Monday, December 05, 2005

Höi! Lók! Vi got øãr neim inna papir!

Dear Viewers,

While in Thailand, Natty and I were interviewed for the travel supplement of Sweden's leading daily, Aftonbladet. Their reporter on the scene needed our considered views on traversing the globe with kiddies. Our opinions were highly controversial, and fly in the face of much conventional wisdom on such matters. We urge you to take up the debate by clicking on the following link:,2789,734903,00.html

If anyone can tell us what in fact we said, we'd love to know. Until then, we will just assume we were witty, insightful and eloquent. Photos of our alluring visages are also thoughtfully included with the article.



Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Khao San Road, Bangkok

If it's Monday, this must be Bangkok: A Month in the Southeast Asian Sun

Sawadee, sabadii, and selmat datang (that's hello, hello and welcome in Thai, Laotian, and Malay, viewers)-

In response to requests from some of our more attention deficient viewers who got motion sickness from reading the China dispatch, these entries will be divided into country size chunks, allowing one to come and go as one wishes. We will not, however, be offering TXT message article summaries for those pressed for time. Sorry Jake.

We begin where we began, in Thailand. If you wish to skip to the end and find out whodunnit, bounce down the page to Laos or Malaysia. If you're not too scrupulous about chronology but would like to know what we did recently, start with Malaysia and work backwards. Confused yet? You soon will be.

Thailand- Backpacking, Temperature taking, and the PPC.

The glittering facets of Thailand are generally well documented, and Bangkok is, as it always has been, a dazzlingly fun place to visit. Leaving aside the Golden Temple, the ladyboys selling fried cockroaches, the pleasures of pad thai, and the 4D traffic, Thailand also maintains the element of surprise, as we found out to our credit and debit. So let's balance the books.

Our guest house for this visit was situated within the greater Khao San Road area, home of the one dollar hostel and the globe-on-a-shoestring Shangri-La. The neighborhood streets overflow with travellers from all over the planet in various states of smart/casual disarray, poring over DVDs, grilled squids, cheap luggage, kickboxing lessons and more massage options than a website like this one can explore. It rolls on, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just as it has for thirty years or more. Purists and those who remember the good old days argue that the Scene has been irrevocably sold out (a vibe explored accurately in Alex Garland's the Beach). Indeed, Khao San Road has become so entrenched that it has itself become a tourist attraction, and now features on the city tour of Bangkok, along with the National Museum and the Democracy monument. More to the point, there's now a Starbucks and a KFC on KS Road, which is of course a sign of apocalypse riding in our midst like so much bird flu in a henhouse.

Despite the taint of commercial spoilage, there are quirks to the KS area which continue to make one smile into one's papaya shake. Travellers of all shapes and sizes use Bangkok as their jumping off point for exploring every place else, so the traffic is considerable. But a time comes in every traveller's voyage when it is time to cast off the livery of the Road, and rejoin the world they came from. Alternatively, living on the cheap is part of the Experience, and with cash in short supply, it may become necessary to pawn that camera/Da Vinci code/pair of hiking boots for bus fare to Singapore. Hence the emergence of the We Buy Everything market stalls dotted along the shady backstreets.

That is what they do: Buy Everything. Hand over your tired Tevas, your clapped out back pack, the flashlight that saved your life in Sarawak, and in exchange get a pittance of baht, or trade it for some other equally second hand bit of kit. Looking at the goods on display at these stalls, one realizes that it is possible to outfit oneself for one's search of self entirely from cast offs from other selfs who went to look for themselves. That sleeping bag may have travelled thousands of kilometres and yet may never leave. And so the backpacker and his Thai hosts have created an entirely self sustaining microeconomy all of its own. No sell out here, greedheads. So please, when next in Bangkok, remember to replenish your water bottle at the Buy Everything well, for it will be returned to you in time.

Moving crosstown somewhat, Natty brought with him from Mongolia a particularly robust cough which required the services of the medical sector, and so we discovered how Bangkok has become a world centre of medical prowess, attracting the infirm and injured from all corners of the globe.
Based on a pointer from a colleague, we headed to the Bumrumgrad medical centre, a gleaming mothership of chrome and green glass built to make you well again. The triage begins in the road leading up to the complex, where uniformed guards peer in the car and point you to the ER, out patient, inpatient, or shopping plaza, and clear traffic for you as befits your condition. When you pull up to the front doors of the place, uniformed bellboys bustle around your car gathering your stuff for you. Next, green suited concierge ladies glide up and politely enquire as to the nature of the ailment, before gently taking your arm and gracefully escorting you to the appropriate bank of elevators. Note the splendid marble atrium and food court on the mezzanine as you go. If English is not your preferred jive, spot a uniformed lady with your national flag on her lapel, and she will translate from Japanese, Urdu, Tagalog or whatever other specials of the day there may be.

Arriving at Kids World (also known as the pediatric outpatient ward), get registered, have a complimentary juice or mineral water, get your new medical credit card thingy, and see one of the bank of doctors on shift. When we were there, the clinic was only half staffed, so there were a mere eight general peds MDs on duty (not counting specialists). If for some bizarre reason you have to wait, then pass the time in the indoor playground, or watching cartoons, or drawing pictures at the crayon table. Racks of the day's newspapers in various languages are on hand for adults. Upon seeing the doctor, who already has your particulars in front of him, get examined, diagnosed, prescribed, get meds, get paid up and get out of there. It took us a whopping fifteen minutes to complete the above, thirty if you count from when we entered the building. We repeated the procedure a few days later, when an x-ray and nebulizer hits were required, and it was equally smooth, the x-ray emailed upstairs in the time it took for us to take the elevator from radiology to Kids World.

Efficacy and medical glitz is all good, but the real draw of medical Bangkok is the cost. For all of the above, consults, x-rays and prescriptions, we paid a total of 160 USD. People from all bits of the world, rich and poor, having expended the available medical options in their neighbourhood, make their way to Thailand. The waiting rooms of the complex were a mushmouth of languages- kids get along with whatever they speak, and adults with not a word in common traded WetOnes, soft toys and held each others kids in an effort to keep everyone happy. So please, when next in Bangkok, remember to have your nose done on the cheap at Bumrumgrad. Today's nose at yesterday's prices. What a wonderful world, folks.

Or rather, it both is and isn't. Our final Thai musings derive not from Bangkok, but from Pattaya, two hours drive southeast on the road to Cambodia. We selected it for our weekend excursion on the basis of its proximity to Bangkok, and the need to see the sea before returning to the steppe. Our expectations of a sleepy seaside town of thatched beach huts, hammocks, and slow boats in gentle clear seas were as fictional as the beach in The Beach. Had we known where we were going, we would probably not have gone. But that, of course, would have been the way of the wuss. And wuss we do not.

Pattaya is a heaving city of two million, most notable for being the epicentre of the seedy, nasty tourism which has long been a mainstay of Thailand’s tourist industry. Given the number of other possible candidates for sleaziest place in Thailand, being the winner is the doobiest of dubious awards.

The town has hundreds of girlie bars, staffed by thousands of bar girls. These establishments are simply ranks of u-shaped bars, lit with the requisite red neon, behind which stand at least one barmaid per barstool, to attend to the client as they enjoy one or more beverages. As language is often (the only thing) not shared between x & y in these transactions, many bars keep a stack of board games on hand, so that the culture gap between can quickly be bridged by a bracing round of Snakes and Ladders. The most popular game by far was Connect Four, by the way. To these bars add dozens more gay/straight/other go-go bars advertising in at least half a dozen languages, market stalls selling key rings and t-shirts with 'amusing' smutty slogans, beersweat and too loud music, and many, many pairings of young Thai women and old, older, oldest white men, and you have a fun filled holiday destination for all the family. As was pointed out to us in Bangkok by a fellow in the know, the advent of Viagra has meant that the age gap between the gent and the lady has broadened considerably. May-December romances are now able to see in the New Year, as it were.

In fact, Pattaya has such allure to some of the world's male population that there is now a significant permanent expatriate population of 200,000 or more, with many more on a quasi-permanent basis. Sun, sand, female companionship, beerhall bonhomie, all in a Benny Hill atmosphere and affordable on a pension to boot: what more could one want? What is most impressive about this enclave is that far from letting their brains turn to mush in this dissolute atmosphere, these émigrés are highly organized. In addition to the requisite club activities, amateur dramatic societies, Rotary and the like, the expats of Pattaya have their own television station, the Pattaya's People's Channel (PPC).

PPC exists to remind the resident farangs of the city that in moving to Pattaya they have made the wisest choice they have ever, ever made. From here on out, it's paradise. The super smiling mzungu presenter and all of his smiling guests share the same evangelical certainty (and blinding teeth- cheap whitening is just one of the many benefits available in Pattaya), and feel the need to convert you, the viewer, to their way of thinking. One interview I saw went a bit like this- two blokes in Hawaiian shirts and cheap linen are smiling at each other on a beach:

Presenter: So how long's it been since you moved here?
Happy Pattaya Farang Resident: Oh, about three years now.
P: And have you EVER been happier?
HPFR: I can honestly say that my life has never been better, and I've never been happier.
P: That's great to hear, that's great to hear. And what were you doing before you came to Pattaya?
HPFR: Brrrr! I don't like to remember it! I was working in [insert profession] in [insert dreary place] when all of a sudden I decided I'd take early retirement and come out there and I here I am and I've never been happier.
P: And will you EVER work again?
P and HPFR together (for this is the funniest joke in the world): Hahahahaha!
HPFR: No fear of that!
P: And you've never been happier?
HPFR: You can say that again! I've never been happier.
P: Really? We get that a lot here at PPC. That's great. You enjoy yourself now.
HPFR: Thanks for that, I will, I will. Many thanks.

Not working ever again is a key component to the Pattaya lifestyle. Following on from the illuminating interview, the next bit of programming was a highlight reel from a recent workshop on the topic of How to Make Money Without Working. Expats in sunwear sat around a hotel conference room and watched a powerpoint presentation on how to make a buck by doing bailiff work, verifying insurance fraud, cockfighting, stunt diving, and many other foolproof schemes, none of which require you to wear a tie or work a nine to five. Unfortunately, I was unable to pick up some of finer points of this process, as the highlights were overdubbed with some happy upbeat music, to remind you how easy and simple it all is- all you need to do is walk away from the rat race and into the arms of Pattaya. What could be simpler?

