Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

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Capital Contentions

Mongolia is very much an “all roads lead to Rome” sort of country, and it isn’t the roads that bring you to its capital city. Ulaanbaatar is the seat of pretty much everything: the government, the postal service, the Embassies to various other countries, and the primary manufacturing facilities are located here, as well as over half the population of the country. And so it was that I found myself on the road to the capital yesterday morning, since its immigration office is the only one that gives residence permits.

The capital city and I have, shall we say, a contentious relationship. I would call it love-hate, except that to do so would imply an equality between the two sentiments that simply isn’t so. Love-hate-hate would perhaps be closer to the truth.

Now, there are certainly some good things to be said of UB. I have a number of friends here, and I am always excited by the opportunity to see them again. Ulaanbaatar also boasts a number of dining an entertainment options that are not available in Erdenet: a movie theater! Indian and Thai food! Beer with actual flavor! A duty-free shop where you can buy whiskey at halfway-reasonable prices! There is also a national opera house, though I have never had the fortune to attend a performance there.

Disconnected as I am from the world of pop culture, the movie theater is not usually at the top of my priorities. I have seen exactly two movies during my time here: a repeat viewing of Dark Knight Rises, when we first arrived in August, and Hotel Transylvania, during my Thanksgiving visit. No, food and friends are definitely much higher on priority list. A trip to the city is incomplete without a visit to one of the nicer bars (Ikh Mongol or MB), the Duty-Free Store, and a restaurant serving cuisine of a persuasion unavailable in Erdenet. (There are many; our line-up features one American bakery, one Italian pizzeria, one Korean restaurant, and two Russian, along with three other restaurants that serve Western food. There are exactly four locations in town that serve non-instant coffee, all of them on the previous list, and for those, we are the envy of Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the country).

When I have time, I also try to visit the miraculous Mercury Market, home to all manner of generally inaccessible foodstuffs. You can’t buy rosemary, cumin, or maple syrup in Erdenet, but they have them at Mercury.

I try hard to remind myself of these advantages anytime life necessitates a trip here. But even so, the truth of the matter is that I avoid the capital city whenever possible.

Erdenet is quiet and welcoming. People say hello to me on the street, and the owners of the delguurs I frequent ask me how I am and how my work is going. Foreigners are seen as rare subjects of interest, rather than rich, exploitative carpetbaggers. And while it’s certainly overstating matters to say that all Ulaanbaatarians resent and hate foreign people, the Nationalist movement is certainly good at getting its message heard. I have gone out with a group of around ten Americans in Erdenet a number of times and never been disturbed; the one time I found myself at a club with a large number of Americans in UB (albeit a much larger one, this group closer to 50), a fight broke out between the Mongolians and the foreigners.

Moreover, I feel safe in Erdenet. A flat 1000 tugriks will get you a taxi ride to anywhere within the city limits, and I have never felt threatened when walking the streets at night. In UB, I have had taxi drivers try to charge me 20,000 tugriks for a ride worth maybe 2000, and it’s a complete crapshoot as to whether walking or taking a taxi alone after dark is more dangerous. I have witnessed exactly one instance of theft in Erdenet, whereas at least three people have attempted to pickpocket me in UB, including one who succeeded. I didn’t lose anything of particular value on that occasion, but several friends have had their phones stolen during trips to UB, including expensive smartphones.

At least the city’s least favorable aspect has mostly abated with the return of warmer weather. I’ve read estimates that as much as 80% of the city’s population lives in its many ger districts, since a pattern of emigration has brought far more people to this city than its limited housing and infrastructure can support. Most of these people burn coal during the winter, as well as rubber tires, trash, and anything else they can find. The city’s heat and electricity are also provided by coal plants. Unsurprisingly, Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst air quality in the world during the winter months, so much so that multiple current and former residents of the city have had doctors interpret the lung damage as the result of lifelong smoking. I roamed the city without wearing a face mask for one day in late December and spent most of that night awake coughing, as my lungs tried to rid themselves of all the pollutants they had acquired over the course of a few hours out of doors; my friend Adam, after a similar level of exposure in November, awoke to find his tongue had turned black.

That’s how bad the air in this city is. Image Credit: UB Air Quality Info Facebook Group

Thankfully, the ger-dwellers only need to light fires for cooking purposes now, so the amount of particulate matter in the air has dropped precipitously. I can breathe easily during my time here – at least literally, if not figuratively.

