One of the world’s most distinctive cities, Ulaanbaatar finally has the book it deserves. Although Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar are bywords for remoteness, the city has for centuries been an important regional center, resulting in a fascinating mix of traditional and modern, local and foreign influences.
Aldrich, an American lawyer and writer who first visited Mongolia in 1993 and moved there in 2009, breaks the city’s story into two parts; the first 65 pages give background on the layout of the city, its history, architecture, and religion in Mongolia; the second part looks at the city area by area, with an emphasis on buildings of interest.
Typical of the author’s independent flair, he uses three different names for the city; Urga for the old Buddhist settlement on the banks of the Tuul River; Ulan Bator for the communist period from 1924 to 1990; and Ulaanbaatar for the modern city.
Writing about the city’s early historical sites isn’t an easy task. There weren’t many permanent buildings to begin with, and these have suffered from destruction, most notably temples and monasteries during purges in the late 1930s. Thus, we need a good storyteller with an imagination able to conjure up visions from the remnants. Aldrich is in this sense a great match for the task, and for the city. As well as being a sympathetic and open-minded romantic of the old school, he has a tremendous nose for picking up the trail of forgotten dramas and anecdotes, and leading us off on unexpected yet intriguing digressions.
Aldrich relates an interesting sidestory to Gandan, Ulaanbaatar’s most important Buddhist temple. When U.S. vice president Henry Wallace visited Mongolia in 1944 on a goodwill trip, he inadvertently ended up helping preserve the monastery.
While making arrangements for the trip, the State Department passed along Wallace’s request to attend a Buddhist ceremony while in Mongolia. Wallace was a lifelong student of Asian mysticism, but he was unaware that the dharma had been nearly exterminated during the Great Purge. Not wanting to disappoint the Americans or expose himself to embarrassment, Stalin sent off instructions to Little Joe to snap to and provide Wallace with a functioning monastery. A handful of the surviving lamas were hauled back to receive the vice president. Once Wallace left, the MPR authorities retained this Potemkin monastery and its ceremonies but with the restriction that all prayers had to be chanted in Mongolian rather than Tibetan.
The author’s writing style is quirky and delightfully opinionated; you might not always agree with his often scathing asides, but they do make you smile and add spice to the book. Writing of the painful transition period in the 1990s from a communist to a (crony-) capitalist economy – which consisted in large measure of the Soviet-trained elite looting the economy – he has harsh words for the ordinary people’s suffering and also the effects on the city’s appearance: “The city succumbed to a surge in billboard advertisements, cheap imported right-hand drive Japanese automobiles, and the occasional Lonely Planeteer, among other disgraces.”
Aldrich is no fan of the modern additions to the Ulaanbaatar skyline. I thought perhaps he was being overly nostalgic, but when I went on a street-level Google Maps tour of the city I was saddened to see that he was not exaggerating in the least. At the heart of Ulaanbaatar is the Sukhbaatar Square, of which I have fond memories from living in UB in the mid-1990s. My office was in the northeast corner of the square and I’d walk through it on my way to and from work, past neoclassical buildings such as the National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Mongolia, completed in 1949, and striking with its white Doric columns against the salmon-pink exterior walls.
On the southern side of the theatre now looms the Central Tower: “the newest and most prestigious commercial eyesore in downtown Ulaanbaatar. Its ground level is renowned for leasing space to Eurotrash luxury stores selling worthless toys to the well-to-do.” And a stone’s throw to the south now stands an abomination called the Blue Sky Tower and Hotel, “an eyesore made in imitation of Dubai’s overdone hotel with its dhow sail design. (The relevance of this motif to a landlocked country remains unclear.)”
Another change to the city has been an explosion in the number of automobiles (with accompanying pollution problems). It’s nice to see so many people rich enough to buy cars, but my word, it makes me appreciate how special Ulaanbaatar was before the resources-driven construction boom changed the city. Arriving on the Trans Mongolian Railway from Peking, you rolled in off the grasslands to a city of quiet roads and the shabby grandeur of its Soviet-era neoclassical architecture; it was otherworldly, like coming upon a lost city.
Aldrich says that rail is still the best way to reach Ulaanbaatar, not surprisingly given that he was once on a flight from Peking which “turned into a fifty-two-hour ordeal as Air China made five passes over the UB airport before returning to Peking and locking all passengers into a shabby hotel reeking of cigarette smoke.” Yes, take the train, he says: “If you pack a well-provisioned hamper with a few bottles of wine, a good book, and an MP3 player with headphones, a soft-sleeper berth is the most civilised way to travel to or from UB.”
Although riding the rails is part of the quintessential Mongolia travel experience, air travel to the capital predates the train by three decades. “Regular air service began between Ulan Bator and Verkhneudinsk in 1926. A Russian company drafted a group of pilots who, in the words of the English language website for Baikal International Airport, had to fly on the Buryat-Mongolian run. The maiden flight covered the distance of 500 kilometres between the two cities in an astonishingly short four and a half hours.” The Trans-Mongolian Railway was inaugurated on New Year’s Day, 1956.
Ulaanbaatar beyond Water and Grass is not a conventional guidebook – for a start, there are not hotel or restaurant listings – and the better for it. The density of information might make this challenging for someone passing through, but my word – what a treasure trove for any residents. It’s an absolute must-buy for journalists because it’s packed with in-depth descriptions and stories; there’s several years’ worth of feature articles in it. I’m confident that the book will inspire writers and academics to take up some of the threads and produce their own works on Mongolia.
Ulaanbaatar beyond Water and Grass: A Guide to the Capital of Mongolia can be purchased from Hong Kong University Press or online from Amazon.com and various other retailers.
M.A. Aldrich is also the author of The Search for a Vanishing Beijing: A Guide to China’s Capital Through the Ages and The Perfumed Palace: Islam’s Journey from Mecca to Peking.