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),


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Natty J, one year old today, photographed with Naraa, the lady who looks after him during the day. Happy Birthday!

Celebrity, the CanCan and Chinese Subtitles

If you’re like us, there’s one issue that causes you to wake up sweating in the night, wavy lines of stress emanating from your head like spidey sense. While the talking heads of the world prattle on, gross injustices are going ignored, and we have only ourselves to blame. One distant day in the future, when our children ask about it, will we know what to say?

That’s right friends, I am talking about celebrity image rights. So often those selfless heroes of stage, screen and wireless find their efforts to make the world a more aromatic and beautiful place rewarded with chicanery, disdain and outright piracy. I, for one, am appalled.

We in Ulaanbaatar are reassured that some of our key cultural figures are ahead of the curve, and have taken steps to protect their precious public profiles, even in such marginal markets as Mongolia. These forward thinking entertainers have moved aggressively to diversify their market share before the photoshoppers and silkscreeners get in there and render their visages as cheap as a bootleg copy of Revenge of the Sith at Happy Shop (2.5 USD apparently- not that we’d know). Enterprising sorts that they are, some have opened wholly legitimate enterprises in Ulaan Baatar which are authorized to bear their likeness. Listed below then, are a few of celebs spotted around Mongolia, and what they’re peddling:

- Britney Spears- Ms. Spears invites you to play pool at her basement saloon. Don’t be put off by the proximity to the bus stop or drunks in the stairway- it’s a classy establishment.

- Rowan Atkinson- Mr. Bean, Blackadder, and Johnny English. But to pedestrians in the shopping precincts, Rowan’s rubber face is synonymous with quality sports trophies. He encourages you to reward the champion on YOUR team today.

- Angelina Jolie- In addition to her many chores as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Angelina has always felt strongly about poor quality photocopying. That’s why her face is plastered on street lights and hoardings all over town, testifying to the availability of quality copies at low low prices. Her sunny smile is free of streaks, paper jams or toner.

- Salma Hayek- Ms. Hayek knows that massage is no laughing matter, which is why she has endorsed the parlour near the carpark at Zanabazar. Her severe brow and humourless nudity do nothing to make one less tense- perhaps an inducement to go inside and get a massage? Only her marketing people know the whole strategy, but it is doubtless at work on many levels.

It is our hope that many others will join them in the weeks and months to come, and that soon the capital will have more selfless celebs supporting the efforts of local business.
Why not reward these capitalist pioneers for their generous efforts by consuming some of their latest product at recommended retail price?

And while we’re discussing issues of global cultural import (sic), let’s put to one side such twaddle as the thousands of years of tradition laid down by Chinggis Khan, the ancient art of embroidered Kazah wall hangings, the exquisite silks of the Mongolian del, or the saddlework on Mongolian ponies. Junk, the lot of it. Let’s talk about television. A wiser man than me once said “there’s something strange about watching tv in a different time zone.” Whoever than man was (I think it was Homer Simpson), and assuming I’m not inventing rubbish out of thin air, I’d like to shake his hand. Television, that great leveler-friend of the common man, comforter of the unemployed, the thing that does the thinking for you and tells you when to dance.

Hereabouts, in addition to Russian MTV, various incarnations of CCTV, Bollywood’s finest, and plenty of overdubbing of Hollywood product, tango fans will be glad to know that there is one Russian channel which shows a nonstop series of ballroom dancing competitions. Twenty four seven, seven days a week, they are shooting horses, aren’t they? Often these are under the guise of regional playoffs of one form or another. It is all packaged like a sporting event, with commentators clamped into huge headphones, league tables, and slow motion replays of especially choice manoeuvring. Perhaps most bafflingly, these events all seem to play to packed houses, waving national flags and chanting encouraging slogans. We have yet to develop a team allegiance, but you can be certain that we will. Even as we speak, somewhere in the world a couple are applying great putty knives full of makeup, donning spangles, and hitting the floor, with an eye on taking down those left footed losers from Estonia with a killer twirl in the quickstep. Come on Finland!

Now I can watch as much ballroom dancing as the next bloke, and I’m not saying that it’s not thrilling entertainment, but sometimes one wants something with slightly more in the way of plot. Step forward, Sansar Movies, the wonderfulest channel ever. Sansar Movies runs commercial free, has no evident editorial policy, no presenters, and no worries. Just movie after movie. Sansar’s playlist is made up of whatever happens to be on the market stalls of some of those more unscrupulous buccaneers of the digital age mentioned above, shot through with classics of the 80s, 90s and today like You’ve Got Mail.

This wide mouthed approach leads to some serendipitous programming, like a Blackhawk Down/Fog of War double feature. But most wonderful of all is the fact that Sansar either a) assumes its audience doesn’t speak anything except Mongolian, or b) really doesn’t care, because movies on Sansar are broadcast in a bewildering variety of languages, accompanied by subtitles in another language (which may or may not be from the same movie). This last element can really spice up run of the mill offerings- Snow Dogs (Cuba Gooding with a pack of dogs run in the snow together) was improved considerably by subtitles suggesting that all the cast has slept with each other at some point or another. Mush, you huskies.

