It was a typical beginning. “Welcome to Mongolia,” announced the driver of the battered old car – a taxi, but only in spirit, really – as we drove alongside a series of snowy hills away from Chinggis Khaan International Airport and towards the city of Ulaanbaatar. When we pulled up to the apartment block, I realized that I was being fleeced: the taxi meter read 36,000 Tukrigs, about double the standard fare. I insisted on settling the matter with the guest house proprietor. The driver was reluctant to do this, but it ended up not mattering because there was no response when I rang the doorbell. Thus began a protracted standoff between the driver and me in the concrete stairwell; every so often the motion activated light would turn off and a pitch black darkness would fall on our stubborn silence.
This was my first visit to Mongolia. It was February, one of the coldest months of the year in a country that neighbors Siberia. Understandably, this was the absolute low season for tourism. I immediately noticed the Russian feel of the buildings and also the fur hats that people were wearing. There also seemed to be a great deal of people out walking in the minus twenty-something degree Celsius weather. The Mongolians seemed quite comfortable under these conditions.
After reaching a compromise with the renegade taxi driver (I bargained so as to be ripped off less). I shouldered my bag and went looking for another place to stay. It was getting dark, and with the fading of the daylight, the temperature was falling. After passing through an archway to the inside courtyard of a tenement block, I noticed an open manhole and made a mental note to always pay close attention to the ground in Ulaanbaatar. A kid sitting on a stoop silently pointed to a building when I recited a guest house name to him.
This time, when I rang the bell a short woman opened the door. She seemed surprised by my sudden appearance. Because she was so short she had a childlike air, and I noticed that her pink shirt was wearing out – there was a smattering of small holes between her breasts. My room was clean and cozy; I was the only guest.
For dinner I decided to go straight for the jugular and try the Mongolian fare. I noticed some chain restaurants which sported the label “Traditional Mongolian Fast Food” on their awnings, and stepped into one of these – Khan Buuz. Buuz, I soon learned, is a sort of dumpling filled with fatty mutton. As soon as I speared one of these, grease gushed out onto the plate. This effect accounted for many of the tables having grease stains on them which looked like drops of white candle wax. The succulent, tender mutton and the buuz fat was quite savory, and I immediately took to the salty milk tea. My constitution was inferior when I arrived in Mongolia, and I was afflicted by the cold, but after a couple days of eating mutton fat my blood began to thicken and congeal, and my resistance was boosted.
On my first morning in Ulaanbaatar I thought it would be worthwhile to investigate the museums, seeing as I knew very little about the country. Ulaanbaatar’s stately, elegant architecture blighted with decay reminded me of Mexico City. As I walked alongside Sukhbaatar Square, a sort of miniature Tiananmen Square, I heard a heard a slow grinding crunch. Looking over, I saw what had been a very low speed accident, probably caused by a devious patch of ice. The drivers were slow to step out of their vehicles; they seemed reluctantly perturbed. The driver who was in the right was making a half-hearted effort to work himself up. I spectated for a while, then walked on.
The National History Museum is in an old ponderous three story building. I was a solitary walker in its high drafty corridors, except for a worker scrubbing the floor, a worker shining a glass display case, and a pair of workers gossiping and chatting loudly from the third floor balcony. At one turn of the bend I walked straight down a corridor into some obscure storage space; a man hastily emerged from an office and directed me back to the museum proper. At another point, as I was walking towards the stuffed snow leopards display there was a momentary power outage and I was left standing in the dark. I found this unsettling. An eclectic inventory of this museum would certainly include the following items: meteors, what looked to be tubes of Soviet aerospace lube, “combustible raw materials”, stuffed birds (some of the smaller ones looking ruffled), a giant butterfly-shaped sauropod pelvis, a photograph of two Przewalski horses in the act, a painting of a wrathful Tibetan deity riding a shaggy camel, and an epic painting of cavemen depicted as a horde of wide-eyed demons fighting a saber-toothed tiger.
The next day, as I stepped outside, I noticed that the temperature had dipped. I bought a plastic bottle of orange juice at the beginning of my walk; before I had reached the Gandan Khid monastery the juice had iced up. Shortly, I heard another crunching sound, and had only to turn my head to see the scene of “car vs. center guard rail.”
My perambulations around the monastery were somewhat strained, and were less than thorough. Strangely, my inner thighs were burning from the cold, with little protection from my jeans. While reading a placard at the entranceway to one building the curtain was suddenly pulled back and a stream of boy-monks came spilling out; each one touched his head to the wall where I was trying to read the placard. Through this monastery, I began to appreciate the considerable influence of Tibetan Buddhism on Mongolia. It is not unusual to see framed pictures of the Dalai Lama in people’s homes.
As I was leaving the Gandan Khid compound a man hawking amateurish landscape paintings approached me. My eyes nearly jolted out of my skull when I saw that he was barehanded, and I became fixated on his thumb as it flipped methodically through the pictures. It seemed a sort of miracle that this thumb hadn’t frozen and snapped off.
