The Architecture of Happiness | Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

architectureI just finished reading The Architecture of Happiness (quoted above) in an architecturally acerbic city. Remember my first impressions of Ulaanbaatar post where I waxed poetically about how it wasn’t a wasteland? Well, I must have been viewing it with my rose colored Russian glasses, because guess what? It is a wasteland. We now know more about Ulaanbaatar than we ever wanted to know. The infrastructure is poor, the traffic is awful, the architecture (if you can call it that) is not cohesive or aesthetically pleasing, and after being witness to a disturbing incident in a parking lot, we realize the city is probably rampant with corruption. Our view from our hostel window

So I finish this book, which explores what our surroundings do to us, and I realize why I am so eager to get the heck out of here. Don’t get me wrong, Mongolia is amazing, but it’s very much a duplicitous country. It’s when you leave Ulaanbaatar that Mongolia becomes a magical place. The countryside is beautiful, the city just a holding cell.

So what does being exposed to a chaotic, ugly city do to one’s happiness?

Chaotic I can somewhat deal with, hence my ability to live in New York City, but at least the big apple has some pretty beautiful sites. You can be bombarded with complete chaos, want to crawl in a hole, swear you are quitting NYC and then look up and see the lit Empire State Building (or my favorite, The Chrysler Building), and suddenly you are in love with NYC all over again. Ulaanbaatar affords you no such experience. You can be so annoyed with the traffic, unable to breathe the dusty air, hope you are wearing appropriate shoes to trek through the haphazardly torn up sidewalks with exposed pipes and whatever else, want to get on a plane, and then you look up, find another torn up ditch that you have to jump across, and then really want to get on a plane. Ulaanbaatar doesn’t make you fall in love again. It makes you want to break up with it.

I’m a big believer that the external permeates the internal and just like the traffic I’m beginning to feel a bit congested. I finished the book at a time when I was so over Ulaanbaatar. Feeling trapped just waiting to make use of our plane tickets to India. I felt my first wave of New York miss and travel blues while cabin fever was setting in. But maybe my own architecture of happiness was being heavily swayed by Ulaanbaatar’s architecture of unhappiness? The book in some way made me realize my own sensitivity to aesthetics.

All this time I thought I was the sole architect of my own happiness, not realizing that perhaps my surroundings act as my subcontractors. Once I realized it’s not all internal and that the external is at work too, I felt relieved to know that my limp arches were probably a product of peripheral woes. Phew. Get me out of here!

Now India, am I going to fall in love with you or want to break up with you?

First Impressions | Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

What do you do with six weeks in Mongolia? We decided to book a week in Ulaanbaatar upon arrival to arrange for tours and scope the city out. To be honest, from what I had read and heard, I was expecting a total wasteland. While Ulaanbaatar is not up to par with other Asian metropolitan cities, it was surprisingly much more modern and westernized than I thought. (Especially coming from Irkutsk, Russia where nothing feels modern.) There is a restaurant called Los Angeles, which is down the street from California Restaurant, which is a few stores down from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and across town is The Brooklyn Restaurant & Pub. So I guess they covered all my old haunts. The streets are filled with luxury cars boasting brands like Lexus, Mercedes, Range Rover, Hummer, etc and while we sat having lunch, songs by Jason Mraz and The Lumineers played in the background. Gone are the days of broken down Russian Lada cars and Russian club music.

One thing is for sure though, the air quality here can grind on your sinuses. The city is quite dusty and you inhale the dust along with the car fumes (traffic is horrible!) leaving you all stuffed up. And while there are modern parts to the city, there are also the areas that are less so.1 4 3 3.1 2One day we took a LONG walk in search of Buddha Park and a memorial that was to have a great view of the city. As we crossed a river, it felt like we were in a different part of town. Suddenly we were among several newly built, or still in construction buildings that appear to be luxury apartments. 5With all these tall buildings we couldn't find the big Buddha statue...


we spotted Buddha among the luxury condos in construction. Isn't this a little sacrilegious?6We eventually found our way to Buddha's feet around all the construction in a valley of all the condos.

Imagine this could be your view if you snagged one of these condos.

Doesn't this seem more gimmicky than sacred?7The memorial we were in search of was perched high upon a hill and so our legs took a beating from the stairs.

On the way up, Rick found a friend. 8As we continued the climb, the new construction around us was so visible.

It almost appears that an entirely new city is being built. 12910 The next photo really shows modern living next to traditional living.

