Next Great Travel Writer: The Real Mongolia

This week, Traveler editor in chief Keith Bellows and the “Next Great Travel Writer” contest winner Suzanne Roberts are visiting China and Mongolia, and they’re writing about their experiences for Intelligent Travel. Today’s post is the first from Suzanne, and she writes of her search for the “Real Mongolia.”

I began thinking about what it means to find the ‘real’ Mongolia when I realized a couple of days ago in Beijing that the ‘real’ Beijing is both the glass windowed high-rises and stylish shops and the winding alleyways of the hutongs, where the boxer-clad denizens ride rusty bicycles past vendors displaying plastic bins of quivering prawns, green snails, and fish still flopping. Both are the ‘real’ Beijing and contribute to the character of the city. I arrived to Mongolia wondering: What constitutes the ‘real’ Mongolia?

Before leaving for Mongolia, I imagined green hills sprinkled with the traditional tent-like houses called gers and horse-riding nomads tending their flocks. From the plane, I did see herders moving sheep, green hills, and the small round gers on the hillsides. But as we approach the city of Ulaanbaatar,  a patchwork of Soviet square concrete-block buildings, glass high-rises, and construction cranes are scattered across the skyline. As it turns out, the ‘real’ Mongolia is both country and city, nomads and skyscrapers.

Our hotel hints at this Russian influence with its sparkling chandeliers juxtaposed against the shabby gray carpeting and concrete walls. My enormous but spartan room overlooks a statue of Lenin. Keith and I leave the hotel and wander around the city.

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We happen upon the University of Education, an austere concrete building with incense billowing from the restrooms and a giant tile portrait of Sukhbaatar, the national hero of Mongolia who led the revolution against the Chinese. Because it is the summer holiday, only a handful of students and teachers are around. We peek through an open doorway and find a woman at work her art studio. Her name is Bulgantuya, and she is a professor at the university and an artist who has shown her work as far away as Beijing, Seoul, and San Francisco.

She proudly shows us her workspace, a room no more than about two by three meters stacked full of paintings.

She climbs onto a chair and pulls her paintings down from the rafters. She depicts ethereal women, queens and goddesses, in front of the Mongolian steppes. She also shows us her artist husband’s beautiful paintings, allegorical renderings of one of the Mongolians most valuable animals, the horse — used for riding but also for the coveted mare’s milk, which they ferment into a type of ‘white beer.’ Keith contemplates buying one of Bulgantuya’s paintings–the Mongolian queen.

“How would I get it home?” he wonders, and as I begin to offer suggestions regarding the hotel, the post office, DSL … he finally shakes his head and says, “My wife would kill me.”

Bulgantuya tells us about her hopes to study art in the future in the United States, but a visa is very difficult to obtain for Mongolians, especially since some who leave never return, and with a population of about 3 million, they can’t afford to lose anyone. In fact, mothers who have five or more children receive the order of “Glorious Motherhood” (with first class awards going to mothers of eight or more). Both classes get a prize that amounts to about $43 per year from the Mongolian government, on top of the small monthly allocation all children receive.

After leaving the university, we pass a chef pulling sheep carcasses out of an SUV to bring to a local restaurant; we dodge a few open manholes; and we pass advertisements for a clothing line called “Gobi,” which boasts the slogan “Where elegance meets quality,” along with a beautiful model wearing a cashmere garment that is a cross between traditional Mongolian del and low-cut evening gown. In fact, many of the Mongolian women, even those in the countryside, wear mini skirts, lacy tights, and stiletto heels. An American expat named Andy we met suggested that because the winters are so cold here, everyone only has three months to “show off their goods,” so to speak. “The rest of the year,” he said, “all you see are people’s eyes.”

Read More from this series: Arriving in Beijing, Day Two in Beijing.

Photos: Suzanne Roberts