Big City Mongolia

Ulaan Baatar has over a million residents, almost half of Mongolia's population (the next biggest city has 86,000 residents). It's city centre is a busy, traffic-filled modern district. But it is estimated that more than half the city's population, a quarter of the country's citizens, live in the ger districts in the city's outskirts. These districts have no access to electricity, running water or sanitation services. A vast majority of the ger districts' residents have settled in the capital in the last two decades, abandoning their nomadic lives. The result is an odd, and often sad, juxtaposition of tradition and rapid modernization.
Below is a Google satellite image of a tiny section of Ulaan Baatar, each small white dot is a ger.

Most tourists spend time in the rich downtown area where the restaurants, hotels and embassies are concentrated. We were no exception, never really venturing very far from the city centre. We spent only two nights in the city before moving onwards. We knew we would be returning at the end of our trip, so we spent the two days mainly trying to figure out how to move forward through the country. We did however catch some of the city's top tourist attractions, spending most of our time at the massive Sukhbaatar Square. Surrounded by many of the city's most notable buildings, the square's most prominent construction is the modern Government Palace, stretching across the entire north side of the square. It is guarded by statues of Genghis Khan in the centre, his son Ogedei and his grandson Kublai on either side. These three, but mostly Genghis, are an enormous source of pride for Mongols and we heard of their victory over the Chinese on many occasions (we made no attempt to discuss 20th century Sino-Mongol relations). Genghis appears to adorn much of what is produced in Mongolia.
But our favourite Ulaan Baatar building was the huge glass "sailboat building", apparently commissioned and owned by Mongolian's former president, condemned shortly after its completion due to its lack of structural integrity, never used. It hangs over the capital's Soviet style public buildings and museums as a reminder of the country's new found capitalism and its unregulated rush towards progress. After consulting with the many fellow travelers at our hostel we realised that we were among the very few attempting independent travel. Roughly 6% of Mongolia's roads are paved, actually the vast majority of the Mongolian road network is comprised of cross-country jeep tracks. Hiring a jeep is a popular touring option. Our hostel's message board was covered in proposed itineraries and travel companion searches. After our disastrous border crossing you'd think we might have lost confidence in our ability to travel without a plan, but we didn't even question our usual practice of travelling by public transportation (until a few days into the trip any ways).

Even the cheapest tour operators were charging more than we had budgeted, so we took a train to the next big city on the Trans-Mongolian rail line, Darkhan. It took us 8 hours by slow local train to get there. We arrived in the late afternoon to this strange city, where we mostly saw row after row of huge concrete apartment buildings. In one of these buildings was apparently a backpackers' guest house and we went from building to building attempting to find it. As it got later, we became frustrated and a little bit nervous about our inability to locate our accommodation.  Locals didn't seem to have any clue as to what we were looking for so we gave up and headed to the Darkhan Hotel. Described by our guide book as "a Soviet-era monster with scruffy old standard rooms", they might have added overpriced and sketchy. I found a note in my journal that I wrote about Darkhan, it said "sorry Darkhan ... you are very ugly. We came here hoping to meet other tourists to share onward transportation which didn't happen." From Darkhan, we had planned to meet up with other travelers and share transport to an isolated monastery off the main highway. After only a few minutes in the city we knew we would be on our own.

The next morning we woke up early to find a single car waiting at the taxi stand. After lengthy negotiations we settled on what we thought was a decent price for the 120km trip to the monastery. Our friendly driver was surprised when he realised that we intended to stay at the monastery and that he wasn't driving us back to Darkhan. The monastery is 30km away from the main road, not on the way to anywhere and he clearly questioned our ability to get ourselves back. A local family quickly lured us to their tourist ger and we sent our driver off, knowing that in the worst case scenario we'd have a 30km hike the next day.

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