July 12th 2000
The skeletons are flashing me a welcoming white smile. They lie in dried up riverbeds, still waiting for the rains. Above them the sky is cornflower blue, interrupted only by the wings of vulture eagles.
The train flirts with the Gobi’s edges. The train guard asks, in a pleading voice, for us to close the windows. ‘We must keep the sand out,’ he says.
Though it is barely 8 a.m., all the passengers are up, even the song and dance troupe: they were still perfecting their version of “Love Me Tender” at 3 a.m. this morning. They are returning from a two-month tour of China laden with toasters, teddies and microwave ovens. On departure the women stripped down to their underwear whilst shouting and brushing their hair, then donned peach silk dressing gowns which they have been lounging in ever since.
We are still several hours from Ulaan Baatar (‘red hero’) and I know little about this country. I am sans Lonely Planet, speak no Mongolian and have absolutely no plan for the next three weeks. I haven’t really come to see Mongolia, but to visit my friend Theo who is a Peace Corps volunteer in a small town. I last saw him two years ago in Edinburgh, when my last words to him were, “See you in Asia”.
Ulaan Baatar is a study in Soviet architecture. The buildings all wear the same grey uniform and radiate an air of unshakeable solidity. There are a few attempts at decoration, some lilac walls and orange shutters, but it is too little against the functional. The main square is a mournful place, lost in memories of previous parades. But this is not an unpleasant town; the streets are tree-lined and the buildings are spaced enough to permit frequent glances of the hills. About 700,000 people live in and around the capital, about a quarter of the total population.
I am staying in the flat of a couple that approached me when I got off the train. In China, I would mistrust any such offer, but for some reason I instantly trusted Ariuna and Enkhbat. They run a semi-legal guesthouse from this flat, which belongs to one of their mothers, currently staying in the countryside. Ariuna is a homeopathic doctor. She studied medicine in Irkutsk for 5 years, and seldom saw her husband during this time. Enkhbat is a quiet man who restricts himself to nods. His moustache is a timid curtain caught between nose and lip. She speaks and he accepts, an arrangement both seem happy with. Though I wonder if he missed being told what to do during those 5 years.
The flat looks as if it was burgled yesterday; an absence of mess that can only be achieved by a lack of content, decor by elimination. There are beds, carpets and an old sofa, nothing more except a set of dusty forks in a kitchen drawer that only sometimes opens.
There are two other travellers in the flat: Steve, a 40-ish American with bottle blond hair and an over travelled air and Marie, a quiet Swedish girl that maybe I’m attracted to.
Naadam is the most important festival in Mongolia, a week of horse riding, archery and wrestling, which unfortunately ended yesterday. I must settle for repeats of the wrestling final, which was watched with even greater interest than usual, as the reigning champion of the last eight years had abdicated on reaching the semi-final, thus guaranteeing a new champion.
There is no ring in Mongolian wrestling, the aim is simply to throw one’s opponent to the ground. A hand on the ground is permitted, but only one. Enkhbat told me that they used to wear tunics but this was abandoned after a woman entered in disguise and became champion. So now the competitors only wear a small pair of pants and a sleeved piece of clothing that leaves the chest bare.
I imagined that the final would be a short and frenzied episode of grunting. It is anything but. The competitiors stood and stared at each other for half an hour, trying not to blink; it was only when I went to the toilet that one lunged for the other. It was over before I flushed.
Last night we went to a rock concert. I was even more loath to go than usual, as the flat is hard to get back into. Sometimes the locks just can’t be bothered, and the whole fumbling process isn’t made any easier by the lack of lights on the stairwell. But it was Marie’s last night, so I went.
There were six or seven bands playing various types of soft metal. I was on the point of leaving during the third group when a couple of kids attempted to stage dive. Security took them out before they got a foot on stage. My renewed interest got me through a few more songs, even one whose lyrics were “Sexy sexy lover/ Tell me there’s no other/ You look like your brother/ When we’re under the covers”.
I stood outside and drank a beer too quickly. Portraits of big men in pants ran around the walls. A drunken man came up to me and tried to engage me in conversation with his one word of English.
“No, sorry, I’m not John.”
He staggered over to some women, perhaps expecting more success with those who spoke the same language. He put his face towards one of them and said something. She pushed him away, hard, and he fell over. He smiled and then was sick.
U-B has some great museums, especially the national museum which also serves as the unofficial headquarters of the Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) fan club. Downstairs there is a copy of the friendship treaty of 198 BC between China and Mongolia, when the former was ruled by the Han Dynasty and the latter by the Hunnu, nomadic tribes ruled by kings called Shanui:
“Let the state holding the bows beyond the great wall follow the rules of Shanui and let the Han govern the state of overcoat and hat which lies inside the great wall.”
