Some Winter Photos of UB

It has been more than two months i updated this blog the last time. There was a month of winter break, which made me too lazy with blogging here, and busy with reading some books. Then the new years celebration, followed by the Mongolian new year Tsagaan Sar, were great. I did a post on Tsagaan Sar last year. This year, it was not so exciting with Tsagaan Sar, as i could not manage to go to countryside and celebrate it with a family. I was in UB and celebrated it visiting homes of some friends and doing some TV programs before that. I will soon upload the video footage of one of the programs which i got.

For now, here i downloaded some photos from Facebook profile of different friends. I won’t credit the photographer since i don’t know who took which photo.

Frozen snow is on roads all winter in UB.

A view from the Central Tower.

Taken from Central Tower.

A Weekend in Erdenet

Erdenet city, view from a hill.

Its been too busy in recent days. I wanted to write about a weekend trip to Erdenet, last month, but the tight schedule of classes and other activities have kept me away from this blog.

Erdenet is the second largest city of Mongolia after capital Ulaanbaatar, that’s what some say, while others put Darkhan after UB. I was there for two days of the weekend on invitation of a friend, an African anthropologist living in Mongolia for more than 10 years now. He lives in Erdenet, that was the first reason for me to visit, but I was also curious to see the second largest city of this country, while living in capital UB for more than a year now. There are train, bus and taxi that travel everyday between UB and Erdenet. Train is the cheapest, with 6800 MNT (Mongolian Tugrug). But it departs at 8pm in the evening from UB arriving there in the morning. Second option is bus costing 11000 MNT and it takes 7-8 hours. Taxi or mini-vans go every hour from in front of the Train Station for 20000 MNT. Since we had not much time, taxi was the best option. While getting out UB, it took us more than 30 minutes due to traffic jam and rush hour of the afternoon. Normally I prefer discussion while traveling because of the long distance as it make you feel less tiresome. But my friend was sitting on the front seat, and the taxi driver had put a Mongolian song on high volume, while fellow passengers sitting beside me were making loud laughter.  In such a situation, my second option is to do what i do when i travel alone–my iPod to ears listening to my favorite music. Contrary to what i had expected, the drive was long and tiresome. It took us more than 4 hours. But finally we were in the city around 11pm. I was impressed by the night-view of the wide and well-organized roads and buildings of the city. The taxi driver knew my friend very well and dropped us right on the door of his apartment. The contact with taxi driver was because he has been living in Erdenet for about 4 years and regularly come to UB almost every week. The apartment looked like the Soviet-style buildings, which i have seen many in UB. And my friend said probably the largest community of Russians live in Erdenet, since there was the join Mongolian-Russian Mining Corporation exploiting the largest cooper mine in Asia. I wanted to see the mine next morning. At this time, i was hungry after a tiresome drive. My friend made a good curry while talking to me about Erdenet and his life there. It took us two hours having dinner on table because of the interesting discussion about relationships. I would talk about it some other time. Right now, this post should be more specific about Erdenet. So we went to sleep after some drinks, discussions about Mongolia, people, culture and our planning to walk around the city and climb up the hills next to the cooper mine next day.

The heating system was very good there. Unlike the one in UB, it was very hot. And it was the blessing of mining in the city that people enjoyed good heating system and proper hot water supply. I had to keep a window open, despite the chilly wind outside, to keep the room normal, as it was too hot.

The next day we went out to see the city after breakfast and another long discussion on table. It was beautiful sunny day with clear sky. Though the weather was almost same like UB, very cold. But other than low population, Erdenet could be the cleanest town of Mongolia. During the walk on the main avenue, my friend told that the city was built in 1975 after the fourth largest cooper mine deposit in the world was found here. Since it was a commercial purpose, there were good planing and management of the city. Roads were wide, clean and organized, not like the zigzag broken narrow streets of UB. I could see tall trees on roadsides, which showed a good care by the local municipality.

There is another story too about Erdenet. I have heard, though not read anywhere, from some friends the story of Erdenet as a ‘secret city’ during the Soviet Union and cold war era. The story goes further that Erdenet was part of several secret cities the USSR would built for military purposes, and keep them hidden from maps and information. And with the strategic position, having the largest copper mine in Asia, it makes sense Erdenet was part of the secret cities of USSR.