On that inspirational point, we will bring the Thai chapter to a close. A big wai to you all, and here's hoping that if you end up in Pattaya, you know why you're there.

Taa gaawn,


Laos- Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey.

In the wine trade, the personality of a vineyard and the vintages it produces are gauged, inter alia, by soil quality, weather conditions, the grape variety, cultivation and harvest methods, and a final something called terroir. Terrior being the quasi-mystical blend of history, culture, tradition and prestige which allows for a grape grown in the Loire Valley to be inherently more complex than one grown in similar conditions in Mudgee Gulch.

While this may or may not be the case when it comes to wine, the idea of there being an organic, non transferable identity to place is intriguing, and one which fits Lao People's Democratic Republic. Vientiane has terroir, no doubt about it. In a world of Yellowtail Chardonnay, Laos is a Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc.

Laos (or Lao PDR, either way) is sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, with China to the north and Cambodia to the south. It's got about six million people, which makes it demographically tiny compared to anywhere except Mongolia, really. It is otherwise tremendously diverse, with 35 different ethnicities spread over its jungly mountains. Laos has 300 varieties of rice, more than any other country except China, yet less than four percent of its land is classified as arable. Economically, Laos languishes way behind Vietnam and Thailand, and seems likely to continue to do so.

The capital Vientiane is a dozy place- hot, humid, and just about to nod off. It has anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000 people, of which no more than about 20 percent seem to be awake at any given time. The head-cleaving heat that bakes the surrounding jungle reigns from 0930 to 1600 makes hats absolutely mandatory, and empties the streets for much of the day of all but the most insomniac residents. Laotian lethargy is legendary- one axiom has it that the Thai grow rice, the Cambodians watch rice grow, and Laotians listen to rice grow. While this makes Laos a somewhat frustrating place to work in for the driven professional, it suits the more relaxed visitor just fine. After the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Ulaan Baatar, it's good to unwind in Vientiane.

Once the sun moves nearer to the horizon, Vientiane is a lovely place to amble around. Most buildings are no higher than three stories high, and have verandahs on all floors, to cool off the inside of the house when the heat builds up. Laos has significant hardwoods in its jungles, and houses are built of dark, heavy woods carved with flourishes on the eaves, doorways, and grilles. The roads vary between pockmarked tarmac and packed earth. Like other southeast Asian cities, houses are generally open to the street, and market stalls are set up along the streets, selling fruit and veg, coffee and tasty soups and tilapia for lunch. Tuk tuks and mopeds are the dominant mode of transport, which makes for a rush hour that sounds like a dozen sewing machines. People smile, say hello, and walk along gently.

The remnants of Indochine are still in evidence as well. In between the Buddhist temples and government buildings, there are remarkable number of wine shops, one of which has a carved barrel three metres high and two across built about its shopfront. Bistros and restaurants serving French fare abound. Patisseries that bake excellent brioche, croissant and pain au chocolat are on every block. Locals will recommend some establishments for breakfast, some for midmorning, and some are suitable only for lunch, m'sieu. Cafes serving Laotian coffee are in similar abundance- the coffee is, unsurprisingly, marvelous- traditionally served thick and black with condensed milk stirred through it. Laos also remains determinedly francophone, the last remaining holdout in southeast Asia. Street signs are written in Laotian script and French, and people brighten considerably if you parlez-vous. By ten p.m, the streets are just about empty, as everyone has retired to bed after another exhausting day.

All in all, a charming, gentle anachronism of a land stuck between the thrusting economic powerplayers of south east Asia, and a place more friendly than a roomful of handshakes. In a world where the Starbucks on Khao San Road serves the same thing as the Starbucks in Beijing airport or the one in the Borders in Times Square, Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane's cafes continue to serve their own homegrown. And for that alone, we urge you to set sail for the land of the languid.

Ever southwards,


Malaysia- Malls, Monorails and Money

As Lyle Lanley told the citizens of Springfield, "You know a town with money is a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No-one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it!"

Lanley's sold monorails to the towns of Ogdenville and North Haverbrook, which really put them on the map. What he neglected to say that he'd also sold a monorail to Muddy Confluence, Malaysia. So as soon as we saw a monorail in Muddy Confluence, we knew we were in for comedy fun. We were wrong, but Lanley was right.

Muddy Confluence sure has money- they've got oil, electronics, Formula One Racing, and Michael Bolton playing at the Genting Highlands resort in November. MC also shares with Springfield a real desire to get noticed by the world- they've got the world's second tallest building (stupid Taiwan), the world's fifth highest communications tower (stupid China, Canada, Russia and Iran), the world's longest apple strudel (80metres), and the world's largest replica camel collection (200). Reports that they will challenge Springfield for the largest pile of burning tyres remain unconfirmed.

But it's not all records and monorails in Kuala Lumpur, which is the Malay name of Muddy Confluence. For all its money, Kuala Lumpur has about as much idea what to do with it as that mule mentioned above. Put another way, Malaysia knows EXACTLY what to do with all that money, and that’s spending it on huge construction projects which will shine brighter and better than any before. Add that to the fact that the Malaysian national pastime is shopping, and you have a recipe for more malls than the eye can see. Malaysia claims to have the world's largest mall, and this is all too plausible. The Times Square complex has eleven stories, including an indoor amusement park and an IMAX theatre. Suria KLCC is embedded into the feet of the Petronas Towers, and has six stories of shopping and an aquarium. There are many more.

Not unlike Beijing, Kuala Lumpur is strongly focused on making and spending of cashmoney. Unlike Beijing, the process of turning the place into one big shopping centre is so far completed that it is wholly possible to lose all sense of where you are- you are standing outside the Debenham's and might have a snack at Baskin Robbins or Famous Amos on your way to Marks & Spencer. Welcome to AnyMall, Planet Earth. Buy buy buy. The whole consumerist experience has been hermetically designed that no unpleasant indigenous variations seep in; in some cases quite literally, as malls have no windows to the outside world and are air conditioned to sub-arctic temperatures. Walk by a mall entrance at ten yards, and a blast of cold air hits you sideways, as Malaysia attempts to cool down the tropics from the inside out.

This nonstop shopping might has some explanation if prices were anything to shout about, if bargains might be had. But no, the similarity between western malls does not end with the choice of shopping outlets; the prices are comparable as well. Despite this, and despite the presence of cheaper prices in Bangkok and rock bottom prices in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur overflows with Aussies, Kiwis and Brits on shopping holidays, whatever circle of hell that may be. You can buy city maps which chart the smoothest passage from one mall to the next, without having to tread in any culture by mistake. Some of the monorail stops disgorge passengers directly into malls, without having to touch the street.
The tourists are far outnumbered by locals in the throng. Sporting the slickest phones, bluetooth headgear, watches, flashdrive accessories and sunglasses, the aspirational model of today's Malaysian youth seems entirely western, derived from mass media arbiters of cool, and forms a homogenous uniform appearance, in lockstep with their US and UK contemporaries. They behave just as badly, and sad to say, are just as fat. Kids today, viewers. I tell you.

None of this is to begrudge Malaysia any of the success it apparently enjoys. But surely there is a more useful way to spend all of this money in a way which does not simply add more malls to the world? Everyone has the right to shop in the same places, I suppose. Is shopping a human right? Discuss. On the other hand, making the whole thing so indistinguishable from its western counterparts that walking into such places is an empty, eviscerating experience isn't a good thing either. Presumably, there will one day a reckoning, as people realize that there's more to life than Sunglass Hut and Accessorize, and new money will no longer be poured into building more and more caves of shopping. Until that day, we have the KL experience.

Kuala Lumpur's residents are serious about making it in today's capitalist world, and are prepared to work very hard to do so. The business pages of the Straits Times takes up at least half the daily paper. The front displays of any bookstore are filled with management handbooks with titles like How to Make Your First Million, and Secrets of Microsoft: The Bill Gates Approach to Management. The payoff to all this is that Malaysia has tremendous human capital, and is a major Asian economic contender.

One suspects that this highly organized business approach is congruent to that of Singapore, Malaysia's neighbour to the south, and member of the federation of Malaysia until 1965. Like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur is very clean and very well organized, and its citizens generally are well behaved and law abiding. Ambition is obviously much valued by the Malaysians, both in terms of the individual pursuit of success, and in demonstrating to the world just how much Malaysia can accomplish if it sets its mind to it. Petronas Towers is perhaps the most obvious example, and features as the icon of the country on the currency, in advertising, and as the logo for the ASEAN conference scheduled for December 05. Globally speaking, Malaysia is fully expecting to join the 'G-9' in 2020. The government is nearing completion of a private city from which to conduct its business, the ten billion dollar Xanadu called Putrajaya, which comes replete with ministries, offices and residences for the Prime Minister and the King, a vast pink mosque and a stocked artificial lake for the PM and the Cabinet to commute up and down in special boats. Oh, and an air conditioned shopping plaza, naturally. Putrajaya is adjacent to the high tech exclusive suburb of Cyberjaya, which has wifi internet access from every toilet and breakfast hutch.

So far, so sterile. Rabid shopping, white elephant architecture, too much air conditioning, and high prices. Add to that the sin taxes the government exacts on beer (four bucks for a bottle of Tiger), and Malaysia is shaping up to be the fishbone in the trachea of south east Asia.

And yet.

Scratch the surface even a little bit, and Malaysia is a fascinating country. This is perhaps what is so frustrating about the whole way that Kuala Lumpur has been developed, is that it does the complexity of Malaysian society such a disservice. First off, Malaysia is an ethnic and cultural hybrid comprised of its own indigenous elements with strong inputs from China and the Indian subcontinent. Fifty odd percent of the population is Malay, twenty five percent Chinese, and the remainder are of various south Asian origins, plus others from Malaysian Borneo and farther afield. While avowedly a Muslim state, Malaysia nonetheless has significant Hindu and Buddhist populations, as well as Christians and animists, and maintains a climate of considerable freedom of worship.

