The flight to Ulaanbaatar (or Ulan Bator or UB) from New York is long and tiring and even business class only partly eases the burden. But, for this experience, it was well worth the effort.
Stepping out of the airport and into Mongolia for the first time, there were a number of prominent impressions. First, it’s cold. It’s November 13th and it’s already below zero. I could care less if it’s Celsius or Fahrenheit it’s cold! Oddly enough, by the end of the week I’m used to it. I also came to realize that people who can endure such weather extremes can also endure whatever life and history throws at them.
Second, the pollution is strong. No worse than major eastern European, South American or Asian cities but somehow different. There is an odor I can’t identify that I later learn is from coal. The city has a very large ger district where the residents use coal for heat. (A ger is a felt-lined tent covered in durable, waterproof, white canvas. While modern and expensive homes are being built in UB, many rural Mongolians have retained their traditional lifestyle, of which the ger is an integral part.) The situation is not helped by UB’s topography – it’s almost completely surrounded by low mountains that trap the air until a strong wind can blow it away. Kind of like Los Angeles.
The third impression that starts as soon as I land is about the people. While waiting for my luggage I look around and realize that I could be anywhere in the world. There are lots of westerners (British, Canadians, Americans, Germans) some coming home and many here on business. But what strikes me the most is the pleasant demeanor of the Mongolians. Despite the time and the anxiety of baggage claim (or is that just me?) all I see are smiling, happy people. To a large extent, the strongest and most favorable impression of the country is the people – warm, friendly, industrious and very smart. So much so that I begin to wonder how I can be effective as a marketing lecturer. But I’ll come back to that another time.
Finally, the city of Ulaanbaatar makes me think of Paris in the reverse. I love Paris but I’m not crazy about the people. In UB, I love the people but the infrastructure needs some work. The roads are always congested and I think of Sao Paolo where a red light is only a suggestion. But, UB is no worse, and certainly much safer.
The problem is clear – the infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing affluence and economic well being. Further, the weather wrecks havoc with the streets and roads and I’ll never complain about NYC potholes again.
The weather also inhibits construction. All around the city there are buildings going up but I didn’t see anyone working on them. It seems that due to the sub-zero weather, construction stops in the fall and resumes in the spring. I suppose it has something to do with the cement and concrete versus the weather.
Leaving that aside, UB is an interesting, bustling metropolis with shops, restaurants and culture reflective of Mongolia’s past and present. I didn’t have time for much shopping or sightseeing but I can attest to the fact that the food was very good. Let me put it to you this way — whether Mongolian, Japanese, German, Korean, or French — I didn’t meet a meal I didn’t like. But then again, it might just have been because of the people I ate with more than the food.
Next post – My hosts…