It is a small city that one can walk all around its main commercial part in 30 minutes. Unlike other towns or aimags, people were not surprised to see two strange foreigners walking on footpath since they had seen many in Erdenet because of the mining business. I could see two chain restaurants, Modern Nomads and another, besides one Chinese and one Korean restaurants, but there were many Russian ones. The main avenue looks like a slope from a hilltop coming down to the city. There ger area started at the end of the avenue in south. I saw a Church and thought it might be for Russians, or the Mongol converts. While walking on the sideways to see the grocery stores, my friend was saying people here are with stable income because of the mining. But, he added, the Government has started building plans for the time when the copper mine will be all extracted and there would be no tax revenue to run the government institutions, schools, hospital, or other services and operations after 20 years. According to statistics of 2006, the mine in Erdenet accounts for 13.5% of Mongolia’s GDP and 7% of tax revenue. For sure once it is all extracted, it would not only have a huge impact on the overall GDP of the country, but Erdenet city itself will need a big push to continue life creating jobs for people. My friend was saying until a couple of years ago, the mining corporation used to pay the expenses of schools in the city, which has stopped now creating new problems for city administration and Orkhon aimag, of which Erdenet is the capital. But there is a hope as some new mining sites have been explored there. In a city of about 80000 population i was impressed to see a big sports complex with indoor swimming pool, a cinema and a state department store. With such a vibrant view of this commercial part of the city where tall new apartment buildings showed the strength of people’s earning, i could also see the remnants of communist era–a Marx caricature on a building and Lenin’s on another. But what i liked most about Erdenet was the calm city life. I observed that people were not in hurry. Life was moving smoothly, there was not the problems of cities, like traffic jams, everyone in a rush to overtake others, and all in hurry. Something that surprised me was drivers following the traffic lights, which is very rare in UB. While walking towards the Government building, we crossed the junction right in the middle of the city. There were not many vehicles, but a car was waiting for the red light to go green. In UB, even its green and people are crossing the pedestrian lines, vehicles do not stop. It is something that really annoys me about UB. This was enough to show the discipline and calm-mindedness of the people in Erdenet. Young, old, children, couples, women many were walking on sideways in the evening and all were cheerful, not depressed-looking or drunk.

The Government building was down the avenue towards eastern part of the city. From there i could see the cooper mining place, which is an open site that you can visit. My friend told there is 24-hour shift of thousands of laborers working on the site. Buses from the mining corporation pick them from the ger district in different morning and evening shifts. People having a stable job and earning, we were discussing this is the place for new and small businesses like restaurants. Investors look for opportunities in UB, while Erdenet is a perfect less competitive place for starting a new business.  While passing from the site, i saw the Turkey-Mongolia School, which is supported by the Turkish Government in many countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, where i come from.

After having walked all around the city, we went to the mountain hill nearby. It was about sunset and chilly wind of the evening had started. We wanted to go to the top, but it was getting late and we were tired, so sat down on a hill in the middle of the mountain. From there, i could see all the city, it’s social and class divide. Towards north, near the mountain, there was the ger area, full of slum houses and gers, where most of the mining laborers lived.  Right in the middle of the city was the commercial area with beautiful new and fancy apartment buildings. While the Government office, Soviet-era official and community residential buildings were in southern part of the city. Behind the Government building, there was the posh small area of the big bosses and tycoons of mining. While some miles near that, it was the Russian residential area, who were living in an isolated part of the city with their own market, shops and schools. We were saying the Russians remained isolated wherever they went during the Soviet era. It is not the way to engage with colonized societies. Unless there is no interaction in the broad social life, it won’t last only with political and military power for long.  The discussion about Chinggis Khan, Mongol history, modern Mongolia, politics and such kept us enjoying the moment on the hill until the sun set down and we left for home. It was a weekend evening, and as expected, i saw drunk youngsters here and there. We preferred to go home for dinner, as my host friend had bought a fresh fish from river near the city. I had not eaten fresh fish for quite a time. We don’t have fresh fish in UB. Mostly its exported from China, which takes time to reach in restaurants and markets. I really enjoyed the fish with some drinks. We again sat down for our discussion to go for late night, and watched a movie meanwhile. The next day i wanted to take the 12am bus for UB. When we arrived there at 11, tickets were already sold. The next bus would go at 4pm, so i went to the Taxi station and reached UB in the afternoon. It was a great weekend to remember.

