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The wide streets of Ulan Bator were almost deserted. Snow flakes drifted into the headlights of the Russian-made Lada taxi. The voices of street children living underground among hotwater pipes echoed up through open manholes. An occasional figure in trilby hat and wrapped in a del, the cloak worn by Mongolian horsemen, hurried by in the darkness. We stopped in an unlit street and I pushed open a nondescript wooden door. The Cafe de France, run by two Corsicans, is the latest western hostelry to be opened in the remote Mongolian capital.
That was before the communists were swept from power and the land-locked centralAsian country embraced capitalism. Now there are night clubs, bars and restaurants in a city of , people, half of whom still live on the outskirts in felt-lined tents known as yurts, or gers. In the biggest nightclub, the Top Ten disco, hordes of teenagers - the girls wearing platform shoes which are all the rage - dance, watch striptease and drink Genghis Khan beer until 4 a.
Genghis Khan, the 13th-century Mongolian master of the universe, has been rehabilitated as a national symbol of independence, and his name, banned by the communists, now appears everywhere, on beer bottles, on matchboxes and on hotels. Other establishments cater for less erotic but no less exotic tastes for Mongolians , like the Churchill Tea Shop which specialises in Cornish pasties, the Matisse art cafe with its impressionistic paintings, and the Sakura Harvest Japanese restaurant patronised by sushi lovers.
The German-Malaysian casino in the Genghis Khan hotel has just closed after a year in operation, but only because the government has given the gaming licence instead to a Macau-based company which plans to transform the city's single department store, a badly-stocked relic of the communist era, into a Mongolian Caesar's Palace.
Ulan Bator's new elite identify with western culture to a much greater extent than the neighbouring Chinese. Their city has the atmosphere and smells of a provincial Russian town, Russian is the most common second language, and they boast they are more European than Asian. Since 70 years of communist rule ended in , Mongolia has become one of the most pro-business countries in the world.