Ulaanbaatar, which means "Red Hero," is a sprawling city of 1.8 million (more than half the population of the country), set in a flat valley ringed by mountains, on a vast high plain.
On my first day, I was treated to a nearly 5-mile walking tour of the city (UB), guided by Rick, elementary school principal, and Geoff, middle school English teacher at the International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU), my host in Mongolia. On a northern hillside at the Gandantegchenling Monastery, we saw orange- and red-robed monks in residence, and people of all ages turning prayer wheels and lighting candles in the dim, smoky light at the feet of a colossal golden Bodhisattva.
The descendants of Chinggis Khan, whose image is everywhere, are citizens of a new democracy, formed when the Soviets abruptly pulled out 22 years ago. Soviet influence can be seen everywhere in architecture and in the Cyrillic alphabet, which the Russians imposed on written Mongolian. The Trans-Siberian railway runs through the capital, connecting Vladivostok to St. Petersburg.
From my brief glimpse, the country seems deeply rooted in its nomadic, horse-centered, Mongol traditions, Buddhism, and the connection to the natural world found in both, while simultaneously rushing into 21st-century urban capitalism.
In the city center, another monastery is ringed by skyscrapers, with tall cranes and construction sites promising more. Blocks of high-rise apartment buildings fill the skyline and sprout up in the outskirts, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. People from the countryside flock to the city for jobs, but many are still caught on the margins, occupying shanty towns of ger, the traditional nomadic home.
UB has an substantial international population of perhaps 30,000, including employees of Korean construction and American mining, Chinese migrant workers, diplomats, Peace Corps volunteers, and teachers at international schools (there are 3, growing fast) to instruct the children of the well-to-do. Most of ISU's faculty are from Canada, the U.S. and Australia. Downtown UB is full of Korean and Japanese restaurants, has multiple Irish pubs, and there's even a monument to the Beatles funded entirely by Mongolian fans!
My second day I was driven out to Terelj National Park, a pristine mountain wilderness where Mongolians and international tourists spend summer holiday weeks in ger camps. We passed flocks of grazing cattle, sheep, goats and yak, sometimes with a herder on horseback, and a few double-humped camels. My driver and tour guide, Enkhbold, a 25-year-old native Mongolian, clearly loved the crisp mountain air, the quiet and the endless blue sky as we climbed to a temple perched against a cliff. The temple was closed, but the caretaker kindly unlocked the door and let us in.
Later we visited one of the top tourist sites, a museum housed in a colossal silver-plated statue of Chinggis Khan on his horse. You can climb up into the horse's head for a panoramic view!
Two days of presentations to delightful groups of young people in grades 2-8 were a highlight. Librarian Judith Reid, who issued the invitation for my visit, couldn't have been more gracious and welcoming. About half of ISU's students are Mongolian passport holders; the other half are equal numbers of U.S. and Korean, and a mix of everybody else.
I feel such a strong connection with the mission of International Baccalaureate schools like this one:
"... to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect... [to] encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right."
Next stop, China!