I am writing these comments as we journey across the Mongolian steppes in a comfortable Chinese train heading towards the Gobi Desert and China after three days in Mongolia. This short visit to Mongolia has been my first and has revealed one surprise after another from the moment I noted that the streets of the capital Ulaan Baatar seemed to be full of very attractive young women. This was a million miles away from the stereotype I had of a somewhat stocky round faced nomad adorned in furs ,living in a Yurt or Ger as they are known here and raised on Yak butter!.
By contrast the young women of UB would not be out of place in fashion conscious Shanghai, Hong Kong or Bangkok. They are oriental in appearance but with a slightly fully figure than most slender oriental women – or should I not beat around the bush and just say with attractive busts! And our guide Gerlee was drop dead gorgeous ,even allowing for the fact that like many western men I have always found oriental women exceedingly attractive.
But we will return to Gerlee later because Mongolia itself clearly offered a lot more than attractive women. It is a country of almost 3 million people yet 6 times the size of France or about the size of Western Europe. Almost half the population live in the capital, which indicates how sparsely the rest of the nation is populated and almost a third of the country is aged 14 or under! It is a landlocked country, distant from the sea and dominated my mountains, steppes or grassland and deserts. Historically the country has been both a bulwark between its powerful neighbours Russia and China and at times dominated by both. This position between two great powers is reflected in its national emblem and flag and like Britain, Mongolia was once a global power as in the time of Genghis Khan this nation ruled much of the world. Mongolia has an Asian language but adapted the Cyrillic alphabet when a Soviet satellite which is thus doubly confusing for western visitors but there were plenty of shops, bars, restaurants and shops with signs in English.
My wife Sharron was initially disappointed with Ulaan Baatar (or UB in local parlance) as like Samarkand, Kabul and Kathmandu Ulaan Baatar is evocative of an ancient world.
In truth UB, like so many Asian cities is a fascinating mix of old and new where the modern and traditional co-exist side by side and a specialist brand store like Adidas can coexist on the same street as local traders selling goods from the back of their cars parked adjacent to the sidewalk.
It is a city of contrasts where the highest landmark , the futurist looking and curved wave like 26 storey Blue Sky building would not look out of place in Hong Kong or Dubai but where a kilometre away the Gandan Khid Monastery complex, home to more than 800 Monks which would not look out of place in Kathmandu or Lhasa with Prayer Wheels, Ornate statues, hundreds of brightly decorated Buddhas, chanting purple cloaked monks and a giant gold covered statue of Buddha over 25 metres tall and every bit as impressive as the famed reclining Buddha in Bangkok.
Sukhe Bator Square is a large imposing square surrounded by attractive buildings that include two museums and an Opera House but dominated by the Parliament House with a very impressive and imposing statue of Genghis Khan. The square is a great place for people watching as is a stroll along Peace Avenue past numerous bars, restaurants and coffee shops, not least the Amsterdam Coffee shop ever popular with travellers and with free internet thrown in. But it is when one enters the National Department Store that one gets the overwhelming impression that Mongolia has embraced capitalism and consumer goods at an even faster pace than Russia. Six floors of high quality and luxury western brands at comparable prices to London left me struggling to grasp how a population of barely a million could support such a store which was very palatial and comparable with the malls of Dubai and Bangkok and even more impressive than the revamped Gum store in Moscow which itself was an impressive collection of designer brand boutiques. The city was replete with Toyota Land Cruisers but the traffic flow was pedestrian at best along pot holed roads and talking of pedestrians every major intersection had a policeman directing the traffic in tandem with the traffic lights but with assistants equipped with loudspeakers to direct pedestrians and censure those literally stepping out of line and into the traffic! From the array of goods in the store and from the many Land Cruisers on the road there is clearly money in Ulaan Baatar.
The city is also replete with Karaoke Bars, all it seems with the added attraction of an obligatory VIP rooms which in many Asian cities are little more than a front for single men to meet local ladies but our local guide Gerlee assured me the locals will go to them as a couple and in family groups and that the VIP rooms carer for nothing more nefarious than a facility for a private hire so a group can sing in privacy.
