Ulaanbaatar Then and Now – Part 1

Scott in 2000 Notes: Well life in UlaanBataar (UB) Outer Mongolia is certainly different to what I am used to in Australia or for that matter what I have experienced through all of my travels. It is definitely 3rd world in just about every respect. The closest I have come to experiencing a similar lifestyle & living environment would have been when I was in Saudi Arabia & Kuwait in the Middle East – however at least in the Middle East there were 5 star hotels etc.  One thing though, at least in UB one can openly buy & enjoy a beer or two whereas in the Middle East you couldn’t.

Thomo Notes: Scott arrived in Ulaanbaatar in the Summer and it was a warm summer. In the past five years though there has been a lot of development in Ulaanbaatar, new buildings, new roads, other infrastructure improvement so that whilst Mongolia is still a developing country, it is a developing country moving forward – perhaps not fast enough for some but in the right direction at least. And yes Scott, beer is still freely available here.

The Circus in Ulaanbaatar - click for closer look
The Circus from my Apartment in Ulaanbaatar

As for five-star hotels, Shangri-la Hotels are building a hotel in Ulaanbaatar in partnership with MCS, a local firm.

Scott in 2000 Notes: The buildings in UB reminds me very much of the country cities in Russia during the mid seventies. The only difference being that they are even more run down. It would appear that very little has been spent on infrastructure maintenance since the Russians left 10 years ago as the country itself is broke. This is also reflected in the state of the roads, the vehicles used and the energy supply. For example the roads are in a terrible state, so much so that vehicles cannot travel faster than 30 km/h due to the large cracks & pot holes. Mind you, in 99% of cases it would be very dangerous driving any of the vehicles here faster than 30kmh due to their age & condition. In Australia most would have been banned from the roads years ago as death bombs. The energy supply here is apparently improving but is still subject to frequent breakdowns. Most buildings are only 3 floors high at most & very few of them have lifts. None of the residential apartments have lifts and the stairwells do not have lights. Given that the stairs themselves are uneven and in some cases broken, one has to be careful when coming home & climbing stairs in the dark.

Thomo Notes: Yep, many of the roads are still as bad as described, whilst others are a lot better, the South Road next to the railway line for example is in pretty good condition. Road crews get around more frequently now and fix many of the problems. There is a fair mix as well of old vehicles, vehicles that are sort of falling apart and new vehicles. I must admit that Ulaanbaatar is one city where I would suggest a 4WD vehicle is necessary in town.Mind you, I have seen cars driving around with one nut missing from each wheel, as well as seeing a number of cars and trucks that have lost their wheel. And there are a lot of breakdowns. Also it is rare to see a car with a full fuel tank. Most are driven on quarter full or less. I guess this prevents loss of petrol if stolen at night when the car is parked. My favourite Mongolian family had the wing mirrors stolen from their car the other evening (and it was not even the depth of night, rather about 8:00 or so). I mean, who bothers to steal wing mirrors? Cracked windscreens are seen a lot as well, although I cannot make out if that is the result of stones or just extremely cold weather. As far as energy supply goes, it is getting better. There were a few blackouts around the office in the summer although these appear to have gone in the autumn and power has been very stable around Ulaanbaatar at least over recent weeks. As for the buildings, yes, there are a lot of 3 to 5 storey old Russian style apartment buildings around with uneven stairs and floors. There is now a lot of new buidling going on with many newer apartment buildings being built. These have elevators, security and are very modern – and they are also earthquake resistant, I believe to Richter 8.0 … but I will happily be corrected on that point. I live on the 11th floor and the elevator here runs 24×7. And if Asiel is reading this, yes, [in best Russian accent] “soviet apartment is like soviet woman … big, strong, ugly … but not Russian woman!” 🙂

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Old Cars and Autumn Days

The Citroën Traction Avant outside the apartment building

I believe that the delightful car is an old German car. It looks like it is straight from a 30s or 40s movie, a black car with doors that open the opposite way to cars today. It could have been in a scene from the movie Casablanca maybe. But there is was, parked outside the apartment building today.I was strolling out to buy some music, have a strawberry milkshake with a slice of rare cheesecake and generally just stretch the legs in the autumn sunshine. It was, after all, a pleasant 19 degrees today. So, as I strolled out of the building this beautiful old machine was sitting there. It had driven in. I shall see if I can get some more pictures later as well as find out exactly what it is – but I have never seen one like this in Australia.

Update Note: Jim, a friend from the US, sent me an email today (30 September 2005) letting me know that one of his friends thought he identified the car as a Citroën Traction Avant, although he was not sure of the year.

Drive for the Gap

“It might not be where you want to be now, but it will be eventually, so aim for the gap”. These sage words about gaps in traffic were given to me by a friend in Indonesia many years ago.

Then, when in India, another friend noted that when an Indian buys a car, the first thing he does is check to make sure the horn is working – no horn, no buy car.

I think it was in Korea that we discovered that lateral vision was a positive impediment to good driving as really, what happened 15 degrees of straight ahead was all that mattered.

And then in the Lebanon, the taxi drivers there taught me that there are three colours of traffic lights – green, light green and dark green.

Mongolian driving is the culmination of all these traits. A combination of artful horn blowing, even if only as an after thought, coupled with a desire to fill any gap (causing more artful horn work) whilst ignoring anything behind and refusing to pay anything other than a brief passing regard to the traffic lights. The last place for artful horn blowing is at the traffic lights. If cars are not moving forward within 15 nano-seconds of the lights changing to green, the horns are off.

Having said that, the majority of bingles I have seen around UB (and been involved in, I have been here slightly over two months after all) have been pretty minor.

Great people though 🙂