2. Socialism with a camel's face

Even if you live in a city, you can be a nice person.
Mongolian proverb

A Russian in Ulan Bator doesn't feel as a foreigner. The city is not much different from some Siberian provincial capitals: Soviet architecture, Soviet cars, new Mongols (or, simply, local mobsters) driving expensive SUVs. The main street had been renamed Chingiz Han Prospect (after Genkhis Khan), but old "Lenin Prospect" signs could still be seen on some buildings. Parts of the street looked more like bazaars for souvenirs and books, which ranged from Russian translations of old American pulp fiction (some of them actually written in Moscow) to Windows 95 manuals.

The city got its erotic name (Ulaan Baator means Red Giant or Red Hero) in recent times. It also got its present location only recently. Until the 1770-s, it was called Orgo (Headquarters), was made up entirely of gers, and frequently moved around the countryside. It was a beautiful city (since Genkhis Khan's time, each large Mongolian settlement had its own architect). Bogdo Gegens, the spiritual leaders of the country, had the largest ger, which could shelter more than a thousand people at a time.

In 1779 the city finally settled down right beside Bogd Uul, one of Asia's most sacred mountains. Nowadays it mostly consists of standard apartment buildings, but there are still lots of gers. In communist times many people moved in from the grasslands. Currently about a quarter of the country's two million people live in Ulan Bator. (In 1979, there was only one million people in Mongolia). Some of the recent migrants still hold on to steppe traditions, and this leads to some comic situations. Many Mongols don't bury their dead, but leave them in the steppe, so that the body can quickly return to the natural cycle of elements, and the soul be reincarnated. Personally, I wouldn't mind being laid to rest in this manner, but in the city the results are gruesome: it is not uncommon to see a stray dog running along the street with a human hand in its teeth, followed by a mob of Western tourists with cameras.

There is some beautiful architecture left in Ulan Bator: two Lamaist monasteries, and Khan's Headquarters. Most old buildings are built in Chinese style, but in Gandan Monastery you can see two temples built in unique Mongolian manner. They are constructed from stone, but look like rounded gers with gilded roofs. In Choijin Lamyn Sum monastery, there are some colorful frescoes showing the tortures that the enemies of Buddhism endure in the afterlife: they are skinned, gutted, and have their eyes scooped out.

If you are looking for something more peaceful, there's a splendid collection of Zanabazar's sculptures in Khan's Headquarters. Zanabazar (born in 1635) was the first of the Bogdo Gegens. His diplomatic skills saved the country from Manchu invasion when he talked the Manchu into allowing Mongolia to join their empire as a partner. But he is mostly remembered as an outstandingly talented artist. All fine arts of Mongolia were deeply influenced by his work. The twelve statues of goddess Tara by Zanabazar are considered the pinnacle of Buddhist sculpture. They are very small, but charming. Legend has it that his model for Green Tara, the most beautiful statue, was his lover - a girl from a family of poor arats (shepherds). The legend also claims that other lamas poisoned the girl to prevent Zanabazar from breaking the vow of celibacy. That's hard to believe: the second Bogdo Gegen almost openly kept a huge harem.

There are also some interesting museums in the city, with excellent collections of ancient masks, traditional costumes, and stone statues from Sarmatian and Hun times. But the Natural History museum is the best. Here you can see one of the World's largest collections of dinosaurs, the result of many decades of work by American, Soviet, Czech, and other expeditions. Their findings included: zauropod skin prints; a female Protoceratops buried alive while sitting on a clutch of eggs; and a pair of dinosaurs (a Protoceratops and a Velosiraptor) that died while fighting. There are also two excellent skeletons of Tarbosaurus baatar (local version of T-rex), sauropods and duck-bills. One of the walls in Dinosaur Hall is decorated by a pair of huge hands - they look like those of a Tyrannosaur, but twenty times larger. Unfortunately, no other bones of this mysterious species were ever found. There are also some spectacular mammals from Northern Mongolia: complete skeletons of extinct rhinos, including Indricotherium, the largest land mammal ever, and a meter-long skull of Hyenodon, a giant carnivorous ungulate.

It took me two days to explore the city, and then I was ready to move on, but the weather wasn't good for hitchhiking: it was very cold (the city is 1,300 m/4,300' above sea level), and it rained frequently. Besides, no one of the Expedition folks had ever tried traveling around independently, so they didn't know if it was possible at all. I had to overuse their hospitality and stay in the base camp for five days in a hope that someone will go somewhere in one of the Expedition's trucks. Finally, Bold, a local ornithologist, took me and two other visitors from Moscow on a day trip to the grasslands just outside the city.

It was mid-August, but the steppe was still bright-green, with pools of blue gentians. Sheep and horses were everywhere, but there was also wildlife: upland buzzards, choughs, Dahurian jackdaws, and giant ravens. Small burrows covered the roadsides. They were inhabited by tiny Brandt's voles, which often greeted us standing upright and whistling.

The official goal of our trip was to look for dead birds - the visiting zoologists needed them to measure the levels of various contaminants in the tissues. We picked up a few dead crows from garbage dumps, then found a nest of saker falcons on a utility pole, and collected some dead falcon chicks, magpies, and larks from the ground below. On the way back, we noticed a pair of demoiselle cranes, and spent a few minutes observing them. Bold looked at the two zoologists as they watched the birds in excitement, laughed and said: "You should go on a longer trip, guys".

Later I understood him.