Which brings us nicely back to Gerlee. We are travelling for a few more days with a largely Australian group of 15 people and Diana our capable Russian Group Manager. Diana is young, attractive, doll like and capable – and used to being in charge. Gerlee was also young, very attractive, doll like and when Gerlee disappeared after arranging our transfer from the station to our hotel did a leaving Diana to cope alone with a group of potentially irritable and tired Australians after a two night journey from Irkutsk in Russia and arriving at 0630 local time. When Gerlee reappeared that evening to accompany the group to a cultural show a clearly irritated Dianna made it clear she had expected Gerlee to be present all day and said ‘We will discuss this later’.
The next morning Diana advised everyone she had had a long discussion with Gerlee who had apparently not realised she was required on our arrival day in Ulaan Baator and ‘we have agreed we will start again and all will be all right and forgiven if she makes a big effort’ No problem for myself and Sharron as we much preferred to be left to ourselves in Ulaan Baator but Diana was tired, could not check all her group into the hotel so early and could have done with some help.
But not withstanding this early misunderstanding which maintained a slight frisson on the Russian side we headed off into the surrounding countryside with Gerlee on our second day.
And Gerlee was a delight –as well being petite and demure with brightly coloured orange hair she was keen to tell us about Mongolia. I guess Dianna told her I was a former Tour Operator so she quickly remembered my name and I became the butt of her jokes (What is the difference between Michael and Superman – Michael wears his underpants on the inside but Superman wears them on the outside!) but we got to know each other fairly well over the next 48 hours.
It turned out that Gerlee who was 26 going on 16 in appearance was in fact the mother of two of two young children – Anujin her four year old daughter and Anand her 18 month son. Although she had not completed her degree her English was pretty good and she had been working as a guide for a couple of years, primarily as the local guide for a number of groups of mainly Australian groups of 18 – 35 year olds who were known as ‘Vodka Groups’ as they travelled by rail between Beijing and Moscow.
Her husband Tuugii was like her 26 and a bit of a mystery – he looked after the children when she was working but she hoped he would soon be getting some construction work as he laid laminated wooden floors and there was certainly a lot of construction going on in UB. It appeared he did not object to her travelling through Mongolia accompanying young overseas visitors (who would clearly not find the delightful Gerlee unattractive company or rather not believe their luck in scoring such an attractive guide!) or maybe their economic situation meant he had no choice if he was not working.
Gerlee was a devout Buddhist praying homage to Buddha when she took us to a temple and typically Buddhist in that she believed if she worked hard and did a good job the Gods would smile on her and bring fortune and good luck to her family and children. Meanwhile she was planning to do all she could to accelerate the process because she revealed to us that she had made several trips to Beijing to buy clothes wholesale which she brought back to UB and sold to her friends. But she did this very much on the cheap. It was not the through train to Beijing for her but a collection of local trains and buses. I asked her if she had ever gone to Hong Kong to buy clothes and she put her hand to her mouth and gasping said ‘Oh No but that would be special – they have the latest clothes there first’ (Lesson number one to any wannabee suitors of Mongolian guides – a free trip to Hong Kong might take you a long way!). She was keen to learn Chinese next as there were many Chinese visitors to Mongolia and perhaps Italian – see
had seen a number of Italian engineers working in the country and said that there were often well paid jobs for interpreters.
I asked her if she had ever been to Russia as she was able to speak some Russian but she said she was nervous about going there. I wondered if that had anything to do with the number of assertive Russian Tour Managers she had to deal with!
Gerlee took us on a visit to the nearby Gorkhi Terelj National Park and whenever we made a stop she would not start until the group had gathered around her so she was ready to give us ‘informations’. I suspect being aware of Diana’s displeasure at her disappearance the previous day Gerlee was going to make sure everyone learnt as much as possible about Mongolia.
And as National Parks go Terelj summed up the pluses and minuses of Mongolia in a nutshell. The local Tour Operators had arranged for camels and handlers with eagles and vultures to be placed along the access road for photo shoots which was not a good sign but the scenery was
impressive as was the amount of discarded rubbish – plastic bottles, tins, paper that seemed to be everywhere. An international cleanup program would work wonders in the Mongolia rather than the periodic trips to clean up Everest.
National Parks are usually associated with wilderness areas kept in a pristine state but there seemed to be a lot of development at Terelj, primarily ‘camps’ so tourists could stay overnight in cabins or a Mongolian Ger or Yurt as they are more commonly known in the west.
