11th July) sees the start of the Mongolian festival of Naadam, and seven years ago, on the evening before Naadam, I was in “Bud”, a bar on Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar. The square was named after Damdin Sukhbaatar, a national hero who was born in Ulaanbaatar and eventually helped liberate Mongolia from Chinese rule in 1921. Sukhbaatar’s statue is located on the spot where his horse is said to have urinated (a good omen) during a 1921 rally. The square has since been renamed in the memory of an even greater hero, Chinggis Khaan.
Being a bit bored one evening, I took a walk around town to find a place to have a drink and a meal. “Bud”, sponsored by Budweiser, looked harmless enough and from there I could look out over the square to see events unfolding.
There was some sort of cavalry troop lined up, dressed up in what I truly hope is purely ceremonial gear, blue and red tunics and pointy golden helmets. Later I saw them trot off on little ponies, which looked, quite frankly, uncomfortable. They were accompanied by some chaps on foot in more modern, grey uniform tunics, sporting those soviet-style huge peaked caps. Behind them, people in more work-like gear were shovelling up and hosing off the steaming evidence of ponies standing around. This was apparently all in connection with the next day’s national holiday, and the inauguration of the new president (who incidentally was also the old president) on the same spot earlier that day.
I was drinking the only beer available in this bar, which unfortunately was… Budweiser. Predictable, but unfortunate. When I think about the single draft beer I had there, a phrase by Douglas Adams comes to mind: “Mostly harmless”. If you don’t get the connection, then you really need to read more. You don’t need to test the Budweiser to find out what I mean, that experience is likely to be less memorable than reading the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books. I had to wait a long time for my ordered cheeseburger, even had to remind the waitress. It was also “mostly harmless”. Fortunately, there are numerous more inspiring places to eat and drink in Ulaanbaatar.
It may surprise you that in Ulaanbaatar, it’s possible to enjoy meals from many different countries. There are, among others, two Irish Pubs, a French restaurant, a Mexican-Indian restaurant (yes, really!), a German/Austrian coffee shop, as well as numerous establishments with more local cuisine.
I was in Mongolia to consult for the Ministry of Mines under a World Bank contract, but if you really want to know more about that, you will have to visit my professional website. Here I will just say that it was an extremely enjoyable experience, shared with very professional colleagues and new friends. I travelled to Mongolia a number of times during 2013 (and managed another short stint, on another project, early in 2019).
Mongolia is an interesting country, but I must note that it’s easier to enjoy during summer than winter…! Midwinter daytime temperatures in Ulaanbaatar apparently rise to a high of -30 degrees Celsius. Not the preferred temperature for a boykie from Jo’burg. But since most of my work was done in summer, inside extremely well-insulated buildings, I remember working in a very (too) warm office in the Ministry of Mines, with sunlight streaming in through large windows.
We took the opportunity to visit the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, which provides a mixture of nature and cultural experiences, and a Buddhist monastery. The park was a comfortable drive from Ulaanbaatar and it’s certainly worth visiting, even for only a day.
The day out of town also gave us an opportunity to meet up with a colleague, who offered us a traditional meal of mutton pies and “Buuz” (steamed mutton dumplings) in their ger (also known as a yurt).
I understand that by far the majority of Mongolian people still live in these structures, including the majority of people in sprawling Ulaanbaatar, where the population grows exponentially and many live on the outskirts of town in a large “ger city”.
Outside of Ulaanbaatar, we met up with Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan), or at least to an enormous, stainless steel version of the great man. It’s possible to enter this huge, 40m high structure and to climb up to the head of his horse, for a great view of the surrounding countryside (and of Chinggis’ stern face). The building itself also features a museum, and was to be surrounded by some 200 ger. In the West, we know Genghis as a savage, dictatorial conqueror, but in Mongolia he is revered as a national hero, having united the Mongolian tribes. Seen as the “father of Mongolia”, his name is everywhere (including on my favourite beer). It’s known that he hated cities (attacked and destroyed quite a few, in his time) so I don’t know what he would make of cosmopolitan Ulaanbaatar and his statue there, seated above the steps leading up to parliament. He might be happier with this statue looking East towards his birthplace, overlooking the countryside on the banks of the Tuul River.
One day, while quietly minding my own business, a gentleman walked up to me and angrily told me that I should not be standing where I was standing. I was a bit stunned and couldn’t understand what he was getting at. Was he angry for me, clearly a foreigner, to be standing here in Mongolia? But no, his objection was more precise: I was standing on a patch of soil, and not on the pavement stones. “Is for grass!”, he sternly told me. I don’t think my standing there in any way hampered the struggle of grass to survive in that spot, I understand that grass struggles to survive from year to year, due to the extreme climate (not to mention the air pollution). But I was the visitor in this chap’s country, so I obliged, with apologies.