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),