Me-go: Around-the-World

First Impressions of UB


Written by:

Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, is a city but it lacks the energy and commotion that most capitals have. The days are beautiful right now, the sun rises early and doesn’t set until around 10:30pm and the temperature hovers between about 70 and 85 depending on if you’re standing in the sun or not. Still, no one is out until after 10am and they stay out well after dark. Strangely, I found this to be true outside of the city as well, even with herders. I suppose Mongolia is simply a city of nighthawks.

The architecture is depressing, as you would imagine an abandoned Russian outpost would be. Buildings made of concrete are crumbling, piles of dirt and construction debris litter the city and manholes lay open in the sidewalks. The women here have adopted a Russian fashion sense and many are wearing their clothes a little too tight and makeup a little too heavy. My first day here was spent getting a quick feel for the city, the money and the sites. The ATM across form my hostel works wonderfully, although a 10,000T note (around $9) can be difficult to get change for in the countryside. The UB Guesthouse, where I am staying, is almost always full and in constant commotion. My first room was next to the TV area which was full until around 5am. I met more Peace Corp volunteers in the kitchen here than I have in my entire life. The US has around 200 volunteers here, mostly teaching English, which is an interesting political move. Mongolia separates China and Russia and has been ruled by both in the past so it could likely become a strategic outpost in the future.

On my second day in Mongolia I met two Australians who were wasting some time in UB after spending a few weeks working on a ranch. When I mentioned I needed to use the internet they hurried me across the main square, down a busy street, through an alleyway next to the sports center and into a wonderful internet shop with gorgeous new computers, headphones, microphones and webcams. I managed to call home for around two cents a minute using Skype and write a few emails for 400T an hour. Local calls are easy, people sit on every corner holding phones with wireless connections for people to use for 100T.

After my exciting internet time I was revved up for the only thing I wanted to see in Mongolia besides the countryside—The Costume Museum. It’s not very large, just one room upstairs from a restaurant, which is unlocked when someone arrives. I was ushered around the glass cases and explained to, in Mongolian, what every object was to me by a chubby, energetic woman. At the end of the walkthough I took out my sketchbook and showed her some drawings to explain what I wanted to do. Normally I draw in all museums and I intended to spend all afternoon in The Costume Museum but I felt I needed to explain this to her because she literally did not stand less than one foot away form me during the tour. The woman seemed fine with the drawing and sat down near the entrance. I looked at a few of the cooking objects and she seemed pretty upset that I would draw those.

Full costume Headdress Back of a headdress Costume from the East

Moving on I decided to start with a Queen’s robe. I wasn’t drawing for more than 3 minutes before the woman came over to see what I was doing. I’m used to people watching me draw and continued. She began speaking to me on Mongolian, rather forcefully, but I decided that it was just the language because Mongolian does sound pretty angry. I ignored her and continued drawing and she left me alone for a few more minutes. I was only down to the waist of the gown when she came back and spoke to me loudly, gesturing toward the door. I shook my head and continued to draw. When she kept gesturing I pulled out my museum ticked and showed her, trying to get across the idea that I had paid and was going to take my time. She was pretty angry, took my sketchbook away and began to finish my drawing! I only managed to stand still in shock with my mouth open for a few second before telling her no and taking my book back.

At this point I assumed it must be her lunchtime or something and decided that I would take photos instead to hurry up for her sake. Of course, photography is an extra 5000T, which I promised to pay. She followed me around as I took photos, trying to capture the costumes and details without a flash in low light. After the first row of costumes she gestured to the door again. I simply said “five thousand.” If I had to pay to take photos I was going to take all the photos I want. I realize that this may sound like I was being a snotty foreigner demanding special treatment but you have to realize that this was meant to be the highlight of Ulaan Baatar for me. In any case, I think it’s understandable for a visitor to be allowed to view the exhibits as long as it’s within opening hours and she isn’t disturbing anything. I hadn’t spent more than fifteen minutes in the museum before she tried to kick me out.

Right when I had gotten all of the photos I wanted and managed to annoy the woman just a little bit more a couple came in to view the exhibts. The woman showed them around and because there were other people in the museum she had no reason to kick me out. I got a few more minutes out of that and finally left after the couple finished. I assumed that after I paid the photography fee the woman would go out to eat or do whatever was so important that she had to kick me out of the museum. She sat right down in the gift shop next to a younger woman and began to talk. This woman had been insistent on me leaving the museum just because she didn’t want to have to sit upstairs without someone to gossip to!

I was left with a bad impression of the people of UB from the start and continue to see a mean streak in the people here that you don’t see in the countryside. My first restaurant meal was an awful plate of fried eggs and tomatoes in a sidewalk cafe. It was was awful itself before an armless man stood beside me saying “hello, hello.” I was ashamed at how easily I was able to slip back into ignoring beggars, which I learned in SE Asia during my last trip. That feeling didn’t last long when the man continued to come back to the restaurant after being given a loaf of bread and two bags of food scraps. When the waitress stepped inside for a minute he rain into the seating area and chugged a Korean man’s beer. There are so many homeless and unfortunate people in this world it’s impossible to help them yourself. Certainly giving them money isn’t a wise decision and there’s no way you can give something to everyone who needs it. This man put me off by his greediness as he continued to run off diners in restaurants down the street.

After a beer in an English pub and dinner in a Mongolian fast food restaurant with the Australians I went to bed hoping to have more answers about the tours I could take the next day.

4 responses to “First Impressions of UB”

  1. stu thompson Avatar
    stu thompson

    Am enjoying the detail descriptions of you interactions with people. Keep it up. 🙂

    (The Musuem tour woman emailed me to tell me what they were gossiping about.)

    Museum Tour Woman: you would not believe how slow and selfish that American woman was!
    Gift Shop Woman: You don’t say?

    MTW: I even tried to help her with the drawings but she got upset.
    GSW: How shocking! To think?

    MTW: And she just wanted to draw pots!
    GSW: That?s crazy! Maybe she just needs a husband?

    MTW: You are problaby right? Baras is single, right?
    GSW: I think so

  2. Meiya Avatar

    Hee! Funny imaginary museum/gift shop lady exchange in the comments above. I guess she figured that people wanted to take a 5 minute look around and then go? How strange.

    I’m enjoying reading about all your adventures.

  3. Megan Avatar

    I think that museum isn’t very popular and people just peek in. I’m tempted to have the guesthouse owner write her a note telling her that I will pay the entrance again but I will be styaing to draw for a few hours. She was pretty large so I think she could take me an a bout of Mongolian wrestling so I had better be careful! I’ve seen the wrestlers in action and it’s really about size, not muscle.

  4. Nicktay Avatar

    Yeah, UB is a lovely place!