Incheon International Airport, in South Korea, is a veritable monument to the globalized, capitalist, and consumerist characterizations of the post-Cold War world. The passenger terminal seems to have been originally designed as some sort of massive elitist shopping arcade, before someone had the bright idea to add some gates and stick a few planes into it. A duty-free shop, itself the size of a modest municipal airport, frames the entrance to every glittering granite walkway, each promising to knock a few dollars off of cigarettes, perfumes, and whiskeys that only several dozen people on this planet could realistically afford. Instead of a Hudson News bookstand or a Starbucks coffee counter, we encountered a large-scale Hello Kitty! shop, one that was filled with seemingly every product except for stuffed animals. Hello Kitty!’s merchandising department appears to operate with the motto “If it can be shaped into a small faceless cartoon cat, it will be shaped into a small faceless cartoon cat.” Had you not realized that you desperately required Hello Kitty!-shaped throat lozenges, office chairs, and throw pillows beforehand, you realized it now.
It was quite the shock, then, to doze off on a plane for two hours and find ourselves arriving at Chinggis Khaan International Airport, on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. In flying 1,200 miles west, we’d apparently also flown forty years back in time. Chinggis Khaan was gloomy, claustrophobically small, and almost charmingly unpleasant. The floors were scuffed, the ceilings were low, and the sole baggage carousel got stuck three times before it began begrudgingly spitting out our luggage. Instead of the duty-free palaces of Incheon, there was a single duty-free cigarette stand, advertising cartons of Marlboros with diseased organs and sickly regretful lung cancer victims plastered on the fronts. We new arrivals from Incheon instinctively clustered together as we wandered the barren halls, acutely aware that the comfort and familiarity of Korea was long gone.
By far the most foreign aspect of the airport was the lack of any sort of corporate fast food establishment. In my pre-Mongolia life, no airport experience was complete without passing by several dozen Subways or Burger Kings on the way to the parking lot; now, however, they had all been replaced by a single small, anonymous, featureless restaurant, located just before the arrivals exit. Behind the closed glass door, I glimpsed several elegantly set tables, draped in red tablecloths, without a single customer or server to be seen. The restaurant’s closure was understandable, given our midnight arrival, but I had the feeling that this was the establishment’s natural state. I had an instant vision of its glory days in the 70’s and 80’s, when bored Russian bureaucrats would sit at its tables, sipping their state-provided spirits and smoking smuggled European cigarettes, impatiently checking their watches for the flight that would take them out of this primitive hellhole and back to their dachas on the Black Sea. Even as we met our Buddhist Abbot guide, learned a few words of Mongolian, and received khata scarves over our shoulders, my peek at that quintessentially Communist restaurant was the one experience that really gave me culture shock that night.
While no country was really suited to the particular brand of socialism as forced by the Soviet Union onto its satellite states, I’d argue that Mongolia was an especially bad fit for a Communist government. It’s difficult to create what is theoretically a utopian post-industrial society in a country whose people are predominantly nomadic – not that the Soviets were ever concerned about legitimate socialist development in Mongolia anyway. As phrased by Comintern leader Bohumîr Šmeral, “the people of Mongolia are not important, the land is important. Mongolian land is larger than England, France, and Germany.” Nonetheless, the Soviets spent 60 years attempting to mold and form these ‘unimportant people’ into passable socialists, beginning with the collectivization of livestock, the destruction of Buddhist monasteries, and the renaming of the capital, Niĭslel Khüree (“Capital Camp”), to Ulaanbaatar (“Red Hero”). The Soviets maintained their presence in Mongolia until their global empire crumbled in 1990, at which point the country shakily transitioned into a conventional free-market, multi-party democracy.
Twenty-five years later, the Mongolians, particularly those living in the capital, have developed a passion for all things capitalist, including fancy cars, trendy cardigans, and sleek Korean cell phones. The once-barren storefronts of Ulaanbaatar are now filled with cute coffee shops, fashionable boutiques, and trendy vegan restaurants. Genghis would be ashamed. The remnants of Mongolia’s Russian domination are primarily noticeable in the architecture, which, contrary to my previous assumption, does not consist of uniform concrete apartment blocks, but rather heralds from an earlier, more ‘imperial’ set of aesthetic values. The Ulaanbaatar Opera House, with its candy-pink coloring and pearly-white columns, looks straight out of Saint Petersburg, and stands quite at odds with the sleek post-1990 office towers that surround it.
One relic from the Soviet era that remains alive and well is the State Department Store on Peace Avenue (Ulaanbaatar street names are rather idealistic), which we walked past every day on our way to school. Built in 1961, the store was for many decades the only place in town where elite Mongolians with party connections could purchase rare Western goods, from cameras to chewing gum, at a high premium. The State Department Store was eventually privatized in 1999, and has since been transformed into what Lonely Planet calls “Ulaanbaatar’s first shopping mall.” The low-ceilinged, six-story structure has had a massive atrium carved into its middle, allowing light from newly installed skylights to reach all the way down to the second floor. Groceries, clothing, and technology, much of which comes from the West, are now affordable not just for the elite, but also for the burgeoning (and highly consumerist) Mongolian middle class. The fourth floor features a model runway and catwalk, which perpetually blasts American Top 40 pop songs, and the fifth floor contains an array of dizzyingly large LG and Sony flat screen displays. On the sixth floor is a food court, awkwardly arranged between structural support columns and ventilation pipes, as well as an extensive souvenir shop selling medieval weaponry, hand-carved instruments, and other goods meant to convince backpackers that the authentic Mongolia is still out there, somewhere.
Of these reminders of Mongolia’s Soviet occupation, few may remain in the future. The uniquely dreadful Chinggis Khaan International Airport is slated to be replaced by the presumably much more conventional New Ulaanbaatar International Airport in 2016, and the ghostly Soviet restaurant in its basement will no longer haunt new arrivals to the city. The State Department Store faces pressure from new shopping malls in the east of Ulaanbaatar, buildings that don’t have to conform to a blocky Soviet architectural plan, although prestige and history keep the ‘original’ healthy and prosperous for now. While part of me is disappointed to see relics from such a significant and curious period of Mongolia’s history begin to vanish, I certainly can’t blame the Mongolians for wanting to distance themselves from what was an intensely brutal and traumatic colonial experience. The Mongolians have suffered massive famine, religious persecution, and dramatic lifestyle altercation at the hands of imperialist powers; if they want an airport with a Burger King inside of it, well, it’s the least they deserve.