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“Red Hero”

July 22, 2010

That’s the literal translation of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. We had a short day trip to the city for the sake of momentarily escaping the small town life. We took in a movie, ate at an “English Style Pub,” and tried desperately to find a cheeseburger but to no avail.

UB is the coldest capital on the planet, and we’ve heard plenty about traffic, dramatic population growth, urban chaos, and violent crime. With all of these extremes and superlatives heaped on a place, it’s hard not to come into town with a load of expectations. It seems odd that I’d be nervous to walk around a city of about 1.2 million after having lived in one of well over 8, but it was easy to be anonymous in New York whereas even among the western styles and other westerners walking around UB, we are still uncomfortably noticeable.

A short history lesson on UB:

It was not always the capital, and in a sense its current status is sort of artificially imposed. Genghis Khan’s historical, imperial capital was the city of Kharkoroum. That distinction was then given to a tiny village of 6,000 in 1959 that was renamed in the Soviet style, “Red Hero”–Ulaanbaatar. The city has since grown rapidly into a sprawling mass of ger districts (with a European-style city center) as thousands of people flock to the city in search of jobs. This last winter has only exacerbated the situation. As countryside herders lost huge percentages of their herd in the severe and long-lasting cold, many have tried cutting their losses by selling what is left of their cattle and settling in UB.

Land rights are a curious and sort of old-fashioned thing here; much the way the American West once worked. You can set up your fence around your yard according to certain government parameters and the land enclosed becomes yours. People moving to UB keep doing exactly that and the city has emerged into the maze of fences that its outer districts have become. The city changes practically by the day as thousands of people set up their gers in the capital in search of better jobs and a taste of life in the big city. The outskirts could really benefit from a little urban planning though–there’s probably a Mongolian Robert Moses out there somewhere, but who knows if that’s even a good thing. Some entrepeneurs have already started offering modest payouts for vast swaths of city real estate. They then bulldoze the yards and fences and build something more profitable on the land.

Because of all this, Ulaanbaatar is sort of a microcosm for the rapid wave of change that is rolling over this entire country–the old and the new smashed together in but intriguing ways. It’s an extremely dynamic place, and despite my worries and expectations, I found it much to my liking. With outdoor cafes and bars, the state department store (pretty much like any mid-range department store you’d find in the US), movie theaters, and upscale restaurants, it really feels like you could be anywhere in the world. I’m not sure I’d like to be based there for a work site, but for a visit, there’s something wonderfully familiar about all of it.

All my best,

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