Upstairs are numerous portraits of Khan and long paeans in praise of his invasion of China in 1211 AD, and of the period of Mongol rule (1271-1368). I was quite confused beforehand, as a number of people in China insisted that Genghis Khan must have been Chinese as he was the ruler of a Chinese dynasty (the Yuan dynasty, which funnily enough also ran from 1271-1368). I suppose this is just historical face-saving, no different to the way that Manchu invasion and rule is known as the Qing Dynasty (the Manchus also controlled Mongolia during roughly the same period).
The other interesting thing was the display of dels, long belted robes that genuinely are national costumes, in that ordinary people still wear them. One of them looked familiar, a long red dress with a pointed collar on a mannequin whose hair was arranged in stiff bunches.
It took me a moment to realise it was the same as the one worn by Queen Amadala in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.
Imagine the dishonesty of the museum for trying to make us think that the garment in question was Mongolian national dress. Someone should be told.
Saw a load of anti-Chinese graffiti this afternoon, which had kindly been written in English.
Theo lives in Arvaiheer, a small town in the next aimag (province). The only railway in Mongolia is the Trans-Siberian express, which only stops in U-B. I had to take a minibus, which bumped along slowly for six hours. There was a tub of fermented horse milk between my legs, I was partially deafened by the Aqua songs blasting from the stereo, and the back of my neck was wet. An old, drunk man was sitting behind me with of those spray bottles used for watering plants. After the first few times, I asked him not to. He nodded, smiled, and a few minutes later, squirted me again. After an hour of me asking, him nodding, then squirting, I opened my water bottle, turned round and emptied onto him. It suddenly occurred to me that he was a very large man. That there were several other such men on the bus, and that compared to me, they were giants.
I sat very quietly after that. In five hours we didn’t passed a single town or village, only scattered ger camps. A ger is a large circular tent comprised of canvas and felt draped over a wooden frame. Most gers have a stove in the centre and beds around the walls. Gers are also known as yurts, though not by Mongolians as yurt is a Russian word and thus associated with the long period of Soviet occupation.
We stopped by a ger camp for lunch. The main dish was tarok, a large charred rodent cooked by having hot stones placed in its stomach. I ate my biscuits and watched the others picking at the carcass. I think it was a marmot. The kind that still carry the Black Death.
We kept passing large stone cairns with bits of bone and bottle, on which blue ribbons fluttered. They are called ovoos, and are sacred sites.
You’re supposed to walk around them three times clockwise saying a prayer. They represent the meeting of Mongolia’s twin traditions of shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism.
Arvaiheer is small and isolated. There’s an outdoor market that sells clothes, hats, rope, shoes, bicycles and toys. A line of homemade pool tables stands next to the stalls. The ‘shops’ are converted shipping containers, large metal sheds that mostly sell non-perishable goods. The indoor market has one room for vegetables, one for meat and one for dairy products, or “white food”. There’s a small bakery, a post-office, the odd restaurant, and that’s pretty much it except for the Naadam stadium. In the centre of town, people live in three and four storey flats but away from here people live in gers and small houses. The place has a temporary feel about it, as if one morning the townsfolk might pack it in wagons and head off.
Everyone seems to know Theo, and not just in the “oh look it’s the foreigner” way that most know me in Shaoyang. It takes twice as long as it should to go anywhere because he has to stop and chat to all the people he knows. I suppose I’m jealous.
Theo lives in a ground floor flat. Washing is a challenge as there isn’t a bath or shower. You have to stand in a plastic bowl and pour water over yourself. We spent ten minutes today trying to kill some of the flies. No one seems to knock here; people just wander in and sit down. There were five different people this morning and three already this afternoon. Mucqdul has been here three times today. He lives in the next block with his mother. He’s unlike any other man I’ve seen here. Most of them are large, solid and semi-drunk; Mucqdul is a hunched five-foot. His legs are barely thicker than his arms; his head is an inverted triangle. He’s twenty-seven. We sat on the carpet and played a game with sheep’s anklebones whose rules I don’t understand.
A couple of girls came round this morning. I played chess with the older one, who beat me in ten minutes. Chess is one of the better things that the Russians brought to this country. Vodka is not.
The younger girl is called Bagee, which is quite funny as there’s a popular song at the moment whose chorus goes “BAGEE! BAGEE BAGEE BAGEE!” She brought a tiny baby rabbit that she had found. Its eyes were barely open. We tried feeding it some milk, first in a dish, then on our fingers, then on the end of a cotton bud, all to no avail. I don’t hold out much hope for it.
