On the side of the road lies a military base, dressed in a khaki green, as it curiously juxtaposed with a densely packed Buddhist graveyard and stupa draped in its richly coloured flags on the other. This official presence and suggestions of a concentrated population were some of the first indications of Ulaanbaatar. As we pedaled on harassed by the more assertive driving of Mongolia’s capital, the pullulations and vibrance of the capital drew us in. A symbol of the countries resurgent pride and growing confidence bore down on us. On the billboard were the iconic monuments of the world; The Eiffel Tower, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, The Statue of Liberty, Big Ben and, of course, the imposing Mongolian Horse of Genghis Khan a short drive outside the city. During the seventy years of Soviet rule the utterance of Genghis was wiped from the lips of its population. At the Empire’s zenith, Mongolia was fifteen times larger than it is today, despite it still being the fifteenth largest country in the world.
For hundreds of kilometres, including our entry into Ulaanbaatar, we avoided the debris from Soviet rule in the form of empty vodka bottles along the road. A 25% alcohol dependency rate is a sad consequence for a country trying to escape it historical past of Russian and Chinese subjugation. Even the name of the city is literally translated as ‘Red Hero. Yurts containing the recently migrated nomads of Mongolian history came to be part of its future in this sprawling city clamped by steep hills. It became obvious that in the past thirty years Ulaanbaatar has experienced a 3000% growth rate as the city’s infrastructure and roads cracked, buckled and jolted under the pressure of ever increasing numbers of Toyota Prius’ (which constitute the vast majority of Mongolian cars) and Land Cruisers.
As we crossed over the Tuul River, the lifeblood of Ulaanbaatar, I could see the city as two halves - a yin and a yang. Behind me, in the yurts and shacks lies the poverty which sees people huddling in manholes during the winter months and burning coal and even plastic bottles, contributing to the cities pollution. Partly for this reason it is the most polluted capital in the world. In front is the growing prosperity of Mongolia’s elite. Mercedes G-Wagon’s costing tens of millions of tugrik smugly rolled past. On a newly constructed golf course, the first international course in Mongolia, the countries great and good tees off as we can stare up at its raised banks*. *The luxurious 25 floors of polished glass of the Blue Sky Tower, a name recalling the central image of Mongolian spiritualism, the Eternal Blue Sky, leans upwards like an unfurling sail as cocktails floated around the polished decks of its upper floors. Even as the statue of Lenin in the central square was recently torn down (and in an ironic twist of his fate was auctioned off) this prosperity is confined to a small elite as the rest labour on.
The beep of a horn sent me back to the moment as the traffic ground to a halt. The car pooling system where only certain registration plates can drive on certain days seemed to have made little difference to the speed of the journey. Ulaanbaatar was a city which the Soviets designed to never accommodate more than 500,000 people, let alone over the 1,500,000 today. A newly constructed pavement saw tired labourers wave at us as Will rattled over a pain inducing speed bump. I felt a pull on the back of my bike, as if an air brake had been applied. A young Mongolian boy wearing hoody, jeans and sporting a pair of roller skates held onto my pannier. With my newly attached carriage I was employed to pull him through the city as amused traffic gave us space as they snapped their photos of the spectacle. On my right was the Black Market, the central shopping district for the local population. It used to sell stolen items but now it vended off a congealed mass of copies and replicas covered on iron railings, painted containers and creaky wooden tables. A suitably Western fist pump with the boy concluded the journey as he slingshot through the traffic using cars door handles. We rolled into the hotel for the night after over 150 kilometres of riding that day, as my lucky charm on the back of my bike - Vishnu - dangled helplessly after the strains of the journey.
The 7am chimes of the gong from the local monastery sent us flying downstairs for a breakfast of; 2 chocolate muffins, 1 omelette, two fried eggs, two yoghurts, a bowl of cereal, several cups of orange juice, milk, a litre of water, a plate of sausages, 4 dumplings and a few pieces of broccoli as my stomach welcomed its inflation.
After an enjoyable and insightful afternoon with Jim and Nomuunbat Dwyer, long-term expat residents of Ulaanbaatar, seeing the city and learning more about Mongolia’s place in the context of the New Silk Road and Asia’s future, we anticipated our visit to the North Korean National Restaurant. It comes equipped with its exported waitresses and apparently bountiful supplies of food. Mongolia is one of the few countries in the world boasting both a North and South Korean Embassy. It keeps up good relations with both parties having a visa free arrangement with North Korea and a high level of trade with South Korea.
Jim had suggested that we visit the North Korean National Restaurant and it was one of these rare experiences that we couldn’t miss as we waved down a car to head off to the EXE plaza’s fourth floor. Ulaanbaatar is a giant Uber system without Uber as most drivers stop and deliver you to your chosen location, even without a taxi license, in return for financial reimbursement. As we navigated to this hidden North Korean breadbasket, it was only when we sat down at the table - seeing the menus that we knew we were in the right place. Obsequious staff guided us to a table as gleams and patience persisted under the watchful eye of the party official at the back of the room (some waitresses had fled their little North Korea, although I do not know if their attempts were successful).
The interior was a chintzy mix of dangling fairy lights, tacky paintings of waterfalls and sunsets and fake flowers as the restaurants proceedings were coordinated to us in broken English. Steaming plates of food were offered before us as testament to the cornucopia of good things which flow out of North Korea. I received a generous portion of peppered beef on hot pebbles. As the aromas wafted up into my sinus’ I was sure they didn’t want me to recall the 104 cattle which Mongolia airlifted to them as humanitarian aid on 29 December 2014 as the mirage evaporated up with the smell.
As we dug into our meals, the beaming waitresses, dressed in uniforms like aircraft stewardesses lined the stage in front of us as they began a synchronised dance. We sniggered at the empty emotion. The production was in desperate need of elements of meta-theatricality (as was the restaurant itself). In an unpredicted extension of The Democratic Republic of North Korea's diplomatic mission towards the West the waitresses came around, and looking us in the eye, firmly shook our hands as the stage travelled further into the restaurant as I tried to hold a sense of decorum.
Having enjoyed the transformative experience, a small gift shop with glass counter sold small trinkets. Badges, patches, stickers and medals of the Glorious Leader shone with the brightness of a nuclear detonation. A collection of memorabilia demanded $120 (amusingly only dollars accepted) as North Korea welted under the sway of foreign purchasing power from its ‘greatest enemy’. A book on ‘Seventy Years of Excellency by the Supreme Leader’ sadly was neither signed by the Supreme Leader nor was it for sale as I was keen to read of his achievements.
As we returned to the hotel hailing another unsuspecting driver, recharged and ready for another week of pedaling heading North West, the booms and roars of fireworks concluded Mongolia’s Day of the Young Soldier as the hums of monks and bells were drowned out.