Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mongolia 2017 - Day 3. Around UB

Today is to be devoted to gathering the few things we will need for our drive into the west portion of the country. By 7:30 am we went down to an opulent breakfast of croissants, toast, vegetable soup, scrambled eggs, pancakes, and two large sausages, yoghurt, and instant coffee. Our appetite fully satisfied we were ready to walk through town. We decided to leave the car at the hotel because of downtown traffic and few parking spaces.

Zoe took the lead. For those of you who don’t know my precious 23-year old Goddaughter I will tell you that she is a beautiful petite blonde who has an incredible knack for foreign languages and cultures, and who in the short nine months she has been in Mongolia can already navigate the town like a pro. She has also picked enough of the language that she can normally make herself understood in shops and museums, and has no problem moving around in taxis or buses. In short, she is the perfect travel companion.

Our to-do list was small: A bank for John to get local currency, and a visit to the telephone company for him to buy a sim card for his phone. I needed to rent or buy a tent. Zoe needed to buy a book and a road map. Then again we all wanted to visit the National History Museum, and see the main plaza, and in the afternoon we wanted to go see a dinosaur exhibit in one of the malls in the outskirts of the city.

The bank went without a hitch, and the nearby post office provided a very adequate road map. The rental of a tent was not as successful, because I felt that for the US$135 the rental would cost I could probably buy a cheap tent, which led us to a whirlwind visit of the State Shop (a big six-stories emporium with everything under the sun—except tents—where John felt obliged to buy himself some slippers with turned-up points in the best Mongol style). We were almost leaving when Zoe spotted a friend of hers, who offered to check at a nearby guesthouse for rental tents. Fifteen minutes later he called to tell us that a tent was waiting for us for only US$30 rent; it’s who you know that counts!

Having taken care of the to-do list we went to the Chenggis Khan main plaza, with the iconic statue of the brilliant conqueror on horse back, and a much portlier version of him seating along the façade of the Government Palace. It would have been a very imposing plaza, were it not for the fact that they were setting it up for a concert and there were tents and trucks everywhere.

From there we went to the National History Museum, which was very nicely set indeed. One starts with the multiple Homo erectus sites that have been discovered throughout Mongolia, and progresses to the abundant artifacts of the Bronze and Iron ages. From there you get a nice progression through the different cultures or empires of the early and middle ages. We start with the Xiongnu kingdom from 300 to 100 BC, which extended from Lake Baikal to the Great Wall the Chinese were building to keep the barbarians from the north at bay, and from the Caspian Sea in the west to nearly the Pacific coast on the east. Then came Attila the Hun and his hordes in 400 AD, who ravaged the land from Europe to China. The more sedate Turkic (500 to 700 AD) and Khidan (Liao) (900 to 1100 AD) empires followed, at the same time that the big Chinese dynasties (Tang to Ming) flourished in the south. And then came our good friend Gengis (or Chenggis, 1135-1227 AD), who from 1162 to 1223 consolidated the vast Mongolian empire. Chenggis Khan died in 1227, and the throne went to his son Ögödei (1129 to 1241), and from him to a series of other sons until it finally came to the cadet, the great Khubilai Khan (1260-1294) of Marco Polo fame.

The museum sprung forward to the two World Wars, the rise of the Soviet Union, and the Russian period of Mongolian history. From what I gathered, Mongolia was never part of the USSR, but was a vassal state with Russian oversight. This is the time when UB was designed and built. Zoe explained to us that UB had been designed as a linear production line parallel to the river Dund. Industrial production was to start at one end of the line, with workers for that initial stage living in that neighborhood, and then proceed along the line, with new batches of workers living close at hand. Well, it didn’t work, and now UB suffers from its linearity in the form of horrible traffic snarls.

The Russian yoke didn’t fell off until Perestroika hit the USSR in 1989, so in reality modern Mongolia is only 25 years old as an independent democracy. They have no love lost for the Russians (although they have inherited the Cyrillic alphabet and the heavy architecture of the Soviets), but they dislike even more their Chinese neighbors to the south.

Modern Mongolia relies on its vast reserves of coal for energy production, and operate a very large copper mine in the Gobi desert. Outside of that there is not much they trade with the world (pricey cashmere wool items, some leather goods and handcrafts), although they are trying to grow a tourist industry. Then again, they are a sparsely populated land (3,000,000 or so inhabitants) so their needs are modest (and Japan seems to be an endless source of used Toyota Prius vehicles, which are a veritable pest in the traffic congested streets of UB).

We came back to the hotel around 4 pm, only to leave half an hour later to seek the dinosaur exhibit at a mall near the airport. A very nice little mall, crawling with Saturday crowds, where three magnificent dinosaurs have been mounted in the central island: A lumbering sauropod, a fierce tarbosaurus (the Mongolian cousin of T-Rex), and a very large duck-billed dino. All three are magnificent, original, and complete skeletons, so we spent much time admiring them. Then, at 5 pm, all the stores started opening, and the “dino museum” also welcomed us in. It was . . . magnificent! Apparently a new dino museum is being built, and in the meantime the prize pieces of the collection are being displayed here at the mall. We saw clutches of eggs, some with the remains of embryos. We saw the remains of a mama dinosaur sitting on her eggs, and a velociraptor in a fight to the death with a protoceratops (my personal favorite, protoceratops was the size of a Saint Bernard and would have made a wonderful pet). Why were there so many Mongolian dinos, and why were they so well preserved. Apparently they lived in a luscious landscape crisscrossed by rivers, which supported large and varied populations. The same rivers, however, would suddenly flood the land trapping the animals pretty much in their living positions. There is no question, this is the place where dinosaur lovers want to be!  

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