The View From Your Window Contest: Winner #68


A reader writes:

I never spend any time on VFYW, except for reading people’s entries. But I looked at this photo and finally felt that shock of recognition. I’ll bet a lot of money that’s California, probably South Bay, somewhere south of San Francisco, near the 101, north of San Jose. Those mountains, the blue sky, the intense construction, the pervasive signs of car culture – it is an intensely Californian scene, possibly SoCal but I’ll bet on San Mateo, Redwood City, something like that.

Good luck to me! I want to appear in the initial surge of people getting it kind of right, another “Another.” ; )


I’ve never entered the contest before, but I would swear that the view looks like Salt Lake City, UT. I was just there for a convention, and it looks like the area near the Salt Lake Plaza Hotel next to Temple Square, where I stayed. I’m not nearly good enough to guess and provide you with maps or other photos … oh well, so much for my first try!


The last time I had a feeling about southern Africa and ignored it, I was right (Luanda, Angola). So despite some evidence to the contrary (trees look vaguely northern, parking spots on the left suggest driving on the right, etc) I’m going to throw out Windhoek, Namibia.  I spent a semester studying there my junior year of college, and the mountains in the background, as well as the couple of red-roofed buildings, jumped out at me as being characteristic of Windhoek.


I feel like the hills and sorts of buildings in the background are similar to Windhoek, Namibia. If not, I’m thinking it’s somewhere in Central Asia, Mongolia, or Chinese desert/mountain provinces such as Inner Mongolia. The statue really suggested to me Mongolia at first, as it seemed somewhat Soviet in style.


The picture has “Former Russian State” written all over it. I don’t know why. Mainly, I think, because I spent time in the Russian Far East, and my hostess was from Kazakhstan. I thought, oh hell, let’s do a Google image search for cities in Kazakhstan. I came up with some buildings and views that looked almost exactly like the city of Aktobe. If it’s not Kazakhstan, then it has to be somewhere in the Middle East or Central Asia. Kind of has a Dubai vibe.

A professor writes:

The window in question is the capitol building in Baton, Rouge Louisiana. The statue is of Huey Long.

In the statue he is handing out free books to schoolchidren with one hand and blessing a model of the capitol building with the other. Some interesting facts: (1) The building from where the picture is taken is the same building where Long was assassinated. (2) The area used to be the campus of Louisiana State University. Long could not get enough money for LSU from the legislature, so he illegally had the state pay LSU a massively inflated price for the downtown land on which the capitol was built. (3) Long always wanted everything to be the best, so of course the capitol he had built is the tallest in the country and at LSU he had built what at the time was the biggest swimming pool in the country – so big that it could not be practically used for swimming meets. Long also saw to it that LSU had the biggest marching band in the country. He composed the song “Every Man a King” with the LSU band director:

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(4) Long almost certainly would have lived had the doctor who treated him not been slowed down by road construction. So his death was literally brought about by his own infrastructure investments.

For all the good Long did, he left two legacies that have been toxic for the state: (1) corruption, and (2) extremely low personal taxation and over-reliance on unpredictable mineral taxes. For a while, Republican reform governors such as Mike Foster fought against both of these, but Bobby Jindal has been an apt pupil of the second plank of Longism. During a time when oil prices were unnaturally high, and Louisiana was awash in Katrina related aid, Jindal actually reversed Foster’s tax reform which has led to three years of  budgetary tricks worthy of Long and massively strained public services that are not.


Damn, normally cars are useful in determining the country or region, but no cars here.  All we have is the construction and the hills that suggest a semi-arid region.  This could be Southern California, or it could be Mongolia, for all I know.  I’m going to take a stab in the dark and suggest Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.


This is taken in the dynamic city of Almaty, Kazakstan. The statue is a memorial to the Kazak poet Abay Ibrahim Qunanbayuli (1845-1904) as seen from the rear.


So this is potentially a shot in the dark, but I think I’m at least in the right city.  The view looks like a steppe region, and the Soviet-style monument/statue in the foreground, coupled with the construction boom and prosperous-looking (and well-groomed) cityscape make me think it’s a city awash in oil money.  I think it’s Almaty, Kazakhstan, though the lack of any Google Street View coverage has me scanning Google satellite imagery to no avail.

