Recollections of an Airport

By Julian Dierkes

An international airport is a gateway to a country. For me, apart from a Transsiberian trip in 1991 (watch my Twitter account later in July for a mini 30-year commemoration of my trip), the Ulaanbaatar airport has been my gateway for the past 15 years. While I’ve complained about having to transfer in Beijing with its – at best – surely officials, or about the long layovers that transferring in Seoul inevitably seems to produce, arrival at Buyant-Ukhaa International Airport and thus in Mongolia has always been a joy and departure has come with some sorrow. My first-ever blog post here was about arriving at ULN.

Now, there is a new airport and we’ll switch from ULN to UBN as my dream destination for flights.

Recollections

First Arrival

I’d have to look up the exact date, but I think it was in 2005 that I first arrived in Ulaanbaatar at the beginning of discovering my “Inner Mongolian”. This was a follow-up to a state visit that Pres N Bagabandi paid to Canada in 2004. I arrived nominally to assess whether there were exchange opportunities for UBC in Mongolia and my initial contact then was the Mongolian National Univ of Medical Sciences (АШУҮИС). I had been in touch with officials there prior to the visit and thought that I had made some arrangements, but I really did not have much of a plan. I am pretty sure that I arrived in the middle of the night, probably having transferred in Beijing. Something did not quite go right with the pick-up, but I forget what exactly. I do remember standing in front of the airport (which had not made much of an impression) thinking to myself, “What have I got myself into?” Little did I know!

Somehow I did get picked up and headed into the city, staying at the Ulaanbaatar Hotel that time, I think. The drive into the city was quite memorable and I was starting out of the window the whole time, of course.

In 2005, the city had not spread beyond the Tuul toward the airport. That end of town was really quite dark and the intersection that comes on the way into town just after passing the power plants still had the police box very visible, something that I only knew from childhood visits to Eastern Europe.

The Ride from the Airport

If I searched through photo collections or old posts, I’d probably find some photos or other posts, but will just recollect here.

On some winter-time visit, I was amazed by the decorations of the big street into town, trough Khaan-Uul. It was lit up in so many colours blinking away like a giant horizontal Christmas tree.

That street sure changed over the years. All kinds of developments sprung up, even while that miserable Mongolian-Japanese tree planting project did not exactly produce a wind barrier, but rather a line of scraggly trees that seem not to have grown in the 15 years that I’ve noticed them.

I also remember once taking a photo of a bunch of cows grazing on the lawn in front of the airport with its vaguely Mongolesque tower. That was a nice photo!

Now, there is a much bigger bridge across the Tuul and the mountainside road, the various horseracing, archery and wrestling venues, giant malls, etc. When you arrived into ULN in recent years, that sense of having landed in a far-off place has largely dissipated with the arrival of legitimate taxis and urban encroachment in the direction of the airport.

Landing

For the first five years of regular visits to Mongolia, the only route seemed to be MIAT or Air China through Beijing. Or, maybe it was just the cheapest and I had not developed the professional clout to refuse Beijing connections yet. Regardless, it seemed like every third CA flight did not land. Ugh, the misery of the PEK airport with the ULN flight inevitably scheduled to leave from the darkest, furthest-away gate. Either this was after a long transpacific flight or, worse, a night spent in Beijing. Then, approach to ULN… and the pilot turned around to dump us back at the gate at PEK where no plans would be communicated and passengers were left to their own devices until we were herded back onto a plane in a great hurry to depart. Yes, those cross-winds, apparently. And thus a strong preference for MIAT pilots who did not seem so challenged by landing at ULN.

VIP Section

Once I had the dubious honour of being afforded VIP treatment at ULN. That did not work out so well since I had checked luggage and the system to identify VIP luggage seemed to be to wait until all luggage was collected and whatever was left must have been this VIP’s. I did not rely on connections to be allowed the VIP treatment in the future, though I did request this once. A UBC executive was coming to Ulaanbaatar for some discussions. I called ahead and had them met at the door of the plane and whisked to the VIP terminal. This official travelled for a living (my impression), but had not received the VIP treatment before and was absolutely thrilled!

Notable Events: Attempted Akçay Abduction

Remember when the Erdogan regime tried to abduct Turkish educator Veysel Akçay from Ulaanbaatar in summer 2018? There was a long standoff between protestors who also gathered at the airport and a small jet that had arrived with four Turkish officials, but was meant to depart with five passengers.

Every once in a while I saw curious airplanes at the airport. Visiting Arabian princes of sorts (in Mongolia for falconry, perhaps), giant cargo planes to shuttle Mongolian peace keepers, various foreign government planes, etc.

Outlook

I have not been excited about the new airport. The train line was never going to get built, so now the long drive into the city seems pretty daunting. Hopefully the cross-winds won’t menace landings so much anymore and I am really hoping that new international services, esp. also the resumption of Asian flights into UBN that allow for a Star Alliance connection from Vancouver without visiting Beijing or flying CA, will mean that service will be a bit more reliable.

More connections into Ulaanbaatar was supposed to be the point of a new airport, but we’ll have to see whether landing slots will actually be made available. Who knows whether I might not still fly into ULN some day.

But even then, flights directly from N America seem quite unlikely, so I will always be exhausted, so the long drive into the city will not be welcome. And, this will also mean even earlier departures for the airport to account for the vagaries of traffic and the insistence on pre-departure early arrival. But I know that I will still be so happy when landing in Ulaanbaatar to come to visit in the future!

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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