This afternoon we went to the Nadaam stadium. There was no one there and I struggled to imagine the wrestlers and horses that had packed the place the week before. On the way back we passed an old man that Theo knew a little. When he heard I was English he said that he had been there. When? In 1971, for an archery contest in York. What did he remember? That the tea wasn’t milky enough.
Theo is the nicest person that I know. He never minds when hordes of people come to his house. They are always made welcome. He lets people keep meat in his fridge even though he’s vegetarian. He’s so nice that he has agreed to move out of his flat a month early because the woman he rents it from wants to move back in, even though Theo has already paid for August. From tomorrow we will be homeless. Wherever we end up, I hope there are less flies.
We have managed to avoid the problem of being homeless by going camping for the last few days. We pitched our tent near the gers of a family that Theo knows. He’s been trying to encourage more people to grow vegetables so that they are not solely dependent on sheep and goats for income. In addition to the difficulties of harsh winters and summer droughts, there is also the problem that animals will eat any crop or shrub if given the chance. The carrots and beetroot have a high fence around them. The idea of a diet that isn’t based purely on meat and dairy products is still quite new to some people here. We had to show the family how to make a salad, and they didn’t really like it until they had put a cup of salt onto it.
Their ger is the nicest I’ve seen so far. The walls and furniture are painted the same bright orange. The chests of drawers have dark blue lines coiled around their handles. Framed photos of men and horses stand on top of the dresser, crowding around a small altar. Boney M plays from a small tape recorder. Drying meat hangs near the door. A large container of white liquid lurks in the shadows. I worry that it may be airag, fermented horse’s milk, semi-alcoholic and quite frightening to someone who hasn’t had dairy products for over a year.
Theo has been giving me a crash course in Mongolian etiquette, which I am having plenty of opportunity to practice. When you give or receive something, you should always use your right hand; it can then be transferred to your left hand. And if you’re going to trip over the doorstep of a ger, make sure you do so on the way in. This is said to bring luck into the ger. Tripping on the way out takes the luck away.
Back in town. Last night we went to the Buddhist temple, as there was a special ceremony taking place. Arvaiheer has even less streetlighting than Shaoyang which makes going anywhere at night rather disorienting. We took a shortcut down a street that Theo called “dog alley”. Dogs with too much wolf blood howled and threw themselves against their gates in frustration. I was ready to offer thanks by the time we got to the temple.
The temple is made from wood and replaces a much older one that had been destroyed (like so many others) during the Soviet occupation. Inside it was crowded. A red line of monks sat chanting in the centre. Om mani padme hum. Banners and flags hung down to head height. A second line of monks sat against the left wall, possibly in reserve. Om mani padme hum. The rest of the space was filled with people from the town, young and old, herders and shopkeepers. Prayer wheels span; incense burned; Om mani padme hum.
Theo saw someone and asked him in a whisper about the ceremony’s purpose. The man replied for several minutes whilst I watched Theo trying to make sense of unfamiliar words. When he had finished I asked him what the man had said.
“He says it is very simple, a very important thing, a small thing… only a single grain of rice.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure.”
Afterwards we went to Mucqdul’s house, as his mother had kindly offered to let us sleep round there. When we arrived they were watching a video about Jesus. Judas had just taken the thirty pieces of silver. We put our things in the living room, which also doubles as a chapel. It was the first time I’ve seen sanitary towels in a place of worship. When we went back in we found we’d missed the crucifixion. They insisted on rewinding the tape.
When I was laying out my sleeping bag I noticed a lot of small boxes under one of the beds. Mucqdul’s eyes lit up when he saw me looking at the boxes. He crawled under the bed and fished them out. Each one was full of blister packs of pills in various child friendly shades. It turns out that his mother is part of some pyramid sales scheme for selling medicine. I wonder where his father is.
Today we went to a waterfall with Mucqdul and his mother. On the way he gave me a badge bearing the words “GOD PEOPLE!”. I thanked him and put it into the black hole of my pocket. I think he was disappointed that I didn’t put it on.
It was nice sitting watching the waterfall, pretending not to notice the goats sneaking up behind me. Later Mucqdul tried to teach me some Mongolian: ot toloh means “don’t bark at me”; bithi hots is “do you want to count some stars?” He also came up with some rude words for Chinese people, which I pretended to write down. One of them was the name of a black bird that makes a fast twittering sound, apparently mocking the way they speak. Another referred to a person who is not honest in business, someone who gives tea in exchange for furs. What surprises me most is the reasons that people give for disliking the Chinese. I could understand if they said things about communism, China pinching Inner Mongolia, or about all the killings during the persecution during the Cultural Revolution but instead they refer to Genghis Khan. What are they cross about? Not being beaten?