It may be no avail anyway, since half of the city looks under construction in satellite imagery and the cityscape probably changes dramatically on an annual basis.  That being said, I looked at the major hotels in Almaty on TripAdvisor (because you never know) and found a photo someone took from inside one of the rooms at the Intercontinental: the building under construction in the TripAdvisor photo looks an awful lot like the building under construction in the right of your reader’s photo:


I can’t be quite sure your reader’s photo was taken from the Intercontinental (since the parking lot in the foreground of the photo doesn’t match to anything in the satellite imagery above the hotel), but I’d say it’s in the general area of Republic Square in Almaty.  Having never been to Asia before, it’s a wild guess, but hopefully an educated one.

By the way, for what it’s worth, this contest has taught me a lot about Almaty.  It looks wonderfully green, well laid-out and pleasant – pretty much the opposite of what you’d expect of Kazakhstan from “Borat” (though no one ever claimed Sasha Baron Cohen was shooting for accuracy).


This city scene in what looks like a desert basin could be a whole lot of places, but let’s go for somewhere where they’ve actually got money for construction. The writing on top of the building near the middle is indecipherable, but the closest any of us can get is to say that it looks Hebrew. That puts us in Israel. Why there’d be a Roman statue in an Israeli city or settlement is an exercise left to the reader.


Funnily enough, my sleuthing today began absolutely on the wrong track. When I glanced at the photograph my first thought was of the American west, and from the scale of the buildings most likely a mid-sized city. And so I spent a fruitless hour or so searching in vain for images of park statues and hillside-chalked Jesuses in Albuquerque and Boise.

At first I didn’t pay much attention to the yellowish sign on top of the building across the plaza. But then figuring it might be the best clue, with a little tweaking I was able to just barely glean the five ending characters: AATAP. Most vexing: while most are Roman letters, others seemed vexingly strange and illegible. Unfortunately Google doesn’t offer wildcard searches for word fragments, though – as I would discover – this I don’t think would have helped me. So I began thinking some about what languages might have double A pairs (for I could make out two sets in the sign) not many came to mind, and of those that did the geography didn’t fit.

And then, oddly, the name Ulaanbaatar just kind of popped into my head. The terrain certainly is appropriate so I looked investigated a little. Bingo! I quickly discovered the Screen shot 2011-09-20 at 12.14.43 PM name, rendered in uppercase Cyrillic is ???????????, which explains the characters I wasn’t able to decipher on the mystery sign.

From there the pieces fell into place. First I learned that it’s Ghengis Khan’s (“Chengiss Khaan” locally) image you can see on the mountainside off in the distance. New searches for park statues in the city yielded that it’s Lenin, who we see keeping watch over Sukhbaatar Square. This week’s entry was definitely taken looking in a north-northeasterly direction from the front of the Ulaanbaatar Hotel, which is located at Sukhbaatar Square 14, Ulaanbaatar 210645, Mongolia.

About two dozen readers correctly answered the Mongolian capital. One writes:

Immediately upon seeing the image, I thought “Central Asia boomtown.” The bare hills, construction, and Soviet-style statue in the foreground were good hints – and the lack of Chinese characters meant that we weren’t in Inner Mongolia or Xinjiang. My guess, never having lived in Central Asia, but having lived in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, was that we were looking at the back of Lenin. Sure enough, a Google of Ulaanbaatar Lenin Statue led to a picture of a statue in front of the Ulaanbaatar hotel. I’m guessing that we’re on the fourth floor of the hotel, facing down on the statue, and have attached a google image with the window circled:



Hey, I know this one.  This is from the third or fourth floor of the Ulaanbaatar (UB) Hotel, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, looking south towards the mountains of the Bogd Khaan National Park, which the Mongolians claim is the oldest national park in the world.  Great hiking in those hills.  The statue down below is Lenin.  The Mongolians tore down most of the Stalin statues with the end of communism but left Lenin (he looks a bit forlorn, and at night is surrounded by streetwalkers).

