Getting Our Bearings
“Our families have been here as long as anyone can remember. We live well. Life involves a lot of work, but life is good.”
Myagmarsuren in Women of Mongolia by Martha Avery
While in Ulaanbaatar, we stayed for weeks at a time in the Corporate Hotel (the gray one in the center of the photo above), a short walk from my husband’s office. It is small, no-frills, and comfortable. From our window we saw the magical Bogd Khan Mountains. When Stewart was at work, I explored the city a bit but spent most of my time in the Chairman Restaurant on the 2nd floor of the hotel, reading and writing. It became my new nest.
Journal Entry- November 4, 2011: “Here I am, seated at my favorite corner table in this little restaurant in the northern part of Outer Mongolia, trying to get used to broccoli and beets for breakfast, while listening to old-timey western songs like “Oh, Donna”, “Unchained Melody” and “There’s A Summer Place” on the CD player in the alcove. A bit of a disconnect! The space is quite simple- very low ceilings, not much light- but they have made it look as attractive and welcoming as possible, with pastel tablecloths, napkins folded into geometric shapes and tucked into glasses, and vases of carnations. Several times a day a young Mongolian man plays western-style music –beautifully- on a mini-grand piano.
The first meal bill I got here was a shock. It came to 20, 900 togrogs (or ‘tugriks’). Not knowing the exchange rate, I was thinking I might have to stick to beets while here. I later discovered it amounted to $16.17. Computing here is going to stretch my brain. (See post “Nuanced Numbers”, July 11, 2012)
I am always amazed to see, wherever I am, be it a rooftop deck in Dubai, a patio in Istanbul, or a windowsill in remote Ulaanbaatar, the same scruffy, brown sparrows that I see back in Baltimore. These dear wee winged creatures, carrying on their daily business all over the world. Comforting. I was feeling rather low, but they truly cheered me up. “
The staff of the Chairman Restaurant became my acquaintances. Their friendly manners and fresh, healthy good looks were lovely, and they made me feel right at home, gracious and attentive, while also respecting my solitary routine. Four young women were a special part of my day: Tsutsaa and Orkhon were the servers, and Badam was the chef. They knew very little English and were curious about me, since I sat there all day long! We communicated through pantomime, sketches and a few key words. The manager, Daria, on the other hand, spoke English fluently, as she and her husband had lived in the USA for a while and, in fact, her young daughter is still there with the grandparents. Daria is typical of well-to-do young Mongolians who have traveled to America to further their formal education, and have recently returned to Ulaanbaatar to take part in the burgeoning development taking place. Women have played a vital role not only in the history of Mongolia but also in recent political and economic enterprises. More on that topic in future posts.
Some basic facts. Outer Mongolia is about the size of western Europe, bordered by Russia and China, with three geographic zones: the Gobi desert in the south, the steppes in the middle , and dense forestland and mountains in the north and west.
The population in 2011 was 2.8 million , 45% of whom live in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia differs from the rest of Asia in that it is a nomadic culture, which means individuals there are accustomed to their personal freedom. Surrounding the capital city are “gertowns” –or shantytowns. These felt gers are scattered all over the hillsides around the city, emitting smoke out of their makeshift tin chimneys from fires ignited by whatever fuel they can find. This is the source of much air pollution. One of the country’s biggest challenges as it modernizes will be how to manage the transition from gers to permanent residences.
The average life expectancy is 68, which makes Stewart and me among the elderly here. A humbling thought!
As these photographs express, there is a surprise around every corner in Ulaanbaatar. Every walk I took was an adventure and an education. Just when I was thinking the people looked down-and-out, I would see a beautifully dressed young woman or giggling, carefree children. Just when I was thinking it seemed quite modern and progressive, I would see a sign that seemed primitive. Just when I was thinking it seemed to be distanced from international human rights issues, I would see a politically activist sign. It is a city that defies stereotypes. The conflicting sentiments in the quotations at the beginning and the end of this post describe a country in the midst of a dramatic transformation. –Next Post: Excursion into the Countryside
“I don’t know anything about politics or laws, but our life is difficult. It was better before than it is now, but I think the future will be better. I believe in ‘better’…”– Dash, in Women of Mongolia, by Martha Avery