And although I was somewhat apprehensive about our planned overnight stay at a Ger Camp (these somewhat artificial experiences close to major cities are usually best avoided as somewhat artificial experiences) the camp where we stayed was a pleasant enough experience and does at least give visitors making only a brief visit to the country to get a taste of the landscape. The Gers sleep four in basic but more than adequate accommodation with a stove providing heat and if you leave the door open someone will enter the Ger, rebuild the fire at 11pm and 6am when you will begin to roast. I was surprised they used wood burning stoves. In most parts of Asia Yeti or Cow paddies are the more common fuel that avoids removing trees. I did notice that when we visited a local Ger to meet a ‘local’ Mongolian she had a bucket of Yeti paddies to fuel her stove. Maybe the local Tour Operators think that most tourists would not be able to sleep next to a pile of burning cow pats?
The four of us spent an enjoyable hour talking in our Yurt with Gerlee and learning about her life before we went to bed. She was obviously fascinated by the significance of my ear rings ‘Nothing more than vanity’ I advised and she replied ‘It makes you look like a Rock Star’ to which I responded ‘You can stay as long as you want – I have had more compliments from you in one day with Superman comparisons and Rock Star comments than I have had from my wife in the last 10 years!’ Even Sharron laughed at that. I suggested we could probably make it through the night without having to be disturbed by someone coming to rebuild our fire unless she was planning to visit personally. She told us about her family and when I said I might write an article that she could read to her husband so he could see what a good job she was doing she commented ‘Please do – that would make me very happy’ She told us that in the summer she usually works full time or most of the time for a UB based Tour Operator that owned the Ger camp and earns about £300/US$500 a month but in winter is just paid when she has a group to accompany.
When she mentioned kindergartens I asked her how much she had to pay to send her daughter to a kindergarten and she replied that if she worked hard she hoped things would be good for her and her family. My impression was that she was saving face and deftly changing the subject and this meant ‘we cannot afford to send her to a kindergarten but if I work hard things will improve’. Or perhaps she just misunderstood what I was asking and I read too much into her reply. I know from a multitude of personal experiences that many problems and conflicts can arise from a simple misunderstanding when one of two parties is not talking in their native tongue. And then the misinformation is passed on and a completely erroneous impression is picked up about a person. A comment from Gerlee to one of her groups that ‘I am married but when I work as a guide I am single’ might be no more than statement of fact or it might have quite a different interpretation!
It was interesting however to note that earlier in the day when we had visited a spectacularly located Meditation centre high in the park and I asked her how it had been maintained in the Communist era when many monasteries were closed or destroyed her defensive response was ‘Do you really want to know?’
‘Well you are the Guide – I will let you decide’ I replied and she said ‘Although it looks old this centre was only built in 2006’. It was if Gerlee felt her country would lose face for having deceived us if we thought it was older! And as everyone knows losing face is a big no-no in Asia.
Gerlee’s father was a mechanic or engineer on the railway which plays a major role in the economy of this landlocked nation providing access to Irkutsk and Russia and Beijing and China.
At the end of the evening Gerlee said she had been happy to talk to us, practice her English and learn about our lives and now she had to go and study the information about the places she was taking us to the following day. And sadly it was someone else who crept into our Ger at around 0530 to rebuild our fire!
One of the attractive features of Asian women is that they often take genuine delight in simple pleasures and the next morning Gerlee took great delight in dressing group members up in National Mongolian costume for photos – and her infectious hu
mour actually made it bearable. Then we were on our way returning to Ulaan Baatar and en route as well as giving us more informations about Mongolia Gerlee told us that she was happy for three reasons. Firstly this was the biggest group she had ever been responsible for (15 people!) and secondly she was so happy it was snowing with the first of the autumn snows turning the landscape white. This of course was great for our largely Aussie group who rarely see snow on the beach at Bondi but it did not tempt me out of our bus. And Gerlee’s third reason for being happy – she was sure that after singing for the group they would return the pleasure with a chorus of Waltzing Matilda?