A Morning Walk on Snow

A beautiful morning walk to remember.

A weekend morning walk on snow made me feel very good today. I had fixed the alarm of my mobile on 8am to get me up. With the first alarm, unintentionally my hand pressed the ‘stop’ and I pulled the blanket on my face. Talking in my mind, “just 10 more minutes in bed, then out!” When I opened eyes again and checked the time, already one hour had passed. And its when I don’t believe most of the times, how did it go so fast? Its just five minutes that the 8am alarm rang! I have many such stories about getting up in the morning after late-night sleeps. Anyhow, when I pulled the curtain off my window, whitened roofs and roads flashed my eyes like a camera-click. All around was covered with beautiful white scenery. Then I thought to have a walk outside.

Its already ‘harsh cold’ here in UB. Though we already had our first winter snow a couple of weeks ago, but it whitened the surface just for some hours. From yesterday, I can say its the first full-fledge snowfall of this winter. And the other day I noticed smog in air is now getting thick and more polluted, as every winter in Ulaanbaatar. Any day when its snowing, the smog disappears sometimes, like today. Winter is dry and very harsh in Mongolia. But the good thing about a snowy day is that, its not windy and the cold is not very harsh.

The sky was overcast when I came out of the building. While walking on sideways, it was slippery and I was trying to avoid the traces of foots and walk on the soft and fluffy untouched surface beside bushes making a trace of my big winter-boots. Looking down ahead my steps, it felt like walking on a flat long ball of blossomed cotton ready for harvest. I had an extremely exciting feel of the crunch sound on fluffy snow with the crush of my each step. I always like this crunchy feel, but it also avoids my feet from slipping. It was like stepping on a fluffy ice-cream without a fear of slippery. A black puppy was having great fun, while running slowly making beautiful small round traces on the sideways. It was sniffing and I could clearly see the fog-like air coming out its nostrils. I was walking between the lines of small trees. Little snow on its branches looked like carefully put by someone. The footpath between tree lines in the middle of road beside Chinese Embassy was empty. I tried to step faster to keep in pace with the running puppy on the footpath, but soon it went off my eyes. The pine trees covered white with snow gave a beautiful look of Christmas coming. My hands tightly in pockets, I was thinking wish I could take such a walk every morning after a fight with my cell-phone alarm and the reluctance to get out of a warm bed.

Below are two shots of snow in UB, by my friend Soyolbolod.

View on the hill near Bogd Mountain.

The North Koreans in UB

The North Korean hospital in UB.

For readers from Afghanistan and Pakistan, it might be curious why I would update a post about any North Korean in Mongolia, but it is interesting to people from West.  North Korea is an isolated totalitarian country having no connection with rest of the world other than some countries. Mongolia is one of the some countries having diplomatic relations with North Korea. Generally many nations or parts of the world can be unknown to you, but what makes it different about North Korea is that you can’t make a visit there unless you are a citizen of some countries with diplomatic relations.

Since the communist era, Mongolia has had ‘good relations’ with North Korea, as well as very good with South Korea since the democratic revolution. There are North Korean students in our university, a restaurant in the city. I didn’t know there was a hospital too, until recently when I had to go there. There was slight numbness in my index finger of left hand. I went to the South Korean hospital for acupuncture. The hand therapy didn’t work for two days. Then my Korean friend suggested the North Korean hospital, which she said was very famous for acupuncture. This hospital is in the 34 District, a kilometre ahead of the Urgoo Cinema.

Their way of treatment was different from the South Korean and Chinese one. The doctor was a kind person. He spent more than 40 minutes checking my hand, while other patients waiting. The way they inserted needles in my arm was different than that of the South Korean. However, what impressed me was the attitude and service of the North Korean doctor. Never met one before, I had a feeling of how would a North Korean be?

It is also because the North Korean students living in our dormitory are very isolated. They less interact with students from other countries. Actually living together in the same building for more than a year now, I have seen them just once! I hear from South Korean students that they are told not to talk to other people and just have their business of study. And this experience had made me more curious about the North Korean hospital. The doctor was kind enough to ask me about how hard is it to live in the minus 40 C of Mongolia coming from a hot country like Afghanistan.