Over the centuries, Malaysia has developed a cultural absorptive capacity that allows it to incorporate significant populations from China and India without having its own identity overwhelmed. Granted, this has not always been a flawless process, but it has unfolded comparatively bloodlessly, and diversity is strongly valued by Malaysians. Our visit coincided with Aidalfitri and Deepavalii, and the town overflowed with public celebrations of all kinds to celebrate the culmination of the Muslim and Hindu holy days. Over the decades since independence, there have been consistent dark mutterings that the Malaysian socio-cultural equation is too delicately balanced, and could collapse into chaos at any point as a result of independence, communism, Indonesian influence, Malay-Chinese desire for dominance, extremist Islam, and so on. Nevertheless, Malaysia has held firm, and shows no signs of splintering into its base components, if indeed anyone could reverse the process.

This ethnic diversity is so interwoven that it is impossible to determine at a glance whether someone is Malaysian or not based on physical appearance. Like riding a train in New York or London, riding the monorail in Kuala Lumpur it is impossible to determine who is local and who is visiting. Waiting for the ferry in Port Klang, two chaps who looked Tamil sat down with another two guys who could have stepped off the streets of Beijing and their pal who could have been (maybe was) Filipino. The five of them have a coffee and smoke (everyone smokes in Malaysia), jabbered away in one language, answered their mobiles in English, switched to another language, back to the first language, and all carried on. On Pelau Ketam island, the same variety of appearance continued, but all the signage was written in Chinese, although everyone spoke English. Muslim teenage schoolgirls wear tight jeans and tiny tops, but with a tundung headscarf over their heads. I saw one such outfit in which the tundung was pinned at the shoulder with a smiley face button. Business as Malaysian usual.

This plurality of influence and heritage is also deliciously evident that in the available eating options in KL. Indian buffet restaurants specializing in tandoor stand right next to (or share tables with) stalls specializing in Penang prawn fried noodles, which in turn are next a place doing grilled chicken fish with ginger and soy sauce. Single meals consist of great dishes from all over the place, and ingredients are borrowed and then lent back across the various cuisines. Even against the greatness of Thai or Beijing foodie options, Malaysia has such extraordinary variety of choice that eating well is well and truly one of the prime attractions of Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia is not, per se, a global Great Culture, in the way that China or the United States exude influence across the world. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Malaysia seems rather to be able to take up what is on offer from other cultures, and fold it into its own mix. While the wholesale inhalation of consumer culture leads to the homogeneity of the malls, it also allows for the people who shop in them to be part of a dynamic and vibrant multiculture. That's why it's such a disappointment to see the youth getting cloned to look like every other teen on the planet. Kids today, viewers.

All is not forever rosy in the land, and there is a darker side to the Malaysian profile. The ruthless drive to succeed takes place within an autocratic state that regularly represses 'unfavourable' elements, especially southern Islamic political parties, a catspaw media, and is dependent on exploited migrant labour. A rigid social hierarchy, enshrined in the constitution, ensures that everyone knows their place. Within the Indian population, inherited caste systems from the subcontinent delineate just who's who and why they'll stay that way. Populations in Borneo are significantly less attended to that those on the Peninsula. In addition to the cast off migrant labourers adrift in Malaysia, refugees from Thailand, Burma and the Philippines waft in and out with regularity.

For all the carefully planted parks and manicured architecture, real life is far more interesting in Malaysia than it lets on. Far removed from the gleaming marble of the mall floors, there's a whole country out there waiting to be tasted, walked in and discussed. So next time you're there, please remember to ride the monorail to the end of the line, and start walking from there.

On which impractical advice we shall close. If you've read this far, you probably deserve a southeast Asian holiday all of your own.

No further travel is slated anytime soon, so relax in the knowledge that the next dispatch will be back on the freezing solid ground of Mongolia.

Selamat jalan,


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Frost forms on our bedroom window this morning.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The glorious sportsmen and women of the revolution vs. the marketing might of Manchester United. Worker's stadium, Beijing.

Beijing Babylon

Mihaa! (Greetings, viewers, but not in Mongolian.)

I've been struggling with this piece for sometime now, and have eventually had to release it into the wild without having given it a full physical. Even so, despite wrestling with the subject matter, I have not been either shooting arrows at it or horse racing it, for this is not a Mongolian issue. This piece concerns China. China, on the other hand, is probably deeply unconcerned by this piece. Quid no quo. Grab your wontons and green tea and settle in.

China is, as we know, intrinsically vast. Any discussions of China presupposes this massive girth- geographic, demographic, economic, cultural, historical, take your pick; it's a behemoth. There's no such thing as a little China.

Playing the numbers with China is a mug's game, because the figures involved are akin to those used to calculate distances in space, but it may be instructive to mention a few here. 1.3 billion people (that's 20 percent of everybody), spread over 9.6 million square kilometres. Shared borders with 14 other countries. A total of 1.8 million kilometres of roads, with five million private cars purchased a year. Annual growth rates in double figures, despite unemployment rates of 20 percent. The second largest economy in the world, ranked 85th on the Human Development Index. Three hundred million people without adequate sanitation. Whatever point it is one is trying to prove, the numbers for China will make the point for you dramatically.

But what, then, is the point? How to encapsulate all that bigness into one easily digestible intellectual biscuit? Bearing in mind the fallacy of the visitor in any circumstance is to try to extrapolate a grand theory based on a set of thin conclusions, conclusions which are in turn a result of a narrow set of experiences comprised of a fistful of rapid observations. So we're still no closer.

This extemporizing is problematic when considering Lichtenstein or Tonga, but applying this approach to China is unwise indeed. The plurality of the Chinese whole defies comfy theorizing- any operant assumptions are easily contradicted just around the next corner. Much of what one hears or assumes about China is wrong, or at best readily deniable. This isn't particularly unique- the same applies to much of what is written and said about America. Nonetheless, that doesn't stop anyone from coming up with pat assumptions and one sentence summaries.

All of which is to say, much of what follows is wrong.

Through the centuries, China has kept going, come what may. At massive cost and with sometimes retrograde motion, but it is as it has been for thousands of years: immensely powerful. China in this regard contravenes the standard narrative applied to dominion- implicitly, the notion of empire presupposes decline and fall. Rome, the Mongols, The Ottomans, the British, the Soviets-their empires have come and gone, while geopolitically speaking, the Chinese are still in the hunt, and could still ascend further. This is perhaps due to the fact that China's mass is contiguous, and consequently easier to control than a far flung series of satelites might be. This is painting in broad strokes to be sure, but the fact is that the future of a strong China is still playing out, and does not represent a closed historical chapter in the same way that say, the British Empire does. China has declined and fallen flat any number of times- a fair few times in the 20th Century alone- but with every seeming collapse China reinvents itself and carries on, apparently gaining momentum as it does so. Formidable ironies pile up quickly, as yesterday's anathema is today's ordre du jour, but perhaps it is this mutability which keeps China's sails so full of wind.

The result of this ideological pig pile is juxtaposition of everything one might care to ascribe to the concept of China, writ on a massive scale.

As one approaches the sleepy little hamlet of Beijing (pop.15 million), capital of the communist People's Republic of China, it is the forces of capitalism that first emerge from the gloom. Clusters of skyscrapers stand on either side of the road, each crowned with a single giant corporate logo- Nokia, Microsoft,Luftansa- concrete and steel fingers stretched out for coin. The buildings themselves are functional blocks with occasional accents or color, but for the most part simply appear to be unadorned money making factories. This is repeated throughout the city, as one realizes that China is El Dorado- the biggest market and the cheapest labour going.

If you're in the business of making a buck, you simply cannot afford to ignore China and risk losing out. Incredibly posh shops and corporate frontage are purchased at lavish expense to peddle Louis Vuitton and Audemars Piguet at prices that no one can afford, ignoring the inconvenient fact that knockoffs are available just across town for rock bottom prices. A Rolls Royce dealership sits between Burberry and Prada on Beijing's main drag, Chang'an Avenue, fifteen minutes walk from Mao's Mausoleum. The most powerful communist state on the planet is one of the most nakedly venal places on earth. China is for sale, and everything's negotiable.

Insatiable moneymaking has driven property prices sky high, with old buildings being destroyed in order for something more profitable to be constructed. There's a clock on all this: the Olympics in 2008, for which Beijing must be shiny to the point of blinding. China World Trade Centre is looking to throw up a 80 story wonder, in addition to its two existing 40 story towers. Dozens of cranes work single construction sites, round the clock, seven days a week. We walked along streets on which huge billboards in red and white advertised thrilling new residential opportunities coming soon suitable for executives and foreigners. In the breaks between the billboards, bulldozed shanties lay in piles, with folk squatting in locations destined for higher things. Sanlitun Bar Street, a bohemian strip of pavement bars and nightclubs is scheduled for complete razing, renovation and restoration as a high end entertainment mall by 2007. The western side of the street already is rubbled, with one establishment which has somehow held out left adrift in a unlit field of broken stones, with a sign announcing "We Still Here." How long that will hold true is anyone's guess. Probably not much longer, for the future is coming. No one, it seems, is ineligible for destruction.

The pressures on land and sky coupled with the inflow of much much money means that the high end residential market is also booming. Congestion, traffic and and air quality are such that gated communities geared to the international market have been thrown up around the edges of the city, with names like EuroVilla and Paradiso. These complexes come complete with private security, driving ranges, schools, pools, restaurants, and off street parking, at a price which allows one to spend in the style to which one has become accustomed. The alternative of living deep in the city, with the attendant lack of green space, lack of non-Chinese speakers, noise and traffic can be a something of a challenge, especially for the child rearing. Air quality especially leaves something to be desired- for 2005, Beijing City Council is aiming for 230 clear days, up from 228 in 2004. Put another way, that means that 135 days are not clear. Four and a half months of the year, it's a smoggy smog world. How the discus throwers are going to cope with this during peak choking season in 2008 remains to be seen.

All through the city, the sound of currency being counted quickly permeates. Advertising is everywhere- flat screens were mounted opposite the elevator doors on every floor of our hotel to give a you a hit in those critical seconds before the doors slide closed. Soon, all Beijing taxis will have unturnoffable screens installed into the seatbacks to bombard you with product information as you drive around.

