Coming back into the busy Ulaan Baator (UB) was like a slap of the western world, an impressive contrast with the quiet countryside and its slow rhythm. And to make the gap even bigger, we went to the cinema for a blockbuster the day after, first time since I left Europe.
A short summary of the Mongolia`s history helps to understand the ambivalent Mongolian culture, a mix of European and Asian cultures. Mongolia’ national hero is definitely Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan). In the 13th century, he and his sons made the biggest empire ever, including Russia, China, the whole central Asia, Persia and parts of Middle East and Eastern Europe. An impressive performance helped with a mix of the legendary Mongols horse riders and the GK rules defining the basis of current diplomacy (e.g. the embassy concept) and promising better economy (lowering taxes on the population). This empire was soon divided between GK sons, making Russia, Persia and China separates empires. Mongols founded the Yuan dynasty in China, but it collapsed 130 years later when the Ming army captured Beijing. The later Qing dynasty in China first treated the Mongols with flavor (as founded as union between Mongolia and China), but Mongolia became soon like a colony with oppression. When the Qing crumbled in 1911, Mongolia became independent as a monarchy and the Buddhist highest leader, born in Tibet, was named the Bogd Khaan (Holy King). It lasted only for a few years: the Chinese came back in 1919 and then the Russian in 1921 (first the White Russian kicked out the Chinese, then the Bolsheviks the white Russian). Mongolia was then under Soviet control until the USSR collapse. In 1990, Mongolia became a democracy and part of the modern global economy.
While Russia is still the major influence in Mongolia (e.g. Mongolian is now written in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet; most residential buildings in UB are from Russia style), the recent democracy brought freedom and also capitalism: many investors came to UB and you see big malls in almost every corner in the centre. The real estate speculation, the cashmere and mining industry made some Mongols very rich. Pretty much like Russians, they also love to show that: you see plenty of very expensive cars in UB (probably one of the highest densities of Hummers, but no Porsche Cayenne seen yet) and many luxury shops (e.g. the French brands Dior and Louis Vuiton have their own shopping centre). The mining industry transform also the local economy: they offer you much better salary (over $1000 a month) than working as an average shop manager (<$500) or as a nomad in the countryside with your goats, cows and horses (very low income since you live from the production of your animals).
Also like Russians, Mongols love to drink: a lot of Vodka out there, and many people drunk in the streets in the evening! Quite a change after the quiet and safe Tehran, alcohol is forbidden in Iran!
In the supermarket, many food products are imported, either from Russia, Korea, Europe (notably Germany) or USA. You have plenty of Mongols fast food, but no MacDonald yet. There are also a lot of Korean restaurants. We tried once a North Korean one, sponsored somehow by the NK Embassy (both Koreas have embassy in UB).
On the other side, you see very few Chinese food products (from Chinese brands); Mongols still don’t like the Chinese. However, most fruits and vegetable do come from China. And like in everywhere, most of the clothes and electronic are made in China. But still, everything is quite expensive in Mongolia!