Off your typical backpacking circuit, arriving in Mongolia at dawn via Train 362 was shock to the system. For starters, our epic border crossing meant that Bryce and I had only slept a total of 3 hours. Bleary-eyed and gazing around the chaos and noise of Ulaanbaatar's train station after the stoicism of Russia proved jarring indeed: cars and minivans competed for space in the small parking lot, parking haphazardly in circles or squares and stuffing themselves into any space possible. Buuz (steamed meat dumplings) sellers were screaming for attention, competing against the many men yelling "taxi? taxi?" and popping themselves into your frame of vision with gusto. The scene was no different than the chaos of many other cities I've visited along the way, but after several weeks in Russia, it was certainly an adjustment.
Mongolia remains attractive to foreign investors and aid because of its stable democratic government (minus a blip in 2008 where the opposition party burned down its opponent's headquarters, killing five) and favorable investment laws. Nonetheless, the infrastructure of the country and its lack of basic roads, plumbing and running water, make it one of the poorest countries in Asia. You only need to look outside the gates of the dirty, jumbled capital to see the contrast in action: filthy sheep and goats roam hungrily on the thin strip of grass between the roads leading out of Ulaanbaatar, urged along by a nomadic shepherd dressed in tattered traditional wear. Go out of the city a bit further, and the infrastructure all but disappears: the roads are in such poor shape that we needed to off-road it 8 hours to the nomadic family where we were staying, with nothing for hours but sky and land and the occasional soom (small village). It was a stunning drive, punctuated by huge, roaming herds of sheep and goats, grazing in perfect harmony, and the steady gallop of horse herds criss-crossing the Gobi desert, but Bryce and I were shocked at how bad the roads really were.
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