Beneath the corps doing billon dollar deals, at street level dozens of markets sell everything, and the bargain hunt is a key element of many tourist's trips to Beijing. We saw platoons of Americans (recognizable because Americans on vacation wear tshirts emblazoned with the name of the last place they went on vacation) lugging bootleg Samsonites into the Pearl Market to fill up with cheap product to take home. After the polite, prix fixe dealings of Ulaanbaatar, the aggro and fluidity of Beijing's markets can be a bit startling. The general rule of thumb seems to be pay no more than 25 percent of the asking price, no matter what. This will involve shouting, some of it angry, so be ready. Inevitably, the first few transactions will doubtless lead to some dubious purchases of uncertain value, but soon enough one is buying Levis in bundles of six. It also helps to keep the exchange rate in mind. Two of our party, jetlagged and unfamiliar, ended up buying some dried fruit and two bananas for forty bucks. Ooops.

Once into the swing of things, one common bargaining manoeuvre is called Happy Price, whereby the seller and buyer agree to meet halfway- all good until you realize that you are dealing with people who are hands down smarter than you, and have a much better idea of the worth of the materials in question. Going to buy a pair of shoes/string of pearls/set of clubs becomes an exercise in vaguely Buddhist market indexing: the true value of anything in unknown, so how much is one willing to pay for anything? Independently of what one is willing to pay, how much can one get it for? Is it worth either of those prices? Only the abacus knows the answer.

All this haggling and money making going on can make one's head spin- and yet, besides this everything must go attitude, there is a humourless inflexible adherence to the rules. For obvious reasons, taking photos inside the markets is forbidden- the same vendor who would sell you the shirt off her back will under no circumstance let the shutter click. You need a visa to set foot in the airport, even if only in transit. Taxis will not stop for fares anywhere except in designated spots off the main roads. Hotel reservations not in pristine order are treated with deep suspicion. At bustops and the airport, queues happen, and seem to keep a degree of shape. In fact, given the sheer volume of humanity in play, it's impressive how relatively well the infrastructure functions. Granted, there are problems with particular elements here and there (traffic flow and roads spring to mind), but overall it keeps ticking over.

Once all bargains have been safely negotiated, it's time to go and poke at the lasting achievements of China's history. Of the various stops on the circuit, there are two highlights of truly sublime dimensions. Specifically, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall are extraordinary places to visit, and worthy of all the hyperbole pointed in their direction. Anywhere which maintains an emotional punch in spite of the domestic and foreign hordes milling everywhere, bloated tourist tat shops, and wilting humidity is worthy of visiting, and no more so than those two. On a more miniature level, the caliber of workmanship on even the cheapest of items is very high indeed- lacquerwork, painting, and ceramics are all exceptionally wonderful. Of course, there's a vast cornucopia to choose from, so individual mileage may vary, but something for everyone can be found. And then there's the food.

Unless one is a particular kind of freak (hi Bob and Ali!), reading about other people's meals is rather like hearing about other people's minor ailments: it's hard to keep from scratching oneself to stay awake. The food in Beijing deserves better than that, so we'll keep it brief. In a word, transplendentdelicioustastyyumyum. And that was just the cracker we found on the floor at the airport. The highlights of the meals inhaled are plural, but a shout out is in order for the romaine with sesame dipping sauce, barbecued trout at the Great Wall, green onion dumplings, prawns cooked on hot stones, multiple wonderfuls with aubergines and garlic, and the mystifying ability to take fish as marginal as carp and turn it into a centrepiece dish. Once one gets used to the fact that food seems to arrive in arbitrary order, and you remember not to touch, move or otherwise disturb the meal chit filled in by your barrage of servers that rests at the end of the table, everything will arrive in a regular rotation of tasties. And if, after all, you thought the vegetables could have been more exciting, or the squid was less than you hoped for, then solace awaits when you get the bill. Even with a revalued yuan, China is kind to the holder of hard currency. Smack your lips, burp up the vapours, reach for a toothpick, and ask to see the menu again.

And on that rich, aromatic and tasty note, we will draw an beaded curtain with a pitcure of a dragon on it over these proceedings. As a digestif, I would offer the following.

Traveling around Beijing with a blond haired blue eyed baby is an extraordinary thing to do. More times than could be counted, we were stopped by random strangers, asking to take Natty's picture, either by himself, or with them arrayed around him. 'Asking' is perhaps the kind way of putting it. Dozens of people picked him up or carried him out of sheer 'i want to hold a baby' joy. One night at a Thai restaurant called Banana Leaf, he woke from his sleep and when roused, started dancing to the music from the band. Tables cleared of patrons who came piling round to watch the scamp do his thing. A bank of camera phones was popping like Cannes- I counted seven at one point. We have a photo taken inside the Forbidden City, in a gallery filled with jade and vases of inestimable value- every single person in the place is looking at the boy standing around doing nothing much. The combined beauty of the imperial heritage have nothing on a toddling boy. There was no let up for this the whole week. It was all good natured, but unrelenting. If it ever got too much, the only recourse was to return to the hotel, and even there- one morning at breakfast he was pinched off his chair to play by the lady in the carpet shop before he'd had a bite.

I mention all of this not to big up my son, but because it was a manic, nonstop of the visit. Given how many people there are in Beijing, there are surprisingly few babies. Granted this may be different in more residential areas, but compared to the streets of Ulaanbaatar, the difference is obvious. The one baby policy is still in effect, even if it is less rigidly enforced, and there is nowhere for China to sluice off the unrequited maternal/paternal instincts. Perhaps this is an inadequate explanation, but even compared to kiddie friendly places like Mongolia or Italy, the degree and urgency of attention Natty got was striking at the time, and slightly melancholy thereafter. What will all those people who took jpegs of a random foreign baby do with them? Save them? Add them to their holiday album? Why take a photo of such a thing in the first place? All of the possible answers are depressing.

To be continued at a later date, viewers. This will not be our last visit to China, and I look forward to contradicting myself imminently.

Bai bai,


Friday, September 16, 2005

Undri Mindh (Good afternoon, viewers),
Posts to this blog are like number 38 buses. You wait ages for one, and then three come at once. In other ways, this blog is not at all like a bus, so do not try to board it, attract the conductor's attention, or stand in front of the yellow line while the vehicle is in motion. Next stop, Zavkhan market. All aboard!

One of the bigger unofficial milestones of the year in Ulaanbaatar is the turning on and off of the heating system. The whole city is still centrally heated, and individual houses and apartments do not have thermostats- you are as hot or as cold as the state decides you are. Usually, this means you are walking around in shorts, as the heating engineers seem to err on the side of tropical.

The heating comes on the 15th of September, an event preceded by unannounced workmen stomping around the attic (in old Russian buildings, plumbing is in the roof) at 11pm on Sunday night, followed by heavy hammering, rotary saws cutting through metal, and welding. Given the quality of Mongolian construction, this usually leads to plaster falling on your face as you lie in bed, wondering if you're about to be invaded by wrench wielding maniacs. It's like that film Brazil, only in Mongolia.

Once the dust settles and banging subsides, the heating comes one, one radiator at a time. And despite all my caviling about the State of Things, on the morning of the 16th, we awoke to heavy snowstorms and zero temperatures. The picture above was taken on the way to work. A neat bit of scheduling. Almost-almost too neat….

The heat will remain on until 15th of May, no matter what the weather does between now and then. Whether the blowtorch wielding roof marauding casuals will return between now and then depends very much on the creaky pipes holding it together for another season. Let’s hope together, shall we?

Gadaa huiten bain (outside it's cold, viewers)


Dried and pickled goodies on display, Bayankhongor

Gazpacho in the Gobi

Sain Bainuu Viewers- Bi tantai daihiat ulzandah bayartai bain (I am pleased to meet you again, viewers).

Into every life a little hiatus must fall, and so it is with this chronicle of Fast Times at Mongolia High. It's been a busy few weeks, the ramifications of which are such that future entries may be shorter and less frequent. While this will doubtless come as a relief to those of you who have moseyed over, looked at this and said "eeeh, I don't have time for this" before heading to the fridge to see if there's any pie left (I'm looking at you, Kwana), some others of you may be distressed by this change. Our recommendation is to read the blog, eat the pie, and try not to fret.

But what are these portentous events? Have all keyboards mysteriously reverted to Mongolian script? Did a passing yak trample our hard drive? Is there something besides soy in the sausages? No, viewers, it's more than these. After fifteen months of kiddie swims and toddler groups, I have finally rejoined the cabal of the Gainfully Employed. It has, luckily, been a relatively simple transition to make. After a few days on the job, I no longer had the urge to sniff my colleagues' nappies when they whimper, and they all seem to like the introduction of cookies and juice, and naptime after lunch. Natty, on the other hand, still has not given me his 2005 workplan, and his petty cash allocations are a mess.

I'm working for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), a medium sized NGO has does work in a number of different sectors (health, education, microcredit,etc). I've been hired to oversee four different projects to do with food security, spread over Bayankhongor and Zavkhan aimags (see the map on the right if you're a keen-o.) For those of you who collect them, the title of the position is Food Security Coordinator, which gives me the right to enter the summer palace through the west gate, graze my goats on the village green in times of drought, and a stipend of 16 gallons of yoghurt per annum.

In order for what comes next to make any kind of sense at all, two paragraphs of context are going to have to be administered, so lie still and try not to cough as it slides down. It may prove useful one day, if Mongolian diets come up as a topic at a cocktail party, so hush up and pay attention.

Basically, the standard operating lifestyle in Mongolia centres around the herd of animals kept by every family. You herd it, milk it, get wool and skins from it, kill it, eat every bit of it, sell it, and that's it. In summer, rural Mongolians' diet centres on 'white food' (tsagaan holl, viewers), which is an inventive collection of dairy products consumed fresh, fermented, curdled, curded, aged, bewitched, bothered and bewildered. In winter, animals are slaughtered and meat is consumed- it is cold enough that meat is kept by shoving it into the rafters of the ger, where it freezes, thus you can consume an animal slowly without it going off. Easy peasy.

