A huge part of my travel philosophy in my 20s was to meet people with the assistance of alcohol, the universal social lubricant – a strategy enjoyed by many travelers, I believe. The thing is, when one is on vacation, one lets loose. It’s like a (somewhat) grown up version of college spring break. On spring break, we (the royal we, of course) would go to an exotic destination, with the direct intent of getting plastered on the beach with likeminded horny post-adolescents. When we age out of that and into more (and I use this term loosely) “sophisticated” adventures, we maybe stroll around the ancient Forum if we’re in Rome, or visit Wat Pho if we’re in Bangkok, and then get plastered with the booze that’s next up from bottom shelf with our mates in the hostel from Europe and Australia.
In September of 2011, I visited Mongolia. My trip came at the tail end of a long summer job at the tail end of my graduate program at the tail end of a long distance relationship. I had been traveling a lot in between Seattle and Seoul, Korea (a former home) to spend time with my then partner. On my third trip of the year, I decided I needed something more – so I started researching flights to other exotic destinations in that general part of the world.
I love places that are truly lived in and can provide me with authentic insights into the culture of a place and a people today – not necessarily what that culture was thirty, or a hundred, or a thousand years ago. I get kind of grumbly when I read travel bloggers and journalists rabble rouse about destinations that have lost their authenticity, when what that really means is that they are developing.
Ulaanbaatar is one such place. By the rules of traditional Mongolian pastoral nomadism, Ulaanbaatar is a city that should not exist. Instead, it is one that is home to the majority of a country’s population. Built as a Soviet planned city largely after World War 2 (outside of the newer developments, most of the decaying construction today is from 1960-1985), it was built to accommodate new industry in what remains the most sparsely populated nation on earth. Soviets, and now a crowd of international investors, needed a base from which to explore and prospect the Mongolian countryside, and Ulaanbaatar (UB henceforth) was the result.
I’ve been traveling in fairly offbeat/exotic places for a solid chunk of time now, and one thing I find myself talking to folks about over and over is how I choose a place to stay. Now keep in mind that, despite having closed the hostel chapter of my life (temporarily, at least), I don’t crinkle my nose at staying at places that wouldn’t be considered luxurious. Quite the opposite – as a story collector, I often find that a night or two at a grotty “hotel” in a random corner of the planet (I’m looking at you, Casa Iguana on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua) can yield some incredible memories that dazzle at cocktail parties. And while I admire the long term travelers who stay at such places without qualms (as being thrifty with accommodation is one prong of a strategy that allows those folks to stay on the road for so long), putting in my time at my 9-5 for 11 months a year financially allows me to spend a moderate amount of coin to ensure relative creature comforts while on the road.