Ulaan Baatar – ‘Red Hero’
After two flights from Hanoi via Seoul we finally landed in Ulaan Baatar where we would meet up with friends to continue our journey to the remote far west of Mongolia (next post).
Ulaan Baatar is the capital of Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country in the world. Almost half of Mongolia’s population live here. Located 1310 meters above sea level, it is the coldest capital city in the world. We drove from the airport along a heavily pot holed, partially paved road with some crazy over taking, almost hitting a few wandering cows and goats as we went. First impressions to the west of the city were not particularly attractive, with coal fired power stations belching out smoke and partially completed buildings everywhere. After crossing the Tuul river, rows of incredibly thick walled four story European style buildings from the beginning of the century crumble away followed by more Soviet style block buildings along wide boulevards where electric buses still run. There is a distinct lack of large trees, presumably because of the climate, and this along with hidden cafes and shops gives a rather austere look to the city.
The city began nearly 350 years ago as a moveable Buddhist monastery which shifted over the years along the river. In 1778, it settled in its present location and became the country’s capital – a centre of spiritual learning and destination for pilgrimages similar to Tibet’s Lhasa. With the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 Mongolia finally became independent, albeit briefly, and the Bogd Khan (a spiritual leader similar to the Dalai Lama) became Mongolia’s theocratic ruler. Over the next ten years there was instability as the Mongolian nobility, Chinese warlords, White Russians, and Red Russians fought to control Mongolia. In 1924 the city was renamed Ulaan Baatar or ‘Red Hero’ in honor of the communist triumph. Mongolia had finally become independent from China but was now effectively a satellite state of the Soviet Union. During the 1930s, Khorloogiin Choibalsan, known as the ‘Stalin of Mongolia’ carried out disastrous collectivization projects and huge purges effectively decimating Buddhism and with it a large part of the traditional cultural landscape in Mongolia. Up to 30, 000 people (primarily monks) were murdered or sent to labour camps and around 700 monasteries were destroyed. In 1990 Mongolia held its first free elections and while we were in Mongolia, the fourth president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj was re-elected for a second term.
Around the city there are pubs everywhere and the Mongolians, both men and women, seemed to enjoy drinking pints of cool Grand Khaan and Ghinggis Beer, named like many things in Mongolia after the most famous Mongolian who built one of the largest empires in history and is seen as the founding father of Mongolia.
After our flight to Ulgii in the west was delayed for over 24 hours, we had a bit more time than expected to explore Ulaan Baatar, but we were soon ready to move on to a less urban environment. Photos of the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park to follow in my next post.