All the white circles below are traditional Mongolian ger's which shows the contrast of how people are living here.1113We finally reach the top and the view is amazing! 14 15.1 15 We spend another day at a local monastery which is filled with pigeons. I hate birds so this should be good. The grounds are filled with prayer wheels and colorful buildings though the inside of the monastery is the most impressive part and the safest part from getting bombed by bird poop.16 17 18 1920 21 2223 2425 262728 2930 3132 33Tomorrow we are leaving on a 8 day tour to the Gobi Desert, so stay tuned for a feast of photos upon return.

Trans-Mongolian Railway | Irkutsk ---> Ulaanbaatar

The best and the worst part about Russia was leaving it. The best part about it was that I no longer felt like I was in trouble. Russia has a way of making you feel like you are about to be sent to your room (or worse) all the time. There is a definite Big Brother feel with omnipresent voices that reverberate over city speakers. Everything is difficult and friendliness is not their forté. Obtaining a visa is hard (and expensive) enough, but then you are also required to register your visa upon arrival. If you stay at an established hotel, the hotel will do it for you, but if you are a budget backpacker, you will find that not all hostels will do this for you and if they do, they charge you a fee. Also, this process is completely different according to whom you talk. Some say if you stay in one city more than 3 days, then you must register, (in each city you visit!) but if you hop around and don't stay more than 3 days in each city, then you are OK. You will also read that there are heavy fines if you don't register your visa when leaving the country. AHHH! At this point, you are just itching for a straight answer that you soon realize, you will never get.

SO... we registered our visa's in two places (Olkhon Island & Irkutsk) just in case, which entailed passing over your passports, the registration fee (which varies according to who's doing it), and the next day you receive a piece of paper confirming your registration that you are to keep. The whole thing seems so unofficial. Needless to say, we were ready to cross the border (hoping without incident) into Mongolia.

But let's get to the worst part...

First of all, remember our lovely air-conditioned cabins from our Trans-Siberian adventure? They are all but a distant dream. We learn that the higher the train number, the worse the trains get. We took train 2 from Moscow to Irktusk. We are now taking train 362 to Ulaanbaatar. The proof is in the pictures...1Another major difference between the Trans-Siberian train and this one is that while the first leg was primarily all Russians, this car had none! It was all foreigners. We board and there is a group of jovial Portuguese all traveling together. We congregate in the hallway, take a shot of vodka, and toast to the trip. Our other two roommates are a British and Swiss guy. It's an international affair. We boarded at 10pm so we went to sleep shortly thereafter for night 1 of 2.2We knew we would hit the Russia/Mongolia border the next day in the afternoon and we also knew from a couple who crossed days before us that we were to expect about a 6 hour stint at the border. 456789So comes the worst part...

We get to the border and what should take maybe an hour, takes the 6 hours we expected. After we get to the station and play disconnect and connect cars for awhile, we find our car all by itself on the tracks. Officials then board the train, look at our passports and visa's to make sure we haven't overstayed, etc. and then leave. Then we are told we have 3 hours before the next phase. (Why? For what?!?!) We can get off the train and meander around, but there is really nothing to do and nothing happening. 3101112It's a total stand still. After the 3 hours pass, we have to all re-board and they come to collect our passports (why couldn't they have done this when they first looked at them?) at which point they don't even look at the registration papers that we stressed out over. I use them as a fan, which was the most use I could make out of them. Then customs control boards the train and they search our cabins. Then we wait again for our passports to come back with stamps. Meanwhile our lonely car is hooked up to a Mongolian engine and we finally leave the station 6 hours from when we got there.13When we get to the Mongolian side, we go through similar procedures which only take maybe an hour at most.

I am already liking Mongolia better. 14We have another hour to wait while they hook up more cars to the train and by the time we leave it's around 9pm local time. Did I mention that as soon as you cross the border, you no longer are on Moscow train time (even though you are traveling 5 hours ahead of Moscow), but local Mongolian time (which is an hour behind local Irkutsk time so we lost an hour) so by this point, your sense of time is totally useless. It's like math class and I was always bad at math. All I knew was it was dark and we had to get up at 5am the next morning so it was time for bed.

We were woken up the next morning at 5am to prepare for our 6am arrival into Ulaanbaatar. We were tired but the sunrise was beautiful. Now this is what I'm taking about...161718I think we are done with trains for awhile.