Notes On Mongolia

This phrase: "хзр их?" is ‘how much?’ in Mongolian. For an English speaker it's right up there in the 'incredibly difficult to pronounce' category. With only five letters! How hard could it be?

We'll that (х) sound is down in your throat and sounds like the ch in loch when the Scottish are saying it. So you start with that Scottish sound and then follow it up with some Spanish. Take the é from él (з) and run it straight into a trilled 'r' sound (р). Just like carro but not like caro. The first is car, the second is expensive. If you can't roll your 'r', then the Spanish don’t allow you to talk about cars.

Anyway, back to Mongolian. So you've got the ch from loch, the é from él and the double r from carro. Now, the next word starts with a sound that is in English. It's the y (и) from yes but you have to slide it into the loch sound (х) again.

Never mind.

The Mongolian language is written using a slightly altered version of the Cyrillic alphabet. Most of the letters are capitals with lowercase being small caps. It reads like people are yelling at you all the time. Some times they do. The writing form serves them better than Old Mongolian which is a script of their own devising; Cyrillic was from the Russians. The challenge with Old Mongolian is in efficient use of space. Each new word is written down the page and each new sentence is written across. This means that bottom of the passage has a ragged edge. It wastes more space than other writing systems.

Old Mongolian

On Hustai National Park

I had no expectations going here and departed expecting everywhere else to be as tremendously beautiful. In the afternoons I would go for walks by myself. The wind was rough and cold, and I would squat on the leeward side of a mountain to escape it. From there it was cold and still and unassailably quiet. I loved being up here.

The Serenity

In the distance though was movement. A flock of a hundred sheep and goats move like specks through a valley. A nomad on horse tends them. Overhead, silent, a vulture looks for a lamb separated from it’s flock. On one occasion I watched a nomad rescue a young lamb from the clutches of a vulture.

After a while, I’d move to another mountain. There I would sit again. Very early Spring was a great time to visit. Snow still covered some mountains but not all, mothers were birthing calves and tourists numbers were low.

I was lucky when I visited the park as I got to see many animals, some out of season and some, exceptional visitors to the park. Endangered Przewalski horses, deer, snow cats, marmots (usually in May), wild goats (normally live 1,000km away), bactrian camels (these weren’t in the park) and yaks (unshaved).

Mike Przewalski!

On Elstai Ger Lodge

This place is tourist retreat and not a place I would normally go. There is nothing here. No locals and as it was the off season: no tourists. I was the only guest during my stay. When we left the staff came with us back to Ulaanbaatar. They had no reason to stay.

It was a half dozen ger in a valley painted white. The ger numbered a half dozen and were made also white. At night the moon lit landscape gave me the impression that this is how Antarctica would look.

Elstai Ger Lodge

On УлaaнЪaatar (Ulaanbaatar)

I was waiting at the station for my train. It’s was cold and snow swirled around me. I stood, huddling over myself, on the platform. My train was not far away. A train pulled up and I went to the first carriage and show the attendant my ticket. She said this wasn’t my train. So I went back to alternating between huddling and waiting.

This wasn’t the first train to arrive since I had been here and so I expected it not to be the last. It begun to get close to when the my train would leave and I wondered if my train was delayed. Announcements were coming over the tannoy in Mongolian but I knew not of what they said.

I asked another attendant and she feigned no knowledge of English. I walked back down to the information desk and showed her my ticket. She said this was my train and I said, the train people said this was not my train. She there are no other trains. I ran down the platform but it was too late. The train pulled out the station. Next the platform lights went out and the few remaining staff went home. I stood on the platform in the dark, alone and vocalised my feelings about the train attendant. I then turned, crossed the street and stayed in the first hotel I found.

So, I ended up being granted an extra day in УлaaнЪaatar. A city described by many to be drab. I took up the challenge to find out if it really was a drab as claimed.

УлaaнЪaatar, I concede, doesn't have much to do. It does have a ski slope only a few kilometres from town. There are not many capitals where you can knock off for a half day and spend the rest of it at the slopes. I skip the skiing and I go looking for statues and graffiti. If I can see either of them, then I head in that direction exploring as I go. This takes me behind buildings, through parks and down small lanes. The layout of the streets hints at something about the people. They're not pressed for space and so the streets are wide, the pavement wide and the gaps between buildings is ample. It's not China or Vietnam where land is a premium and buildings clamber over each other leaving people make their homes in the spaces between. Mongolia is the 19th biggest country and has a population under 3 million. In terms of population density only Pitcairn Islands, Falkland Islands, Svalbard and Jan Mayen and Greenland are less dense. It ranks 240 of 244. Almost half the population lives in УлaaнЪaatar.

Most of the buildings suffer from Soviet function-over-form. This leaves them boxy, plain with their only adornments being decorative patterns running under the roof line. One thing that isn’t drab is the colour. Buildings in Mongolia are painted different colours: reds, blues, greens and lots of yellow. The tones are muted but at least it is not grey. The blue is for the sky, the white: snow, greens represent the grass. Yellow has religious significance.

The building's functional design gives them a feature I’d never seen before. Each shop has two doors. The first door leads to a second door. With such cold temperatures, opening and closing a door to the outside world would be wasteful. So an air-lock is used. These first doors sometimes open directly onto stairs that ascend. Many shops are a foot or two above ground level. I presume this is for when heavy snow negates the need for steps.

In the end I decide that УлaaнЪaatar is a bit drab. There isn't much to do but there are plenty of places to go, be warm and chat. Countless cafés with WI-FI and big glass windows that overlook snowy streets and Mongolians deep in the hood of their jackets. The buildings are functional and that comes at an aesthetic cost. But the trimming, the colour and the smaller details make this city a fine place to spend a day.

Look Ma! I'm a Nomad

when: Wednesday, April 09, 2014