Expat Eyes

This blog contains the photographs, observations and reflections of Rena Diana, an educator and writer, during extended stays in the Arabian Gulf, China, and Mongolia.

Archive for the category “Asia”

Getting Our Bearings


“Our families have been here as long as anyone can remember. We live well. Life involves a lot of work, but life is good.”
Myagmarsuren in Women of Mongolia by Martha Avery

While in Ulaanbaatar, we stayed for weeks at a time in the Corporate Hotel (the gray one in the center of the photo above), a short walk from my husband’s office.  It is small, no-frills, and comfortable.  From our window we saw the magical Bogd Khan Mountains. When Stewart was at work, I explored the city a bit but spent most of my time in the Chairman Restaurant on the 2nd floor of the hotel, reading and writing. It became my new nest.


Journal Entry- November 4, 2011: “Here I am, seated at my favorite corner table in this little restaurant in the northern part of Outer Mongolia, trying to get used to broccoli and beets for breakfast, while listening to old-timey western songs like “Oh, Donna”, “Unchained Melody” and “There’s A Summer Place” on the CD player in the alcove. A bit of a disconnect! The space is quite simple- very low ceilings, not much light- but they have made it look as attractive and welcoming as possible, with pastel tablecloths, napkins folded into geometric shapes and tucked into glasses, and vases of carnations. Several times a day a young Mongolian man plays  western-style music –beautifully- on  a mini-grand piano.


The first meal bill I got here was a shock. It came to 20, 900 togrogs (or ‘tugriks’).  Not knowing the exchange rate, I was thinking I might have to stick to beets while here. I later discovered it amounted to $16.17. Computing here is going to stretch my brain. (See post “Nuanced Numbers”,   July 11, 2012)


 I am always amazed to see, wherever I am, be it a rooftop deck in Dubai, a patio in Istanbul, or a windowsill in remote Ulaanbaatar, the same scruffy, brown sparrows that I see back in Baltimore. These dear wee winged creatures, carrying on their daily business all over the world.  Comforting. I was feeling rather low, but they truly cheered me up. “



The staff of the Chairman Restaurant became my acquaintances. Their friendly manners and fresh, healthy good looks were lovely, and they made me feel right at home, gracious and attentive, while also respecting my solitary routine. Four young women were a special part of my day: Tsutsaa and Orkhon were the servers, and Badam was the chef.  They knew very little English and were curious about me, since I sat there all day long!  We communicated through pantomime, sketches and a few  key words. The manager, Daria, on the other hand, spoke English fluently, as she and her husband had lived in the USA for a while and, in fact, her young daughter is still there with the grandparents.  Daria is typical of well-to-do young Mongolians who have traveled to America to further their formal education, and have recently returned to Ulaanbaatar to take part in the burgeoning development taking place.  Women have played a vital role not only in the history of Mongolia but also in recent political and economic enterprises. More on that topic in future posts.


Some basic facts. Outer Mongolia is about the size of western Europe, bordered by Russia and China, with three geographic zones: the Gobi desert in the south, the steppes in the middle , and dense forestland and mountains in the north and west.

The population in 2011 was 2.8 million , 45% of whom live in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia differs from the rest of Asia in that it is a nomadic culture, which means individuals there are accustomed to their  personal freedom.  Surrounding the capital city are “gertowns” –or shantytowns. These felt gers are scattered all over the hillsides around the city,  emitting smoke out of their makeshift tin chimneys from fires ignited by whatever fuel they can find. This is the source of much air pollution.  One of the country’s  biggest challenges as it modernizes will be how to manage the transition from gers to permanent residences.

The average life expectancy is 68, which makes Stewart and me among the elderly here. A humbling thought!







As these photographs express, there is a surprise around every corner in Ulaanbaatar.  Every walk I took was an adventure and an education. Just when I was thinking the people looked down-and-out, I would see a beautifully dressed young woman or giggling, carefree children.  Just when I was thinking it seemed quite modern and progressive, I would see a sign that seemed primitive. Just when I was thinking it seemed to be distanced from international human rights issues, I would see a politically activist sign. It is a city that defies stereotypes. The  conflicting sentiments in the quotations at the beginning and the end of this post describe a country in the midst of a dramatic transformation. –Next Post: Excursion into the Countryside

“I don’t know anything about politics or laws, but our life is difficult. It was better before than it is now, but I think the future will be better. I believe in ‘better’…” Dash, in Women of Mongolia, by Martha Avery




 DSCN1801“Mountains…poems of geology stretching beyond any boundaries and seemingly even beyond the world.”
Norman Maclean

Ulaanbaatar is on the banks of the Tuul River in the foothills of the Khangai Mountains. The patron saint of the city  is the massive mythological bird named Khangarid,  who represents eternity, strength, courage and power. He is everywhere.  Literally. On pictures, banners, signs, napkins, and souvenirs. A force.


