City of Dreams

Leaving China is almost as traumatic an experience as arriving there – or at least it is if you are going to Mongolia. We spent what seemed like hours (wait, it was) in a between-country limbo sometime in the middle of the night. The customs officials managed to synchronize their visits to our cabin with my sleep cycle, so every fresh appearance startled me out of a shallow dream. Customs officials do not like groggy people. Actually, I don’t think they like anyone.
We, by the way, still includes Gretchen, a classmate from college and former teammate, who taught in Dongguan with me, and now my mother and brother Edward, who decided to tag along on possibly the most tedious part of my travels. We’ve just done the first leg of six days by train from Beijing to Moscow: a thirty-hour journey from Asia’s hot capital city to one that will never be. Sorry, Mongolia.

Ulan Bator is a city with an identity crisis. It can’t decide if it is newly wealthy or blightedly poor. A lone Dubai-knockoff skyscraper crowns the center of town, either half constructed or half destroyed, I can’t tell which. A tent city sticks to the outskirts of the downtown area, but there are power lines running into some of the tents, and satellite dishes outside: their inhabitants can claim neither permanence nor impermanence.
Thanks to the temperature swings I mentioned in my last post, building here can seem like an exercise in faith. It’s a leap many people don’t seem to bother to take. A little less than half Mongolia’s population of three million (or thereabouts) still lives in tents called gers, moving with their herds and the seasons. Another million crowd into Ulan Bator… where they still live in tents, often. Fun for the whole family: play I Spy with the picture below. See if you can find
1. An army truck provided by the USA – always good to try and curry favor with an Alaska-sized country rich in natural resources between Russia and China
2. A car that has never had its emissions tested (trick, it’s all of them)
3. A ger

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