Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Ulan Bataar

Ulan Bataar - commonly and colloquially referred to as UB - is the World's coldest capital. It sits sits at 1300 metres above sea level, and in a river valley  The name means ' Red Hero', and the city started off as a nomadic Buddhist settlement which moved twenty eight times before somebody finally had enough, and parked it permanently where it is now.

I was last here seven years ago, in the winter. It was not only astonishingly cold then (-40 Celsius at night) but also noticeably quieter. I'm not sure if that was a seasonal variation or just that the place has grown, but whatever the reason, its basic infrastructure definitely can't cope, and that adds to its strangeness.

At first glance, it looks like the average modern capital city with glass buildings, flash cars, neon signs and well dressed people, all mixed in with old or traditional stuff.

But seemingly not in the same way as other major cities, with monks in full monkly robes driving the newest model cars or walking along with briefcases, and young business people chatting on I Phones or working on I Pads while riding on oxen carts. It is such a weird mix which really takes you aback.

There has definitely been a recent upsurge of wealth here, and there is now noticeable western influence with shops, cafes and bars. Go into a shop, and you will find the latest flat screen TVs, the latest phones and all manner of designer clothing. But most of the customers live in the ger communities - where there is no running water and no sanitation. It's just a different take on what is important for everyday living and what is not.

Some are imports, like pubs, micro breweries and pizza restaurants, whilst others are a mixture of Chinese imitation and local perception of what foreigners expect, even if they don't. And they don't always interpret the place names as we would......

However, it is the basic infrastructure that gives the game away; UB is a facade where very little works   as you might expect, or in such a chaotic and disorganised way, that you'd be forgiven for wondering what is going on. It is as if ideas have changed too quickly or disposable wealth arrived without a spending outlet for the city to develop systems to keep it going. It has cars, it has shops and restaurants - often operating at near western prices but far from western service levels - it has buses and banks, yet there seems to be no underlying system for any of these things and so rather than create and help develop the community and each other, they just clatter along regardless in isolation. There seems to be no overview or plan for anything in this place, just an expectation that if the raw materials are there, the place will somehow grow and work. However, that is not really the case.

The roads are a good example. It is a small city and the road network should be adequate in terms of comparative size.....but whereas the traffic volume has increased with wealth,  the road conditions have not, and are terrible because nobody repairs them or pays taxes to allow even weather damage to be put right, let alone damage from wear and tear.

Furthermore,  their use is so bizarre that the place is gridlocked at least twice a day; nobody takes any notice of traffic signals or gives way, and it all gets so much worse when the traffic police arrive, allegedly to sort it out. Rather than facilitate flow and move obstructions, they stop vehicles arbitrarily and cause massive snarl ups. They are totally ineffective and laughably useless, although they do look the part with flashy bikes and white wellies.

We arrived in the city during peak hour on a Friday. Not the best of timing but having ridden right across Europe and Asia, we thought we'd seen it all. But UB was something else. It was almost like a fairground ride, with vehicles driving at each other and filling spaces, seemingly without any idea or hope of making progress. And of course they hit each other and blocked more bits of the road as a consequence. Yet nobody seemed to know what to do. Nobody moved crashed vehicles, nobody set up  diversions, and everybody stood around waiting for somebody else to do something. It was quite incredible, but as one woman later remarked ' these people are nomads - they are not used to roads or signs and have no idea of how to live with other people. They just drive and if somebody gets in the way, they hit them.' People just drive to where they want to go, and only a physically immovable structure will stop them, and then only temporarily. But far from aggression,  it's more to do with total incomprehension of how things work.

Then there are the banks. A 24 hour bank in the city centre that only opens between 0900 and midnight, and ATMs that only operate on Visa not Mastercard ( or the other way round - forgotten which, but it it was the opposite to what I needed) or will only let you withdraw cash in minuscule denominations.  We had to withdraw the equivalent of £500.00 in £2.50 lots to buy a replacement motorbike, which emptied the machine, much to the annoyance of waiting customers. But as the lady had already filled it that morning, she was reluctant to do it again - despite it being empty and therefore useless. Or the tourist information place where people know even less about their city than the average first time visitor. It is very confusing at first but once you accept that is just the way that it is, then it becomes easier to deal with.

Tourism is on the up too. I've already mentioned bars and restaurants and there is definitely an understanding that visitors mean cash, and people will spend it at places of interest.

But the balance of what is charged and the service received, particularly in some restaurants, is still way off,  which can be rather tedious when you're hungry and tired and have spent all day supporting the local economy in other ways. But I guess that is all part of the travel thing, and its about knowing when to just laugh and accept it, or object and move on.

'Reasonable' , 'ripoff' and 'cheeky git' haven't quite hit home yet with some chancers either, like the monk at Gandan Monastery who wanted an additional $5.00 USD per picture for general pictures inside the grounds, despite us having already paid an entrance fee. But his efforts were wasted on us and he didn't get any dollars at all in the end.......but he did get some free advice, especially from Nadine.
          This bloke was on the phone in between hitting the gong for prayers

Or one waiter who took our order in a restaurant but neglected to pass it to the chef because he wanted to practise his English on us. Not funny late at night when there is nowhere else to eat.

But then we also went to places that were completely free and spectacular, like the Ziasan memorial on a hill to the south of the city.

It commemorates Soviet soldiers of WW2 and is now a bit tatty and dilapidated, but its probably one of the best places to look out over the city.
Zaisan Memorial overlooking the city

What is evident from there though is the extent of spread of the city in the last seven years. New apartments have sprung up everywhere, and the Winter Palace, once clearly visible from Zaisan, is now hidden amongst new buildings.

But for us, UB  was always the main point of the journey, and anything further would just be a bonus.  It was our original destination, and a place that at until we reached it, always seemed so far away. But I don't  think that either of us really seriously ever doubted that we would make it.  Not aboard our trusty scooters.
scoots on Zaisan Hill