Mongolians believe their capital city is guarded by the Bogd Kahn Uul, which means  “Holy King Mountain”.   It was established as a protected area in 1778, reputedly the first such designation in the world.  The flamboyant Khangarid is the deity residing in these mountains.  The etched cliff facades resemble the lined faces of  sages, imposing and weathered. It is easy to imagine Khangarid and a host of ancient souls embedded in the Khangai range.

IMG_4449For several centuries, the  rulers of Mongolia were called  the Bogd Kahn. The last man bearing that title was  born in Tibet  in 1869, moved to Ulaanbaatar (then called Urga) in 1874,  and enthroned as the great Khan in 1911, when Outer Mongolia declared independence from the Qing Dynasty, China’s last dynasty. Thus, the king was named for the mountain rather than the other way around!

IMG_4448This Bogd Khan lost power briefly when Chinese troops occupied the country in 1919. A revolution in 1921, led by Mongolians, put him back in power in 1924.  After his death, a Mongolian Revolutionary group, led by followers of Russian Communists, established the Mongolian People’s Republic, which lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. In 1992 the present day constitution was written, making Mongolia a democracy.

During the transition from the last Bogd Kahn, a Buddhist, to the reign of the Soviets, there was an effort to suppress all expressions of religion.  The Mongolians, however, are a deeply spiritual people, who are especially reverent toward their natural world.  They feel the presence of the last  Kahn,  and the mountain bearing his name is considered sacred.

There is a certain mystery  and enchantment about Mongolia- land of bird deities and mountain spirits.  We felt like we were on the edge of the earth there, swept up in a vast panorama, witnessing both centuries past and centuries to come.


Next Post: Getting Our Bearings





                                       “There are more animals than men, so they still have the world as God made it, and the men are the noble synthesis of Ghenghis Khan, the warrior, and the Dali Lama, the gentle religious leader.”

Zahava Hanan, Canadian Writer and Poet

From the glittering new cities of Dubai and Doha to the rugged outpost of Ulaanbaatar. From words cluttered with consonants to words filled with vowels. From stifling heat to frigid cold (40 degrees below 0 in the winter). From diamond bright skyscrapers to felt gers (yurts) and squat concrete buildings.  From a benevolent monarchy to a young democracy. The transition from the Arabian Gulf to Mongolia was dizzying.IMG_1683

IMG_1834There is only one narrow road,  filled with potholes, from the airport into the capital city of Ulaanbaatar as opposed to the eight-lane super highway into Dubai- clogged with an assortment of disorderly vehicles, some having steering wheels on the left and some on the right. Along the way are scattered humble  hovels and simple houses beside the ubiquitous tent homes called gers. (More on them in a later post.)

IMG_4399Present day Mongolia is like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 1970, when they were simple unknown fishing villages. The discovery of oil catapulted them into a frenzied spiral of growth and a presence on the global stage. The recent discovery of copper, coal and gold is having the same effect on Mongolia. So these countries share the mixed blessing of natural resources. Mongolia, however, is just beginning to face the challenges inherent in this dynamic.

As we settled into this intriguing place, we had to reorient ourselves, to shift from fast forward to rewind.

Mongolia is part California Gold Rush/ Wild Wild West, part Cold War 1950’s Soviet Union Sinister Blandness, and Part Buddhist, Pastoral Landscape, with flashes of wealth, sophistication and modernity.IMG_1671

I have developed the same level of respect for the proud Mongolians as I feel for the Emiratis and Qataris. They possess the same eagerness and determination. They aim to preserve their culture while adapting to the Third Millennium and the rest of the world’s sudden interest in them… I hope they can.



Our Global Family: More Glimpses

“We are now invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds, and join the general dance.”

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

I am no longer in transit… but I am in re-entry mode! So here are more photographs. All of these were taken in Beijing. Enjoy the slideshow below.

Next Post: Unsung Heroes

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Our Global Family:Glimpses

“The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.”

Mother Teresa

I am in transit at present, so this post  simply contains photographs. They speak for themselves.

Enjoy the gallery below!        Next Post: Our Global Family: More Glimpses

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