The construction cranes mean the shot was taken sometime during Mongolia’s very recent resource boom, likely this summer,  since there is actually green grass visible.  The season for green grass in UB is all of about three months, with the last snow often in early June and the first snow arriving in early September.  From the shadows and lack of pedestrians (Mongolians are NOT morning people) I would guess early morning, maybe 7 am, or even earlier.

3237777435_02272af359_z The UB Hotel is the old communist flagship state-run hotel that now lags behind several newer competitors and survives largely on tour groups that don’t know any better.  It has a certain faded glory to it, but is far more more faded than glory.

I spent four years – or as Mongolians would say, four winters – working in UB.  Mongolians are wonderful people and Mongolia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  UB itself is unfortunately not very attractive – a dusty city full of bad Soviet architecture and snarled traffic. The winter is very long and VERY cold, often down below -40, but it’s one of the sunniest cities in the world and Mongolians enjoy winter so everyone is in a good mood, unlike the long depressing grey winters of northern Europe. I highly recommend a visit during the short summer months.  Best time is between mid-June and mid-August.

Pet peeve:  Mongolians spell the name of the capital Ulaanbaatar (red hero, in Mongolian), and that’s the spelling the U.S. government, The UN, and everyone else uses in the diplomatic world. But the AP Stylebook spells it Ulan Bator and stubbornly refuses to change, so the NY Times and most other media (even Wikipedia!) use Ulan Bator, which is just flat out wrong.  It’s as if they were still insisting on Peking instead of Beijing.  I wrote them when I was posted in UB to lobby for the change but they never responded.

Anyway, thanks for featuring Mongolia!


I started tooling around Google maps this morning at 5am. My partner woke up and said, “Happy Birthday. Are you on Google Maps again? For Andrew Sullivan’s contest? Make your own damn cake.” Undeterred, I ignored a phone call from Mom and 49 “Happy Birthday” Facebook notifications, until around 1 pm, when I finally found it. The clues that helped me were the empty streets and orientation of the sun (must be morning, facing south), the “Lenin-wearing-a-dress” statue, the cut-off corner of the white building on the left, the rounded end of the center building, and the construction cranes to the right.

I believe the photo was taken from the third floor of the UlaanBaatar Hotel, and based on the number of trees to the left of Lenin and the slight inclusion of the entrance roof structure, this room in particular. Here is a screen grab of the view on Google Maps:

GooglemapsUB screengrabview

Determining this week’s winner was one of the most difficult yet. According to the submitter of the photo, it was taken from the 4th floor of the hotel. Of the Ulaanbaatar guessers this week who have correctly answered a window in the past without winning, three guessed the 4th floor. One of those three has participated in 26 window contests, while the other two have only played a handful each. So awarding the prize to that persistent reader seems like the fairest way to go. The winner wrote:

If I am correct I have nothing to base a “deserving” claim on except for past unrewarded guesses: Tromso, Talinn Trieste, Zanzibar, Cartagena, Galveston, Amsterdam, Sichuan Province, and I don’t even remember. My partner thought that is Cyrillic on the buildings across from the view. I thought it was a Lenin statue, so this was confirmation. After balking at the sheer amount of large Lenin Statues and going city by city, it became a Google Image search. So I guess the 4th floor, on the left side of the Ulaanbaatar Hotel, Sukhbaatar Square 14, Ulaanbaatar 210645, Mongolia.

Congrats to him and everyone else who got Ulaanbaatar. One more email worth reading:

This is the View I’ve been waiting for since I got hooked on the contest with an early puzzle from Yangshuo, China – an exotic locale I recognized immediately but couldn’t quite believe how much the place has changed since I was there (now nearly two decades).  I knew straight away I would waive my “spend no more than 15 minutes on this contest” rule to suss out the exact location and reminisce a little.

