The more you travel, the more you feel the urge to get off the beaten path and find something unscripted, and unexplored by the backpacker hordes. Shitholes are probably the best places to start. The definition of a shithole is both precise and elusive. It’s a very specific kind of place, that is easiest defined by that sensation when you get off a bus, look around, and feel the irresistible urge to mutter, “this place is one hell of a shithole.” A shithole is the polar opposite of a nightmare plastic tourist trap. Most travelers only pass through shitholes because they’re a seemingly necessary evil to get from A to B.
Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, is a typical shithole. Situated between Siberia and Beijing on the Siberian railway, Ulaanbaatar is a dusty mass of decrepit Soviet-era apartment blocks, ringed by shanty towns. The roads are so pot holed, there are pot holes inside the pot holes. Crime is rampant. At first glance, there is nothing of any real interest in Ulaanbaatar, and most travelers barely give it a second glance. Hence, it’s a shithole.
So why linger in shitholes? The simple fact that there is nothing obvious to see or do is exactly what makes shitholes worthwhile. You have to scratch beneath the surface to discover something interesting. That interesting thing tends to be something unscripted, unique and probably a little bizarre. Sticking to our exemplar shithole, one of Ulaanbaatar’s top attractions (in my opinion, at least) is the British Shop. Located on one of Ulaanbaatar’s main bombed out boulevards, the British Shop is Mongolia’s premiere souvenir dispensary … for everything British. You can buy mini Big Bens, Union Jack tees, London skyline snow globes and every other kitsch British souvenir you can imagine. After all, why go to Mongolia if you can’t come home with a giant teddy bear with a funny British police hat?
Yet the pure elegance and beauty of the British Shop doesn’t come from the cheesy souvenirs it dispenses, but the fact that it does so in the middle of the Asiatic steppe. Fuck you, geography! The British Shop shouldn’t exist, but it does, and it’s awesomely weird. Another intriguing (and oddly enough, British-themed) attraction in Ulaanbaatar is the Beatles tribute square. Meandering around the city one day, I happened to stumble across a square adorned with a statue of the Beatles, in full Sargent Pepper regalia.
Apparently, a former mayor loved the Beatles so much, he decided the city needed to dedicate a square to the memory of the Fab Four. Now, I wouldn’t suggest visiting Mongolia just to see an out-of-place tourist shop or wonky Beatles monument, which leads us to the next wonderful point about shitholes: nobody visits them. Because shitholes don’t draw tourists, there is no tourist industry. That “authentic” experience everyone looks for is so easy to find in a shithole. Sick of dining in tourist restaurants boasting the best American-style pizza in town? No problem. In Ulaanbaatar, your dining options are goulash, or shredded potato topped with boiled lamb. When you descend into a grimy diner with rickety chairs, Russian soap operas on the television and a thin layer of grease on everything, you know you’re getting the authentic experience. Along with lacking lame tourist-oriented restaurants, shitholes are also devoid of another almost ubiquitous sector of the tourism industry – tourist-oriented crime. Hence, a crime-soaked shithole like Ulaanbaatar is typically safer for backpackers than the aforementioned nightmare plastic tourist trap, for the simple reason that backpackers aren’t the target. The difference between shithole criminals and tourist trap criminals is the same as the difference between sharks and polar bears. Sharks usually don’t go out of their way to eat you – if you get bitten, it’s probably just terrible luck. On the other hand, polar bears will specifically target you, hunt you down and annoy the hell out of you.
Finally, it’s the people that matter most. Shitholes are often brimming with characters. Ulaanbaatar, for example, is a people watching paradise, with the lone supermarket offering the very finest in weird shit. Apparently, Ulaanbaatar’s only supermarket is something of a Western curiosity. While the locals seem to relish the novelty of Wal-mart-style shopping, I couldn’t get enough of the sight of people dressed in riding boots and del (a big Mongolian coat) gingerly steering trolleys down aisles, stocking up on tomato sauce. While Ulaanbaatar is steadily seeing more international visitors, other shitholes are largely untouched, meaning people are genuinely interested in why the hell you’re hanging around. Things also tend to be more casual. In Ulaanbaatar, the “hostel” I stayed in was almost certainly some guy’s apartment, just with an extra bunk bed. The owner actually left one weekend, and I was left with the keys to his apartment, and free use of the bath tub.
Of course, not all shitholes are created equal; to be sure, many are genuinely shitty places. But you never know until you do a bit of exploring. With nothing important on the radar, no tourist traps to rush to, and no need to rush, who knows what you’ll find? That’s the beauty of shitholes.