Monday, May 12, 2014

In the bowels of giant making

“You are going to Mongolia? You must be crazy!”

That was the first response from my friends after hearing my plans to go to Mongolia. I replied, “Why shouldn’t I go to Mongolia?” they looked at me with annoyance as if it was going to be the last day they were going to see me.

Mongolia is three times bigger than the size of France. However, France has 60 million people enjoying good wine while Mongolia, the land of blue sky, has less than three million people. I live in a southern city in France, Toulouse, where the sun is also present, and there is always good food and cheerfulness. Our celebrations are well sprinkled with all kinds of alcohol and could remind one of the Roman orgies portrayed in Federico Fellini’s movies. It is a perfect place for students, but I decided to come to Mongolia. These beautiful landscapes, friendly locals, powerful horses - it’s like a waking dream! However, my arrival in Ulaanbaatar quickly showed me another aspect of Mongolia. I had an image of Ulaanbaatar as a less developed city, but I was mistaken.

First steps in Ulaanbaatar: France is a distant memory

After spending 17 hours in airports and planes, I finally arrived at Chinggis Khan airport feeling very tired, but I was so happy to be in Mongolia. The sunlight was sweet, and it wasn’t as cold as I thought it was going to be. While I was in the car coming from the airport, the landscape changed suddenly. Buildings and construction appeared after passing through the steppes. Ulaanbaatar is one of those places where time is congealed, because it is a perfect mixture of traditionalism and modernism. What made it fascinating to me, at first, was that all the buildings are steeped in history, constructed in the middle of the steppe as if they came out of the earth.

Mongolia is very far from France, from its cult of beauty and willingness to expose its tireless cultural heritage. Far from the lush gardens, the red brick of Toulouse churches, and picturesque streets in France. All around me, everything was different in Mongolia.

The most daring pedestrians trying to cross at green traffic lights, taking the risk of being crushed by the local Michael Schumascher (a racecar driver). French law requires that pedestrians try to not pass before the green light, which admittedly is not very amusing. I felt it as a rite of passage: “If you can do this, you will be one of them!”

In Ulaanbaatar, sometimes drivers honk at me because I am too slow while crossing the road. The road is still long, but I do not despair.

I continue my walks unbridled in the sneaky streets. Now and then, my eyes stop on the shop windows of Peace Avenue, purified and stripped. Signs go to the essentials. No huge signs boast the undisputed price of the brand. Here, nobody tries to make you believe that you will find the best deal of your life. At least, not until you have crossed the threshold. Mongolians are very commercial, and there is a certain gesture of honesty, as long as you do not take a taxi, which won’t hesitate to inflate its prices for a tourist. But when tourists try to learn the words of their native language with the shyness of a child, it’s hard to blame them. French taxis are comfortable vehicles whose safety is unquestionable, but the races are expensive and human contact is limited or non-existent.

While I was trying to go to a temple to the north of the city, painfully zigzagging between cars, imagine my surprise when my steps led me to two French restaurants. The first one, Le Bistro plays the card of the classic cuisine, but does so effectively. And Le Triskell – it was unexpected to come across the darling Breton symbol in the Mongolian capital. Maybe one day I will have the opportunity to sample the dishes of my country across the globe.

Like many, I came to Mongolia with my head full of steppes, aspiring to horseback riding, and maybe to powerful encounters with its inhabitants. I integrated myself into the landscape of a developing city, far from the ideas that I had of it. Although plagued by scourges such as alcoholism and pollution, Ulaanbaatar is far from a French city, but does not pretend to be like one. Its energy comes from its wealth and popular culture, certainly, but even more from its capacity to welcome you like no other. A unique, amazing city, but not more than its inhabitants.

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