The doctor asked me to come the next day. When we asked about the fee, he said ‘Its Free!” Hm… that’s the good thing about communism, isn’t it? :) Kidding, of course people with experience of living in a communist system always curse it. But there was something very interesting about the hospital. Firstly, the structure of the building is like any intelligence-underground centre, with complex rooms and ways. Also, there was two portrait photos on the wall of main office of the hospital. One I could easily recognize was Kim Jong il, and the other don’t know.

I have also been to the North Korean restaurant right next to the Cultural Palace near Parliament House. The waitresses there are very cute :) and of course they have good menu and cuisine, but the television there sucks. It has that old-looking background with communist programs showing Kim Jong il-stuff.

Last week i was watching interview of Robert Part, the Korean-American missionary who was detained in North Korea a couple of months ago. I was shocked to hear that he was tortured sexually. Before the interview, BBC anchor informed the viewers about emotional content of the interview. I thought sexual torture might have been some punishment or rape, but it was really distressing to hear Robert Park saying ”i will not be able to have a sexual relationship with any girl any more”.

Thanks to someone, his interview with BBC is on Youtube.

This is a crime much worst than extreme torture. Being from Afghanistan I have stories of Taliban beheading people, but what has happened to Robert Park is even scarier than that. This is a lifetime torture that deeply gives pain in every second of your life and being. What is more shameful is the silence of world on this brutality.

So now before I conclude this post, let me tell why I had that damn numbness in my finger? It was because i use computer for more than 8 hours a day!, mostly surfing and writing. While doing this, i keep my arms on the desk, which brought this damn numbness to my finger. The acupuncture did bring some better feeling, but not cured yet. And its understandable as the doctor said it will take long to get completely cured.

UB Outskirts

 

Winter is getting close. The yellow leaves of trees are falling nowadays, making a beautiful scene everywhere. Last year, it was colder this time. It reminds me what Mongolian friends say about last year’s harsh winter, which was the coldest in decades. So i hope this year it won’t be as cold as the last. But when i remember the freezing days of -40 C, it scares me already.

Last weekend, i went to Khachort for the second time. Though Terelj is the most famous picnicking site nearest to UB, but i like Khachort more. Its about 40 minutes drive south of UB. Buses go each hour. Two weeks ago, when i went there for the first time, it was green and a warm day. But last weekend, i realized summer has gone. The trees were all yellow, and water flowing in river was cold. This place is not known to many tourists. Therefore one can enjoy the calm atmosphere. There is a beautiful hotel called Hotel Mongolia. It looks like Khar Khoriin, fancy rooms and ‘ger’ available for rent. They have made a look of beach beside the river with some sand. What i liked most was the horse-ride this weekend. I am getting better in it now.

Though summer is gone, but still if its a sunny weekend, you can enjoy Khachort. Many tourists miss this beautiful site due to the fame of Terelj. Here i am sharing some photos from Khachortj. If you have not visited, don’t miss Khachort!

UB to Beijing by Trans-Siberian

Trans-Siberian Railway

When i was leaving from UB to Beijing, i had two options either taking a flight or train. The flight from UB to Beijing costs between 250-300 USD, while taking a direct train from UB to Bejing costs about 200 USD. I decided the train option, but UB to Erlian and from there by bus to Beijing, which costs cheaper.

Trans-Siberian Railway, the largest railway line in the world runs between Moscow, Mongolia, China and Coast of Japan. We left at 8pm from Ulaanbaatur Train Station. Though the population is just one and half million, but traffic is terrible in UB. We had left an hour before the departure time. After entering the train and putting my luggage in the bogie, I came out to buy some snacks. And received a call from my friend in Beijing saying he could not get the ticket for Beijing to Urumqi on the date and time I had planned. I was talking on phone, when realized the doors of the train are closed. I just rushed, the door already closed, and showed my passport and ticket to the guard. He was kind enough to let me go without a serious argument.

Trans-Siberian is quite comfortable. The room that we got had four seats. I was with my two friends and the other guy was from Shanghai. The economy class room had very clean sheets on bed and seats. There was hot water, coffee and tea. I took out my camera and shot some photos of the villages and hills passing by. There were Russian, Mongolian and Chinese songs played in the train. Living with Russian and Chinese friends in dormitory, some of these songs were known to my ears. I have already built a good taste for Mongolian songs, specially the traditional music.

