Phenomenology is the new black

Letter from Mongolia

image of plane tags

air plane tag to Ulaanbataar


So I left behind the city of 20 million people and ventured forth to the Land of the Great Mongol Empire, Children of the Golden Light, Attila the Hun, The legendary Chinggis Khaan, Khubilai Khan and Marco Polo. Mongolia’s population is about 2.6 million,  most of whom  50% live in urban areas, 25% are nomadic and the remainder semi-nomadic.

My first impressions are that I can see the sky – beautiful blue – steep green hills with little or no trees – yes, we have entered the land of The Steppes – my Mongolian guide Nomy is there to meet me with smiles and already I feel very excited to be in this rugged terrain. Fortunately, she has organised transport as it soon becomes apparent that the roads in this country are unreal – 4WDs are the only way to go with unsealed roads and pot-holes that a car could fall into and never return – minutes from the airport I see my first crash, a small car has hit a landcruiser and it looks nasty – well for the car!  We soon arrive at the Chinggis Khaan Hotel, my home for the next five days and it is all that Lonely Planet quoted:

Mongolia’s biggest brashest hotel –

all the facilities you could dream of (are you sure – maybe too much Russian vodka was quoffed during this hotel review) not the sort of place you would have associated with my style but the famous Ulaanbataar Hotel which harps back to the 1920s and looks very Stalinesque in style – was fully booked . August is a busy time in UB, being the summer holiday season when guests from Russia, Korea, China flock here for? Well that’s what I am reliably informed – you also have to consider that for 9 months of the year this city is either at below freezing point, inaccessible or just not feasible to visit. So there you have it, the city is buzzing with numerous languages and backpackers all furious to find entertainment, treks, souvenirs and the like.

Back to the hotel – it is very modern externally but once inside it is a mix of Russian communistic sternness and Mongolian fixtures – well a couple of horse statues scattered here and there – the horse along with the camel, goat, sheep and camel are the 5 traditional herds and provide the Mongolian diet, traditional clothing supply and transportation source to the population. The hotel lists in its House Rules that:

I kindly leave my firearms and deadly weapons at Reception

I kid you not – Oh! and

no cooking equipment in the room or hallways, items with strong or offensive odor, all combustible materials such as gasoline or gun powder and no deadly bladed weapons!!

Seems sensible to me, although I did wonder just what had I landed myself in!

image of house rules

The House Rules

Feeling a little peckish around 8pm I thought would check out the room service and after ambling through the endless mutton suggestions I requested a plain vegetarian pizza – the voice on the phone which sounded very Russian commandant or Croatian “fish or meat” accent it was abundantly clear that my choice was not going to eventuate as ‘she’ was most abrupt and retorted ‘had niet’  pizza so think again!! Apparently, Greek salad was possible!! Actually, it reminded me very much of Fawlty Towers but the Mongolian version!!

The good news is that after 17 days of no Facebook it is very much alive and allowed in Mongolia!! Well things never cease to amaze – so once again I feel in touch with my world and can exchange and receive news from all my friends.

image of loo

Well! That’s a relief!!

Breakfast is an interesting affair conducted in the Banqueting room – for a hotel that apparently is full to bursting the morning repast is indeed a quiet affair – well by that I mean few people are in situ, but in saying that the general etiquette has a lot to be desired – Granny would not be amused – slurping, burping and general cave man manners are the norm here – it does make eating rather a battle and not for the weak-minded or stomach for that matter. The dining room resembles a mish- mash of decor, pseudo Italian pillars, flock carpets, Russian commie style furniture with some chair covers that would make any Indian Wedding proud – although on close inspection the wall paper is peeling, the MDF sideboards are chipped and the chandeliers have few bulbs illuminating – but – breakfast is edible and starts the day well. As you may well be aware being a vegetarian in Mongolia is something of a handicap so one stores up in the morning knowing the rest of the day could be sparse in the food department.

image of UB

Outside my hotel


image of Sukhbataar Square

Sukhbataar Square Ulaanbataar

The massive Sukhbataar Square simply known as ‘the Square’ (talbai) a place that you can easily find in a city that has few street names or ones that are impossible to pronounce – seriously – The Square is named after Damdin Sukhbataar the hero of the 1921 revolution that declared independence from China.

