When my plane first passed over Ulaanbaatar, after traveling above miles of desert and countryside from the Beijing airport into a land I knew next-to-nothing about, I could think of only one thing: The Valley.
“The Valley” is both a loving and not-so-loving term Southern California residents use to refer to the San Fernando Valley, which lies in the northwest corner of Los Angeles County. The area is surrounded by the looming and beautiful hills of the Santa Monica Mountains to the south and the San Gabriel and Santa Susana Mountains to the north. The mountains circulate their colors from a not-so-beautiful brown to a not-so-beautiful less-brown during the year, but their enormous presence and majestic structure can always be felt below. And plumb right in the middle of that majestic, beautiful area is a grid. Its objective, straight lines divide the valley floor into nice pieces for its residents, who number no less than two million. Concrete is king in The Valley, as most of the buildings are made up of white slabs no more than a few stories high with a few skyscrapers rising above the rest. A thin layer of smog rests over everything, creating a haze that covers the uncomfortable concrete in shadows.
I live in the city of Thousand Oaks, which lies just northwest of The Valley. Traveling from my home to get to Los Angeles has always been a bit of a confusing experience for me. The beauty of the surroundings contrasts with crumbling highways and buildings. The low-income day laborers contrast with the wealthy entertainment moguls in the hills, the stereotypically spoiled “Valley Girls” carrying shopping bags, and the middle-class neighborhoods. And the smog that fills the air contrasts with my need to breathe, so whenever I drive through, my stomach gets an odd feeling. It’s just not comfortable. The San Fernando Valley remains “The Valley,” a title which, to me, seems as fittingly ambiguous as the place it describes.
I came to Ulaanbaatar with a similar ambiguity and confusion. My friends from home know of Mongolia as the home of Chinggis Khaan, some nomads, and some goats. They warned me before I left, to watch out for the animals or the great armies. I read a small travel book on the plane trip to Mongolia, which describes Ulaanbaatar as a bustling and thriving city, with constant foreign interest driving its future alongside ever-present nomadic roots. From the plane, I looked over this city, not sure what to make of it. Brownish green...