Mongolia Week 1: Containment

The first thing I noticed upon touchdown in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia was a sense of self-containment. Not in a restrictive sense, but the city being surrounded on all sides by a snow-dappled mountain range makes UB (as it is affectionately called by some of its residents) feel like a bubble, a microcosm of the world at large. Similarly, my walks through the city (both voluntary and extemporaneous due to difficult interactions with Ulaanbaatar’s taxi service) revealed to me regions and districts that lace together into a self-sustaining yet multifaceted whole.

During my first few days in Mongolia, I was placed in a hostel several kilometers away from both my place of work and my partner on the internship. While this was undoubtedly a bit inconvenient (I had to negotiate myself a means of transportation and commute with only rudimentary Mongolian), it also afforded me the opportunity to take in regions of the city I otherwise would not have easily been able to see. For this early period, I was stationed near the southeast border of Ulaanbaatar, with a clear view straight across a rolling field and to the aforementioned mountains. This all was about three-and-a-half kilometers from the apartment complex and workplace, the Sant Maral Foundation, that I would eventually be transferred to. The building which housed both of these things stands on a backroad not but half a kilometer from Sukhbaatar Square, often acknowledged as the center of the city itself, and home to the Government Palace (which in turn houses most of the Mongolian legal and political organs, including its parliament) and other important buildings and monuments.

In my few travels up to meet with my partner and exchange preliminary greetings with the Sant Maral Foundation, I elucidated a clear delineation between to north and south sides of Ulaanbaatar that acted as a catalyst from my writings today. The area in which I was staying was comprised mostly of older housing projects with  a distinctly Soviet feel, something which was confirmed to me as I learned that the vast majority of structures in the southern portions of the city were built prior to the 1990s, and were often bankrolled by Russian investments. This is perhaps most saliently reflected in the “National Park” that stands about two kilometers south of Sukhbaatar square, whose attractions are surrounded by a whitewashed iron fence and block-like buildings reminiscent of the Brutalist architecture so prominent in the USSR.

Even so, the often-dour exteriors of the south side hid a vibrant nightlife and variety of different institutions that one would struggled to find outside of Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar. Even in the vestiges of mid-1900s communist architecture, deep pushes into the modern have been made. Where once stood internet cafes now are “gaming centers,” whose colorful signs are adorned with images from popular games such as Overwatch, Fortnite, and League of Legends, for instance.

To return to my earlier claim as to the microcosmic nature of the city, I think that one can view this perspective as one that is not only temporally suspended, but also one that is historically propulsive. The city has grown along with the rest of the world, and in its clashing of old and new buildings, this progression is perhaps more self-evident here than anywhere else.