This is a fine system when it works, which is some of the time. If, however, the winter is extremely hard (-63 celsius, let's say), and the animals start to die, then very rapidly, the folks who depend on those animals begin to feel pretty peaky pretty quickly. In 1999-2001, there were an especially hard series of winters (called dzud, viewers) which killed off whole herds, in some cases, and forced rural families to the aimag centres to find quoi manger. Essentially, there's no plan b. So what this program attempts to do is encourage people to plant, harvest, cook and store agricultural produce as well as meat and dairy, so that they have at least a couple of options when the cold hits, and can make a bit of cash by selling off whatever veg they don't need, have more micronutrients and minerals in their diet.

See? That wasn't so bad, was it? It's fun learning stuff.

So second day on the job, and it's off to Bayankhongor, 600 kms ot the southwest, of which the last 200 are dirt tracks over the steppe- this takes about 12 hours, if you don't stop for anything more substantial than a Mars bar, more if you do.

About 120 kms outside the capital, along a section which is terraced (in that it has tarmac bits on it), we were marooned behind a truck with trailer barreling along at speeds fast enough to be unsafe but slow enough to be frustrating to be behind.

Having sounded the horn in the accustomed fashion, we moved to over take on left, half on the road and half on the shoulder, gathering speed to pass the extra long vehicle. Given the age of the truck and the probable level of noise in the cabin, the charitable explanation is that the driver did not hear our horn. Either way, as we passed the trailer, the truck rumbled fast over to the left, with the body of the trailer looking fling us into the hereafter. The driver extraordinaire (and my boss) stomped on brakes, and steered us off the shoulder and onto the plains, while the truck boomed on carefree.

Now some of you may have noticed that my employer has the word Adventist in a position of some prominence in their name, which may give some hint as to their general outlook on matters spirit and flesh. As the truck was hoving to, and it was clear we were about to be smashed to pieces, I blurted "Jesus Christ!!!". Luckily, I did not, in my panic, choose to adorn it with some of the profanity which is often inserted between the first and second names. Loud public swears may not be the best way to impress the new boss of a Christian organization, viewers. Try to refrain in future.

Once we were done with the swearing, the next day it was more driving to the edge of the Gobi desert, where the tiny community of Jinnst lies. The Gobi proper lies some distance farther south, but the Jinnst salient gives one a pretty good idea of what's out there. With sand and gravel fields all around, there is a valley of slight width which has a narrow river flowing through it. The river allows for human habitation, and along its banks is a community of not more than 30 gers, spread up and down the river. Behind the gers a huge sand dune rises, reminding you that the green beneath your feet is a shallow mirage.

Upstream from the settlement, mining has begun, and the folk of Jinnst have begun to complain that the water tastes different than before. Depending on what is found in the deposits upstream, the real possibility of mercury poisoning exists. We took water samples from the river which are now being analyzed at the lab. A bad business it will be if the water is tainted- watch this space.

Nothing grows higher than a shrub anywhere in the vast nothing, with the bewildering exception of one great big tree. It stands all by itself, quite some distance from Jinnst and the river. It is too big to get one's arms around, and is in mysteriously robust health, all green leaves in the dry breeze. We mused silently on how this tree came to be in the desert, and how it had escaped being chopped down for all these years. We speculated that it must have some mystical significance to have lasted this long. Each lost in his own thoughts, we drew these quiet meditations to a close, got the chainsaw from the boot and took the big ugly brute down. It was spoiling the view.

No, no we didn't. Did we?

Driving on, we arrived finally at Jinnst, where the river's edge veggie growers awaited. As Mongolians don't have a long history of growing stuff in the ground, part of this whole process involves a step by step training process, from planting through harvesting, to make sure everyone knows which end is up on a carrot. Today's lesson involved that cunningest of subjects, the How to Cook. This way you don't have people standing around with their crops rotting in the ground, claiming not to know what to do with rutabaga, snozzcumber, or spunkwort. Once you've successfully bagged yourself an aubergine, how do you gut, clean and roast him? How indeed.

Gathered in the welcome low light inside the ger were about forty growers, men, women and children. And up against the far wall, wearing her best whites, chef hat and crisp new apron, was a chef from the Mongolian Culinary Institute (for such a thing exists), specializing in vegetarian fare. Three tables, burners, and banks of visual aids were set up as seen on teevee cooking shows, and for the next three hours chef wowed the crowd with such unexpected wonders as squash vichyssoise, carrot with sauerkraut, apple compote and sundry other fresh and pickled bits and pieces. It went over a storm, especially as chef thoughtfully prepared enough in advance for everyone to try everything, plus everyone got a pamphlet of recipies for everything they tasted that day. Masterchef in the Ger, and so far so good in this gig.

We continued in this vein the following day, north of Gallut, a town about which our Lonely Planet states "if for some bizarre reason you find yourself in Gallut.." Well tell you what, LP, we go to Gallut to poke about in cabbage patches, that's what we do. Gallut was slightly harder to reach than usual because the wooden bridge over the river was destroyed a few days earlier when two mining company trucks well above the limits of what the timber could hold tried to cross it, splintering the bridge and hurling the second truck into the water. Luckily, we were told, they were able to get the truck out (so much for the bridge). Both trucks, having crossed, were now marooned on the other side, lined up like naughty schoolboys by the edge of the water, being made to look at what they'd done. Neither truck appeared in the least bit remorseful. Short of anything else to do, and with the bridge unlikely to get repaired anytime soon, the two truck drivers ambled on over and took in a lesson or two in how to make potato salad. Otherwise, it was more of the same, with the inclusion of the a huge frisbee match at the end of the afternoon, involving a cliff, a water hazard, two guys on horseback, a few dogs, all the men and boys over the age of seven in the village, and about half the women. Mongolians are able to throw a Frisbee pretty much instinctively, and a huge scrum of fun was had.

Thereafter, it was a short twelve hour dive back to the capital, in time to have a day off and head back to the office. Still, not bad for a first week, and certainly more frisbee and fricassee than expected.

And with the acrid fumes of pickling vinegar fumigating our nostrils, and our mining company stock dividends burning a hole in our pocket, we will draw this installment to a close. We hope you'll remember to do the required reading, mind your tongue and not overburden your herds.

Bi tantai tanilsandaa bayartai bain (nice to have seen you, viewers),


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Lake floor, Ureg Nuur, western Mongolia

Uvs, Ulaangom and Ureg Nuur: An Epic Dispatch in Three Manly Sports and Four Occurences by the Lakeside

Greetings Viewers, Orood Ireree (you’re welcome, viewers)-

Apologies for the delay in service, but we have found it easier to remove the speck from the eye of the camel through the eye of a needle than it is to find the last straw that broke that same camel’s back in a haystack. You know how it is.

Our story today takes us to Uvs aimag (aimags being the largest administrative division in Mongolia, equivalent to states or provinces), all the way west and up a bit. It is 1300 kms away, takes two and a half hours to fly there, and is one hour behind Ulaanbaatar. Most of the time, this time difference is the most exciting thing about Ulaangom, the aimag capital.

In order to stay current at the regional level and to avoid confusion at the national level, people keep their timepieces on both times, such that a wall clock will show Ulaanbaatar time, a watch Ulaangom time, and car clock Ulaanbaatar time, a mobile Ulaaangom time, and people talk about this all the time. If you schedule a phone call with the capital, you can expect a lot of toing and froing over what time you should expect the call, what time UB thinks it should make the call, what time you should be ready to receive the call in case they get it wrong, but above all be on standby at least an hour each way just in case.

All of which frenzy results in such a high level of excitement that when one actually really needs to know the time of something, like what time the plane takes off, no one is quite sure- not even the pilot. Consequently, you either find yourself with hours to spare, or getting to the airport after the gate has closed. Apparently, when Daylight Savings time springs forward or falls back, half the town goes into immediate hibernation, and the other half’s brains go into immediate meltdown, while figures clothed as the Twelve Hours of Daylight dance in the streets to the music of Morris Day and the Time.

Most of the time, that is. But not the weekend we were there, when things were considerably more thrilling, as it was the 80th anniversary of the aimag’s existence. Due to redistricting, fighting, administrative restructuring, conquest, and Soviet ideas about efficiency, some aimags are more aimag than others. Uvs (pronounced uvs, viewers) is an oldie, and consequently all the aimag governors from the other 18 all showed up to hail this achievement, as did the Speaker of Parliament and a host of other bigwigs. In honour of this occasion and in deference to the needs of said biggywigs, the Uvs’ hosts hospitably laid on electricity and water for the whole holiday period. This is quite a feat, as Uvs hypothetically gets all of its power from Russia. However, being an older aimag, its memory isn’t what it used to be, and it has completely misplaced its change purse and it now owes Russia half a million American dollars for electricity. In order to jog Uvs’ memory, Russia has turned off all supplies of juice until it remembers where it hid its last pension check. Uvs is still scratching its head. In fairness, Uvs is not the only western aimag in this predicament. Either way, the dazzling glare of two phase electric current and 4WD horseless carriages in the high street all contributed to a splendid festive atmosphere.

The celebrations centred, as they always do, on the three manly sports- wrestling, archery and horse racing. In fact, Mongolians are so keen on naadam celebrations that the government is trying to limit celebrations to one per aimag per year. Otherwise, it seems, every time someone passes an exam or spots a new moon, whole provinces bunk off minding the sheep and starts wrestling in the dust and shooting arrows about the place. Either way, manly as these sports may be, spectator friendly they are not.

Wrestling. Men in tight blues, red chestless singlets (to show they are not women) and pointy hats grabbing hold of each other’s shoulders, throwing 90 degree shapes, and walking slowly in a circle. This is not to say any one of them could not thump you in both UB time and Ulaangom time and once more for Greenwich Mean Time, it’s just that they don’t get any cool moves. The coolest thing about the wrestlers is the rankings, which include State Titans, Lions, Garudas (?), Elephants, Hawks and Falcons. We saw a State Elephant while we were in Ulaangom. Besides his mountainous size, we could tell he was an elephant because he had nine blind men poking at him and saying things like “but no, it’s a wastepaper basket!” and suchlike.

