Some years ago, before starting this blog, I read an entertaining book about two people who challenged each other to travel around the world without flying, one of whom spectacularly cheated while the other engaged in forms of travel that I found of much greater interest, like traveling across the Pacific Ocean in a cargo ship  and traveling along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. When the person had reached Ulanbaatar, which means “Red Hero” in Mongolian and is a reference to the nation’s long dominance by the Communist party, sandwiched as it is between Russia and China, nations the Mongols had once conquered and which dominated Mongolia during its long and dark 20th century, he commented that Ulanbaatar was a city for people who hate cities, naming it one of the worst cities in the entire world. Ulanbaatar, home to over a million people and the only population center of any importance in the entire nation of Mongolia, as the second largest city, Darkhan, has fewer than 200,000 people and the third largest city, Erdenet, fewer than 100,000, has a few qualities that make it particularly bad as a model city for people who hate cities. For one, more than half of the population of the city lives in yurts and cooks and heats their detached nomadic dwellings with primitive stoves that generate huge amounts of smog and other particulate pollution that is worse than many northern Chinese industrial cities, so bad that it creates problems for air traffic controllers at the city’s international airport. For another, the city itself is, like Los Angeles and Mexico City and a few other cities cursed with notorious pollution, built in a valley between relatively high mountains that serves to trap the bad air over the city .
It ought to be easy to understand why the Mongols might be said to hate cities. The only time the Mongols made an impact on world history, under the rule of Genghis Khan and his descendants, they were sacking cities from Kiev to Nanking, piling the corpses of hundreds of thousands of people at a time in front of the ruins of Samarkand and other urban places in Central Asia, and destroying the Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad. Their threat to destroy the urban civilizations they conquered and replace them with pastureland for themselves and fellow nomads was never entirely forgiven or forgotten. Although in later generations the Mongols were no longer the scourge of the entire world, they did sack Lhasa memorably in the 16th century, and the absence of an urban culture in their own country is evidence that the Mongols truly are a people who hate cities. Ulanbaatar itself was originally a nomadic city that moved locations dozens of times before settling in its present location. It would likely be too much to ask the Mongolians, whether in history or in the present, to be the creators of a vibrant urban culture and all that entails . For understandable reasons, nomadic cultures are not the sort of civilizations to be the best at promoting, well, civilization.
It is not as if the Mongolians are trying to deceive us by pretending to be an urban culture either. Their national games, which by coincidence are going on as I write this, consist of three sports that used to be limited to men only—Mongolian wrestling (still limited to men), archery, and long-distance horse racing of the kind seen in Mumford & Sons videos like “Ditmas.” These are not urban sports. The Mongolians don’t pretend to be hipsters enjoying the music of faux rock bands like, well, Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers or play sports like parkour, but they own up to their love of their nomadic traditional sports and even when they live in big cities, they still live in their gers, which is what the rest of the world calls yurts when they are seeking to live a more rural existence in Oregon state parks on the coast. This may be somewhat coincidental, but this sort of lifestyle exactly resembles that described by the Hebrew word ger for resident aliens, those who remain foreign and somewhat rootless even as they reside in a place. However long they live in a large city, many Mongolians simply have no idea what it means to live in a city, to be a part of a city, to be a part of a larger community than they are a part of. Lest we make fun of Mongolians, this is a common problem for Americans as well, where even if we live in apartments and larger communities, we often do not know our neighbors at all, living in our own world, going about our own business, bowling alone, driving alone, even when surrounded by millions of other people in our own cities made by people who hate cities.
Should we celebrate cities made by people who hate cities, who are in denial that they are living in cities and that successful city life requires a certain sociability and the development of a sense of community? Or should we not prefer to celebrate and enjoy cities made by people who love cities? Do not people who love something do a better job than those who hate it, whose very attempts to do what they despise lead them to subvert and undercut their attempts with irony and sarcasm and contempt? In answering this, loving cities does not necessarily mean that we have to love the way they are in our own context, or love what is fallen about them, and it may be a love of an ideal that is only realized in our own minds, the practical reality of it which has not ever been seen. After all, if we were limited in our love to what we had seen, there would be little hope of anything remotely approaching the good and the noble in many of us, for we must long love ideals and strive with great difficulty to make a reality of our dreams, and to overcome the horror of our nightmarish realities before our reality is anything better than we have experienced. So, let us not cast aside those who love ideals even many of the ideals that people have cannot translate themselves easily or happily in the reality of our world. If we had no recourse to ideals to shape and improve our reality we would truly be in a hopeless mess without any possibility of improvement or amelioration.
What dreams do believers have of cities ? The author of Hebrews, to give one example, speaks of the semi-nomadic Abraham dreaming of a city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God, in Hebrews 11:8-12. The apostle Paul, spoke of this same longing in Philippians 3:17-4:1 for the fulfillment and revelation of our citizenship in heaven, spoken of in the same sense of Paul’s own citizenship of Rome and Tarsus, no mean cities, citizenship which the believers in Philippi shared because they were colonists of the Roman empire and citizens of that empire before citizenship became something to be taken for granted in later generations. Perhaps most memorably, the apostle John recorded a vision of the New Jerusalem, this immense longed-for city being adorned like a bride for her groom, a city that has a pure river of water as clear as crystal coming from the palace, a river that has along its banks the tree of life growing for the healing of the nations, a vision that takes the two last chapters of the Bible in Revelation 21 and 22 to describe. Let us hope that we are found worthy to live in a city for people who love cities; we have spent enough of our lives living in cities made by and for people who hate cities, and which show nothing but contempt for the people who live there, after all.
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Odd travel ideas
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