Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Street Scenes

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.


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  2. Love the blog! Travel safe and enjoy the adventure!