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A day in medieval Mongolia

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Welcome to medieval Mongolia

Welcome to 13th century Mongolia

I always hoped that I’d never have to hear Baccara’s Sorry I’m a Lady again. The song is pure 1970’s Eurotrash.

But here it was again, like a bad memory. It was playing in the beat up car that was taking us out of Ulan Bator and into the Mongolian countryside.

What an absurd scene, to be listening to Baccara as we are driving by the derelict, soviet-style apartment blocks on the outskirts of Ulan Bator.

My driver had put on a cassette with 1970’s and 1980’ music in the car (yes, they still have cassette players in their cars here – I guess that tells you a little bit about how old the cars are). After Baccara, we went on to hear a host of other singers that radio stations in the West have rightly banned from the airwaves: Chris Norman, Wham and Modern Talking.

Listening to this music as we were bumping along the pot-holed “highway” somewhere in the Mongolian grassland just felt bizarre. There were nomads herding their goats and sheep by the side of the road. Families were picnicking with a view of the passing cars. Wild horses were grazing on the open plains. And we were listening to “I should be so lucky” by the young Kylie Minogue.

Miles from modern civilisation

The road was bad, so the driving was slow. It’s hard for me to guess how many kilometers we’d gone out of Ulan Bator, when my driver left the paved road and turned onto a dirt road.

We went about 10 kilometers on this sandy road, which kept taking unexpected turns and which had bumps and holes that were hard to see.

My driver was going at least twice as fast as I would have driven on that kind of surface. I was a little uneasy and my palms were getting wet.

Then, as we rounded a bend, a palisade fence suddenly became visible in the wide open plain. It was almost like a mirage. The fence had a gate that our road led right up to. In front of it stood two Mongolians dressed like 13th century warriors and blocked our way.

This scene, accompanied by the 1980’s soundtrack from the cassette player, took the absurdity of this whole ride to yet another level.

The guardsmen stopped our car, exchanged a few words with my driver, and then let us pass. We followed the dirt road for a few more turns and arrived at a yurt camp. “The King’s Palace”, said a sign that was written both in English and Mongolian.

King's Palace yurt camp

Unfortunately, that sign was just about the only thing that was bilingual at this open-air museum called “Mongolia in the 13th century”.

Hardly anyone at the “King’s Palace” or at any of the other five yurt-camps that make up this recreation of Mongolia in the 13th century spoke a word of English. And since I didn’t have an interpreter with me, I mostly just wandered through the camps and looked around.

Inside the King's Palace yurt

Inside the King's Palace yurt

“Mongolia in the 13th century” consists of six yurt camps and tries to recreate different aspects of life in Mongolia in the times of Ghengis Khan.

Apart from the “King’s Palace”, there is a yurt camp that concentrates on shaman rituals. Other camps are all about cattle breeding, soldiers’ life or the making of crafts.

"Medieval Mongolian" smoking a pipe made of an animal bone

"Medieval Mongolian" smoking a pipe made of an animal bone

But if you don’t speak Mongolian or have an interpreter, it’ll be difficult to talk to the people living in these camps.

A lady in one of the camps, who spoke a little English, told me that they got about a hundred visitors per day, which she considered “a lot”.

However, while my driver and I were taking our tour of the park, we were just about the only guests there.

The camps were kind of dead

Most of the 13th-century-employees were just waking up, cleaning the place or doing repair work. So they didn’t really bother to greet us or put on their little show for us. I guess they only show the shaman rituals or how make traditional arts and crafts when larger tourist groups come around.

The park supposedly covers an area of some 350 hectares (850 acres). So you’ll do quite a bit of driving, getting from one camp to the next.

For me, that was almost the best part of the trip. I got so see a lot of open Mongolian countryside, rocky hills, beautiful valleys, and vast grasslands. And the air out there was so much better than in downtown Ulan Bator!

When we’d completed our tour of the six yurt camps, we headed back out the main gate of the open-air museum.

The two guardsmen in their traditional outfits nodded good-bye as we drove by. Then they went back into the shade of the palisade fence to continue their summer-afternoon nap.

And the cassette player in our car started playing George Michael’s “Last Christmas”.

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Written by Thorsten

July 20, 2008 at 9:39 am

My yurt is my castle

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For the last thee days, a number of yurts have been on display on Ulan Bator’s central Sükhbaatar Square.

They stand in stark contrast to the imposing glass-brass-and-marble State Palace on the north end of the square.

Since I don’t speak Mongolian, I can only guess that the yurts are for sale.

I suppose some local yurt-manufacturer wants to show all the different models he offers. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a price list.

Mansion or shed?

There are yurts in eight different sizes Ulan Bator’s central square. Each one is furnished and decorated in a different way.

The biggest is a ceremonial meeting yurt – complete with ornately painted throne chairs and desks.

When I looked in, I sort of expected Genghis Khan and his military commanders to be sitting inside, waiting to hold council over me…

Among the smaller yurts on display, there’s one decorated like a play room for children – with Disney wallpaper and colourful kiddie furniture.

I doubt, however, that the Mongolian nomads of the steppe would buy this cutesy yurt for their kids.

It somehow just doesn’t fit in withmatch the image I have of the rural Mongolian population.

Taking down the yurt

As I was walking across Sükhbaatar Square this afternoon, some people were just beginning to take the yurts down.

Yurts, gers or mobile homes?

Wherever you go in Mongolia, you’ll see yurts or gers, as they are called here.

Many Mongolians still live in them, others use them as a weekend home or as a kind of shed in their back yard.

