Before arriving here I stopped in Seoul for a couple of days break as I was flying to Ulaanbaatar with Korean Air. It was my first time in South Korea and I have to say that it’s one of those places where everything seems to run smoothly – the streets are clean and safe, the transport infrastructure is very modern, the people are friendly and law-abiding and, best of all for me, the signposts everywhere are in English as well as Korean. South Korean traditions are still alive and well despite thrusting itself on to the world’s economic radar in the 1960’s. An economic boom lasting almost four decades saw rapid growth for the country previously considered to be in the shadows of its northern neighbour, the now crippled North Korea. Along with Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, South Korea was dubbed one of the four Asian Tiger economies, but is there room for more zoologically termed economies in Asia?
Apparently so. Today, isolated Mongolia is being touted as the Wolf Economy. It seems to have finally shed its last remaining Soviet ways and is heading for a brighter future under democracy. Whilst the adjacent giants of Russia and China have gradually moved on from their communist paths towards a more open era, Mongolia too is trying to catch up. There is a wealth of natural resources in the country and the recent discovery of more mineral deposits within the vast expanses of the steppe landscape has seen a mining boom. This renewed interest appears to go hand in hand with the current developments in the capital and there certainly seems to be a positive buzz about the place – although the current clement weather may have something to do with that!
Home to over half of Mongolia’s population, Ulaanbaatar is geographically isolated and usually evokes notions of nomadic tribes and a fearsome Genghis Khan and his great Mongol Empire. However, the side I have seen holds little to the imagination and is rather more modern than I was expecting, although not on the scale of Seoul. Yes, there are nods to the past, with statues of Marco Polo and Lenin standing over the main thoroughfare of Peace Street, but it all seems rather strange when they are set in front Emporio Armani and Louis Vuitton. I was expecting an insular feel to the place but there are dozens of top class restaurants and a surprisingly good choice of all things imported, from Western clothing chains to iPads and everywhere in between. I’ve seen a few locals of an older generation donning traditional Mongolian attire but the vast majority are dressed in the latest designer gear.
Unfortunately I’ll not get the chance to explore further afield outside of the city and see for myself the enticing landscapes which adorn posters at every turn but I have seen a few yurts in town. Yurts are the traditional round tent-like structures commonly used by the pastoral travellers of Mongolia. Not that long ago they were commonplace in Ulaanbaatar but the economic boom here seems to have pushed tradition aside somewhat. Still, at least I got to see a bit of ‘culture’ when I stumbled upon a colourful dance rehearsal taking place in the city’s main Sukhbaatar Square.