Sunday, May 26, 2013

Over the Valley, into Ulaanbaatar

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By Dashiell Young-Saver
When my plane first passed over Ulaanbaatar, after traveling above miles of desert and countryside from the Beijing airport into a land I knew next-to-nothing about, I could think of only one thing: The Valley.
“The Valley” is both a loving and not-so-loving term Southern California residents use to refer to the San Fernando Valley, which lies in the northwest corner of Los Angeles County. The area is surrounded by the looming and beautiful hills of the Santa Monica Mountains to the south and the San Gabriel and Santa Susana Mountains to the north. The mountains circulate their colors from a not-so-beautiful brown to a not-so-beautiful less-brown during the year, but their enormous presence and majestic structure can always be felt below. And plumb right in the middle of that majestic, beautiful area is a grid. Its objective, straight lines divide the valley floor into nice pieces for its residents, who number no less than two million. Concrete is king in The Valley, as most of the buildings are made up of white slabs no more than a few stories high with a few skyscrapers rising above the rest. A thin layer of smog rests over everything, creating a haze that covers the uncomfortable concrete in shadows.

I live in the city of Thousand Oaks, which lies just northwest of The Valley. Traveling from my home to get to Los Angeles has always been a bit of a confusing experience for me. The beauty of the surroundings contrasts with crumbling highways and buildings. The low-income day laborers contrast with the wealthy entertainment moguls in the hills, the stereotypically spoiled “Valley Girls” carrying shopping bags, and the middle-class neighborhoods. And the smog that fills the air contrasts with my need to breathe, so whenever I drive through, my stomach gets an odd feeling. It’s just not comfortable. The San Fernando Valley remains “The Valley,” a title which, to me, seems as fittingly ambiguous as the place it describes.
I came to Ulaanbaatar with a similar ambiguity and confusion. My friends from home know of Mongolia as the home of Chinggis Khaan, some nomads, and some goats. They warned me before I left, to watch out for the animals or the great armies. I read a small travel book on the plane trip to Mongolia, which describes Ulaanbaatar as a bustling and thriving city, with constant foreign interest driving its future alongside ever-present nomadic roots. From the plane, I looked over this city, not sure what to make of it. Brownish green hills surrounded the buildings that stretched along its main roads. I could see the traditional gers towards the edges as well as concrete and glass skyscrapers, the homes with colorful rooftops. It just looked like The Valley, which made me uncomfortable—instead of passing through this valley, I would have to live in it for a month.
It’s been a few days now since I’ve arrived. I know that is not much time for writing about first impressions, but I’ve never been good at first impressions. So, I’ll continue my first-date tradition here by rambling about topics I know very little about.
Unlike The Valley, Ulaanbaatar is a construction site. Cranes dot the skies below the surrounding hills. Dirt and dust fill the streets, as the infrastructure attempts to keep pace with the expanding concrete jungle. New mines have created a boom in Mongolia’s economy, and many residents walk around in chic dresses, business suits, and attire much more stylish than mine, through the construction zones and dust on their way to work. Their clothes never seem dirty though—it doesn’t seem physically possible. Many residents, while often busy, stop to chat and laugh. Cold winds and warmer ones bend around the skyscrapers and hills, spreading dust from the ground and creating some nice waves in my hair: maybe that’s how style prevails among the dust. I’ve heard much talk of archery and wrestling while, at the same time, seeing the NBA playoffs broadcast on televisions across town. But, much like The Valley, surrounding the skyscrapers are traditions—hills that paint the sky and are painted with markings or drawings of leaders like Chinggis Khaan. Wooden homes connected by dirt roads and interspersed gers dot the base of the hills.
I’m staying with a family of four in one of the wealthier neighborhoods in Mongolia. The father moved to Ulaanbaatar from the countryside, and has risen through the ranks of the local banking industry from the level of teller to become a manager of many branches. He met his wife as a teller, and she now manages a kindergarten their two boys, ages two and four, attend. The success of the banking industry and the family, can in part be attributed to the mines and the growing economy. His office overlooks part of the city, as paintings of horses and Mongolian historical figures vie for spots on white walls with framed company certificates. At home, I have never lived in such a hospitable environment. It has only been a few days, and I already feel like I am a member of the family. They are gracious and kind, but most importantly and surprisingly, they are completely comfortable around me and treat me as if I should be completely comfortable around them. Both the mother and father let me hang around their workplaces and at least pretend like I’m not disturbing their work. The children have showered me with kisses and called me “brother”. I may even start leaving the door open when I use the toilet. Well, maybe not.
So, again, I am left in ambiguity. I don’t know how I’m going to reconcile the products of one of the world’s fastest growing economies with one of the world’s least dense populations. I don’t know what the development of Mongolian culture in its capital city is like during such a dynamic time, but I do know something—Ulaanbaatar is not The Valley. The comfort I feel in this city among the hills is something I never experienced there. I’m not quite sure what it is—maybe the un-assuming people, the weather, or the cooked heads of animals—but I, and my stomach, feel peaceful among the expanding chaos of this valley floor. I look forward to being here, walking through the city, trekking the countryside, and experiencing Mongolian culture.
But I most look forward to exploring, beyond the expansion and globalization of the city, what it means to be at home in this new valley.
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