I’ve wanted to travel to Mongolia, since I was a child perusing the photographs of the National Geographic magazine. Images of riders in brightly covered del, the traditional coat, traveling across broad swaths of green steppe haunted my imagination. I could easily imagine myself riding across the world’s largest unfenced rangeland. So, when pictures of an elderly Mongolian horsewoman galloping across the countryside, appeared in my Facebook feed, I was compelled to click and follow.

Tammy Pate, horsewoman and clinician, shared these images and became the driving force behind this trip of a lifetime. Tammy is a tiny woman, who lives large. She is a vibrant force of kindness and adventure. So of course she was able to gather a group of like-minded women (and two grumpy, old men) to join her on this trip.

Day 1

August 4, 2018:

I am in high energy mode this morning, despite the fourteen hour time difference, between Mongolia and Idaho, and the more than 24-hours of travel required to reach my destination. I can’t sit still. Ulaanbataar (UB), is a chaotic city of contrasts. On my hotel balcony, above a bustling street corner surrounded by modern high rises, I can see the sprawling gerdistrict. On the edge of a modern city with a population exceeding one million, many families still live in traditional Mongolian tents, without running water.

At breakfast, I recognize two of my fellow travelers and Daniel Miller, who has taken the day to share his local knowledge with us. We will spend the day walking around the city, the movement is welcome after yesterday’s twelve hour flight across the Pacific.

A short walk from the hotel and we arrive at Beatles Square, near the State Department Store. Where a surprising monument to the Fab Four, recalls the 1970s. Mongolia was under Soviet control and teenagers gathered to play Beatles music learned from contraband records from Eastern Europe.

Beatles Square, Ulaanbaatar
Beatles Monument, Ulaanbaatar

Across the square is the State Department Store. The store is home to six floors of every modern convenience imaginable. Including a money exchange surrounded by high-end makeup counters. One American dollar is worth approximately 2,500 Togrog(pronounced tugrik). The store is a fitting introduction to the contrasts we will see throughout our travels. Popular European and American clothing brands slide by, as the escalator climbs to the traditional Mongolian handicrafts on the sixth floor.

Ulaanbaatar is bustling with activity.  Korean models of Japanese cars pack the streets.  What we as American’s consider hard-and-fast traffic rules are merely loose guidelines in this city. With one eye on the traffic and another on the sights, I follow our group.  There is so much to take in as we walk. There does not seem to be a distinctly Mongolian architectural dialect, the bare functionality of cinder blocks contrasts with drab shaped, but brightly colored Soviet era buildings, juxtaposed against a handful of very modern skyscrapers. Odd contrasts seem to define the city.

Mongolian Parliament Building, Chinggis Khaan Square, Ulaanbaatar

Chinggiss Khan, Parliament Building, Ulaanbaatar

I’m surprised by the amount of public art we see, there is a sculpture at almost every street corner. Chinggis Khaan Square is home to the Parliament House, where the imposing figure of Chinggis (Ghengis) Khaan himself is seated. Chinggis Khaan founded the Mongol empire in 1206, he brought peace and prosperity through harsh and merciless action. He is flanked by two mounted warriors. To their South, is Sukhbataatar the military leader who drove the Chinese out of Mongolia in 1921. A short walk from these heroes of the nation, there is sculpture of a bronc rider that can compete with Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell, in terms of authentic familiarity with horses.

Bucking Horse Sculpture, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

The Horse Breaker, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Having seen the financial heart of the city, we opt to follow Daniel’s directions to one of several large markets. On our long walk, we peek hints of Mongolia’s nomadic culture, like bucking horse sculptures and ger-shaped buildings, incongruously scattered throughout the modern city. Dodging ubiquitous Toyota Prius’. We also observe stark economic disparities, the further we march from the center of the city. At the Black Market, the brightly painted entrance graced with cyrillic signage, betrays the open air market’s monochrome title. Our day in the city has been brimful of new sights and sounds, but nothing compares to the market. The booths are densely packed with every type of good imaginable, eat your heart out State Department Store.

Market Entrance, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Naraan Tuul Market, Black Market, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Traditional saddles, hair ropes, and hand-crafted items we have come to see are located on the far side of the market from the main enterance.  There isn’t a direct route to the nomadic goods. We’re jostled by locals, who know where they’re going as we ogle our way around the outer edge of the market.  I’m approaching complete sensory overload, as we walk by row-upon-row of brand-name athletic shoes, hand-made leather boots, camel hair socks, vinyl flooring, brightly painted orange furniture, and solar panels. Anything you can possibly imagine is located somewhere in the vast marketplace.

The shoppers among us began accumulating booty somewhere around the cashmere and camel wool socks near the entrance.   Not much of a shopper and very aware of the limited amount of space in my suitcase, I resist the urge to add to the burden of my backpack.  I enjoy “window shopping,” as much or more than actually making purchases.  I notice a large amount of brightly colored children’s motocross gear and brightly colored racing saddles, tomorrow their purpose will be clear.