My first night, I came upon a Louis Vuitton outlet amid the ghostly Soviet monuments of the central square. Nearby, numbers from the New York Stock Exchange flashed across several stories of a high-rise. I’d heard that on the day the store opened, in 2009, it had moved a dozen US$94,000 steamer trunks. As I ventured on, I passed places actually called Rich Centre and Million Dollar Club. Teenagers, sporting ear buds and shades, listened to the thumping rhythms of Gee, a local hip-hop star. When I watched the astonishing throat singers and contortionists of the Mongolian National Song & Dance Ensemble, I was only half taken aback to hear an orchestral version of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
One afternoon I was lucky enough to get a private viewing of the treasure room of the National Library, a reminder of the cosmopolitanism that has distinguished Mongolia for centuries.
Its rulers once conquered more than twice as many people as any other empire in history, bringing the treasures of everywhere back to their landlocked home: Sutras written in gold leaf. Astronomical charts from before the time of Gutenberg. Sacred texts composed by the fifth Dalai Lama. A ‘family tree’ in the form of an exploding star, with Genghis Khan at its red-hot centre. Hours later, I returned to the 21st-century version of the empire: a stylish new development in the affluent Zaisan district known as Buddha Vista, before crossing the street to enjoy a remarkably tasty ‘Tex-Mex’ pizza at the rooftop restaurant Terrazza Zaisan.
Despite Ulaanbaatar’s runaway development, more than half its residents live in very basic gers surrounding it, as if the grasslands were waiting to swallow up the blue-tinted towers. In the old Soviet-built State Department Store, I saw pieces of jewellery selling for US$45,000 (five years’ salary for a typical Mongolian). I learned also that as the Soviet influence fades, the elegant Mongolian script used for centuries is coming back into schools, replacing Cyrillic. Somehow, modernity and tradition have found away to sustain one another.