Friday, July 23, 2010

Getting religion.

UPDATE: New blog is up. Check it out.

It’s a shame that I had to leave Mongolia the way I did, but I want to assure everyone that I’m doing well, and that I have returned to write a few final posts about Ulaanbaatar. I am also starting a different kind of travelogue, hopefully one that will be collaborative. I will post a link soon.

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I had an overnight in Beijing before my final flight home. Even after the alleged clean-up for the Olympics, the smog is so thick that you can’t see the ground until the plane is 50 feet from the ground. But in the black haze of the evening, as I watched the city go by through the taxi window, I couldn’t help but marvel at how straight and even the sidewalks were. I have never been so happy to see pavement in my life.

Ulaanbaatar is a difficult place to live. Beijing, too, but not like UB. Religion was forbidden under communist rule, but in the twenty years since Mongolia quietly turned over to democracy, faith has become more popular, and more publicly visible. Mongols practice Tibetan Buddhism, combined with shamanic practice in the countryside. There are not-a-few Christians in the city, too. Driving home one Friday night, Erdenebat popped a Buddhist pop CD into the stereo. It’s the same concept as Christian rock in the U.S., but with a chant-like, meditative quality to it. “This music has really been on the rise in the past few years,” Erdenebat said. He himself is not much of a believer, but his mother works at a Buddhist women’s center, and an impressive wooden shrine stands in a room in his apartment. “People’s lives as hard,” Erdenebat explained.

Like many cars in UB, Erdenebat’s has a hadag, a silk prayer scarf, tied around the window shades in the front of the windshield. There are also hadag tied around trees, lampposts, and railings. In my host family’s neighborhood, there were several, blue and tattered from wind and dust and heat and cold. Hadag in the car protect its passengers from accidents, but on the street, hadag mark a spot where someone crashed, or slipped, or got in a fight. Those hadag on the street will keep anything bad from happening there again. It’s sobering to see all the blue fluttering on the roadsides.