Why do Mongolians call their capital Ulan Bator — “Smoky Hero”?

Ulan Bator — Bagan Garmin Chuluu — Mongolia 2014 — Travel Journal

For centuries, Mongolia’s nomads have dwelt in Gers (Yurt) which are tent-like structures made of felt. The promise of a better education and jobs has lured hundreds of thousands to the big city. Ulan Bator has 1.3 million residents — almost half the country’s population — and Gers have proliferated as a cheap and familiar form of housing. With no access to the city’s central heating grid though, Ger dwellers must burn coal to stay warm. And burn they do. Ulan Bator is the world’s coldest capital; in January, the average low temperature is 41.3f degrees below zero, with the mercury once sinking to minus 86.8f. Winter weather lingers through April, so clouds of smoke choke the skies for months on end. Ulan Bator means “Red Hero” in Mongolian, but the pollution is so bad that cynical locals have taken to calling their city “Smoky Hero”.

Gandantegchinlen Monastery Ulan Bator Mongolia
Gandantegchinlen Monastery Ulan Bator Mongolia

The capital city Ulan Bator

Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, is a developing city. There is nothing in it of the typical old Asian urban center. It has none of the narrow alleyways and oriental ambiance of ancient temples, market aromas and beggars. Instead it’s a Soviet style town clouded with dust. Coal-fired power plants and exhaust from the growing number of motor vehicles are the chief reasons why Ulan Bator is one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Ulan Bator Mongolia Capital
Ulan Bator Mongolia Capital

The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace of the last Bogd Khan, a spiritual and political Buddhist leader, third in line to the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. For me the visit is about the symphony of color. For the Mongolian, the Winter Palace represents renewed freedom and with Buddhist heritage which was suppressed under communism (1921–1990).

In 1938 the communists curbed religious communities in Mongolia. They destroyed monasteries and killed or jailed monks. Since the liberation in 1990, Buddhism is flourishing once more.

Mongolian Cashmere

Cashmere is one of Mongolia’s prime products, along with natural resources such as copper and gold. The Mongolian population is only 3 million, but the livestock is over 50 million — half of which are goats, which is what cashmere is made of. Gobi Corporation is one of only five companies worldwide that process cashmere and camel wool and produce high quality finished products. I spent a few hours touring and talking with Gobi’s marketing managers, I got excited about the business opportunities that this product represents. There is some homework to be done.

Bagan Garmin Chuluu

Roughly 160m (255km) from Ulan Bator to Bagan Garmin Chuluu. The view can be summed up in one word: Green. Lush green landscape with shades of silver, blue, purple and beige. On the drive we encountered a rare site, herd of over 2,000 gazelles crossing the road.

Baga Gazriin Chuluu is a sacred area of granite rock within a semi-desert steppe. Mongolian terrain is often referred to as the Steppes. A steppe is a wide, vast grass covered area with a gentle slope.

Our tent campsite was in a beautiful location, surrounded by incredible rock formations including the Chuluun Sum — Rock Temple built to honor the area.

For additional photographs and reflections please check my site

David’s writings are self-reflections of an Israeli living in Los Angeles since 1987, through the lens of art, travel & culture. https://davidgev.com/biography/

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