Monday 15 June, 5 AM. Black birds. Small black birds swooping in and out of holes in the walls, through antennas, cables and metal structures that extend from the buildings. Below, dirt streets, potholes, overflowing bins, cars squeezed into the limited space. I raise my eyes and look at the compound; a calm and central courtyard surrounded by a wide concrete outer ring of apartments. Two archways join the space to the city, an open fortress only a block away from Sukhbaatar Square. Strange structures.

A muffled yawn escapes my mouth as I watch the scene from the window on the sixth floor. A man carries a bucket full of water and empties it on some plants. A young couple leaves for work, and a middle-aged man arrives – a night porter perhaps, he wears an unbuttoned white shirt with black striped brown trousers which are too short for his legs, his socks are white. The sun is rising and I can already hear klaxons in the nearby streets. Slowly the city awakens. Soon, the now familiar music of the rubbish truck will join the soundscape. An inaudible sigh flows from my eyes. Nostalgia. I don’t know when, or if I will be back. This view, these sounds, will not be repeated. Every window is unique. So I record the language of the birds with their city. Ulaanbaatar.

Sunrise in Ulaanbaatar, Monday 15 June 2015.

Two hours later we are on a local train to Shiveegobi. The train is of Chinese make and familiar after nearly a week on the Trans-Mongolian. But here the staff keep it clean and tidy. The strong smell of incense welcomes us into our cabin, and every now and then the provodnista comes to check on us, takes away rubbish, serves us hot water, or mops the floor. As we place our backpacks under the lower berths, the city shifts leftwards and we continue our journey East, and South. Images in lively succession appear like a patchwork on a single, long strip of film: modern skyscrapers, communist apartment blocks, fuming chimneys, pungent construction sites, Japanese hybrid cars, legacy Russian vans, abandoned locomotives and empty wagons, broken fences and stray dogs, signs and ads in Cyrillic or Mongolian, street vendors, cheesy pop music with an Asian twist, a small and dirty stream, the river Selbe, timidly joining the sacred Tuul. Plastic bags, dust and gers.

Mongolia’s population is little more than 3 million and at least two thirds currently live in Ulaanbaatar. The great majority of the capital’s population, around 60 percent, live in ger districts. ‘And do they dismantle the gers every time they want to move?’ I ask Anji, intrigued by the numerous tents we were seeing from the train as we approached the city.

‘No, no,’ she tells me. My question must sound naïve, as Anji smiles a little. ‘These are permanent ger settlements which now legally form part of the city. People live there, they have relocated to the city and don’t move them.’

‘And how about water, electricity?’

‘They have electricity but they don’t have running water…or any public drainage systems, so people use outhouses instead.’ She pauses. ‘That’s OK in the desert, but in the city it is creating lots of problems.’

‘What do they do with the rubbish?’

‘That’s the central story to a film I’m producing. The main character is a nomad living in the city who works collecting waste from ger districts. The more central districts are older and better settled, with waste collection once a week. In the newer ones, on the periphery, trucks come once a month, if at all.’ Anji is from Georgia, US, but grew up between Taiwan and Australia. She has a Masters degree in urban planning and is now in Ulaanbaatar directing the UB Film Project (now Nomad Meets the City), ‘The film is about capturing the cultural and spatial changes these men and women, entire families, are going through when they leave their nomadic traditions and come to settle in the city.’

‘It’s not easy,’ she says. ‘There are lots of problem with drunks and homeless people in the streets.’

I reflect on Anji’s project as we settled in the cabin. The coal powered train chugs along the old tracks. The smell of sand, dry bushes and cattle flows through the open window. A rail worker pees on a post as the train approaches a station, pausing to give way to a cargo train. A single track moving a steady stream of materials eastward and westward across the open land. Here there are no tunnels: the line circles through the land, caressing the dusty mountains. Old infrastructure, low maintenance. Slow.

