* Six Striking Images of Ulaan Baatar *
You expect to see gers out in the desert, where Mongolian nomads are herding their flocks across the sands, but I never quite got used to the sight of tents being used as cheap city housing in Ulaan Baatar. Tucked in between less temporary buildings (like tower blocks), huge areas of the city are filled with gers and wooden shacks. They're used as housing or storage or even - more rarely - as hostel accommodation for travellers who want a taste of local life.
It's bring-your-own-balls to the snooker tables which lie scattered around the city streets. As public property, these are to be found in varying states of disrepair, with one table even missing a side - which requires some creative catching when a game is in progress. At night, old men with packs of cards take over the tables for some friendly, if noisy, gambling games.
Mongolia voted out its Communist party in 1996, and one-man businesses are thriving everywhere in Ulaan Baatar. From shoe shining to cigarettes, you can buy anything at the kerb-side, but the one who really stood out for his entrepreneurial spirit was the guy with the bathroom scale, who charged passers-by a few pennies to step on and learn their weight.
With a short trip to the railway station, you can easily see where these small traders get their goods. On the arrival of an international train, the platform at Ulaan Baatar was quickly filled with sacks and boxes of imported clothes and bags, sweets and toys.
The spirit of commercial enterprise even reached inside the Buddhist temples. It felt somewhat incongruous to see monks behind the counter of a shop. There were plenty of trinkets for tourists, of course, but the busiest counter was the one where customers brought their empty bottles to be filled with scented oil.
Sükhbaatar Square is the sort of grand, imposing plaza that defines a city centre. Each time we passed through, we were struck by how empty it seemed, without the throng of tourists you'd expect to see in Trafalgar Square or Tiananmen.
About the blogger:
Rachel Cotterill is a writer, photographer, computational linguistics PhD student, and someone who collects skills the way other people collect stamps - so far including dry-stone walling, taekwondo, sugarcraft, EFL teaching, rope-splicing, skiing & snowboarding, knitting & crochet, cooking, juggling, and coppicing... the list keeps growing!
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