Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

June 24, 2006.
A View of Ulaan Baatar

Sometimes I’m amazed by the loveliness of places. How did I come to be so lucky, that I am here and can enjoy this?

Today it’s the sweeping view of Ulaan Baatar. Which is a particularly unlovely city, but in the evening, by the slowly lengthening light of a very long dusk, comfortably seated on the balcony of my twelfth floor hotel room, it’s enchanting. Just below me the wide lot of the hotel stretches. An immaculate yellow tour bus, gleaming in the sun, waits to pick

up its passengers. Across the pavement the sun casts a shadow of the hotel restaurant’s neon sign, the backwards Cyrillic letters looking exotic on the ground. The word for “restaurant” is almost the same in Mongolian as in English, but the Cyrillic letters look like “pectopah” in our alphabet, so that’s how I think of places to eat. As in, “shall we go to a pectopah for lunch today?”

A major avenue runs past the hotel. A few block beyond us it crosses a bridge, which passes over another road, the railroad tracks, a wide grassy stretch, and a stream. Four square towers anchor the ends of the bridge; from a distance they seem monumental, though from close up they, like much of UB, are just graffiti-spattered crumbling concrete.

The railroad tracks run east to west, and from time to time a long freight train rumbles along them. Some trains have open box cars, carrying load after load of coal to the power plant spewing fumes on the west side of town. I counted sixty two cars in a train yesterday, some heaped with coal, others closed boxes, still others round tank cars, perhaps bringing petroleum from Russia. At night, when the vehicle traffic is quieter, I hear the trains through the open balcony door. It’s a steady, comfortable sound.

Beyond the bridge and the railroad is a row of new apartment buildings, six or seven stories with red roofs and white or tan or brick facades. They almost form a wall on the southern side of the city, standing against the backdrop of the intensely green mountains. Beyond them is a real river, which the road crosses on a less imposing bridge. I can’t see it from my balcony, but I know it is there, I walked across it last week. If you frame it just right, you can snap a photo of the river and the distant mountains to the east that makes it all look rural, as if the grayness of Ulaan Baatar weren’t here. But the view to the west is more honest; the brilliant blue of the river and the sky, graced by tall smokestacks spewing thick fumes day and night.

Crossing the landscape is a web of heavy concrete pipes, steaming water dripping from cracks at the joints. Ulaan Baatar has district heat and hot water, brought from the power plants through those pipes to faucets and radiators all over the city. On the downtown side of the river the pipes run underground, through tunnels that in winter provide warm shelter to the city’s substantial

homeless population. This isn’t Malawi or Cairo, where the homeless can carve out niches in alleys or on sidewalks. Here they literally go underground in winter, lest they freeze to death in the minus forty temperatures.

Beyond the river, monuments rise above the city. A towering golden Buddha stands on a small mound, the center of Buddha Park. In the day he blends in, but at night spotlights play on his glowing form. To the east of Buddha Park a small hill is

topped with a modern monument, a huge form of a pointing man and a round white building. Stalin, perhaps, or perhaps a post-Soviet anti-Stalinist monument? I’d like to walk up there, to see the view of the city, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

Further south a row of mountains rims the valley, smooth green with deep shadows in their ripples and folds. From one façade the face of Chinggis Khan placidly gazes over the city, etched in white on the hillside. I’d figured he’d been there forever, but in fact he was completed just a week before I arrived, as part of the 800th anniversary festivities. The 800th anniversary of his uniting of Mongolia, that is. Some people think his face up there wasn’t worth the price, over $200 thousand, but I think he looks quite nice, calmly surveying what his empire has become, a dirty industrial city that he could never have imagined.

Chinggis faces me only three or four miles away, but off to the east the valley stretches for at least ten or twelve. I’m lucky, I know, to have this huge open space in front of me. If I want life, business, and company, I can watch the high-heeled Mongolian ladies prancing into the hotel or the brilliant blue city buses rolling down the avenue. In the park across the way I can spot rowboats splashing in a small lake, and watch a ferris wheel slowly spin in the sun. But if I want peace, I can stare into Chinggis’s eyes and gaze down the valley to the most distant mountains, to the thunderclouds massing miles away.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all text and photos on this site © Joy E. Hecht.