The following notes and musings mostly come from our diary. We suggest the reader go there for more details on life in Mongolia from the Korean and Western perspectives. A page in perpetual flux - at least until we leave the country! - so come back often.


1.Contrary to Korean stereotypes, Mongolians are not all moon-faced, dark-skinned, illiterate, peasant nomads. They look like Koreans (Mongols, for instance, always mistake Sun-duk for one of them), can read just as well as them, and are more gifted than they are linguistically - not surprisingly, since the Mongols created the largest empire the world has ever known by incorporating dozens of nationalities into their conquering armies, while the Koreans have generally displayed, and even willingly developed, an uncanny sense of insularity.

2.Almost all vehicles on the road are used, having been donated or sold cheaply by countries such as Japan, Korea, Germany, the Czech Republic and Russia. Those from Japan (usually Mitsubishis) have their steering wheel on the right side, although Mongolians drive on the right. And In most instances, any previous signs, advertising or paintings adorning cars, buses, trolleys and minivans remain untouched - for what reason I can only speculate, but making any vehicle's origin very clear to the casual observer.

3.Because these vehicles are, for all intents and purposes, cast-offs, spare parts are very hard to come by. One bus I take regularly has a two-by-one foot triangular hole in the floor near the back, revealing for all to see the rounded belly of some engine part. No effort has been made to cover this hole or fit it with a plausible facsimile; it's assumed passengers have enough sense to step around it and avoid certain amputation.

4.The floors of trolleys and buses, not to mention yards, parks, building steps, and sidewalks, are littered with the remains of shelled pine-cone nuts, a favourite treat here in the warm season. Mongolians just crack them open and spit out the shells with the same enthusiasm that Felipe Alou munches on his sunflower seeds.

5.Bus fare is T200, trolleys, T100, and minivans, T100 or T200. Taxis normally cost T300/kilometre.

6.Public transportation can get very crowded in spite of Ulaanbaatar's small population of 770,000. Ticket attendants yell at passengers to move on down, occasionally giving a shove to convince the more recalcitrant of their errant ways.

7.The strangest thing I have seen on a bus thus far was a boy hoisting up an immaculately white toilet bowl up the steps with his mother trailing behind, seat in hand. Neither, it must be remarked, used the bowl as a seat, preferring to stand.

8.People taking the bus or trolley must get in through the back or middle doors, and pay the ticket attendant.

9.Mongolians' meats of choice are, in order of popularity, mutton, beef, pork, goat, horse, camel, and chicken. Fish is rarely partaken of. Their diet is principally carnivorous, with a lot of dairy products thrown in sustenance ideally suited to their northern climate and nomadic lifestyle. Fruits and vegetables are urban delicacies.

10.There are times when water and electricity are cut off for a few hours at a time. It's usually done at night, in order to effect repairs; but we are often deprived of hot water in the morning, and the lights sometimes go out at seven in the evening, granting everyone's secret wish to go to bed early and enjoy ten solid hours of dark-filled slumber.

11.Ulaanbaatar's tallest buildings are apartment complexes in the suburbs. They stand a dozen or so storeys tall, and reflect Soviet utilitarian architecture. There are several ten- to fifteen-storey-high buildings in the downtown area, but they're few in number. Most buildings here have three of four floors, were built with a strongly neo-classical, European flavour, and painted in a vast array of soft pastel colours - yellow, blue, pink, teal, burgundy, orange, azure - reflecting Russian influence.

12.Mongolians wear their traditional dress, the del, much more often than do Koreans, Japanese or Chinese. In fact, for most of the elderly, dels are everyday wear. They come in many colours, but the style rarely varies, as this picture shows. Women's dels sometimes bear concentric circles and other simple patterns, and may be made of damasked silk.

13.Cameras are rare commodities in Mongolia. There are many Polaroid booths and shutterbugs for hire around the city, especially near Sukhbaatar Square.

14.Foreigners are warned not to take pictures of people without prior permission from those being photographed. If permission is granted, it is customary to take down people's addresses and send them a copy of the picture as soon as possible.

15. Men, especially those in dels, wear traditional lovuz hats, cowboy hats, fedoras, straw hats and such. Women will sometimes wear a lovuz or straw hat, but more often wrap their head in a bright kerchief.

16.Taking photographs of poorer neighbourhoods is not recommended. Such an act may anger the Mongolians, a proud people ashamed of their current state of poverty. Some tourists have even been physically assaulted in markets for it.

17.Mongolian children go to school for ten years: four years of elementary schooling, four in middle school, and two at the high-school level. Because schools are so crowded (a result of unchecked domestic migration), children only have half-days. The younger ones attend school in the morning, and teenagers in the afternoon.

University degrees normally require four years of study, and many graduates are only twenty-one or twenty-two years old as a result of finishing high school so young. Yet if they wish to work abroad, a diploma from a Western university is practically a must, since the quality of the education system - and Mongolians are aware of this - leaves much to be desired.

At the other end of the age spectrum are students in their late twenties and early thirties, who married at a young age (late teens, usually), worked, saved money, and had children, and only now are getting their post-secondary degree.