Mongolian fashion statements in Ulaan Bataar

Chenggis Kahn in UB 6-18-11 004
Billboard in Ulaan Bataar (Photo by Robert Peck)

Compared to the way things will be here in about three weeks, the streets of Ulaan Bataar are relatively free of foreigners.

There are, of course, the semi- permanent residents who work at the embassies, do business here, or who work for the plethora of NGOs that have sprung up throughout the capital. The rest are mostly tourists with a taste for adventure.

Many more will arrive in mid-July in order to experience Mongolia’s famous Naadam festival in which the entire country celebrates its history with widespread demonstration of horseback riding, wrestling, and archery . For Mongolians this three or four day event is a major sporting extravaganza and national holiday combined (think Super Bowl, Olympics and the World Cup combined with the Fourth of July).

Of the foreigners who are here now, most are college students, staying at inexpensive guesthouses (where they sleep for $5 to $6 per night, breakfast included).

It is not difficult to spot the Americans. In addition to their Caucasian faces, they are the ones who look like they have just climbed off a deer stand in western Pennsylvania, Arkansas, or Alaska. They are inevitably dressed in well-used (not to say tattered) Cabella-style field clothing, as if traveling to an unfamiliar country somehow requires dressing like a militiaman in survival mode.

The Mongolians, by contrast, walk the dusty streets in the most up-to-date clothing they can procure -- clean, contemporary outfits that look as though they have just come off the catwalks of a fashion show in Beijing or Kazakhstan.

Twenty years ago many of the locals still dressed in “dels,” long woolen robes with high collars (open in hot weather) and tied tightly at the waste with wide sashes of yellow or orange silk. They cut striking and wildly romantic figures. Even the worn “dels” of the rural herdsmen who were in town to sell wool or buy provisions, looked elegant and dignified.

Today, it is only the older people and the monks from the Gandan Monestary who wear such costumes in town. The latter, in their maroon robes, still dress as they have for centuries, and as they did in the 1930s when hundreds of thousands of them were slaughtered by a Communist government mistrustful of anyone holding allegiance to any power other than the central government.

Twenty years ago, the most common footwear worn in Mongolia was heavy felt or leather boots with toes that curled slightly up. Today most of the population wears imported Chinese shoes of far less durable design and manufacture.

Felt boots may still be worn in the countryside, but in Ulaan Bataar, they are seen more often in the tourist shops that will soon be choked with foreign visitors eager to take home a little bit of Mongolia’s romantic past.