It’s a good idea not to get too involved when viewing Sansar, as periodically the film will stop, the DVD menu will pop up, and an unseen hand will change the settings from English language with Russian subtitles to Chinese language and French subtitles. And on we’ll go. Sometimes it will change back, sometimes it’ll go round Asia, with characters and accents morphing from one scene to the next. Disney horsey movie Spirit of the Cimarron (?) was on the other night, and halfway through all the horses mysteriously learned to speak English. But they still all sang like Bryan Adams, which is still very unsettling.

And with the heartfelt notes of that troubadour ringing in our ears, we will close this entry. We hope you have learned a little bit more about life in other places, and might reflect that as much as we’re all different, we’re all the same on the inside.

Sain Amraaraa (which means have a nice rest, viewers),


Postscript: regular viewers will be glad to learn that at this morning’s lesson, it was revealed that Mongolian contains two sets of names for days of the week- one numerically based (first day second day, etc), the other based on planets (davaa, myagmar, etc.). Both sets are used interchangeably. There is also apparently a third set, based on Sanskrit names of planets, but this one is less commonly used. So sain duru dich uduur, puroo garig, and barkhasbadi to you all. Just don’t ask which month we’re in…

Ger Camp in Terelj, evening.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Sain Bainuu, one and all. Welcome. We are glad to see you, and we trust your animals are fattening nicely.

Cold fronts, consonants and concrete

So here goes. We thought we’d begin in the halls of residence. From here, we will move in no particular direction as points of interest catch our fancy.

We live the third (top) floor of one of the older buildings in the city, which in this case is the 1950s- standards of construction round here are slightly less competent that your average sand castle. It’s one of the standing factors of UlaanBataar- buildings less than three years old look decrepit, and buildings more than five years old fall down with some regularity. But as one long time resident told us, these folks have a civilization that’s been around since the Doomsday Book was a pamphlet, but they only started building permanently in the past few decades. Before that it was (and to a large extent still is) all felt ger tents. There’s not a lot of institutional memory when to comes to know how to building an even flight of stairs, or a door that stays on its hinges.

Despite this, there are buildings going up all over town- cranes and exposed re-bar are everywhere on the skyline. There is such demand for housing that some apartments increase in value by as much 40% within six months of purchase, especially if they can stay reasonably upright for that long. I walked by one construction site last week where a wooden covered walkway had been built to allow pedestrians to pass below. This was just was well, as four stories up a welder was busy melding metal to metal without any of those uptight ideas about protection getting between him and his acetelying that building into shape. Great cascades of molten sparks were tumbling down onto the street below. I saw one chunk of especially glowing aspect fly from his torch, drop two stories, hit a tarpaulin, burn through it and continue on down to bounce glowing yellow on the pavement. The passersby beneath were yelling at the guy to stop, but he was a pro, so he ignored them. There’s really no way round this bit of road without going a long way round, so at each end of the building site, groups of peds would huddle together, wait for a break in the spark shower, and run under the building site, hoping the guy wouldn’t reload his torch in the meantime. After a bit, my group made its dash, but had our timing totally wrong, and as we hit the halfway point yellow metal pieces began tinkling onto the wood above our heads. I took off my backpack and carried it over my head and ran between one salaryman type and two schoolgirls. We all emerged unscathed, at which point everyone just ambled off on their business without so much as a shaken fist directed at the guy in the sky. Just another day on the street.

As the weather has changed from the dust storms and cold temperatures that greeted us on out arrival, the city has gained in attributes of loveliness. The trees, all pollarded and beat up looking without foliage, all seeded, blossomed, and advanced to full midsummer splendor in one week. The other night we sat out on our balcony on a carpet digging the breeze until about midnight- it was so warm and filled with sounds it was like being at the coast- perfectly warm, and a reason to be all in itself. Then again, when it comes to weather, it is always going to be Mongolia. Last weekend when we went to look at the Gandan Khiid monastery it was bright sunshine all the way there and sleet and snow on the way back thirty minutes later.

Weather and housing- how fascinating this must be. It’s all part of my ongoing honing of my expat spouse pose. I go to playgroups, fret about the servants, go shopping and bi*ch about the price of wine and caviar, plan holidays, go to the gym and fantasize about my tennis coach. Or I would, if I had any interest in tennis. And I take lessons in Mongolian three times a week, administered by Amgalan of the Friends Language School. And thus the cliché is complete. This is turning out well longer than I had anticipated, and Amgalan is by this point doubtless en route, but I’ll keep plugging until it’s time to wind up- we’re in the midst of conjugating a list of 36 verbs. Frustratingly, my efforts to apply my lessons on the unsuspecting public have not met with the greatest success. Mostly I get confounded stares- perhaps it’s my Kikuyu accent. Who knows?

