Ulaanbaatar (UB) is not an easy place to get around. Like in China, the cars will not stop for pedestrians. The city has put in new traffic lights in the past year, but the drivers haven't quite gotten used to them. So to cross the street, you have to wait for a break in the traffic, sometimes waiting in the median.
Traffic jams have become commonplace here. Thankfully I haven't witnessed any accidents (knock on wood), but given that cars are imported from all over (i.e. the steering wheel can be on the left or the right) and no car or cab I've been in so far has had seatbelts, they surely must happen all the time.
Then there are the streets themselves: littered with potholes, even outside Sukhbaatar Square (the heart of downtown), and in many neighborhoods unpaved waves of gravel. As Baatar and I walked to class one morning, we heard a THUNK beside us and jumped a foot away. A car had fallen into a pothole, right in the middle of rush hour.
Anyone on the street has to be careful of their belongings. It's not just pickpocketing and purse-snatching: thieves carry razors to silently take your wallet. I'm told keeping money in a security belt or inside one's coat in the winter is still no match. I'm also told that the razors are only used for theft; my friends who have lived here before have never heard of any violence involving thieves. I sure hope that's true.
I know things like this could happen anywhere. In Beijing five years ago, I got swung around by the purse on the street while walking with a friend, who happened to be a native Beijinger. I hugged it in as I spun to the pavement, and the man ran off down an alley. Theft has happened in Philadelphia, city of my alma mater, in broad daylight. In the U.S., though, it's a known entity. I know which neighborhoods to avoid. In Beijing, my friend was shocked. She'd never seen anything like that before. Here, it seems to be everywhere. And it's not just targeted at foreigners. Women are of course especially vulnerable, but there are no guarantees for anyone.
In the last century, Ulaanbaatar (literally "Red Hero") grew from the monastic camp of Urgu to a socialist capital. After the peaceful turnover to parliamentary democracy in 1990, the city has experienced exponential growth. After a zud--a winter disaster in which livestock die of starvation and cold--herders flood into the capital, many to settle in "ger districts." I haven't found out yet if anyone even pays rent in a ger district: it is literally gers packed in together around the outskirts of the city, totally unplanned. John, one of the advanced language students in my program, has noticed an upswing in petty theft in UB since his first visit in 2004. It's a sign of poverty and desperation throughout the city.
Mongolia does have excellent natural resources. Mining is by far the country's larget industry. But many mines here a foreign-owned, contributing to the tension felt everywhere. Money gets made, but it doesn't always stay here. The main problem in UB seems to be a lack of infrastructure. From the little I know, it seems that the money, at least some, is there; it just isn't put into roads and plumbing. Or covering manholes. Or coralling stray dogs.
In recent years the city has witnessed another troubling development: a neo-Nazi movement. I have seen a few swastikas graffitied on wooden fences. Violence is actually targeted against the Chinese. China is Mongolia's biggest trading partner, and some fear that ecnomoic power will lead to political claims. There is a great irony in an Asian (i.e. non-Aryan) people adopting Nazism. (For more on the movement, read this.)
Despite all this, I firmly believe that most people here are good. I have met some very kind people on the bus, in cafes, and most importantly, in my homestay. It's just unfortunate that the bad people make themselves so well-known. Today my class visited a family's apartment, and we sat with an old woman and her great-grandson as her grand-daughter prepared buuz (meat dumplings). "Mongols have good hearts," she told us. She also loves meeting foreigners. She has in fact gone to the countryside with an American couple who speak Mongolian. At first I have been shy about visiting people in their homes, but anyone who opens their door here to us Americans (plus one Frenchman) does so eagerly and warmly. It's rough out there on the street, but inside I am always made to feel at home.
I have found that people here do not praise you for speaking beginner's Mongolian. In China, a simple "thank you" may elicit praise. "Oh, you speak Chinese very well!" It's a great ego boost, especially when your last test makes you feel less than adequate in your new language. At the extreme, this fascination and praise breeds a "performing monkey" syndrome: there are televised competitions where foreigners give speeches, sing Peking opera, and do kung fu. I have participated in three such competitions, but I'm not ham enough to ever win. Now I'm content to simply be understood, and to get past the wonder. Once people get to know you, the praise melts away and truthful, useful critique sets in.
So far, no one I have talked to on the street or in a restaurant here has shown symptoms of the Performing Monkey Syndrome. Many waitresses and shopkeepers just roll along with my poor Mongolian. But occasionally someone shows a different kind of interest. Buying orange juice yesterday with two of my classmates, the shopkeeper asked us where we were from. "German?" he asked. "No, Amerik hun (Americans). I'm from Washington, D.C." His face lit up. "Oh, I lived there for two years! Do you know Rosslyn? My apartment was off of Wilson Boulevard." The Washington, D.C. area now has the biggest Mongolian population in the U.S. Approximately 5,000 people live in the area, mostly in Arlington, VA. So in an Asian city of one million people, talking about the Key Bridge is not so strange as it may seem.
Mongolian-Americans used to center in the Denver area. Starting in the 1980s, students starting studying at the Colorado School of Mines, then telling their friends about it when they came back home. (That is, if they did return home; many overstayed their visas, leading to stricter immigration policies in the state.) There are still about 2,000 Mongolians living in Denver, now Ulaanbaatar's sister city. The New Jersey and Chicago communities are runners-up. But in D.C., there are Mongolian schools (two, I believe), Mongolian karaoke joints, and businessmen who summer back home.
The small-world feel of Mongolian studies makes it homey. My classmate Sara and I started our class in earnest yesterday (the other three students are in an advanced section). Introducing ourselves to our teacher, Tsermaa, I mentioned my first Mongolian teachers back in Cambridge, UK. "Oh, Hurelbaatar!" She nodded. "Of course I know him."
I arrived in Ulaanbaatar (UB) late Saturday morning and slept through the afternoon (and also, thankfully, a good bit of the night). One of my classmates, a friend from Indiana, came later that night. I am staying at the home of my Indiana teacher's sister. Her husband's name is Tsrenchunt, the same as my teacher. Tseren is a Tibetan word (specialists, please help to translate), and chunt is Mongolian for lock. The name is fairly common, given to children whose parents lost a child before, to ensure that this child will live. Some people also have names like Enebish (Not-this) and Terbish (Not That), given to them as infants to keep evil spirits from stealing them away. Other names give the person a positive character trait to live up to: the founder of communist Mongolia was Sükhbaatar, Axe-Hero. Still other names are just beautiful, like Tuya (Radiance) and Enkhtsetseg (Peace-Flower). Mongolians do not traditionally have surnames. Today people usually use their father's name.
On Sunday my classmate Baatar, my host sister Moosto and I ran errands downtown. We walked over Ikh Taivan Guur (Great Peace Bridge), past the National Central Library, past rutted roads and over dusty crumbling sidewalks, past many fashion-forward youngsters and an occasional old man or woman in a deel (silk Mongolian robe, usually tied at the waist with a silk scarf) and short-brimmed hat. We also walked past not-a-few foreign tourists.
Traffic is epic on a daily basis. Just ten years ago, traffic jams were a rarity. You could even see livestock walking through the streets. But now it's often bumper-to-bumper. So walking is often faster than taking a cab, or even a bus.
After getting money from the bank and unlocking my phone, we ate a late lunch at Broadway Pizza. Despite the name, there's more on the menu: Mongolian, Japanese, Russian, and Korean food. The waiters serve you with white napkins draped over their right wrist, pouring your bottled water into a glass. Mootso and I bopped to "Barbie Girl" as we ate.
Moosto saw her relative working at the bank, then ran into a friend in the supermarket. Later that evening, she pointed out her supermodel-friend on a TV commercial. It's that kind of big-small city.
Baatar has had one more year of Mongolian and I have, so he has more opportunity for accidental adventure. Walking from his apartment to Tserenchunt's, a man on the playground called him over. He was drinking, possibly vodka. They started chatting. "Let me feel your hands," the man said. Unfortunately for Baatar, he has bad circulation. "Oh," said the man, "you have cold hands. Bad people have cold hands. Do you worship ghosts?" Baatar said no, he's Christian. "I'm Buddha!" the man exclaimed, thumbing his chest. Just then his wife came over to take care of him. It's a great story, but an unsettling welcome. By the end of the summer, I hope my language is strong enough to have my cold hands judged by a stranger, too.
On Friday afternoon I landed in Beijing. My first experience of China at age 17 was overwhelming, and made me pretty homesick. (There's a long-distance phone bill attesting to that.) But now I know enough Chinese, and enough of what to expect, to feel at ease there. Still, things that I remembered still surprised me yesterday: hadn't the Beijing air improved after the Olympics? The sky was yellow and thick with haze. Were Beijingers really like New Yorkers? Yes, a little--certainly in the terse way they sometimes talk to each other. Haven't I been here before? Yes, but the tangle of highways and looming high rises never fails to disorient me.
My friend Sarah* and I checked into our "Fotel" (I kept the slippers as a souvenir), then went to a Thai restaurant in Sānlǐtún'er, the bar and nightclub district popular among Chinese and expats alike. Banana Leaf is famous for forcing its patrons to dance. We watched a whole table get up and swing their hips to "Can't Take My Eyes off of You." There's a particularly notorious server there, a shortish man wearing bright red lipstick and long fake lashes, who hits on the men, stroking their hair as he dances close to them. "Don't take his picture," Sarah warned. "He'll get angry."
In traditional Chinese style, Sarah over-ordered. I'm used to this, but again I'd forgotten that taking home the leftovers isn't the point. The menu was book-length--it even had a table of contents--and the food was pretty good. I'm not sure if spicy chicken feet are a Thai delicacy, and I have my doubts, but they were good either way.
We then walked around Nán luógǔ xiàng (South Gong and Drum Lane), one of the few remaining hútong (alleyways) still clinging to life in the capital. Unlike the hútong which get razed, Nán luógǔ xiàng is neatly paved, broad, and filled with Obamamao shirts and other trinkets to attract foreigners. I actually like these upscale hútong--as a tourist attraction, they are able to avoid the wrecking block. The inhabitants of unheated sìhéyuàn (courtyard houses) who have no running water get evicted, then watch as the city builds high-rise apartments and skyscrapers where their homes once stood. Despite the inconveniences, people love their hútong. I myself have wandered through the maze of alleyways, past houses and little barbeque stalls, catching glimpses of Hòuhǎi, one of the city's lakes. A maze perhaps, but on a human scale. Sarah and I settled into a bar called Hútong'er. "People like this bar because you can rarely see a real hútong these days," Sarah mused over her Lindemans. "I tell people I don't like Beijing, and they ask why? Didn't I grow up here? But the Beijing I grew up in is gone."
The Shanghai Expo is on, but Sarah and I wonder how useful it is in our current age. Foreigners are no longer an oddity in China's major cities. The country is hyped for the World Cup, but still keeping an eye on the NBA finals. And now I'm in Ulaanbaatar, staying with a family who has family in Chicago. On the way from Chinggis Khan Airport, cows browsed under bilingual billboards. The world is the Expo.
* This is her English name. I will use initials or nicknames unless my subjects wish otherwise.
I will assume a question you want to ask. Why Mongolia? It started in college, when my Chinese teacher and I performed folk songs together. Included in those songs were "Mongolian", "Uyghur", and other ethnic minority folk songs--actually, new compositions from the communist era with Chinese lyrics. What music and languages lay behind those songs? Then I heard Huun-Huur-Tu, the Tuvan throat-singing band. I've linked to my sister Emily's conjuring of city walkers as eerie incarnations of Huun-Huur-Tu's voices. Since those ethereal nights in my Philadelphia studio listening to them, I've wanted to know more: how this music works, why it works the way it does, and who are the people who make it. Tuva isn't Mongolia, true, but the music of the two places share a common spirit.
Here I am, five years later, ready to spend two months in the capital of Mongolia. I hope not to make the mistakes I did on my first visit to China. (One of my biggest shocks visiting China in 2001? They have bread.) Interest in something "exotic" drew me to China at first, but familiarity has kept me studying Chinese. It's easy to see in a foreign country only what you want to see, and that can make it feel very strange and lonely. But the more I travel, the more I see each new place as home. Because every inhabited place in the world, no matter how remote for you, is someone's home.
I just read Jill Lawless' Wild East so as not to arrive with a totally blank slate. Lawless worked as a reporter and editor for the UB Post in the late 1990s. Her book gave me some idea of what I'm in for, but not as much as I'd hoped. Lawless gives what seems to me right now a vivid picture of Mongolia, from its vast desert to the taste of domestic beer. But some things trouble me. Besides the immense changes in Mongolia from 2000, when Wild East was published, to today, Lawless sometimes oversimplifies (for instance, conflating the Huns and the Mongols) or even gets things wrong (sloppy transliteration, questionable translations). With no basis of comparison, it's hard for me to tell when she's exaggerating, when she's slipped up, and when she really knows what she's talking about. Where I can compare, I see her slipping into homesickness: in the chapter on food, she lovingly describes aaruul, dried curds, as a treat "with the consistency of rock and the smell of vomit" (132). Don't listen to her--I've had aaruul, and, to me at least, it's pretty tasty. In many of her observations you hear her pining for home. Not that there's anything wrong with missing home, but too much of her own discomfort inflects her stories. She says she's reluctant to return to Canada at the end, but is she really?
It's hard not to pass judgment. It's hard not to taste a meat dumpling and think of hamburgers. If you're American. If you're Mongolian, the difficulty is the other way around. I am me, an American Jewish suburbanite who wants to feel at home everywhere, even though I know it's impossible. I will try, though, to write about Mongolia just in that way: as a vastly foreign terrain which will soon be familiar, a place where I will not just stay, but live.
An experiment in collaborative writing. This is not a travel guide--travel is merely the reason for writing, drawing, singing, etc. Authors post about their travels in any form or style they please. Wanderlust and homesickness go together, you know. Want to author? Write to annemh2 AT gmail DOT com.