Statue in the Square

Bronze statue of Chinggis Khaan in the Square

The Great Chingiis Khaan

Bronze Statue

One of many – standing guard beside Chinggis Khaan

It is the most impressive building.


image of The State Theatre of Opera & Ballet Ulaanbataar

The State Theatre of Opera & Ballet Ulaanbataar

Shades of St Petersburg! Not surprising really as the Russians have had a long association with Mongolia since the 1920s and were very prominent in the 1970s to 1990s. Many Mongolians speak both their native tongue as well as Russian. Unfortunately the theatre had no performances scheduled and all the ballet schools were closed for the long school summer holidays which commence end of June to beginning of September – a shame but another reason to return and take on another project photographing dancers!!

The visit to The National Museum of Mongolia    – corner of Sukhbataryn Gudamj & Sambugiin Orgon – (that’s assuming you read Mongolian – as few streets actually have names here and one relies on local knowledge!!) was most informative and bursting at the seams with Mongolia’s rich history beginning with the Paleolithic period right up to the 20th Century. The Mongolian Traditional Clothing and Jewellery were of particular interest to me and the styles are still in evidence today – their craftsmanship and functionality are superb and each display is more fascinating than the next. They have an excellent guide-book in English and is indeed worth the purchase as well as being most educational – in fact on returning home I shall be scouring the book shops for any further tomes that will enlighten me on these subjects.

On to the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts – – Chingeltei District, Tourist Avenue 38 – which houses a superb collection of paintings, sculptures, ancient jewellery  – again a fascinating collection and full to the brim of artefacts to keep anyone such as me happy to while away the hours looking and learning.


image of detail of Mongolian silver work

Mongolian silver – work


image of Mongolian flint container

Mongolian flint container, leather and silver


image of Mongolian silver work

Mongolian silver work

If that was not enough culture for one day the final visit was to see the performance of The Mongolian National Song & Dance Ensemble tucked away in a building that one would never have imagined held such jewels. This wonderful performance gives the tourist the gamut of styles, traditional costumes, songs, and instruments that are integral in Mongolian culture – and rich it is. The colours, vibrancy and joy are infectious and the throat singing sublime. The sounds that emulate from the morin khur (horse head fiddle) are  nothing short of incredible – 2 strings and it sounds like the best violin ever – melancholic and joyful in one – teamed with one of the many melodic voices and it is nothing short of heaven. The dancers cavort, shimmy, leap, spin and so on – captivating the audience and of course a great opportunity to photograph traditional dance at its best. A wonderful introduction into the world of traditional dance and costume and it is in evidence not only in performance but it appears at weddings, on the street, everywhere – it is not some nostalgic performance solely for the tourist but is embraced and loved by its people – that is priceless.

image of traditional dance

dancers Ulaanbataar


image of traditional costume

Traditional songs Ulaanbataar


image of throat singing diva

Throat singer Ulaanbataar


Quite the most stirring performance – it began on a high and left all the audience feeling elated – joy! joy! joy!

My first full day in Ulaanbataar does not disappoint!






This entry was posted in Dancing on thin ice | 薄冰起舞 | Bó bīng qî wŭ. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Comment

  1. Warren Maynard
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    of course Sonia. I would expect to check in my weapons. I am willing to it every day. If I had a machine gun at uni I would expect it to be kept safe for me till I went home in the evening. But what do they do with people who know martial arts. “Hey buddy put those feet and hands on the counter so I can check them in” lol No vege stuff. In Greece they would say you could have lamb instead (according to the movie) There doesn’t seem to be a lot of people around. Independence from China…oops I wonder when China will look to reunite its long lost relatives. That silver work is beautiful. I have heard that throat singing on the tv It must be quite something else to hear it live.

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