Archery. Men with steely gazes fix on a point in the middle distance, pull on string, arrow makes a zoomy noise and is gone. Admittedly this looks cool, but it’s impossible to tell who’s winning, how scoring works, or even what they are aiming at. It’s like tennis with only serves. Actually, no, tennis is still more boring.

Horse racing. While everyone agrees the other manly sports are okay, the whole country of Mongolia is stone crazy about horse racing. Every Naadam, racing venues are set up 35 kms from town centres, and then the whole town decamps to said venue to watch the horses as they come in, often fording rivers and scaling sheer cliffs to get there. We went along with everybody else to watch these races, and found ourselves in a ger city of thousands of people who’d come to watch these races. The starting point was a good distance off, and the horses come in in a dusty hurricane across the steppe, looking for all the world like those hordes one‘s heard about. Thing is, there are thousands of people, dozens of horses, a vast great steppe, and everything happens in lightning speed. As the horses come in with their kid jockeys aloft, everyone bolts down to the finish line to try to touch the sweat of the winning horse, which gives you good luck. After this is done, everyone ambles back to the gers to eat some more meat and talk about horses. This is repeated for six races or two days, whichever comes first. Again, not without its charm, but not exactly a thrill a minute.

Exhausted by all these sporting thrills, it was time to leave the hustle and bustle of the big city and head out to the solitude and beauty of Ureg Nuur (which seems to mean Responsibility Lake, viewers- I’m baffled), three hours west of Ulaangom. We had planned to camp by the lake, and had made arrangements with our travel agent pals to be met by a driver equipped with tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, and all necessary whatnot. The driver Ulaanbayar showed up, but showed a distinct lack in the tackle department. A quick liaise with our pals in the capital later, it transpired that the gear we were to have used was irrevocably lost/damaged/broken/eaten/something/anyway there isn’t any, and instead what would happen was that new gear would be loaded on the plane that morning in Ulaanbaatar, and transported up to us at the lakeside by a second car which would meet us there three hours later. It helps to have in idea of just how remote these places as you consider the viability of this plan, not to mention the possible hiccups that uptight people might spot a mile off. Not us though. Oh no.

Undeterred, we departed, and arrived at the banks of the lake more or less on schedule, with no tent to sit in, or kettle to put on to boil. So we did as is done in these parts. You stride over to the closest ger, remember your etiquette (don’t step on the threshold, don’t lean on the supports, don’t move any hats, don’t point your feet at the shrine, move clockwise, etc), take a seat and wait for the hospitality to flow. In the first instance, this included milky tea with salt which is pretty much standard, and an assortment of hard cheese and pastry items of varying palatabilty. All this was fine for the grownups, but what of little ones? What could they have? What indeed. As it happened the particular ger we stopped at had two little girls of about four and two living there, at least one of which was still breast feeding, as is Natty. And so our hostess duly obliged the visiting lad by proffering him a hit of the homegrown good stuff. Young Armstrong took a long hard look at things as they stood, had a think about it, but decided to stick with his own stash. There was, it must be said a quiet sigh of relief heard from certain quarters.

By and by, the sound of a motor was heard, and our chase car appeared. The plan had worked. Not only had the plan worked, but the runner with the camping gear was so thrilled with her errand that she brought her whole family along to share the excitement. In addition to the tents and sleeping bags, she had brought along her mother and father, her sister and her boyfriend, their younger brother and herself. They spilled out of the Russian jeep as we stood slack jawed and wondered if they were staying for the weekend, while mentally counting the teabags. But no, they were just along for the drive. Once satisfied that the tension in the guylines was acceptable, they piled back in the car and drove the three hours back, without so much as a refreshing beverage.

And then there were three and a little boy. Ulaanbayar called me over and said he wanted to show me something. He opened his mouth wide and pointed to a molar on his right side. Looking at it, it was split laterally into two pieces, from front to back. Using a combination of Mongolian, Russian and gesture, he made it clear that he needed that tooth out now. His plan was to break open a disposable razor, use the blade to cut open his gum, and then use the pliers on my Swiss Army knife to yank out the painful half of tooth. I told him that there was no way I was going to cut him with the razor, so he suggested that he make the cut but that I would have to pull the tooth out, because he wouldn’t be able to do it himself. So that is what we agreed, and that is what we did.

As night fell, and the codeine kicked in, I found a purple hat with an orange band on the beach, in perfectly serviceable condition, and the following exchange occurred in Mongolian: (all translations probably scarily accurate)
Jannie: Look. Is Hat Is.
Ulaanbayar: Yes. Blah blah blah Matches blah blah blah.
Jannie (thrilled he’s heard a word he understands.): Yes Oh Yes. Matches, yes. Matches good.
Ulaanbayar: Yes. Matches. Give me, I need.
Jannie: Yes yes yes here. (gives matches).
Ulaanbayar: Ah, thank you.

And with that, Ulaanbayar took the hat off a respectable distance, piled some grass up in it, and set it on fire. After a quiet moment and a resolution to give him any other bits of clothing just yet, we filed that one away to find out about later. It transpires that Mongolians don’t take kindly to others messing with their hats, as this is a particularly personal bit of property. This explains why along the roadside one can often see a wide variety of quite serviceable headgear, lying around unclaimed. A hat only ever has one owner, it appears. Finding a hat without one, the humane thing to do is dispose of it. Law of the steppe.

And so with the lessons of these four parables still clear in our ears and fresh on our heads, let us bring this dispatch to a close. We hope you’ll remember to keep one clock on Ulaanbaatar time at all times, keep your hat pulled firmly down around your ears, and get those teeth checked before you need my services.

Bi tantai tanilsandaa bayartah bain (nice to have met you, viewers),


Sunset over Ureg Nuur, western Mongolia

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Pastoral Idyll, Mongolia. Rush hour traffic not pictured.

Getting around without running aground

Greetings viewers, and sonin saihan uu bain? (What’s new, pussycats?)

We are between gallivants to the country just presently- back from a weekend at the ger of some pals on the Tuul river, and about to head way, way west to Uvs aimag on Thursday- consult your local atlas, almanac, or AA map to see where these spots are, but be assured they are more than a day’s ride. Full rendering of the west be provided in the fullness of time, but for the instant your Mongolian comestible du jour is a quick sketch of the capital’s transportation systems.

In addition to the buses which come in diesel or electric flavour (the latter apparently referred to at goat horn buses due to their poles, according to the good people at Lonely Planet) and microbuses (matatus by any other name), the great staple of the city is the taxi. This is largely due to the fact that it is really cheap- cost of living up in here isn’t much to shout at, but even allowing for yawning inequalities between local and expatty fundage, taxis still represent a pretty fair bargain. A kilometre is 250 tegregs (1 USD= 1190 T). Travel within the city centre which is less than a few kilometres is generally rounded up to 500T for the driver’s trouble, which is fair enough really. Otherwise, the meter ticks over and one pays accordingly. A pretty good system, if one accepts the prevalent standards of driving, which includes a casual attitude to which side of the car the wheel should be on (it’s an even split), open minded attitudes to vehicle maintenance and upkeep, and the seatbelts which show their user how much they love them by leaving a wide dark dusty band of nastiness across your chest and lap. Drivers have been known to bust out laughing when you put one on. There’s nothing so funny as seatbelts, viewers. A little comedy tip from the steppe for ya.

Anxious parents inclined toward strict upkeep of western safety standards for kiddie transport are encouraged to visit Mongolia with a good supply of soothing herbal remedies close to hand- or perhaps a blindfold. Kids are allowed to sit anywhere in the car, including the driver’s lap, where the view is best. One enterprising SUV parent has solved the problem of kiddie car boredom by allowing the kids to ride around standing up through the sunroof, surveying the scene like a tinpot despot. Why more parents haven’t applied this innovative idea must have something to do with the fact that most cars don’t have sunroofs.

Having said that taxis are a key slice of the transport pie, the cost of cars here is very low- once cars have put in a few years of service in Korea or China, they come up here to move through their autumn years in the congestion of Ulaanbaatar traffic. Four wheel drive cars can be found for as little as 4000 USD, and saloon cars with a variety of bogus and real identifying brands can be found for even less. It’s reasonable to assume that once a car is done with Mongolia, Mongolia is done with the car, and it’s off to the happy Hyundai grounds to sleep a dreamless auto sleep.

But the real blast on the horn of this citywide merry-go-round, the thing that makes it all so Ulaanbarilliant is this: to get a cab, you raise your hand/arm in the internationally recognized gesture for ‘I require conveyancing’. Faster than you can say ‘chop chop, for I am expected at the Proconsul’s residence’, cars will begin piling up on your sidewalk. Not only yellow taxi coloured cars, but all manner of cars, marked taxi or not. You see, in Ulaanbaatar everyone needs a few extra tegregs, and all cars are potentially taxis, so pretty much anyone stops. Although most of the available rides will be Hyundais in various states of excitement, occasionally other cars stop- on one occasion, one of the town’s Humvees rolled up and did a door to door. Anyway, so you get in whichever car stops, muddle your way through explaining where you want to go (it does help to know where that is, and the words for left, right and straight (zum, barum and chigiree, viewers)), and you are delivered thither as fast as its shattered shocks can carry you. Same payment scheme as with other taxis applies, with the odometer reading serving as taximeter. And you’re there.

The whole system seems to work relatively well, and there are remarkably few horror stories resulting from using either mode of taxi. Once you get over your firmly entrenched instruction not to get in the car with strangers (after all, what then is a taxi?), it’s a painless system to use.

And with that, we’re off to cruise around the city in a vehicle of our choosing. We hope you’ll keep in mind what’s funny about seatbelts, and remember to round up to the nearest hundred tegregs when exiting the vehicle.

Sain yaraad ireree, (go well and come back soon, viewers),


Stop press: T-shirt update. It is not my intention to keep bringing this up, but if the torsos of the city continue to sport these items, then it is my duty to bring them to your attention. And so ladies and gents, I give you Godstupid superstar, spotted last Friday. Interpretations, theological, blasphemous and otherwise are welcome.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Campfire at Mongol Els, three days ago.