When we left from UB, the sun was about to set. Heading outside the city, it was green everywhere. After each five or ten minutes, I saw small villages, herds between mountain hills. After some 30 minutes, it got dark at 9pm. I had heard in summer the sun sets at 10pm in Mongolia. It was true.

After having a cup of coffee, I opened the laptop and started writing these lines. Then I noticed there is no switch for electricity. There was one, but not with proper plug for a laptop. I was feeling sleepy now, after a day of headache getting my passport from Immigration Office. In Mongolia when you leave the country, you have to get an “Exit” visa. Its is applied for those with residence permission, not the tourists. It was another headache of two days going out of the city to Immigration Office near Airport.

Wave of thoughts were making a fog in my mind, with the melody of Enrique Ielgialeas’s songs. While thinking about different things I had to do in Beijing the next week, sudden thoughts would ring the bell in my mind. I had brought “The Satanic Verses” of Salman Rushdie to read on the way from UB to Beijing and later. I had been waiting for this book since long ago. The first time I heard about it when I was a college student. Those were the days when recently I had started reading books other than suspense and horror novels and children story magazines.  I heard about this book during the hot discussion we had in college with some socialist friends. Since then I had been interested to read, but unfortunately this book was banned in most Muslim countries including. After many years, I got it from a friend in UB and decided to read it on Trans-Siberian!

Mongolia-China border

The next day i opened my eyes when the train had stopped at the station in Zamin-Uud, the last Mongolian town before Chinese border. We had to stay there for two hours for immigration stamps. Right after crossing the border, there is the Chinese town called Erlian. It was our final station. We got off and went through the Chinese immigration process. In China, other than Beijing airport, few of the immigration officials in other ports can speak English. If there is a problem, it is difficult to communicate with them.

Zamin-uud, the last and first Mongolian town for those leaving or entering Mongolia from Chinese border.

My Chinese friend traveling along was going to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. I took a taxi from Erlian to Hohhot, for 300 Yuan, making about 50 USD. It was about 5 hours travel. We reached Hohhot in the evening at 7, and took the bus for Beijing at 9pm. The bus had no seat, but beds! It was comfortable, but i can hardly sleep while traveling on bus, train or flights. The next day i reached Beijing at 6am. It had rained that day, making the early morning breeze chilly. My friend Saleem had come to LuLichao Bus Station waiting for hours, as our bus was late for one hour. I was in Beijing for a week, traveling the places of interest i had not seen during my previous visits.

Coming back…

Dear readers,

It has been a while i could not update this blog. After the school exams in June, i made travels to China, Afghanistan and Pakistan for a month and half. I was here in Mongolia for the remaining two months–July and August–of summer, but too busy with other activities, besides getting back active on my three other blogs and writings. I am trying to keep posting on this blog.

Summer is already gone here. Nowadays the yellow leaves of trees are falling down, making the most beautiful part of autumn. Schools have started. There are hustle and bustle of students all around. My new schedule for classes is too busy, from morning to evening. When i was packing my stuff to leave for Beijing two months ago, I found the piece of flight ticket when I had come to Mongolia last year on Sep 10. Holding it for a while, a wave of thoughts popped up in my mind. I have completed one academic year in the National University of Mongolia. Though I have scored “A” in Speaking and “B” in Writing in my final exams of Mongolian language, but still I am not as fluent as I should be. In an interview to NTV in June I had said Mongolian is the most difficult of five languages I have learned so far. And i have kept Turkish language and classical Mongolian script too in the new semester! Back then in June, what scared me was the thought that i will sit in a class full of Mongolian students and the teacher giving lecture in a bullet-speed Mongolian in next semester. And now i have already taken two weeks classes of it. It is difficult, i have to admit. But its understandable.

While coming to Mongolia, I had already made up my mind to study Mongol History. But I was still confused with my major-selection during the exams. I had to finalize before summer vocations, that what I want to study during the next four years. I was kind of confused with different options in my mind. My natural interest is in politics. But I also wanted to do some research work on Hazara and Mongol anthropological links. After some discussions with friends, I finally decided anthropology. So, you will be also reading posts about Mongol and Hazara cultural and anthropological links on this blog during the next four years! I hope to be able to keep posting here, despite all the tough schedule and my other activities.



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