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Thanksgiving in UB

Well, this weekend has certainly been… eventful, in both good ways and bad. Good things first: Thanksgiving was wonderful. Lots of people, tons of food, and a good deal of fun. You can’t really get your hands on turkey here, but we had chicken – and lots of it. We also had mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie – all the essentials. The Fulbrighters had all been invited, so I got to hang out with most of them; in a couple of cases, this was the first time I had seen them since I moved to UB at the end of August. It was loud and noisy enough that there was only so much catching up we could do, but it was still nice to be able to hug and say hello.

This weekend also gave me a chance to meet Peace Corps Volunteers stationed all over the country. I doubt I’ll see most of them again, or even get a chance to talk to them – I didn’t get their phone numbers, and most soumers don’t have particularly regular internet access. But new faces and friendly conversations were great, whether they took place at the dinner table, in the comfortable chairs at the Thanksgiving, or over a beer (or two, or three).

After Thanksgiving dinner, we went salsa dancing – not just me and my gallant host,  but almost all of the PCVs, and a few of the Fulbrighters as well. I didn’t get to do much actual salsa dancing; there were few people who really knew what they were doing, and they all had other people to dance with. I’m terribly out of practice in any case, so I  wasn’t following particularly well. But the dancing was very fun anyway.

My other dancing experience didn’t go nearly so well. Most of the PCVs, plus a number of other expats, went to Aer Club on Friday evening, resulting in a very packed dance floor and the first grinding I’ve seen since I left the states. Putting so many expats together in a city like UB is like piling dryer lint on top of birchbark; when sparks started flying between Mongolian men and American women, the whole place was ablaze in moments. Someone threw a punch, someone else threw one back, people waded in to pull them apart and got hit themselves – it got ugly very fast. The fighting had broken apart and restarted twice by the time the police arrived.

All the Americans who hadn’t already fled were busy looking for their things and their friends so that they could do so, but I was unable to join them. My host had jumped right into the thick of it and was throwing both punches and words, so I was stuck waiting. In the end, the police grabbed three foreigners (two Americans and my host’s British friend) and three Mongolians to haul them off to the police station. And since none of the foreigners really spoke Mongolian and my Mongolian host speaks fluent English, he accompanied them to translate. So I accompanied them as well, since I couldn’t exactly go home without them.

This was my second Mongolian police station in less than a week, and it was not an enjoyable experience. At 1 am, all we really wanted to do was go home, but instead we were stuck waiting while both sides wrote out depositions and filed complaints.

I also missed my train back to Erdenet on Sunday night, having given myself about five too few minutes to walk to the station; I arrived just in time to watch the train pull away from the platform.  At some point during our mad rush to the station, we also made an unpleasant discovery. I had carried my stuff around the city all afternoon without major incident – which is to say that while two people had made an attempt at opening my backpack, neither was successful. I had been careful to put both zippers all the way at the bottom, where they’d be difficult to get to; the zipper to the computer compartment was more accessible, but with such a full backpack, I knew from experience that it would be difficult to extract my laptop. Those first two attempts on my backpack were obvious, and I whirled around and smacked the offending passersby.

It’s harder to guard your belongings at night, though; when the temperature drops well below zero, the extra layers you throw on muffle your hearing and obstruct your peripheral vision. I was in a hurry, and walking with a friend, and both of those things distracted me enough for someone to get my backpack open. Only the things at the very top were lost; I wasn’t too upset about losing  a packet of star anise or my fleece gloves, since they weren’t nearly warm enough anyway. But my bag full of chargers and  cords is now also gone as well: my camera battery charger, camera/computer cable, Kindle/computer cord, phone charger, my iPod cord, the handy iPod charger I wrote about here, and the European outlet adapter that goes with it. It was a terribly inconvenient loss, but all in all, I’d say I was lucky; all these things are replaceable and reasonably inexpensive. Between my US phone charger and my external hard drives, I still had the cords I need to connect to everything but my iPod. A new phone charger and iPod cord/charger ran me about $14 today, though sadly the charger is only compatible with European outlets. A new charger is only $12, but the world adapter kit is closer to 40, and I still have most of the inserts. I’m not sure if it’s possible to buy only the European one. Still need the camera battery charger, though.

Having my stuff stolen wasn’t much fun, but all in all, it was still a good trip to UB. I went to see a movie with a new friend during my extra night (Hotel Transylvania, not the new James Bond) and spent some more time getting to know PCVs. Not quite what I expected out of this trip, but still plenty of fun.

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Zaisan (or зайсан, if you prefer)

August 15, 2012

We’ve started our Mongolian language lessons, and let me tell you, it’s overwhelming. The Cyrillic alphabet has a lot of the same letters as the Latin alphabet, but they don’t all make the same sounds. My name, for instance, is spelled Кэтлин, “taxi” is такси, and “restaurant” is рэcторант (that’s a transliteration; an actual translation would lack the final ‘t’). I need to drill the numbers tonight, too, because we learned 1-20, the tens, 100, 1000, and 1,000,000, and we’re expected to know them. I can consistently remember 1, 2, 5, 8, 9, and 10. Oh boy. So tonight will be fun, but not the kind that makes for interesting blogging.

It occurs to me that I have not yet described my (somewhat disastrous) exploration of Zaisan. Nothing spectacularly exciting has happened in the last few days, so I might as well chronicle that adventure.

Our dorm is in the Zaisan area, which is named after a Soviet monument on a hill; it’s about a ten-minute walk from my dorm. I wandered over there one morning figuring it would be maybe a forty minute undertaking. Walk over, walk up, take some pictures, walk down. Simple, right?

I got a few pictures, but not nearly as many as I had hoped, as my camera informed me almost immediately that it was running out of battery. Whoops. I can’t even post them at the moment, as I completely forget to bring my camera cord with me, so I’ll upload them next time I’ve got internet access.

Anyway, I made it to the top without incident. It was pretty cool, and very definitely Soviet. And then, rather than go back down the stairs like a normal person, I decided to take the trail that led down the back way.

My descent went just fine. The trail was a little slick, but I’ve done much worse in Ireland. I was confident I’d make it back within my allotted forty-five minutes. Then, as I examined the roads to figure out how to get back to the dorm, I realized that the bottom of the mountain was essentially walled in. Moreover, almost everything at the base was under construction. I’m fine with hopping the occasional fence or wall, but not if it means wandering through a construction site.

So I followed the trail around to the left, thinking that I would eventually find a way out. Surely the entire base couldn’t be fenced in, right?

And then the trail ended.

This didn’t seem so bad at first. The growth wasn’t that thick, so I didn’t think it would be that hard to walk through. And there was a shrine, of sorts, not too far away. I had walked by one already, a large pile of shale, the good-luck blue scarves that all the taxi drivers have above their mirrors, and Tibetan prayer flags wrapped around sticks. I still don’t know what their significance is, but clearly, they’re established features and not just piles of trash. It would take a few trips to make one, so one would think there’d be a trail nearby.

En route, I made a fun discovery.

This is a stinging nettle. They grow in Mongolia. In fact, they grow all over Zaisan. I tried to avoid them after brushing up against a few, but this was not an easy task. Better yet, those almost-invisible spines are hardy enough to sting you right through your clothing, leaving raised white welts surrounded by red, enflamed flesh. That not-very-thick growth suddenly became a lot more intimidating.

But I’d come this far already, and surely there’d be a path at the shrine. So I ploughed onward, avoiding the nettles when I could, stepping on them when I couldn’t (at least it kept the flowers, the most painful part, away), and trying to protect myself with my coat when I could.

And then I found myself on a scree.

I hate screes; they are, without a doubt, my least favorite terrain to traverse. At their best, they’re frightening: your feet slide out from under you every few steps, and you worry about falling down the mountain altogether. On top of these typical worries, this one was littered with broken glass and dotted with more nettle-like plants. And it was wet. Great.

I picked my way gingerly across the slope. I managed to avoid falling, though fighting my way through more nettles was inevitable. Eventually, I made it to the shrine – only to find that there was no path.

What now? I was less than halfway around the mountain, and the nettles got thicker ahead of me. I couldn’t fight through them all the way to the steps, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back the way I had come. I wasn’t far from the base, but I was still walled in, and the lot that wasn’t under construction contained a clearly-occupied ger. I wasn’t about to hop into someone’s back yard when the smoke was rising from the chimney hole – most nomads have guard dogs.

But I could see the monument at the top from where I stood, and while it was further away than the base, it wasn’t that far. I’d have to scramble, and maybe even climb, but it was more rocky than nettle-y, and of the two options, I’d take the rocks. So I started upwards, mentally preparing myself for a slippery climb.

Thankfully, I came upon a trail before the mountainside really got steep. There was still broken glass and nettle flowers to dodge, but a trail! Hallelujah. It brought me back to that deceptively simple one I’d first followed down the mountainside, and this time, I did the sane thing: I climbed back up, looked around, and took the steps back down.