We were there on a Beijing-to-Moscow train in 1994 and were excited about a one day stopover in one of the most remote capitals of the world – a place that beckons from its location on the map alone.  There were just over a dozen Western travelers on our train, nearly all booking through Monkey Business, a travel agent based out of a hotel room in Beijing that has been cutting through the Trans Siberian visa and booking morass for independent travelers since the late ’80s.  In those days, the train had something of a reputation for danger, and we weren’t disappointed by the amount of open smuggling we witnessed at the Chinese border (money changing hands, floorboard panels of the train revealing bundles of Chinese made jeans and leather jackets bound for Russia’s emerging black markets).  The amount of drinking and subsequent heated discussions were also remarkable – nine days on trains will do that – but we never saw anything spiral into bloodshed and no one on our trains had anything stolen.

At the time, I likened Ullaanbattar to the offspring of a Soviet military base and inner city Bridgeport Connecticut stuffed into the lovely valleys near Missoula, Montana.  The Russian-designed runway sized streets had barely a handful of cars on them, while the central square was deserted except for a few very fresh faced soldiers standing around the giant statue of Sukhbattar on his horse (“the Lenin of Mongolia” who became the “Red Hero,” the literal translation of the city’s name).  The statue is said to be at the precise location where his horse took a whiz (a good omen among the horse-riding descendants of Ghengis Khan) when he took control of the city in 1924 – a memorable story even if unlikely.

We were there on a Sunday when nearly everything was closed, so most of the Westerners with whom we were traveling drifted off to the biggest hotel bar to resume drinking – I believe it was the very same one from which this view was taken.  The only one even remotely modern at the time, but still pretty musty, with high prices and appalling food.

We elected to wander the streets instead, coaxing a local contact into serving as a translator/guide.  He flagged us a ride in a private car – in the wrecked economy following the Soviet Union’s abandonment two years before, any car was in theory a taxi too – and we were taken out to a very distressing market behind the state department store.  On offer were moldy-looking potatoes, rotting cucumbers, and soggy leeks – we only hoped that the good stuff had gone earlier in the morning.

In the afternoon we got a better look at the “suburbs” of the city – thousands of circular gers or yurts packed along alleys and behind fences that stood in stark contrast to the boxy apartment buildings and factories the Russians had built.  We were invited into several by the nearly always welcoming and surprisingly jovial Mongols.  Perhaps we were a curiosity, or they sensed an economic opportunity, but no adult ever asked for a thing and seemed as eager to question us as we were to question them.  My strongest memory was sharing a bitter tea in a ger with the father of teenagers, who was mystified as to the people in two posters on his walls – the only art in the home were Michael Jordan with tongue wagging in mid flight and a Hong Kong pop princess.  After further quizzing, her revealed rather wistfully that he would have preferred a picture of a man riding on a horse in the countryside.  My romanticized narrative is that older Mongols still pine for the open steppe and the glories of conquering Asia, but their kids will be heading in another direction.

This week’s view and a little rummaging around on the web reveals how things are have gone in Mongolia since our brief visit.  The opposition parties that started democratic reforms in 1990 (with hunger strikes and protests not unlike the Arab spring of this year) finally got control of parliament in 1996, but the communist party won it back control in 2008 and more riots have followed.  Things sound uneasy for now – perhaps other View guessers will enlighten us on the politics of the moment.

From the View, it appears that some Russian influence remains (after all, that is the back of Vladimir Lenin we see, still given great prominence).  However, I’d guess the Chinese economic explosion is the bigger power these days, with newer buildings and those cranes in the background looking like so many other Chinese cities.  It also sounds like China and the multinationals are starting to flock to the country for its mineral prospects.  I just hope the Mongol spirit and Buddhist traditions we barely glimpsed are not getting swamped by the modern and foreign.  Stuck between and serially conquered by Russians and Chinese in recent times, Mongolia deserves to retain at least some of its own rural nomadic identity, no matter how many mines get developed  or its capitol gets built-out.

On to my guess – and sorry for the novel.  I’m not usually in the trigonometry side of things, but I think we are on the 6th floor and east side of the building, because of the elevation and we seem to be set back enough that we can’t see the hotel marquis or those ornate lampposts.  Here’s my  screen capture to show you where I think it was taken: