Monday, June 14, 2010

Settling in to a Big-Small Town

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.


  1. Have your cold hands judged by a nice lady, not the drunken man:-)

  2. Tseren means life and Chunt, in one sense, means lasting, so Tserenchunt is the same as Nasan Urt, "long life," I think