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We left Beijing using China Air and arrived in Mongolia to discover that our predictions about Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia's capital city, were wrong. For one thing, the city is more European than Asian. In our ignorance we expected Ulaan Baatar to be a tent city of nomads. In fact it is full of apartment buildings and European cafes. There aren't any "garage-storefronts" that travelers commonly see in under- developed countries. There is no smog or smell of burning garbage. This doesn't mean Ulaan Baatar is a blazing example of modernism, but it isn't an Asian backwater. It's closer to being a Russian backwater. Russian lettering is used everwhere, a legacy from the days when the USSR controlled Mongolia from the 1920's up to 1991. Since 1991 and the Soviet Union's collapse, Mongolia has truly been an independent country. We hear that in the future the Russian Cyrillic lettering will be replaced with the traditional Mongolian lettering, which is written vertically and looks like Arabic script. Today's schoolchildren learn the Mongolian writing method and Russian language itself is no longer compulsory. Such situations produce real "Generation Gaps" - imagine not knowing how to write the same way as your children. Ulaan Baatar has a ubiquitous bar scene. A bar sits on every block; enter one, order a beer, and watch people dance. Occasionally a stripper will also dance - it seems every bar has a resident stripper or two.
(Above) Some last images of China: We looked out of our bus window and saw this baby sitting precariously atop a heavily loaded bicycle cart. The baby's mother nonchalantly biked through the town while the baby-on-board peered around from its swaying vantage point. (Below) An irrestible marketing tactic - who could resist buying fruit from this little kid?
(Below) The oldest Buddhist temple in Ulaan Baatar. The communists destroyed all other temples during their 'war on religion' as they tried to consolidate their power in the 30's. The communists viewed Mongolian lamas, the local religious leaders, as threats to their all-encompassing influence. They executed approximately 30,000 lamas during the Great Purges. Ironically, the Chinese had supported these lamas years before as a way to control the barbaric Mongolian nomads - the anti-violent tenets of Buddhism did more to subdue the Mongolian hordes than any swords ever did.
(Below) It's easy to find a game of snooker or billiards on the streets of Ulaan Baatar, literally. It seems many Mongolians have traded in their stirrups and bows for pool cues.