On the way back to Arvaiheer we stopped to give a monk a lift. He was the toughest-looking monk I’ve ever seen. He told Theo that he could speak the language of wolves, tried to demonstrate, then laughed for several minutes.
I’m not spending another night in that flat. It has no curtains so the sun wakes you up at half past five and there are more flies than in a slaughterhouse. And if I have to watch that Jesus film one more time…
Mercifully, one of Theo’s colleagues has said we can stay in their bungalow. He owes Theo a favour because he still hasn’t returned the video recorder that Peace Corps provide for educational purposes, the one he borrowed three months ago.
The horizon here is clear, the land a green tarpaulin spread into the distance. Blue above and green below.
We ran into Bagee today. I asked about the rabbit. She shook her head.
The quest for sleep continues. When we went to the bungalow there was no sign of Theo’s colleague. His 12-year-old daughter was sitting on her own watching an extremely violent film. She barely looked at us for the duration of the film. When it finished (the evil villain got cut in half by an industrial laser) Theo tried to talk to her but she was already reaching for the next film that turned out to be even more unpleasant. We went out for some food and when we returned she was still glued to the screen. Some other kids came round, armed with a games console. Twelve o’clock came and went and still the films went on. Theo asked when they were going to go to sleep and the girl said they weren’t.
This would have been the moment to assert our authority as adults, but we felt inhibited by our guest status. By two o’clock I began to wonder if I would ever sleep again. I wandered out into the front yard. Everything was bathed in toothpaste light: the lumber pile, scrap metal mound, an old car on cinder blocks. I tried the passenger door handle. It opened and I climbed in. I woke several hours later with a dull pain in my rib caused by the gear stick. Dawn was beginning to dirty the night, smudging grey against the black, smugly announcing another night of failed efforts to sleep. I went inside and found the girl still watching the visual litany of shooting, kicking, punching, stabbing and evisceration. Theo was lying on the floor, awake. He looked traumatised.
We got our stuff together and left. The girl said nothing during the whole time. We walked across town to Theo’s office. We didn’t see anyone else even though it was almost seven. In Shaoyang, the shops would have been open for an hour; people would be getting ready for work or doing exercise. The noodle stalls would be packed with students. But in Arvaiheer, it was quiet and grey. A cold wind roamed the streets unchallenged. Dogs barked and were silenced. I started to miss China, then managed to stop myself.
Pathetically happy to be back in Ulaan Baatar, able to enjoy base pleasures. Breakfast at a Belgian café. A group of US servicemen entered. The commander was telling a joke,
“A skeleton goes into a dentists. The dentist tells it to say ‘aah’. He examines the mouth then says, “Well, your teeth are in good shape, but as for your gums…”
Theo laughed so hard he blew the froth off his cappuccino. Afterwards we went to the Korean pool hall.
Theo had some stuff to do so I wandered off to the Gandan monastery.
There were lots of people waiting to consult a lama. I watched one consultation between an old woman and a middle-aged lama. She wrote her prayer carefully on a small piece of paper and handed it to him. He read it then asked her a question. He nodded during her answer and when she had finished, lit some incense and passed it to her. She passed it behind her back three times in a clockwise direction. The lama chanted, clapped and rang a bell. She thanked him and left.
Outside the younger monks were sunning themselves. A couple of them spoke a little English, so we were able to have this edifying conversation.
“Do you like music?”
“Yes, very much. Do you?”
“Yes. Backstreet Boys. Sometimes Celine Dion.”
“What about Brittney Spears?”
“No. She is not good.”
Writing this in a room of my own, finally, without Christians or flies.
Passed a building enigmatically labelled “SEX SHOP”. There wasn’t much stock inside, just condoms and forlorn looking dildos, not up to the standard of those in China. They did have a commendable range of health education posters though.
This morning I had to step over several bodies on the stairs. They were both young and oblivious to the amount of noise I made. I’ve read about homelessness in U-B, articles about people coming from the country and failing to find work but all those words fail to prepare one for the morning sight of people your own age wrapped around heating pipes who went to sleep wondering if they would wake up. Theo says a lot of people died last winter.
The train puffs backwards, aimed at China, leaving all this space and sky. But there are still a few hoursof Mongolia left, and I am quite happy: today I am twenty-seven and my arms are out the window.
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