What we're wearing

Regular readers may remember all the way back to last week when this column highlighted a few of the more sophisticated t-shirt slogans spotted around town. Building on that, I am delighted to announce that this morning the estimable Amgalan of language lesson fame was sporting a red number with the following soliloquy stamped upon it, and lo there was much rejoicing up in here.

Leisure Vogue Tornado
Express Yourself Entirely
Please Entry
Procedure Trademark
Then Settling the Mind

Phew. It certainly puts Bent New Epochal Wonder which I saw on Wednesday in the shade. Interpretations, scholarly and otherwise, are welcome.

(Language x Lessons)2

Just when it was looking like Mongolian was going to stop thrashing around in its cage like some kind of trapped marmot and simmer down and play nicely, it lashed out with another barbed lingual digit, ready to cause a nasty little cut which will no doubt get infected. The other day, as the lesson was winding up, while coming to grips with how to say ‘May I?’, Amagalan and I were discussing whether or not it was possible it was possible to cross Australia by camel- a ruminative cud chewer of a question, to be sure- when I noticed that ‘Australian’ in its Mongolian directive case form (ABCTPaCyrillcLBackwardsN Pyy) came with a small but unmistakable 2 in the top right corner. In effect, Australian was squared- it was to the power of 2. This Australian camel was twice itself. While this might make it doubly cabable in the continent crossing department, it was nonetheless a bit of a poser.

I pointed out this mini-integer to Amagalan, assuming it to be an error. Instead, I was informed that yep, some words in Mongolian can be upped to two
[2]- and in some[3] cases even to four[4]. You see, vowels in Mongolian are either masculine or feminine, and depending on their gender they get either one or the other set of grammatical accoutrements- unless of course they are neutral, in which case they get the neutral set which go with anything, casual or evening wear. However, some words decanted from other languages needs must contain both manly and womanly vowelly virtues, leaving the suffix families with no clear idea where to put themselves. This gender confusion is resolved by the introduction of the Powers that Be, which indicate a word may indeed be one way, but it could also be the other. Lingusitic hermaphrodites. Now tell me, does your language do that? Does it come with inbuilt powerups? It does not. Mongolian is simply more fun that your boring old jibber jabber. Another reason why English is on the way out, kids. Get ahead of the Mongolian wave, for it’s acoming! Get with it, or get out of the way.

Horsemen and boys review the day's racing at the Naadam festivites in Kharkhorin.

Sunlight, Steppes, and Sandflies

So back we are from our five days in central Mongolia; tanner, wiser, with slightly more telescoped spines than we had before. A definitely worthy and interesting trip to go on- one which ultimately brought home one key fact: this place is huge. No two ways about it. It’s a big ‘un. You could put your keys down in Mongolia and not find them for like, weeks. That song about the bear went over the mountain was definitely composed with Mongolia in mind.
All other attributes of the country are in relation to this biggery. And lest we feel too much like we’re all intrepid and stuff, we covered but a slender morsel of the overall. Four to five hours driving in the country is considered, well, a mild Sunday afternoon’s mosey. And in between what there is to see, there’s more of that great wide open, so really there’s no option but to keep driving. But in the end, it is ultimately that scale which one is seeing. When one can see neither the end nor the sides of the ‘valley’ one is driving along the bottom of, it is easy to wonder about where you are and where you’re going. And to hope that the bloke behind the wheel has a better idea than you do.

Still, all that drive time gives you plenty of time to ruminate, to let the flotsam and jetsam of your mind float freely to the surface, where it bobs around refusing to leave. In my case, hour upon hour was spent with a continuous loop of Celine Dion and Toni Braxton songs in my head (no, I didn’t think so either, but evidently I do) as well as endless repetitions of that Stevie Wonder jazz chord joke (Marcel Grogan, you’re on my list). So time well spent then.

As only few (if any) of you know your Mongolian geography, I’ll keep the itinerary light and frothy, and recommend Tseren Tours for all your Mongolian travel needs. From Ulaanbaatar to Mongol Els, a series of sand dunes far from the Gobi. Then to Kharkhorin, ancient capital of the Mongol empire, and now a dusty little town with a splendid monastery complex. Then to the Orkhon river via Shankh monastery. And from there, back to the capital via the rock formations just east of Mongol Els. All in all, about 700k or so. Tell you what, go look at the pictures in the galleries then come back here.

The trip was punctuated by the requisite punctures, flat batteries, towings and related vehicular japery which come standard as part of any tour in this bit of the world. Having busted the second type and only spare (fun fact: assuming he knows what he’s doing, it takes a grown man 65 minutes to remove a tyre from the rim, reinstall a tube, revalve, and pump up one Mitsubishi Delica tyre, assuming the pump is a one handed Chinese bicycle pump), a runner was dispatched from the capital with a spare in hand, so as not to leave us stranded in Kharkhorin. The driver took off at midnight to meet him at the bus station, but was not back by 0830m the next morning, which led to much hearty speculating. Disappointingly, he did come back, leaving this story generally without incident. Even so- lots of driving is not as tedious as it might be, if only because the sun doesn’t go down until 1030 at night. So even if you arrive in the late afternoon, you’ve still got six hours of daylight to play in, plus it’s not so hot you can’t see straight. Some time thereafter, the sunsets begin- if you haven’t been to the galleries yet, go now.

Despite our desire to be far from the touristic hordes, we were inadvertently ambushed in Kharkhorin. Having secured said tyre, we were on our way out of town when the rumbling in the distance made it clear that Naadam was underway, and the horse were running- and so we visited the local celebrations, which centred on a men, women, boys and girls on horseback circling the ring, whilst within men in open chested singlets wrestled for the greater glory of Mongolia. Around the edge of this hot dusty spectacle, sat the touries, glistening with the healthy pink one sees in the poultry cabinet at the supermarket. Given that there were two more days of this to go and the sun beats down at 40 C plus, it really doesn’t bear imagining what shades of the rainbow were yet to manifest.
Back in the city, the demographic balance of the streets of Ulaan Baatar has, for the course of this two day week, readjusted to be about one foreigner:one local. This is the holiday weekend, so most Mongolians have headed out of the city, whereas most touries are descending. What’s one to do? Heed the call of the wild, and head back to the countryside of course!

And with the weekend beckoning like so many days off at the end of the week, we hope you’ll consider that life is a destination, not a journey, so hurry up and get there already.

Taivan bain (it is peaceful, viewers),

Technical Notes: As much as is possible, this blog will not be about blogging, because what could be more boring? But this has come up a few times, so I’m putting it up here for all to know. You can post comments after any article by clicking on the pencil icon, or on the green text with the time signature which appears at the end of each post. You can also read any comments that anyone else has left, and add your two cents if you want to. If you are unable to post for any reason, let me know and I’ll commiserate before offering whatever suggestions I have. Please do feel free to add anything you wish!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Flying a kite on the banks of the Tuul river this weekend. Happy Naadam, everyone!

Sporting, Slogans, and Summertime

Ulaanbaatar is all abuzz this week as the countdown to Naadam reaches the T minus 48 hours and counting mark. For those wholly ignirint of all things Mongolian, Naadam is the single most important holiday of the year, stretching from this Saturday through next Wednesday. Among other things, the nine yak tails of Chinggis Khan representing the nine tribes of Mongolia are ceremonially presented to the public in Sukhbaatar Square.
But the big deal is the three manly sporting competitions- wrestling, archery and horseracing events take place at various locations, with much pomp and ceremony throughout. The week is also a chance to catch up on any vodka drinking that you've been putting off for just too long. If you want to learn more about this, I’m sure there’s plenty of ways you could find out- googling on Naadam would be a good place to start, I guess. Seeing as how this is our first year in Mongolia, and given all the excitement simmering in the city as this thing gets closer and closer, we thought we’d do as the locals do and skip it.

As this is one of the, if not the only, big event of the year, the tourists have descended in huge numbers, all ready to film or photograph the six year old jockeys, tubby wrestlers with pointy hats (jainjum malrai, viewers), drinking in celebratory quantities, and yak tails aloft in the breeze. As anywhere, the tourist hordes are much disdained by resident expatties, all of whom either attend small ceremonies at villages outside the capital, or simply take off to the great outdoors and take advantage of the five day weekend to put some serious distance between themselves and the capital. Given how long it takes to drive anywhere in Mongolia, this is not an altogether bad idea.

For some weeks now we were planning to go to Russia by train to visit Lake Baikal over Naadam, but this plan eventually foundered in the shifting sands of Russian visa requirements, which ended up tallying at 250 USD per person- a fee that was too meaty for our palates. Plan B was quickly pulled from the jainjum malrai, and we’ll be exploring the Kharkhorin area of central Mongolia instead. So for those of you who base your week’s activities around updates to this blog (surely someone must), you may experience some delays in the coming days. Try to contain yourselves.

Naadam aside, the musings this week focus on the entertainingly variable application of English in various climes. Fluency is, of course, a state of mind. And frankly, English deserves a few solid punches in the paunch. It walks around the place shouting at the locals and behaving like it owns everything it sees, bullies more polite languages like French, and just keeps getting bigger and more belligerent, ignoring local delicacies and insisting we all sup from the same verbal trough. However, small but determined guerilla movements around the world ensure that nothing is kept OED pure, and pleasing local dishes are concocted from English ingredients. As the world’s lingua franca is twisted back around on itself by those unfamiliar with its ins and outs, the results can be lyrical, baffling, and profound.

Exhibit A is drawn from the streets of the city, as hot temps mean t-shirts and tanks are sported freely. Now one can’t bring the snigger down too hard on this collection- I’m certain that characters from Asian languages are used just as arbitrarily on western clothing- during the heyday of breakdancing (or New Romanticism) when every youth worth his fat sneaker laces (or eyeliner) was wearing something with Japanese or Chinese letters on his head, chest or ankle, I’m sure we went around with spectacular nonsense emblazoned on our bods. Who cares if you’re wearing a headband that says “Sorghum Production Increases following Solid rainy season” as long as you look like the guy from Beat Street? Or a Tshirt which announces “Nissan introduces new management for southern prefectures”? These are but details which are but nothing compared to the value of a powerful fashion statement.