The lingua of the steppe is a particularly gristly mouthful of linguistic mutton for a number of reasons, most prominent of which is the fact that the written and spoken form are really only freshman year roommates; they get along fine, and have stuff in common, but long term, they’re never really going to hang out. The Mongolian attitude to consonants is an uninterested one- a b could be a v could be a g could be gh could be ghch could be whatever you want. In order to address this, the alphabet has 35 letters, including all of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, plus two which Russian couldn’t handle. Pronunciation of said characters may or may not be the same as Russian, so please keep your hands inside the moving Mongolian vehicle at all times. Grammar fans may also be pleased to learn that Mongolia has eight cases, including, as I ‘learned’ in class today, the ablative, locative, accusative, instrumental and directive. I imagine John Cleese dressed as Genghis Khan hovering over me saying “To go? But that’s motion TOWARDS, boy.”

Of all of this written language bunch, I think my favourite has to be: b. Lower case b. Not to be confused with lower case b with a bar at the top of the stem (that’s a b) or upper case B (which is V, as we all know), or bI (which my book says is actually y), or indeed b (looks like lower case but is upper case, and is in fact I, apparently). No, no, none of these are as good as lower case b. You see, lower case b is pronounced . That’s right, . Good, you’re getting it: . Only put less accent on the , and more on the . As you can see, little b has no pronunciation at all. It’s role is purely disciplinary. As noted above, consonants in Mongolian can be a pretty unruly bunch, prone to acting out and hassling the vowels as they go about their work. Some consonants are more belligerent than others, and sometimes a b is inserted twixt con and vow to avoid any unseemliness. When the language scholar trips across it in their forays to the Mongolian Cyrillic interior, it should be ignored. Hence, a world like MOPb, meaning horse, is pronounced ‘myrrh’. Clear? Good. Hand in your exercise books to the monitor and change into your games kit, it’s time for sumo.

Beyond the city, as one is told illimitable times, is where Mongolia truly begins. Regardless of the redundancy, it is very much the case. UlaanBataar sprawls in its own way, and is, as previously mentioned, not the handsomest of all world capitals, but it quickly gives way to the rolling steppe. Everything outside the city is generically referred to as the ‘countryside’- you don’t really specify where unless it’s of importance. This will quickly descend into vista-babble, but anyway- the most striking factor is simply the scale of things. You don’t really get this until you try to walk anywhere, and realize that the air is clear and the visibility is that of a falcon. Just walking up that valley can take the better part of a morning. Everything is simply vast. You lose some sense of this because the middle distance is, conventionally speaking, featureless- there is little in the way of trees or vegetation beyond grass in many areas, a tight stubble of grass which grows green thick and short. However, if one looks closer, the ground is teeming with tiny wildflowers, bugs, marmot holes, and raptors in the sky. The best visual approximation I can think of is of the panoramas of the prairies seen is old westerns- the presence of stern men on horses certainly helps, but its sheer sweep is what is most definitive. As one looks at it, it is as much what lies beyond that matters- it is like this all the way to Beijing, and all the way to some far off other point- Moscow perhaps? We haven’t been that far, two and a bit hours away at most, but you look at the map and realize that in Mongolian terms that’s roughly still greater UlaanBataar- a reasonable distance to walk to see a goat with a wonky tail for most steppe dwellers.

Watching Mongolians navigate this sprawl of nothingness is remarkable to behold- we got a bit muddled up on the way west Hustai (home of one of the few indigenous species of horse left on earth, apparently). We were about a hours drive past from the campsite and heading in the wrong direction. This is very easy to do, as there is nothing by way of landmark to reckon from. Zorig, our driver for the day, stopped the car and had a chat with an old, old man who happened to be on his way from somewhere out there to somewhere over here. They had a good think about things and scrabbled in the dust for a while, but in time this old chap had provided up to date instructions on the whereabouts of a place one can’t imagine he’s ever needed to go. But that’s par for the course. When learning the language, you are told to be specific with your mode of instruction- some teachers expect you to swallow 60 vocab words a day. Mongolians are masters of memorization, apparently simply imprinting whole physical or linguistic geographies on the insides of their skulls.

The landscape itself bears few hints as to how you’d work out where you are, if dropped from the proverbial spacecraft. Telephone poles take on a particular resonance, as they are sometimes the only point or line which is anything other than two dimensional. The poles themselves, fact fans, are mostly the same as those found elsewhere, except they ride a solid four feet about the ground. The poles themselves are attached with steel bands to concrete railway sleepers, which are stabbed vertically into the ground. No know knows why this is- some say they were born that way. But the poles themselves, you ask them, they don’t want to say…

Even money is that it’s something to do with how cold it becomes- presumably wood would split when living at -40 for four months of the year. Civil engineering types are encouraged to speculate on this point. Similarly, major trunk roads out of UlaanBataar are not tarmaced in one solid flow of stone, but are rather made up of giant paving stones, about four metres square, lain two abreast. Again, this is presumably to do with freezing temperatures. One is told with some pride that Mongolia is the most expensive place in the world to build roads. Well, I guess someone has to be.

Daraa Oldse (that means until next time, viewers),


Monday, June 06, 2005

Posted by Hello

A ceremonial tsam mask, and our current web totem. Welcome to Missives from Mongolia.