As I retreated to my guest house apartment I noticed other pedestrians who were going bear-handed. Some tough youths were smoking cigarettes stoically without gloves or mittens, whereas my hands were curled into tight fists inside my gloves. Many were walking with a brisk, shuffling gait, but seemed cheerful. I began to reflect on the attitude of the Mongolians and realized that the extreme cold forces one to be stalwart. There is a simple choice between facing and standing up to the conditions or giving up. Giving up means freezing to death, so the choice has an earthy logic behind it, and once this choice has been firmly made there’s no room for complaining or feeling miserable. Being surrounded by these incredibly hardy people in such good cheer bolstered my endurance.
The next day I took a taxi (actually just another regular car that had stopped for me) to Ulaanbaatar’s main market, Naaran Tuul. I had realized that it was imperative to buy a pair of long underwear and another sweater, and I was just about to leave with my new purchase when I was grabbed by the lapels by a sizable man with a red splotch – a birthmark, perhaps – covering most of his face. He was sporting a sinister leer. As far as I could gather he simply wanted to sell me some cheap dress shirts. To extract myself from the situation, I shook his hand forcefully and made off into the market.
While continuing my touring of the city’s historical sites I was rambling about outside the walls of the Chojin-lama museum, a former monastery, when I noticed yet another open manhole. I noticed something stirring down below and saw that it was a man wrapped up in a blanket. He was lying atop a huge pipe. On a later occasion I actually saw some of these manhole dwellers emerge out onto the street.
A veteran resident of Ulaanbaatar later gave me an excellent explanation of this atypical sociological phenomenon. “The foreigners who are not familiar with Mongolia,” he said, “think that they live in the sewers but they are not sewers. The heating system for the city is a network of underground hot water pipes that circulate hot water from the central generating plants to all of the buildings in Ulaanbaatar. It is the goofiest, most inefficient, system I’ve ever seen. The Mongols got it from the Russkies. Anyway the troglodite folk go into these tunnels, rip the insulation off the hot water pipes and, in that manner, don’t freeze their asses off.”
I learned from the short woman who operated the guest house that, with the start of the Lunar New Year, the three day holiday of Tsaagan Sar (literally, “White Month”) was approaching. When I asked her about this holiday she described it like a small child would: “This time, Mongolia people very very very very [short pause as she takes a quick breath] VERY VERY happy.”
After a couple of days of living together in the guest house apartment, my relationship to this short, cheerful woman began to feel strangely domestic. For the sake of variety, and because I was beginning to crave a fuller range of human contact, I checked into a different guest house across the street. The facilities were a bit slovenly, but there were two singular Ukrainians living there, a Japanese traveler, and a fellow Canadian. There was also a man of silence, who appeared to be braindead. He had sores on his face and a Nietzschean mustache, and he walked with a perpetual slouch. I eventually discovered that he was an Italian. Curiously, in this guest house there were two pet turtles hibernating in the kitchen. I was also fascinated that the owner’s wife was wore a Joseph Stalin tee-shirt.
As the Tsaagan Sar festivities began, the city began to shut down. Restaurants and shops began closing, and as people packed into the supermarkets to stock up, entire shelves of vodka were cleared out. I had heard that great quantities of buuz, the mutton dumpling, were to be consumed. More and more urban Mongols were to be seen in their traditional garb of dels – long, fur-lined gowns, often with dragon designs. During these few days I was indebted to Café Bernard, which stayed open, as well as the fine Cuban restaurant el Latino and a few others. I gained a glowing respect for Mongolian beer, especially the dark beer Khar Khoroum.
Without knowing it at the time, I observed the Tsaagan Sar ritual of visiting ovoos, shamanistic cairns, which are at the tops of the hills surrounding the city. First though, I climbed the stairs to the top of the Zaisan memorial. At the top of this memorial dedicated to fallen Russian soldiers was a group of Korean fundamentalist Christians holding a loud, emotional prayer session. Although there was no speaking in tongues, still, this spectacle seemed incongruous at the least and, at most, profoundly insensitive to this overwhelmingly Buddhist country and this militaristic Russian shrine.
A higher peak off in the distance appeared to be devoid of people. I decided to hike it. As my view of the land widened I could see, at the city outskirts, and in the beginnings of the countryside, scatterings of the circular traditional tent-houses called gers. Now and then I could hear dogs barking far off, and the ringing vibration of the giant bell next to the Buddha statue. I passed a number of ovoo rock piles before reaching a forest; in the cold silence, prayer flags draped from tree limbs fluttered faintly.
As a traveler, I felt an intuitive respect for the Mongolian people. For thousands of years, after all, they have lived as a nomadic society, and it was perhaps the unlimited flexibility and free spiritedness of their nomadism that made it possible for the Mongol empire, at its peak, to extend from what is now Poland to the southern tip of South Korea. The Mongolian traditional music that I heard seemed to express this boundless, ever-expanding sense of freedom that also expresses a love for the land and for animal life. Mongolia has one of the lowest population densities of any country, and it has yet to be infiltrated by such champions of globalization as Starbucks and McDonalds. And as for the Mongolian winter, when the wind is blowing it can be harsh, but the sun is usually shining.