As of today, I’ve been living in Ulaanbaatar for about two weeks. The capital of Mongolia and now home to half the country’s population, the city can at times feel overwhelming. Construction on every corner has not yet changed the fact that the city barely has the infrastructure to support the influx of people. For me, this can be felt most evidently in the traffic. Traffic is a constant in the city. In every district, almost every hour, every day. The local UB dweller knows this, and is just as aggressive as any driver, dodging buses and playing chicken with oncoming cars to cross the street. When school started September 1st, teams of traffic police took to the streets, wielding whistles and fluorescent batons, conducting the traffic as though it were an orchestra. Courageous men, to stand in the middle of the street like that. Slightly suicidal, maybe, but courageous nonetheless.
Similarly, traffic laws we take for granted in the States are not quite as relevant in UB. Double parking seems to be the norm, and rules like leaving handicap spots open or wearing a seatbelt appear as more suggestions than anything else. That said, UB is a fairly simple place to navigate. The main thoroughfare, Peace Avenue, runs the length of the city, east to west. Follow Peace Avenue, and eventually you’ll come to Sukhbaatar Square, the city center. There sits the stately Government House, and surrounding it, several important buildings, including the Mongolian Stock Exchange, the City Administration, which is housed in a tall, sleek black building, and a large, pink opera house. All built in different decades, with very different architecture. Luckily, almost anything a person might need can be found in and around Sukhbaatar Square, including the State Department Store. Founded in 1921, the place has about five different levels, and holds everything from designer perfume to flat screen TVs, as well as a supermarket on the first floor.
Also luckily, my homestay is located directly off of Peace Avenue, in a tall apartment building, almost smack dab between Sukhbaatar Square and where I go to school in the SIT center, my study abroad program. And while it’s just about impossible to get lost on Peace Avenue, I have a thoroughly useless sense of direction, and I’ve come to rely on a handful of local landmarks to help me navigate the various, sometimes overwhelming, parts of the city.
Landmark #1: the Golden Pegasus
Every morning when I leave my apartment building to walk to school, this lovely scene greets me. I’m not sure if its a kind of park for the complex, or purely for asthetic value, but it ensures I never forget where I live.
Landmark #2: the Officer’s Palace
Before I could nominally navigate my way around UB, the city would quickly become a blur of brown buildings and signs in cyrillic. If it weren’t for this flag memorial thingy, known as the Officer’s Palace, reminding me to turn left for the SIT center, I probably would have just kept walking all morning until I reached the ger district.
Landmark #3: Blue Sky Tower
Comfortingly tall and blue, this building stands out, anchoring me to the center of the city. I’ve never been inside. I don’t really feel the need to. Just seeing its bright blue curves peeking out from behind grey buildings helps me orient myself in the city.
Last but not least, landmark #4: Sukhbaatar Square
Directly in the middle of the city, Sukhbaatar Square provides the ultimate landmark for finding your way around UB. If I can find the square, then I’m that much closer to finding the one Mexican restaurant in the city, or the supermarket, or a real cup of coffee. It’s an essential, not to mention striking, part of the Ulaanbaatar.
This last week has been a whirlwind of lectures, language classes, and city life. But I feel like I’m beginning to find my place in UB. As well as some pretty excellent vegetarian restaurants and expat cafes. Beyond that, I’m STOKED for this week, as we leave on Wednesday for the countryside! Goodbye cushy city life, hellooooo nomadic, one room family living!
A final note:
We were sent this article for one of our lectures. It’s a NatGeo article, so a quick read, and a really interesting perspective on the growth and change of the city and country.
*This post (and others!) can also be found at my study abroad blog, www.excessivefreedom.wordpress.com
– Heather Cook, DUSA Blogger fall 2013