The whole venture took close to two hours, but I made it off that dratted mountain without sustaining serious injury.

And the welts were gone by the time I made it back to the dorm.

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Now that we’ve got the food poisoning out of the way…

August 12, 2012

The others had breakfast at an Internet café this morning, so they could talk to their parents and their friends, but my digestive system decided to throw a hissy fit, so this post will have to be delayed. The first good weather since we arrived, and I’m spending the day in bed. At least my room has its own bathroom, so I don’t have far to go.

I whined when mom made me take my Align during the days leading up to this trip, but I have to concede it was a good idea. I’ve never had problems in Europe, but it appears that Asia is another matter. “Where the **** are you?” my stomach wants to know, “and what the **** have you been eating?”

The same things as everyone else, actually, so I don’t know why I’m sick and they’re not. But whatever it is, it’s miserable, and I’ve spent a good part of the day profoundly wishing IVs were a do-it-yourself kind of thing so I could get enough fluids in my system to make the headache and the dizziness go away. Drinking my water is, unfortunately, rather counterproductive.

I’m very glad to have other Fulbrighters here with me. Lisa agreed to buy me some applesauce, in hopes that I’ll be able to keep it down by tonight, and Lucas offered me some of his antibiotics. And I’ve had a fun time with all of them so far, even before I got sick. Seven of us is too few for the group to really get cliquey, and mealtime adventures and the like have all been open invitations.

UB is an interesting and varied city, from what I’ve seen so far. Its center is pretty well-developed, with an impressive parliamentary building, a number of tall office buildings, and reasonably good streets. The edges, however have a distinctly third-world appearance to them. Everything is either ramshackle, with rusted edges and peeling paint, or under construction – there’s construction everywhere. A five-minute walk takes you past stray dogs, people burning old clothes, and even the occasional ger.

Walking itself is an adventure, as sidewalks are all but nonexistent, and the traffic is terrifying. People weave in and out of lanes indiscriminately, blaring their horns at anyone they judge to be moving too slowly. Turn signal usage appears optional, but then again, it seems nothing has been standardized in this city: the grocery store labels are a mix of Mongolian, Russian, Chinese, German, and even French; it’s anyone’s guess which side the steering wheel of any given car will be on; the appliances in my room include a Korean TV, a Chinese refrigerator, and a British tea kettle (each with its respective kind of plug, of course). Thank heavens for universal power strips.

And the roads – imagine the potholes that turn up in Chicago if they were subjected to a winter half again as long and twice as cold. And never repaired. When it rains, as it has for the past two days, these enormous and irregular holes fill with water, so that you have no idea how deep they are. It’s all but impossible to avoid them on busy streets, and drivers are not exactly careful about splashing nearby pedestrians. Lucas got hit with a particularly impressive spray that cleared the top of his head. His clothes, face, neck, and even his hair were all thoroughly spattered, to the great amusement of the passing locals.

The two of us continued on in search of dinner anyway, the others having decided to stay in and snack in their rooms. We eventually made our way to a place on the left side of the street, whose name we managed, even with our limited knowledge of Cyrillic, to decipher as “Mongol Restoran.”

There were only a few patrons inside, and our waitress spoke enough English to tell us that the items on the first page were soups, but that was about it. With no idea what anything was, we each pointed to a random number, and as the waitress left, we toasted each other with glasses of lukewarm Mongolian beer.

I have no idea which of the random selections I received, which is a shame, because mine was delicious. Beef, potatoes, and carrots are all fairly major ingredients here, which suits me just fine. Portions are generous, too – a mixed blessing, since you can’t take leftovers home. The only thing I haven’t liked so far is the milk tea. It’s vaguely salty, with melted fat that congeals on the top if you let it sit long enough, and it smells like melted butter. I hate butter. I’m not sure what I’ll do about this, as it’s rude not to finish your tea if it’s offered, and even more so to refuse it. I’ll need to learn how to explain in Mongolian that milk tea makes me feel ill, I guess, as that’s probably the only acceptable reason not to drink it. Today’s misery was not a result of the tea, though. I liked the Mongolian Chinese food we had last night, but I guess it did not like me.

I’m feeling much better than I was this morning, though, which I take to be a good sign. Hopefully I’ll be out and about tomorrow, and back on solid food. Cautiously

(Update: I’m posting from a café on the other side of town and just finished eating an omelet, so all is well once more. I was pretty miserable for about eight hours or so yesterday, but it could have been a lot worse. And I’ll be brushing my teeth with filtered water from now on, just in case.)