Next day was sunny, and I decided to climb Bogd Uul. This mountain, 2,256 m/7,520' tall, is one of the World's oldest Nature reserves. It was considered sacred since the Stone Age, and Genkhis Khan once used it for shelter. At that time, he was not a khan, just a small boy called Temujin, but he already had powerful enemies because of his obvious leadership talents. He had probably the most outstanding biography in history - like a long action movie, sometimes slipping into a fairy tale.

The Bogd Uul slopes are within a few minutes' walk from a city bus stop. Their ancient taiga forests are separated from blooming grasslands by groves of birches so old they look like oaks. Some of the World's largest larch trees grow along the summit trail, which follows a small creek. If you wait patiently near a talus slope you might see a solongoi (Altai weasel), hunting Northern pikas. At higher altitude, larches are replaced by Siberian pines. Pine forest is evergreen and full of life: black squirrels, chipmunks, various voles are so tame that you can sometimes hand-feed them. Under rocks I found some Mongolian toads looking like old Buddhist statues. The summit is actually a broad mesa covered with dense spruce taiga with large clearings, pink with wild geranium. If you approach such a clearing quietly, you can see Siberian red deer - females with fawns or huge males. I hiked across the mesa and was surprised to find that the southern slope was not forested. It was covered with blooming feathergrass steppe, dotted here and there with long-tailed ground squirrels, standing on guard like tiny road markers. A few ibex watched me from distant rocks.

Back in the base camp, I found that an Expedition team was about to leave on a month-long trip to Northern Mongolia. I decided not to join them: I didn't have that much time; besides, I was mostlly interested in seeing Southern Mongolia. The northern part is not so different from Siberia.

I spent the next day at a road junction just outside Ulan Bator. Until noon, I tried to get a lift, getting more and more cold under periodic showers, and watching roadside residents - Mongolian gerbils, eagles, larks, pipits, and wheatears. Later I befriended a guard at a checkpoint where all passing trucks had to register. So I watched TV in his room, eating boozes (large meat-filled dumplings), while he asked all passing drivers if they were going towards Gobi. But I missed the morning hours and now it was too late. The driver whom I asked to take me back to the city gave me an advice.

"If you wait at 8 am at the last stop of trolleybus number five, you can get a lift. Everybody who goes South waits there. Southbound trucks always pass there, and take as many people as they can".

That evening a really strong thunderstorm moved over the city. It lasted for only half an hour, but the streets became rivers and were filled with cars stuck with flooded spark plugs. Soon the water disappeared, leaving behind piles of garbage. Black kites, the city's main janitors, fought over the scraps. Ravens and crows are less numerous in Ulan Bator than kites because local people shoot and eat them occasionally.

At 7:30 am next morning (very, very early by local standards) I was waiting at the trolleybus stop. I was alone. At 8:45 a guy showed up and asked:

"Where going?"
"Omngov" (South Gobi district)
"It's too late. 9:30 is the best time for trucks."
"I'm here since eight."

He waited with me for few minutes, then left. I decided to wait until nine o'clock and then try the checkpoint again. At nine I remembered that my watch was ahead of time a little, so I decided to wait for one more minute. At that moment a tiny yellow bus with Omngov sign at its windshield appeared. Ten minutes later we were rolling south along a dusty road (there were almost no paved roads in Mongolia). As soon as the city disappeared behind a hill, the driver stopped and said something. Two out of five passengers could speak Russian, and they translated:

"The driver is tired, he wants to sleep. You drive".

It was only two months since I'd got my driver's license (which I'd left at home), and I'd never tried driving a bus before. But I knew there was no highway police anywhere outside the capital, and no traffic in sight, so I asked the driver to show me how to change the gears and carefully took off.

The wheel tracks were so deep that I didn't have to watch the road most of time and could look for wildlife instead. Soon, other passengers noticed what I was interested in, and every time we saw an animal they told me its Mongolian name. In fact, I could tell some of them myself, because Russian and even scientific names of grassland animals are often of Mongolian origin: Vulpes corsac for steppe fox (hors), Lepus tolai for desert hare (tuulai), Felis manul for Pallas' cat (manuul). I was more surprised to learn that the local name for cinereous vulture was condor. This bird really resembled Andean condor in flight, but how could the locals know it?

As we moved south, the steppe became paler, the grass shorter, and the herds of cattle smaller. More and more sunlight was passing through the gaps between wind-torn thunderclouds, and it was slowly getting warmer. Now, when I think about Mongolia, the same image always comes to mind: spots of sunlight playing on emerald-green grasslands, broken clouds flying fast over multicolored hills, fresh wind smelling of rain and flowers.

It was dark when we got to the town of Mandalgov (Sacred Gobi), the capital of Northern Gobi aimag (district). We had another day of driving ahead of us. In theory, we could cover the entire distance in one day. But it is difficult to travel fast in Mongolia, because locals prefer to pay a visit to almost every ger along the way to have some airag (horse milk) with its residents. We passed the town, thus crossing the border between grasslands and deserts, stopped at the first ger, and had our dinner. Everybody chose to sleep in the bus, but I looked at the sky, with stars bright and clear, and decided that there could be no more rain, so I threw my slipping bag on the grass outside.

Blue tent over green carpet,
Whispering grass of the steppe.
I have the largest house in the World,
Under the young moon.

My house has no doors, no windows,
It has no walls and no locks.
It is sunlit in daytime,
It is dark at night.

No house is better than mine,
My cozy and comfortable place,
Its ceiling is painted with stars,
Its floor is embroidered with flowers.

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