Sep 16 2010

Q: Why won’t the Mongolian chicken cross the road? A: Because it would die.

Having grown up in Manhattan, I like to think that I am used to – or can at least deal with – a relatively high level of urban chaos. But Ulan Baatur has proved to be a challenging adversary. It is a sprawling, traffic-choked metropolis where cars are valued more than people, and the streets have no name.

In a nod to Ulan Baatur’s unpredictability, let me elaborate on the second point first. Before our arrival, I had read descriptions of Ulan Baatur that claimed that the city, which at just over one million people is home to half of Mongolia’s population, did not have a reliable system of addresses. Locations were identified by landmarks, said my book, and thanks to the city’s rapid rate of development, even those landmarks were changing.

This didn’t make any sense to me. How could you have a city with no addresses? That’s like a culture where people don’t have names. Not only would it deny you the ability way to find places you haven’t found before – which seems kind of existential — but it would leave the mailman with a really tough job.

As Peter and I quickly learned, though, logic has no place in Ulan Baatur’s urban planning – and there really are hardly any addresses. (Even the city’s sightseeing brochure lacks addresses; instead it describes tourist sites in terms of what other sites they’re near.) The morning after our fourteen-hour bus ride, we woke up late and decided to seek out breakfast at a place called Millie’s Cafe, supposedly located just several blocks away in the Marco Polo building (no further information was provided). Our first mistake was to wait until we were both starving before trying to find it. The second was trying to find it in the first place.

With a bit of effort, we found/stumbled upon the city’s biggest landmark, a huge open square with a statue of Genghis Khan, and even managed to start walking in the correct direction. But our success ended there. After risking our lives crossing the street (more on that later), we reached the city’s library, and located the spot right behind the library where, according to the rudimentary map in our guidebook, the Marco Polo building was supposed to be. But there were a lot of buildings nearby, and none said Marco Polo. We tried asking some guards for help. They had no idea. A man on the street. No idea. (He asked someone else for help and returned to tell us that it was very far away and pointed in what would have been the wrong direction.) We asked a woman and her teenage daughter. They didn’t know. Why would they? The buildings were located in clusters, not on streets, and besides, the streets didn’t have signs and the buildings didn’t have numbers.

Peter studies map. First in a series.

By that point we were both disoriented and extremely grumpy. We walked in circles for a while, stopping to stare at the map, hoping that somehow the building would magically appear – as if we were playing a game of Marco Polo with the Marco Polo building and it was just refusing to respond. Eventually we ended up in front of the library again. I wanted to keep circling but Peter, more pragmatic, had caught sight of the Chinggis Khan Irish pub, across the street from us through about six lanes of traffic.

Which brings me to my point about cars. The guy who drove us from the bus station to our hostel had warned us that there were only two things to worry about in Ulan Baatur: pickpockets and traffic. “When there are no police,” he said, “There are no rules.”

He was referring not to thieves, but to the cars. It took one street crossing for us to realize that the most nimble pickpockets of them all have nothing on Ulan Baatur’s drivers. I’ve never seen anything like it. Traffic lights mean nothing. Neither, for that matter, do pedestrians. I remember being scared by the traffic in Rome before I realized that if you just stepped out into the road, cars would stop for you. If you step out into the road in Ulan Baatur, you will get run over. It’s like a game of Frogger. By the end of our time in the city, I was making decisions about our itinerary based on how many streets we would have to cross.

Using a woman with a stroller as cover, we made it to the Irish pub – me insisting the entire way there that it wouldn’t have food – and ate a much needed breakfast. Afterwards, I asked our waitress if she knew where the Marco Polo building was and, after she had incorrectly identified our location on the map, her manager pointed us back toward where we’d been before. Turned out if we’d just gone around the corner, we would have seen a short white building with the words “Marco Polo Building” written on its facade — words that were visible only if you had already located the building.

Peter with map, #2.

I will spare you the details of the many steps it took to find the travel office where we were to pick up our train tickets (it was in the “Hobby Building,” said our instructions). Suffice it to say that it took 45 minutes and involved us interrupting an English language class led by an American guy named Roy Johnston in an unmarked building – he didn’t know where it was, though he gave us firm handshakes – and eventually asking a different travel agent to call our travel agent to find out where her office was located, a conversation that included about two minutes of directions and delivered us to a location completely different from that indicated by Google Maps.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted – and feeling very curious about the state of mind that this type of anarchy requires. Because the thing is, most people in Ulan Baatur seem pretty happy. Not just happy, but calm. It’s like, hey, who cares that visiting any place outside of my daily routine will require at least a half hour of navigation? And why should cars stop for a flashing light? Isn’t that almost stranger than not stopping?

The ticket office was in the "Hobby Building." Obviously.

I wonder if it might have something to do with Mongolia’s nomadic culture, in which the location of your home is temporary to begin with, and the most important thing to know is the orientation of your ger. Perhaps if I stayed here, I might be able to reach that level of equanimity with geographical uncertainty. But for now, I just really want a good map.

The main square -- and our main reference point.