Mongolia is one of those countries that western journalists love to litter with tired cliches. As Lonely Planet claims, “Mongolia is an ancient way of life” and “Mongolia makes you feel like you’re the only person on Earth.” This is the land of nomads and vast steppes once roamed by the legendary army of Chinggis Khaan. Pristine nature, intact prairies, and immense dunes- Mongolia is a place unaltered by modernity.
Actually, the above could be from Matador or Rough Guide. It really doesn’t matter. Open any guidebook, watch any Vice documentaries, or surf the online forums- this is how Mongolia will invariably be portrayed. Proclamations about unleashing your adventurous self, about the bravery of going off-track, and choosing this “alternative destination” that remove you from your comfort zone by embracing the nomadic lifestyle, will be made. You’ll be told to fly into Ulaanbaatar, the capital, and arrive at your hotel. As an introduction to the country, you will probably need to spend one or two days there, but no more. Visit the compulsory history and art museums, become acquainted with the local food, and contemplate the main square and the Parliament Building. Check. Visit a cashmere factory, do some souvenir shopping, attend the obligatory Mongolian Folk show alongside other fellow tourists.
Make sure you time the trip properly, however- travel agencies will heavily stress that you come around Naadam, a traditional Mongolian festival, portrayed as the most important time of the year for Mongolians. If you are fast enough, you will probably get tickets for the Opening Ceremony and feel like an authentic Mongol yourself- and, don’t worry, so long as you don’t talk to any locals, you will never find out that Naadam actually holds very little importance for them. For the locals, it draws barely any interest beyond the fact that they have a national holiday and are able to get away from the tourists and the Naadam craze around the city.
Only then, the “real” Mongolian experience you had been promised will begin. Jump onto your bus, minivan or jeep. Drive for hours across the vast plains, admire the cattle herds guided by nomads, the horses galloping into the horizon, and the prehistoric-looking yaks. Sleep in a ger, a Mongolian yurt (don’t worry, it will look traditional enough on the outside, yet it still has comfortable beds and wooden floors, you won’t have to trade comfort for authenticity too much). Forget about avocado toast and açai bowls, because here you will be eating mainly mutton, beef or horse- from the meat to the most unimaginable organs, such as the eyeballs. As a side dish you will have rice, or dried curd- and you will down it all with salted milk tea or fermented mare’s milk. Could it get any more nomadic?
Keep driving across the steppe, until you reach the Gobi desert, where you can climb onto a camel, ride horses, or go for a hike in the Altai Mountains. And please- don’t forget to take pictures of this ince-in-a-lifetime experience in this godforsaken land- you ought to keep up your Instagram game. After one, two, three weeks- drive back to Ulaanbaatar to catch your flight home, where you can tell everyone about the amazing experience you had and the uniqueness of the Mongolian countryside. After all, the capital was nothing special, was it?
Ironically, while its countryside is defined as “pristine” and “untouched”, Ulaanbaatar is juxtaposed as “the coldest” or “the most polluted” capital city in the world. It is portrayed as somewhere that is diametrically opposed to the rural countryside in a fashion to almost say it is “unnatural.” This relationship between “natural” and “unnatural” seems so embedded in Western writing about Mongolia and begs many questions.
Ulaanbaatar is a rapidly-growing city located at the bottom of a valley. It consists of a small city centre, surrounded by hostile residential tower blocks, where colourful playgrounds intermingle with grey concrete. Further on are the ger districts. There, 20% of the country’s people have set up residence over the past two decades, increasing the city’s population to around 1.5 million people- half of the country’s total.
The city is chaotic and loud- but it is also vibrant and flourishing. In terms of glamour or prestige it is nothing like New York or Paris of course, not even like Beijing or Seoul. But it is the beating heart of Mongolia and the hub of contemporary Mongolian urban life. It is bustling, unusual and vivacious. It is where children play until their parents call them home, where adolescents fall in love for the first time, where dreams are pursued, where families are born and split up, where people experience gain and loss, hope and despair, love and hate. It is where Mongolians live. Its streets witness lovers hiding from the crowd, late night fights, families on a Sunday stroll, commuters going to work, youngsters coming home after a night out. Ulaanbaatar represents “natural” Mongolia in every imaginable way. Despite the cliches you may have read, there is no need to have dehydrated eagles at touristic spots to take a picture with, to remind ourselves that we are still in the remote land of eagle-hunters. Ulaanbaatar deserves to be appreciated and explored as the urban centre that it is.
I must admit that, while spending most of my time in Mongolia in its capital, I did long for the weekends in a ger. While putting up with Ulaanbaatar’s traffic and intense summer heat, I was indeed yearning for the fresh countryside air. However, in retrospective, I do believe I got a glimpse of, maybe not the conventionally typical, but the 21st century urban Mongolian lifestyle of over half the country’s population. Do not get me wrong, Mongolians are aware of how marvellous their country is, and are incredibly proud of their rich history and nomadic heritage- but they also have growth aspirations that go beyond that context.
Reality for many Mongolians takes place in an urban context, in a city they are striving to develop and improve, a city that is home to their music gigs, cultural events, store openings and start-ups. A city where initiatives develop, families grow, politics is done, ideas are put in practice, struggles are met and dreams are pursued- a city where people live. Ulaanbaatar is a city that deserves to be explored before taking off to the countryside if one is to grasp the real Mongolian experience and truly move beyond one’s comfort zone.
This constant portrayal of Mongolia as an “off the trodden path” experience that reduces Ulaanbaatar to an unfortunate appendage to the Mongolian experience is the result of destination branding. It is the marketing process by which selected elements of Mongolian heritage, culture, way of life, images and narratives have been used to effectively conceptualize Mongolia as a nomadic, untouched land. This tourist gaze, this construction of the tourist experience, leads to the sole understanding of Mongolia as travels in a rural and remote landscape- what has become a really boring and superficial understanding of Mongolia.
If authenticity (as problematic as that term is) is something that concerns you as a traveller, you need to be aware of how the tourist gaze shapes your travel. If you are to truly go “off the trodden path”, and beyond your comfort zone and the marketing industry, do not go straight to the countryside. You need to embrace Ulaanbaatar entirely, treat it as just as much a part of the “real” Mongolian experience, and acknowledge the country and its people beyond your Western longing for untamed landscapes. You won’t somehow supersede your “cultural lens”, but through critical thinking and awareness of the power of marketing in destination branding, you will at least get a wider, less homogeneous perspective on what the Mongolian experience can possibly mean.
Mongolia is not an ancient way of life, and Mongolia is not like feeling you’re the only person on Earth. Mongolia is a country with beautiful, vast and uniquely diverse landscapes. Mongolia is a country of nomadic tradition- but Mongolia is also a fast-growing economy, a country full of aspirations and ambitions, a country with a dynamic city life. This is the Mongolian reality, which deserves to be acknowledged beyond its vast steppes.