Imagine two worlds.
One of nomadic herdsmen, living in sheep felt gers (yurts), fetching water from wells, going from place to place via horseback. Another of smartphones, slick cars, six inch high heels, and glass skyscrapers. Smash these two places together and you get Mongolia’s eclectic capital, Ulaanbaatar.
With its delightfully Soviet translation “Red Hero” Ulaanbaatar has been experiencing a boom in recent years. Mongolia’s natural resources and precious minerals have been targeted by the developing nations of the world propelling this small corner of central Asia into economic progression.
The city, which serves as the only nexus for getting around the rest of the country has been funneling this newfound cash flow into expansion. Ulaanbaatar has exploded outwards and upwards. Crystalline hotels dot the skyline, chic restaurants line the streets, and neon nightclubs illuminate sidewalks.
Ulaanbaatar’s recent prosperity coupled with economic hardship outside of the capital has sent the majority of the country’s populous migrating to the city. Generations of nomadic herdsmen flock to the capital hoping to cash in on the city’s wealth. The result is thousands of ger districts that ring the city’s center. Families living off the grid of the city’s heating and plumbing live as they have for centuries. Setting up their felt and wooden dwellings within a network of hodgepodge wood fencing they burn fires for warmth, wash clothes by hand, and tend livestock.
Do your lungs a favor and steer clear of Ulaanbaatar during the country’s bitterly cold winter months. The burning of coal by these thousands of outlying gers for warmth envelopes the city in perpetual smog for over four months a year. Be prepared to cough up black soot and bumble about through the haze searching for your hand in front of your face.
In Sukhbaatar Square, the city’s epicenter and government seat you can watch as suit wearing politicians meander about with briefcases in hand and smartphones to their ears. Watch as they skirt past men sitting by the sidewalk dressed in deels, the Mongolian traditional robed garb, sipping milk tea from bowls and polishing their riding boots. Just across the street you can see women in skirts and heels, lining up to get into a nightclub, gradually queuing around a women selling meat from the back of her car.
To the western traveler it can be totally justified standing in the middle of this hustle and bustle, scratching your head in wonder of a city that seems unsure of exactly what it wants to be. For all its grit and glamour Ulaanbaatar continues to define itself as a modern capital, blending the old and the new into a cultural mish-mash worthy of any travelers eye for a far flung destination.