Beware of the Traveler Expectation Trap
With my brain utterly fried from the journey, I'm not quite sure what I expected to find upon landing in Ulaanbaatar (UB) - the capital of Mongolia. The trip itself was comfortable as I chomped down delicious Korean bibimbap and watched a whopping 6 movies on a 13 hour flight - only the first leg of my 28 hour journey.
The flight was scheduled to land at 22:30 at night – my favourite time to land anywhere new.
There's usually little to no traffic, no city hassles of street hawkers, taxi drivers aggressively offering you the best price for rides, and hella shorter line-ups at immigration and customs. More importantly, landing at this hour offers an incredible opportunity to amplify the feeling of excitement, nervousness, gratefulness, anxiety, and restlessness all at the same time. After all it's late, you're tired, it's dark and everything is a big unknown. Landings allow one to observe society from a distance and gain quick insight into its people and priorities. It's also the first impression of a city and tends to forever be engraved in the memory vault.
Eye from the Sky.
Having traveled to over 70 countries on four continents, a key personal indicator of ‘development’ I now use is a quick aerial scan of the city. I should note that the term development is contentious and very similar to the term ‘middle class’ we are all too familiar with - i.e it's often cited but rarely defined. The 10-15 minute descent into a city is the perfect opportunity to see bazaars and souqs, power plants and dams, military bases and train tracks, water treatment plants and major irrigation lines. It's a chance to study weaving old city roads, guess the height of the prominent buildings, locate straight modern highways, and hypothesize about the rational for the difference in the colour of the city lights. All this can quickly offer insights into the history of the land, its future direction, its traffic and layouts, its business and residential core, its infrastructure and its priorities. And by extension, a very first glimpse into the society you are about to enter and call home for a while.
Geographic idiosyncrasies inevitably shape inhabitants of a country, which combined with political, regional and global trends contribute to the size and type of economy a country and region can have. For example, flying over the Persian gulf, you can see hundreds of gas fires burning on the water and coast line – a visible symptom of deep water energy extraction that forms the economic backbone of the region. Similarly, flying over Alaska, you can see endless coastline with rugged mountains and magnificent wilderness - arguably a symptom of its economic mainstay of tourism, fisheries, and wild game.
Ulaanbaatar – Perfidious first impressions
Landing in Ulaanbaatar in March (2017), I expected to see apocalyptic smog levels. This is because the city has four coal-based power plants within it. To make matters worst, the city is physically located in a valley. I'd managed to paint an image of UB in my mind based on blogs, travel guides, and in conversations with those who have call UB home. UB was supposed to be an expansive city with a large yurt/ger district sitting 1,350meters above sea level. I expected snow and unbearable wind in the vast lands of the ancient nomadic Mongols. I expected modern city life to include power outages, bouts of darkness and emergency backup generators. As a modern state of roughly 3 million, Mongolians are landlocked and defined as a tier two developing country with a rapidly increasing GDP. As such, I was expecting poor road networks, inadequately lit streets, potholes and people riding horses and strutting around with warm fur hats and Deels. A possible melange of Pakistani power outages, questionable Burkinabe roads, Gauchos of the Argentinean pampas, and bitterly cold northern Canadian territories.
Of course, none of this materialized. It was simply my own mind trying to piece together what UB could be based on my limited past experiences. The reality was that I landed into a modern airport and made my way through immigration and customs with a visa from Ottawa in hand. Promptly after baggage collection, my organization’s driver greeted me in English with a placard in his hand with my name on it. He brought me to a large Toyota land cruiser and in twenty minutes we were at a temporary residence in the city’s core, a mere stone’s throw away from Sükhbaatar Square. I was immediately lost. Within an hour of being around UB, I noticed that the roads were great, streets were well lit, the restaurants and bars were busy, traffic lights were operational and cars seamlessly maneuvered on the roads. A few days later, there has been no power outage that didn't recover within a few minutes, no Mongolians riding horses around the city and no giant potholes or dirt roads. Most surprisingly, the weather is comfortable and there is no snow to be seen anywhere. What am I to make of this variance between travel blogs and World Bank economic fact sheets and my reality on the ground?
I have always known that travelling gives you a different perspective. However, it never fails to amaze me how difficult it is to truly understand and appreciate a country or a perspective until you have decided to go on a journey of discovery yourself. For now, its time to spend a few more days dealing with jet lag and solidify new memories of the incredible views from the window seat of Mongolian Airlines flight 5302 en route to Chinggis Khaan International. I can’t wait to unpack Mongolia. Stay tuned and thank you for your support.