Just over a week ago we were arriving to Ulaabaatar, on Sunday 7 June, leaving cabin IV, wagon 7 of the Trans-Mongolian. As we stepped onto the platform, tour operators enveloped us with hotel leaflets, tour information and free maps of the city. We had stepped into Asia. Dusty colours and loud noises, impossible street crossings, constant sound of klaxons, unfinished sidewalks, discoloured traffic lights. The constant awareness of looking different, a blunt and happy reminder that we are travelling. Some shade. An alleyway. A group of seven or eight old women selling bundles of spring onions. After the capsicum market we turn left on a busy road and see the sign of our hostel.

In Ulaanbaatar, streets have no numbers. Like a group of tents assembled in the middle of the dessert. Where there are numbers, these do not follow any specific order. ‘You have to find your way with landmarks, or know where you want to go!’ Emily tells us as we meet her in Sukbaatar square. After two days at a hostel, we decided to move to an apartment and meet people living in the city, Emily was our host. But the apartment wasn’t ready until the next day, so we decided to pack our bags and go to a nearby hotel – perhaps a mistake, but the decision had been made. We left the hostel at 9 AM with heavy backpacks and a fifteen minute walk ahead. After half an hour, a tall, thin man approaches and asks if he can help. Unmistakable North American accent. We tell him the name of the hotel and show him our map. He says we are in the right place, that maybe we have passed it but he is not familiar with the name. We backtrack and make our way to what had looked like an empty building. The hotel, no street number at the entrance.

Elona calls me to the train window, she had seen the first patch of sand. As we crawl towards the Gobi desert we leave the meandering hills. To our left, one of the country’s few paved roads takes the same direction. Cars become sparser as we move further from the capital.

Cars. As we walk the broken sidewalks of the city where manholes are decorated with colourful smiley faces, we start noticing something peculiar. ‘I thought this car had no driver, look, the steering wheel is… on the right!’ ‘Strange. Oh, look, that one has the steering wheel on the left’ Elona points out. We later learn the official statistic is 50-50 left-right, cars are Russian, Japanese, Chinese…

Sukhbaatar Square, still known to locals as Genghis Khan Square, lies in the centre of the city surrounded by noisy streets and sidewalks with no trees. At the south end, the Blue Sky tower, twenty-four floor building which rises above the older and flatter government buildings. At the north end of the square, a large staircase flanked by two immense bronze statues of knights in Kahn style, leads to the entrance to the National Parliament. The square is barren but lively. We walk through it avoiding electric toy cars driven by joyful children, and reckless steering of adults on colourful tandem bicycles. The wind is still cold though the sun colours our skin and makes us squint.

An old man wearing a red jacket addresses us in English, then in Russian, then ‘bonjour’, ‘buonjorno’. His name is Bogod and we start to converse. He offers a tour in the countryside to meet nomadic families. ‘No we don’t know them beforehand,’ he tells us. ‘All nomads have the same right to be connected and meet foreigners, not just those who have an agreement with a tour agency,’ he declares. We later learn many families are part of a community-based tourism network. Tourism is an important industry for the country.

Our encounter with the Mongolia of today is one of contrasts, with a still very present nomadic culture and lifestyles – which many still idolize. A week earlier near lake Baikal, Tom, a half-Irish half-Australian tells Elona ‘No offence, but you see, I’m not interested in meeting other travellers. I am interested in getting to know the real place, the real people. After Ulaanbaatar we will stay with a nomadic family for two days, and that’s what I live for, they share their stories, and I share mine.’ This city, its hybrid cars, loud horns, its pick-pockets, tour operators, its capsicum markets, old temples and young monks talking on mobile phones – all seem very real to me.

I stop the recording, and swing the rucksack on my back. We triple check the room. ‘No nos olvidamos nada, no?’ and walk downstairs. As we are leaving, a tall thin man appears ‘I…I know you,’ he says with that unmistakable North American accent, confused. ‘Yes…We know you too!’ I say. ‘The sidewalk, you were lost.’ Click. Yes, John happens to be Emily’s friend. Ulaanbaatar, small. Mongolia, big and sparse.