Mongolia: No Tourist Hordes

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By Joshua Kurlantzick
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 26, 2003

Rap music blared out of speakers on the makeshift stage in the open square. The music bounced off buildings and slammed through the bodies of gyrating concertgoers. Near the stage, tall women in Catwoman bodysuits screamed into each other's ears. Young men with slick goatees slithered through the crowd. Could be any concert. Could be any town.

Without warning, an argument broke out near the stage. Before it could escalate, four youths dressed in a style appropriate for the Crusades -- felt hats, armored thigh-high riding boots and long cloaks -- appeared on horseback. They rode through the crowd, grabbed one of the combatants and trotted off -- an impressive example of dispute resolution, Mongolia style. The crowd ignored the horses as they passed. And why not? Two hundred feet from the stage, hundreds of horses were tied to any available pole, post or tree. In Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital, carpooling means three on a mare.

Throughout Mongolia, post-Soviet modernization is drastically changing one of the world's oldest and most isolated nomadic societies. (Thousands of miles from any ocean, Mongolia's 2.6 million people effectively are walled off, surrounded by the Altai Mountains, the Siberian tundra and the vast Gobi Desert.) At night, children of nomadic herders dress up in knockoffs of the latest Western fashions and dance to Latin-pop in hyperkinetic discos. During the country's short summers, teenagers ride horses for miles into cities to watch rap concerts.

And as Mongolia updates, tourists are arriving in this remote outpost, which is slowly developing an adventure travel industry. Lured by raves about the country's scenery from a friend, several friends and I took a two-week summer excursion to the homeland of Genghis Khan.

UB's Charms

As we arrived in Ulan Bator, this scenic beauty was not immediately apparent. Squat, decaying structures dominate the city's low-rise skyline.

Yet once we spent a week in Ulan Bator, known as "UB," we began to appreciate its charms. Within the city, enterprising young Mongolians, excited by the warm weather -- winter temperatures can drop to 80 below -- had set up impromptu street cafes.

When not snacking, we toured the capital's monasteries and museums. During late afternoon, many Mongolians visit Gandantegchinlen monastery, traditionally the city's religious hub. Shuttered for 50 years, it reopened after the fall of the Communists in 1990, and again is a busy center of Tibetan Buddhism, Mongolia's primary faith. Inside, monks pray in front of Tibetan prayer wheels. Outside, wizened shamans read the palms of hip young Mongolians wearing fake Armani shirts.

Mongolians arriving in UB for the first time -- during Soviet times most nomads avoided the city -- often proceed from Gandantegchinlen to the Winter Palace. Built between 1893 and 1903, the Winter Palace was the home of Jebtzun VIII, Mongolia's last Bogd Khan, or Holy King. The official line is that Jebtzun VIII was a hero who staved off foreign influences as long as possible, until the Soviet revolution engulfed Mongolia in the early 1920s. According to rumor, Jebtzun was also an alcoholic womanizer who died of syphilis.

Today, the Winter Palace is a museum of decadent court life, a lifestyle that pushed some Mongolians to join the Communist movement and helped pave the way for Soviet influence over the country.

As dinnertime approached, we tested UB's reputation for horrendous food, and found it overstated. Five years ago, Ulan Bator offered the gourmand little other than an occasional Russian salad and dishes packed with mutton, the national staple. Now the city boasts French, Indian and even African restaurants.

My friends and I frequently took afternoon coffee at Millie's Cafe, the favorite haunt of UB's aid workers. (Mongolia receives the highest amount of aid per capita of any country in the world.) When Mongolia opened up, there was money to be made dishing up foreign food to expats who could not stomach the traditional diet of mutton, mutton fat and mutton marrow. Millie's got in on the ground floor, and today loyal customers crowd in for the Mexican specialties and turbocharged espresso.

Wide awake, we power-walked to the Khaan Brau, a Mongolian-German microbrewery named after the country's most famous dead warlord. It's the hottest pub in town.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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