Some clothing in Ulaanbaatar has taken this whole transliterative process to its logical conclusion, and bears messages which simply consist of the garbage that comes from mashing a keyboard- a t-shirt that bears the legend “sdjcvhasjkl;dtujklbh;zsdfajfhasdjklf” makes as much sense as one that says Just do it. Anyway, enough sdfjhkljhjks. Here are a few slogans which have caught the editorial eye of late, all guaranteed 100% not imaginary. All spelling and punctuation as in the original. Viewers are urged to muse on any deeper meanings which may be hidden within these mantras, but are reminded that enlightenment may take years to attain.

- Steady Willingness seems good. To enjoy is a reminisce.
- Pour some sugar me nature
- Only Lyrical Feeling
- Compu Babe what’s Going Happy?
- With the World Together Club Thanks Myself
- Subdued Ten
- Real Clothing Strife Since 1981
- Ivy B Free American College
- Niger (with Nike Swoosh)
- Here Rigo!
- Happy Tree Friends

But all of these aphorisms are but nothing compared to the digital thieves on Pirate street, who dedicate themselves to freeing up needed Hollywood product for the masses. It’s a relatively sophisticated game, and care is taken to make the copy just like the original. However, appearances need only be skin deep, so often the blurb, credits, and cover art are cut and pasted from a variety of sources. Reading the fine print on our copy of About Schmidt yields the information that this film is actually titled ‘Wishmaster 3: Beyond the Gates of hell’. The strapline on the front cover of Forrest Gump trumpets “Good But Flawed”. And consider this verbatim synopsis from the box of Meet the Fockers:

December 19 of local time, remit the with-virtuous- Nero, Barbara- history reach man wave etc. many a film for big wrists <> s(Meet the Fockers) hold the premiere type in Los Angeles, The that slice of is a com edy a <> , Will in day after tomorrow at all and beautiful be shown. The first gathers torelate of is a male nurse to the girlfriend in home to propose but leadA series of farces of the hair, relaxed acquisition in the sil ce’s that year the ticket of USDs 160,000,000Building score, in <>, male nurse with its parents willAc cept the girlfriend a house of” return to visit…

And there it ends. A tantalizing look inside the film, to be sure.

And with these compound fractures of a language that had it coming still fresh, I wish you all happy Naadam, and will update again next week. And I hope we’ll all take a moment to consider that Steady Willingness seems good, and to enjoy is a reminisce.

Sain saihan bukhniig yorooi (wishing you all good things, viewers),


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

This photo won a local competition in the Fauna category, beating off stiff competition from a lot of photos of horses. The model was not immediately available for comment, but is doubtless ecstatic at this news.

Swimming, Singing and Swabs

Sain bainuu, one and all. Ulaan Baatar is basking in midsummer glow this week- bright sunshine, strong breezes, green trees, and lots of downy seed heads (like dandelions) migrating slowly through the air in great clouds. Grooooovy. Temperatures are well above 30C, and there’s not much in the way of cloud cover, so a thick layer of suncream has become part of the daily regimen. Despite the balminess, yesterday a hailstorm showed up out of nowhere, and turned United Nations Street into a river, so it’s still business as Mongolian usual.

One of our more sharp eyed correspondents who wondered about the heat asked if there are any swimming pools. Thanks for asking, Libby- here’s what’s going on under our bathing cap.

There are a few private pools attached to health clubs, but these are not available to the great unwashed, and inevitably the price of membership is far higher than one is prepared to pay. There is, however, one public pool which is open to all comers. In order to use the facility, one has to undergo a mandatory medical exam on each visit. This practice is not so uncommon, and is likely a holdover from the heady days of socialism- in Serbia, some spas and gyms had a similar practice, whereby a cursory examination (and resultant fee) were occasionally a prerequisite to taking the waters or using the medicine ball.

For the Ulaan Baatar public pool, the exam includes administering an anal swab, to ensure that swimmers are not bringing any worms into the communal pond. Fair enough- no one likes worms. This practice is in place Monday to Friday. Saturdays, however, are free swim, and no medical exam (or swab) is needed. Consequently, this is the busiest day of the swimming week. Mysteriously, despite a rigorous Mon-Fri swabbing schedule, people with clean swabs going in emerge from the water with worms onboard. The medical community is baffled. Can any public health types out there help unravel this wormy problem?

When not swimming in public pools, we’ve been attending concerts at the Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, a peach and white coloured building off Sukhbaatar square. The first ticket arrived in Sue’s inbox inviting Ms. S.Southern (and spouse) to an concert of “World Famous Melodies”, commemorating the 10th Anniversary of cooperation between the Government of Mongolia and the Hans Seidel Foundation. Righto. How SS(+s) got on the guest list is anyone’s guess. In fact, who or what the Hans Seidel Foundation is or does is a mystery, even after the concert. It would appear to be some sort of arts patronage body of some sort, but that’s besides the point. They hand out free concert tickets, so that’s what makes them okay in our book.

So up the curtain, and it turns out that the stage is occupied on one side by the theatre’s resident orchestra, and on the other side by the Morin Khuur Orchestra, a traditional Mongolian ensemble, playing horse’s head fiddles and cellos, the zither like things that are played with stick brushes, flutes and piccolos, and more besides which I couldn’t see. The western style orchestra is pretty much per usual, decked out in tuxedos and evening dress, forming a nice visual counterpoint to the white satin traditional Mongolian gowns sat opposite them onstage. The orchestra also had a dedicated triangle player- always a most underrated instrument, and surely the glue that holds the group together. Ding!

On we roll. The programme is an interspersed mix of western (mostly Austrian, which may be a clue as to Hans Seidel’s provenance) and Mongolian pieces. The western stuff is familiar enough that it’s not particularly worth mentioning; Strauss, Mozart, a smattering of Debussy and Saint Saens. The Mongolian pieces, by dint of their unfamiliarity, are perhaps more worthy of comment. The pieces are all titled “The Awakening Spring”, or the “The Quest for the 1000 Nights” and similar such sentiments. The music itself makes for good concert going, especially for the easily bored, largely because it does not use the small brush. More than one piece began with massed timpani, a mighty blast on the horns, all the violins sawing away like crazy, all getting louder and louder until the cymbals go BOOM! Then the real thundering starts. It’s all crescendo and climax, with none of the tinkly bits which lead one’s mind to drift. Spring is Awakening, so eyes up for the big noise. It sounds like one giant herd of horses galloping over the plains. Splendid stuff, all played too loud to allow for sneaky napping. If this sounds like your sort of thing, then check out the works of Natsagiin Jantsannorov, our conductor/composer for the evening, who was awarded the highest honour the state bestows on arty types in the course of the concert, and is now known as the People’s Artist.

Aside from the music and associated whatnot, the show was also noteworthy for being the first classical gig we’ve ever attended where drunk, excitable youth in the audience played a role. While stopping short of shouting “play Cum on Feel the Noize you bastards!”, they did arrive halfway through the show, hang over the dress circle while talking loudly into mobiles and to each other, applaud enthusiastically every possible chance, snuck down into the front row (trailing enough vodka vapour for rows A-F to order a round of mixers), and kicked off the standing ovation at the end of the night. All of which was surprisingly tolerable, because they were behaving like fans, rather than rowdies. A claque with ambition, perhaps. Who knows? Maybe people are just really, really serious about showing their gratitude to foreign arts foundations.

What’s more likely is that audience behaviour is just really, really undisciplined by western concert hall standards. This idea gained credence with the second show of the week, a performance by the world famous Urna at the same theatre a few nights later. Urna, despite being world famous, might not be famous in your world, so here’s a few pointers. Urga Chahar-Tugchi hails from Inner Mongolia, and is renowned as an a cappella singer of tremendous range, who takes traditional pieces of Mongolian music and puts them out into the world. She has a voice which goes all the way up and all the way down, from quiet to loud and back again. She is also something of a fixture on the world music scene, and often gigs with a sitar player and a tabla player. The UB Post (a newspaper which will feature more prominently in later articles) mentioned that she was at some point voted World Musician of the year by the people who vote on these things. So there you are.

Urna maintains a distinctly spiritual pose in her music, both in lyric and emotion- she is very much at one with many things; nature, love, family, peace, gentleness, and so on. If it’s a good thing, Urna’s with it. The following lines were printed on the back of the ticket: “Life. All creatures beautify the world. Touching each other, our hearts are warmed. A tiny candle; its light bright and far reaching enlightening the universe eternally.” What the ticket began, the show meant very much to continue.

This was her first performance to Mongolia, a country she considers “her brotherland” (UB Post), and this was the inaugural show of the Roaring Hooves festival, a two week extravaganza of music across the country. So all in all, a relatively big deal. We went along to hear her (no free tickets this time) along with many other expatties who read the paper and believe the hype. She was accompanied by Zoltan the Hungarian on the violin, who variously strummed, picked, bowed and thumped his violin as Urna sang. Her voice is really rather something to hear; however, her style of delivery is somewhat contingent on rapturous silence, so one can absorb the haunting vibes and delicateness of the voice work. Mongolian audiences do not do rapturous silences very well. Urna’s voice and Zoltan’s violin were beatboxed by various multiple mobile trills, lots of whispering, sweeties and crisps being given an airing, folks arriving late and leaving early, and many more besides. World famous Urna was a bit taken aback by the lack of reverence among her crowd, presumably because this was her first show in the brotherland. She kept appealing for quiet (Hand on chest, eyebrows raised, smiling in disbelief and index finger repeatedly making the shh! gesture), but those calls kept coming in, and more zesty snacks kept coming out of the hamper. To crown it all, the mikes kept feeding back so much that eventually the show had to have an unscheduled intermission for the one techhie to fiddle with wires to make the fuzz go away. All in all, it wasn’t Urna’s night. She’s probably best heard at an outdoor site, in the company of thousands of peaceable WOMAD types who are ready to feel along with Urna. But if you know of another quiet spot, do invite her round to hum a few chords.

And so we’ll leave it there for this time. We hope that you’ve reflected on the fact that whether swimming or listening to ethereal music, it’s always good to have a checkup.

Sain yavaarai (which means safe journey, viewers),