Whenever I tell people that I recently spent a week in one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, I’m often faced with the question: “Why the bloody hell would you go to Mongolia?!”
Well, the answer to that one is quite simple: I have friends living there. But why they chose Mongolia of all places, I’ll never quite understand. With a population of only roughly 3 million, Mongolia is probably most famous for being home to the conqueror Chinggis Khan (yes, I’m spelling that correctly) and for being a frozen wasteland. But of course there’s plenty to do in this freezing landscape like…um… drinking! Lots and lots of drinking!
During the week that I spent there, the temperature got as low as minus 20-something (which, I am told, is not even as cold as it can get). But thankfully all the buildings have central heating and you can shed your layers of clothing once you’re inside. It’s also a very dry cold, so wearing plenty of layers actually helps and you don’t have to worry when you fall in the snow and get wet. In fact, the majority of the snow chilling in Mongolia is from early December and has just hung around because it’s that cold.
But this post is not about the cold in Mongolia, nor is it about the activities that I got up to during my time there. No. This post is about the differences between Japan and Mongolia. As a foreigner to both of these countries, I figured that I can easily spot the differences between the two countries. So here goes:
1. Customer Service
The first thing I noticed in Mongolia was that I definitely was not among Japanese people. This is not based on the physical characteristics between the two peoples, but rather based on the difference in customer service. In Japan, every shop, stall, and restaurant has excellent customer service – the workers will wait on you hand and foot, making sure that you get everything you need and that you feel satisfied with their service. And this is not so that they can get bigger tips. No. This is because they view this as their job. Why else would you be in the service industry?
But in Mongolia it’s a different story. Even before officially being in the country, I experienced terrible service at the passport control where the attendant skiffed me out when I gave him all the correct papers. But this wasn’t a once-off thing. At every restaurant, your orders are often followed by a grunt from the waiter and a rolling of the eyes. Needless to say, it made me long for the customer service of Japan.
2. No f*cks given
This is both a good and a bad thing about Mongolia. It’s great in a sense because you can make as many cultural faux pas as you like without getting “The Stare” (a phenomenon in Japan where people’s eyes drill into your head if you make the slightest mistake). But it can also be bad as the Mongolians often don’t care about saying how they feel to your face.
The best example of this was while waiting outside the airport and a taxi driver comes up to me. “Do you want a taxi?” he asks in broken English. “No thank you, we’re still waiting for a friend,” I reply. And with no hesitation, he quite audibly says “f*cking tourists” (or at least I assume that’s what he said in fluent Mongolian).
But otherwise, the ‘not-giving-a-f*ck’ attitude of the Mongolians is actually quite refreshing compared to the ‘we’re-secretly-judging-you’ attitude of the Japanese. However, I would still take living in Japan long-term over living in Mongolia… and this brings me to my next point.
3. The Capitals
Most of my time in Japan and most of my time in Mongolia has been spent in their respective capitals – namely Tokyo and Ulaanbaatar – and the difference between the two is astounding.
Don’t be fooled when you do a Google Image search of Ulaanbaatar – it is seriously not as built up as the pictures will make you believe (you will notice that most of the images are only of the most expensive hotel in the city). No, this capital is far more rundown and looks rather like a giant crappy town in the middle of nowhere. Many of the roads are in shoddy conditions and there seem to be no road rules in the country – making traffic not only hectic, but an insane thrill ride at the same time.
Of course there are some hidden gems within the city (like the Zaisan Memorial, giant Buddha statue, the State Department Store, and The Beatles Square), but overall, it’s got plenty of shady corners. Of course, if you’re a traveler who sees excitement in such shady corners, then Ulaanbaatar is the place for you! But as someone who enjoys safe and secure adventures, count me out.
Comparing this to Tokyo, Ulaanbaatar is like a wasteland. In Tokyo there are skyscrapers and apartment buildings abound, with trains, buses, and taxis weaving their way through the city to drop off each of the 30 million inhabitants at their desired locations. This means that the city of Tokyo has to function like a well-oiled machine. Indeed, it is definitely one of the most convenient cities in the world with regards to getting around and finding what you need at any of the thousands of convenience stores city-wide.
However, because of the 30 million people living in this grand city (compared to Ulaanbaatar’s 1.2 million), there of course some obvious draw-backs. For example, peak hour traffic on the trains and on the pristine roads is insane. Indeed, Tokyo is like no other place in the world with humans crammed in trains like over-sized sardines.
Overall, I think the best thing about Tokyo is that fact that nature also seems to creep in. This is seen with the hundreds of parks dotted all around the city where bustling businessmen and young families can enjoy a break from the big city life and relax under some lovely trees accompanied by the sound of nature.
In the end, Japan seems like the place for me. It’s convenient and relaxing at the same time. And if you choose to ignore the infamous ‘Japanese stare’ like I do, then you can live a happy and oblivious life in Japan’s greatest city.