Looking out the airplane window last April, my first impression of Mongolia was that it was the land that time had forsaken. I had never flown over an area that was supposedly populated, but that also looked so barren and uninhabitable. The Gobi Desert stretched out as far as the eye could see, with the only interruption being the occasional glacier. As we flew on, I waited for any sign of vegetation or civilization to become denser, or to appear at all, when all of a sudden, I found myself over the nation’s capital, as though it had sprung out of the frozen dunes to surprise me.
While the endless, snow-speckled Gobi looked as though it had been untouched for millennia and as far from human influence as possible, Ulaanbaatar looked as though time had spliced the end of the Cold War with the 21st century. As we approached the city limits, there was absolutely no sign of life, and I could not wrap my head around the idea of a city with a population of one million people subsisting on land whose colors were entirely of the brown palette. The Mongolian diet relies heavily on meat products, but with zero apparent vegetation, I was bewildered as to what these animals could be eating. When we landed, plants came into view, but all were brown. The few sparse trees had no leaves, as if every bit of greenery had abandoned ship. Knowing the extreme fluctuations of weather between the summer and winter months, this was not too far from the truth. The buildings, too, appeared abandoned at first glance. Dusty and crumbling, they gave sense of decay much more dramatic than would be expected of a city experiencing the growth and inflation currently happening in “UB,” as the city is more commonly known.
The airport itself also looked deserted at first glance. Modern passenger jets on cement blocks appeared to be proudly displayed among ancient bi-planes in the tangled grass. The inside of the airport was small and very informal, but I was happy to be out of the biting and blowing cold. I was greeted by two men, both friendly and helpful, but reserved in demeanor. One of them was my host father, but as he stayed almost completely silent in the car ride from the airport (due, I’m guessing, to his meager English) I was not aware of his identity until we reached his residence.
While I was surprised to get into a car with a steering wheel on the right, oddly as common as having it on the left in Mongolia, I was much more in awe of what I observed on the ride to my host family’s apartment. What had appeared to be a desolate wasteland incapable of sustaining life was, in fact, bustling and quite contemporary on closer inspection. As we made our way through the windy and hilly streets, the city sprang to life. Traffic was surprisingly heavy as we made our way through downtown. I noted how little people obeyed basic, western traffic laws, speeding around traffic disruptions at will, and forgoing seatbelts and safety measures entirely. Even when a police car, with its siren on, was cut off in the creeping traffic, this merely prompted the police to drive on the grassy shoulder around the cluster. While the city still looked barren and forgotten to my ignorant eyes, people, many of whom were expensively and stylishly dressed, went about their business. I do not think I have ever been in an American city that was as homogenous as UB, with only one apparent phenotypical “race.” I was struck by the strange and conflicting sense that, though the population looked like it had very little outside influence, it was yearning to be a cosmopolitan force. As we passed museums and the city square, I noticed how many shops, monuments and public buildings were dedicated to Chinggis Khan. Many of those in western societies consider their historical figures of 500 to 600 years ago to be antiquated or even archaic in relevance. Considering this, I was stunned to observe so much public reverence and idolatry in the Mongolian culture of a leader who lived nearly one thousand years ago.
After arriving at my new place of residence, the next member of the family I met was the small Saraa. I had been shown to my room while her mother was bathing her. I obviously startled her by being in her home, but she was thrilled to have a new playmate, as most toddlers are. She was a precocious child, curious, adventurous and adorable with laughing eyes and a constant giggle. Her mother, Chingee, welcomed me warmly and wanted to serve me food the moment she met me. I was grateful for the offer but then felt foolish for being surprised at the plate of sausage, eggs and bread. Whether she was trying to prepare American food to ease my transition, or whether I was stupidly expecting overtly traditional food is unclear, but it made me rethink the “thank you” gifts I had brought. I decided to give them only the chocolates and the picture books about vintage Hollywood, where I grew up. Friendship bracelets seemed insultingly juvenile when they were so westernized.
Despite being relatively westernized, as I got to know my family better, I noticed stark differences in their home life in comparison to many American lifestyles. Chimgee is a doctor, and thinks nothing of taking off three years to raise little Saraa, though she was able to study and work at home while raising the older Saraa, sister to the young girl I met earlier, and whom I also met that night. Family is an actively central part of society, in a way that may seem to display a lack of personal drive to a westerner, but which just serves to highlight the prioritized place the family’s well-being holds over the individual’s success and personal wealth in Mongolian society. Also, though their apartment was certainly comfortable and practical, there were no luxuries for luxury’s sake. It was located in an area of the city that I am told is ideal, but which looks shabby and decrepit—not what an American would picture for a doctor’s home. I stayed in the older Saraa’s room, while she occupied the master bedroom, and her parents and little Saraa slept on the floor of the living room. I was told this was so little Saraa wouldn’t fall off a high bed. This unquestioning and unspoken willingness to compromise, palpable family bond, and absolute dedication of the parents to put the family dynamic first really touched me.
Our dinner that night was delicious: a soup made with noodles, onions, garlic, carrots, beef, potatoes, and a kind of root with which I was unfamiliar. The older Saraa fell into the family dynamic of helpfulness without any provocation or spoken words from either her or her parents: she helped her mother prepare dinner while watching her baby sister, as well as assisted with English translation for me, because she studied the language in school. Throughout my first day, UB became less of a foreboding desert and blossomed into a intriguing offering of what is possible, even in the least expected environments. Looking out the window of my room, the hills around the city came to life in colors of golds, pale greens and tans. The spectrum of ways of life in the city skyline completely shattered my naïve first impression of this society in the middle of nowhere. As I sit here by the flashing lights of the Asian music videos playing on TV, I wonder what else I may have turned up my nose at, or else simply could not see, when I was up in that high plane.