Choibalsan city has experienced a bit of a renaissance in foreigners’ eyes. The 2005 Lonely Planet Mongolia describes Choibalsan as a “charmless aimag capital,” a “poor city with a high unemployment rate” which looks like it has “undergone an earthquake.” Our aimag (province) of Dornod suffers no better, merely getting a mention as the “least visited aimag in all Mongolia.”

That sourpuss author, Michael Kohn, must have received some vicious letters. Or, maybe he actually visited this place and realized his error. Now, in Lonely Planet Mongolia 2008, Dornod has become “one of the most beautiful areas of the country and relatively easy to get around.” It’s an “unspoilt ampitheatre of bounding gazelle, scurrying marmots, and jeep tracks that squiggle endlessly into the distance.”

Choibalsan itself gets props as a pleasant, peaceful city — full of delicious food and historical artifacts. We even saw some jinkin (genuine) tourists here last week.

Here’s a glance at my home. I took these photos last August, when I first arrived. The photos come from a leisurely hike to the abandoned Soviet army base.

A gathering storm whips up dust.

Dr. Maarten and Rev. Boldsaikhan inspect one of the French volunteers’ community gardens. Yummy radishes.

Kenny and Cassandra, on the road to the old Soviet army base.

Socialist murals always cast Man as Industry and Woman as Agriculture.

Sarah marching with Mongolian soldiers. The mosaic commemorates Mongolia’s 1939 clash with Japan.

A dramatic monument to Mongolia’s Unknown Soldier.

My beloved creepy history museum; Choibalsan himself, the “Stalin of Mongolia,” stands in front. You can even see Cho’s gargantuan pajamas on display inside.

There is no way to convey the vastness of the Mongolian sky.

The Soviet army dormitory. A construction crane still hovers over one half-complete building.

Cassandra marches toward Lenin.

Lenin’s head is rather tiny.

Choibalsan is this flat all over.

Looking at the ruins of the base’s mess hall. I took this photo from inside the army auditorium. We hunted for treasure in the debris. Cassandra found insignia buttons and I found pretty glass flasks.

When the Soviets came to Mongolia, they established universal literacy and killed thirty thousand lamas. They built railroads and demolished monasteries. They introduced nutritious root vegetables like turnips; they also made sure that strong vodka replaced mild airag as the country’s favorite drink.

While many Mongolians detest the Chinese, folks feel ambivalent about the Russians. In 1921, after kicking out the Manchus, Mongolia proclaimed itself a communist country. Soon Mongolia fell under the sway of the Soviet Union.

When I ask about communist times, Mongolians tend to list the good things about the Russians first. They mention the bad parts almost as an afterthought. Our host sisters still sing us this ditty: “Boroo, boroo, orooroi, orosni mamo ireerei.” (Rain rain please fall, Russian children please come.) 

Russians built Mongolia’s second-largest city, Darkhan. Darkhan means “Blacksmith” in Mongolian. The Economist debates whether Darkhan is a good or bad legacy, describing it sourly as “grim and industrial.”  Here are a few glances at Darkhan. (from training this summer)

Socialist realism at the supermarket

This is the big Nomin supermarket — its front entrance still bears this gaudy Socialist Realist sculpture.

The guy on the left (next to the horses) looks Mongolian, and the dude on the right bears Russian features. It gets better if you go inside. A five-foot-high bust of Lenin adorns one wall. Lenin faces a similar bust of Mongolia’s own revolutionary hero, Damdiny Sukhbaatar.

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New kids on the apartment block
Darkhan has many 1960’s Soviet apartments, but this one might be my favorite.

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Although I didn’t get a photo of the other building I really like, which is scrawled:  “Pablic Enima ? “