And then, of course, there are all sorts of yurt camps for tourists everywhere.

Yurts are traditionally used by the Nomads of the steppe. For them, the yurt is a practical, ingenious prefab home.

According to my travel guide,

…the design of this compact tent is ideally suited to nomadic lifestyle. It combines coolness in summer and warmth in winter. Made mostly of wood and other locally available materials, it can be quickly assembled or taken to pieces, and is easily transported from place to place on camelback…

So if you’ve ever regretted the fact that you can’t easily transport your kids’ playroom on camelback, you might want to think about buying a yurt.

Written by Thorsten

July 18, 2008 at 12:08 pm

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Breakfast in the hall of mirrors

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Two walls in the breakfast room in our hotel in Ulan Bator are completely covered with mirrors.

The effect is that these walls of mirrors multiply the meagre offerings on the breakfast buffet to something that actually looks pretty impressive.

In addition, the mirrors also reflect your sleepy and crumpled early morning face back at you a thousand times.

Great idea. Just what I wanted to see before my first cup of coffee.

Breakfast in the hall of mirrors – yet another example of the refined Mongolian sense of interior design and savoir vivre.

Written by Thorsten

July 17, 2008 at 1:08 pm

German is good in Ulan Bator

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Believe it or not, but you can see a lot of German influence in Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator.

Everywhere you go, you’ll come across advertisements for Khan Bräu, for instance. The Khan Bräu brewery has been around since 1996. It’s run jointly by a German and a Mongolian.

Khan Bräu makes its beers in Mongolia, but they’re brewed in strict compliance with the German beer purity law. This law dates back to the year 1516 and dictates that beer should only be made from water, hops and malt.

Consequently, Khan Bräu imports its hops from Bavaria to give its beers that special German flavour.

Brauhaus and Biergarten

But Khan Bräu doesn’t only make beers. It’s taken the German idea of Gemütlichkeit even further: Khan Bräu also runs a “Biergarten” restaurant in Ulan Bator. Here, they serve their Pilsener and dark beers and also classic German food specialties like Leberkäse and Bratwurst.

If you don’t have the time to sit down in the Khan Bräu beer garden for a hearty German meal, how about some fast food? You can stay with the German theme even if you just want some junk food: there are at least three fast food joints called Berlin Burger in Ulan Bator.

German meat products seem to have a pretty good reputation in Mongolia. In downtown Ulan Bator, you’ll see German-language billboards for the Makhimpex meat processing factory.

The text on these billboards reads: “Europäische Qualität, Geschmack und Verpackung in der Mongolei”.

The German may be a little rough, but what this friendly butcher is trying to tell his Mongolian clientel is that he’s providing European quality and taste, but that his products are made in Mongolia.

They need a little help with their advertising

According to the Makhimpex website, the company slaughters and processes sheep, cows and horses. It also tells us that its daily production includes:

  • 4 tonnes of blood
  • 1 tonne of meat and bone meal
  • 8 tonnes of blood meal
  • 10 tonnes of food oil

Reading this, I’m glad once again that I’m a vegetarian.

Tune in to German radio

Maybe the Makhimpex meat processing company should try advertising on Ulan Bator’s German radio station? Yes, German radio also exists in the Mongolian capital.

Deutsches Radio Ulan Bator (DRUB) broadcasts three hours a week to the capital area in German. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from five to six p.m. it’s the German hour on FM 98.9 in Ulan Bator.

Three Mongolian journalists put the programs together – with a little help from Germany’s foreign broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The three have been on the air since March, 2008, and hope to reach a sizeable amount of the German-speaking crowd in Ulan Bator.

So far, they haven’t gotten much feedback from listeners, though. They want to improve their programs, however, and are willing to learn.

The Leipzig connection

One reason why German products and the German language play a role in Mongolia is that many Mongolians have personal ties to Germany.

Before the 1990’s, Mongolia was a staunch ally of the Soviet Union and had excellent connections to the other Eastern Block countries. One of these countries was communist East Germany.

Consequently, many Mongolians who wanted to study abroad went to the German Democratic Republic.

And while they were studying in Leipzig, Dresden or East Berlin, they also developed a taste for German beer, German food and German Gemütlichkeit.

It’s estimated that some 30 000 Mongolians have been educated in Germany over the last half century. 30 000 may not sound like a lot – but if you keep in mind that Mongolia only has a population of less than three million, you realize that this “Leipzig connection” must be a pretty strong force in Mongolian society.

Most of the 30 000 Mongolians who studied at German universities now hold important positions in this country. They’re a powerful group in Mongolian society and most of them are pretty wealthy for Mongolian standards.

At least they make enough money to be able to afford German beer, Bratwurst and all the other things they grew to love while they were in Germany.

Anywhere but Ulan Bator

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Ulan Bator is a city that’s hard to love. The Mongolian capital has no charm, no elegance, no refined cuisine and hardly any sights that are worth visiting.

Most tourists just use Ulan Bator as a point of departure to see the magnificent Mongolian countryside: untouched steppe, beautiful mountains, rivers and lakes.

But how do the Ulan Bator locals deal with the ugliness of their city?

They go on little escapes.

On Ulan Bator’s vast main square, you’ll see dozens of billboards of exotic places.

These billboards are actually backdrops for children’s photographs.

Local photographers will take pictures of kids in front of a Thai temple backdrop, a fairy tale castle or a colonial American house.

If you can’t afford an exotic holiday as a Mongolian, at least this is one way to dream yourself and your kids away from this drab place.

Written by Thorsten

July 15, 2008 at 7:41 am

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