So that was why on the Mongolian steppes Gerlee rendered the bus speechless with a brilliant a cappella version of the Carpenters classic ‘Yesterdays Once More’ – not an easy song to sing let alone without any accompaniment. Clearly Gerlee has spent more than a few more evenings in the Karaoke Bars than she had indicated or the stories that she occasionally sang with a band and worked as a DJ had some basis of fact and indeed she said she liked to research western music on the internet. Diana was then invited to deliver a more than acceptable version of the uplifting Russian National anthem before a rather sorry and limp version of Waltzing Matilda completed our morning’s musical interlude.
I was left wondering what further charms Gerlee had up her sleeve as we proceeded to a visit a Cashmere factory and then the Soviet built Zaisan Memorial on the outskirts of the that offered panoramic views over UB and a host of new apartment complexes below us. I am always interested in property values and I calculated that the average cost of a 700 square foot built apartment would be around £90,000 or $140,000 in the most prestigious suburb of the city.
When we arrived at the Natural History Museum I told Gerlee I was not bothering with the tour but planning to do my own thing and she expressed some surprise but Diana quickly stepped in full protective mode ‘It is Ok – let him go as he knows what he is doing and can make his own way back to the hotel’. As it happened I ended having a pleasant lunch with our two doll like guides who were taking a break in the same fast food joint that I had found after having delivered our group into the hands of a specialist museum guide.
I told Gerlee she should get her company to send her to Russia to work as an unpaid assistant to the capable Diana (that might not have gone down so well) to broaden her international experience and then out of left field she asked me if I was a good person which gave me the opening to a myriad of clever and not so funny responses but not before Diana quickly commented ‘What a strange question’ . I settled on making a comment about there being good and bad in all of us at different times but on balance I believed there was probably more good than bad in me. And then they returned to the group and I went off to spend some time alone in UB. I had been trying throughout our three days together to get a good picture of our two Guides together – our Mongolian and Russian dolls. One assertive and capable, the other demure and shy and never thought of taking a picture of them both together in the restaurant but suspect I got enough anyway to illustrate this tale of two guides.
It is indeed a city and country of contrasts. A city where many of the population still live in traditional gers and where many of the shops and storage facilities on the edge of the city seemed to be in converted Containers. If any insurance company is ever looking for any missing or misappropriated containers I suggest a suitable place to start a retrieval search might be in the suburbs of UB! There were parts of the suburbs where the only signs of inhabitation were either a number of gers gathered in a walled compound or a converted container. I was expecting to see Gers on the steppes of Mongolia but not within the city! It is a city that Gerlee advised us was the coldest capital in the world. Surely not I thought forgetting that Lhasa, Winnipeg and the Siberian cities are not capitals.
With some reluctance I went to the Cultural show performed for visitors and the quality of music, singing and dancing was outstanding and easily the most impressive of any such show I have ever seen – it was beautifully choreographed and skilfully performed and topped up by a tall and graceful contortionist who twisted her body into positions that I would not have thought possible. This Mongolian beauty concluded her performance by twisting her body into a position with her head between her legs and then suspended her entire body by clamping her teeth onto a stand. I suspect her performance might have given a few of the younger members of the audience some tips on how to improve their sex lives.
Gerlee accompanied us to the station for our 730am departure for the 36 hour rail journey to Beijing and left me her email and Facebook address and it will be interesting to see how her career develops in the years ahead.
Polite, shy and attractive but trying hard to do well with her lot I liked Gerlee a lot. I enjoyed her company and will always remember the joke that she us in our Ger at the camp.
There were two women who were both married. One was married to her husband and was faithful to him throughout her life. The other wife embarked on numerous affairs.
When they died it turned out it was the unfaithful wife went to heaven but the faithful wife ended up in Hell.
The faithful wife was must upset and went to God for clarification.
‘Well’ God said ‘it is quite easy to explain. Your friend gave pleasure to many men throughout her life and deserves her rewards whereas you were selfish and only one man enjoyed your company’
My kind of woman!
© Michael Bromfield 2012
January 14, 2013 at 5:04 AM
i never thought that mongolia could be this complex, a place of contrast. based from what i have known, i pictured to be laid back and full of yurts. now i know. it was indeed a perfect journey…an angel as a guide and a country to remember.
thanks, writer, for another view of the world.
January 3, 2015 at 12:34 AM
Mongolia was a revelation to me and very definitely a country I hope to return to and visit again. Michael
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