Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Mongolian fashion statements in Ulaan Bataar

The Mongolians 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.

Mongolian fashion statements in Ulaan Bataar

Billboard in Ulaan Bataar (Photo by Robert Peck)
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.

About this blog
The age of exploration is not dead. Over the next six weeks, Robert Peck and colleagues from the Academy of Natural Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania will be traveling in Mongolia, reconnecting with herdsmen Peck met 17 years ago and checking for evidence of climate change. Peck will chronicle his travels in the land once ruled by Genghis Khan on a blog at www.philly.com/treks


Robert McCracken Peck, senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Peck is a writer, naturalist, and historian who has traveled extensively in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. He has been honored by the Academy, the Explorers Club, and other organizations for his contributions to exploration and the interpretation of natural history. In 2007, the U.S. Department of State and the White House chose him to represent the United States at Mongolia’s 800th birthday celebration. Peck is the author of Land of the Eagle: A Natural History of North America (1990), Headhunters and Hummingbirds: An Expedition into Ecuador (1987), and other books and papers.

Clyde Goulden, Director of the Asia Center of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Goulden’s research in Asia began in 1994 when he and Academy colleagues were invited to initiate studies on a large lake in northern Mongolia, Lake Hovsgol. His work at the lake has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Global Environment Facility through the World Bank. He is associated with a research program to study the impacts of climate change on the lake’s watershed and the nomadic herders of Mongolia.

Tuya Goulden, researcher and international travel liaison
Tuya Goulden moved to the United States in 2006 from Mongolia and is a citizen of the U.S. In addition to college degrees from Mongolian universities, she has a master’s degree in tourism management from George Washington University. Goulden has been active in organizing expeditions in Mongolia for scientists in from the Academy and other universities. She is a research assistant for the Mongolian NSF-PIRE project on climate change impacts and serves as the translator for interviews with Mongolian nomadic herders.

Dakin Henderson, videographer
Henderson, a Boston filmmaker, has produced fiction and non-fiction short films, music videos and science-education documentaries. His films have won awards at Colorado College, the Shoot Out Boulder competition and the Ecological Society of America EcoFilm Festival. He currently works with the award-winning production team, Vital Pictures. Visit his website at www.shaxentertainment.com.

Dispatches from Robert Peck
Latest Videos:
Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected