Every morning since we got to Mongolia, I wake up to this.
Yes, that's Chinggis (you may know him as Genghis) Khan's giant mug staring down from a mountain. In the early morning I tend to sit, drinking coffee, wondering what it would be like to live in one of those apartments at Chinggis's chin - his giant face endlessly glaring through the window, judging me.
We've been in Mongolia for a month now, and it's been disorienting. Some things are familiar. Cars pack the congested streets. Shopping malls gleam with slick, corporate advertisements. And after Korea, vast complexes of apartment buildings will always seem like home. But as with any new place, a few things are unfamiliar, too.
The other day, we decided to check out Ulaanbaatar's aptly named National Park, "National Park." It wasn't far from our apartment, just a klick or so up the road. The afternoon was warm and cheery, a condition we'd been warned not to take for granted.
Now, 'park' has specific connotations to me. I expect shaded trees and green lawn. Perhaps a pond where old men spend their time fishing and sharing stories. And, of course, a few playgrounds worth of children.
Ulaanbaatar's National Park is... not that. Oh, it has children. And it has playgrounds. But instead of rolling, forested coolness full of shady picnic spots, it's a sprawling plain of grass, bordered by distant mountains on one side...
...and burgeoning city on the other.
This wasn't bad. It just wasn't what I expected. There were plenty of paths for walking, though the trees are less shady and more scrawny.
And there are definitely playgrounds. Bouncy architecture predominated. But there were also places to rent tandem bikes. Parents seemed to take full and logical advantage of this, sitting in the back while their children pedaled. But the occasional group of boys would get their hands on one, too, and then all bets were off.
Of course, with five independent, adolescent minds steering every which way but straight, the results were less "wheeled terror" and more "awkward, off-road adventures."
Not that that stopped them, of course.
Erin and I spent a good two hours walking the vast loop of park. Toward the back end, we came upon a curious statue. I assumed it was some kind of artist's statement against office drone culture.
Ditching ties for awesome wolfskin caps? Why didn't anybody think of this before?
Of course, we weren't the only one's there. At least one couple was entirely too enamored with each other to pay any attention to this bold, anti-corporate statement.
We finished the loop and returned to the entrance. Nearby, Erin and I found a Cafe Bene, an imported, Korean-branded coffee shop. It was even blaring K-pop. We settled in for a frozen yogurt drink.
"What do you think?" I asked Erin.
"Well... it's different," she replied. "Not what I expected."
"But next time? Let's get one of those tandem bikes," Erin said.
"You do realize neither of us is remotely coordinated, right?" I asked. "Remember the boys? How quickly they ended up in a ditch?"
"Hmm.... good point. It's probably safer if just one of us peddles," Erin replied. Then she grinned at me, batting her eyes beseechingly.
I stared at her. "How about we just stick to walking."
She sighed. "Boring."
"Really?" I asked and glanced around.
She stared up at the towering skyscrapers, and Chinggis in his lofty perch.
Then she sighed, this time with contentment. "I guess not."