Uncovered Passion

by Ant Stone on July 13, 2007

in Mongolia

There are certain places in the world that make you stand up and consider whether you’ve taken a wrong turning off the trail. Ulaanbaatar granted that feeling the moment I stepped off the Trans-Siberian, stretched my aching limbs and filled my lungs with the obligatory pollution. I sidestepped potholes, drunks and stray dogs as I made my way to Idre’s Guesthouse, my dwelling of choice. Following the formalities I fell into a peaceful sleep, knowing that upon awakening I would be force fed the frenzied hotpot of urban Mongolia.

I had agreed to meet Tony and Eve, my Austrian roommates aboard the Trans-Mongolian, in an Austrian coffee house that evening, so loaded with a fresh map, and sporting my bright blue shoes I walked tentatively out onto the streets. In the hours that had passed while I slept the locals had got even drunker and their vocal offerings of “uhh uhhh uhhhh” in various tones quickened my eager steps. My opinion of this city was rapidly crumbling, with little sign of submission.

Like many major cities the streets are lined with public telephones, but in Mongolia this takes a whole new slant; abandon hopes of a cozy booth, and replace with a middle aged lady sporting a gas mask and holding a satellite telephone, I kid you not. Next to her maybe stands another lady, sitting patiently by a set of weighing scales awaiting a local to realise their sins, quite why I’m still to ascertain. What greenery there is along the dusty streets, is doubled as a cloak for a fallen drunk. Manhole covers are almost non-existent, they are a portal to the forgotten street children of this city. There are projects underway, but naturally they’re under-resourced and the problem seems embedded into the cities culture as much as vodka, meat and chaos.

Three hours after the 7pm meeting time with Tony, I conceded that I couldn’t find Sacher’s and even if I had, they would have long departed. Eventually I found a chain that accepted Visa and proceeded to stuff my face with a grossly over-sized pizza, which once again, failing dismally to finish. As I rounded insistent beggars, chaotic traffic and arrogant yoof, “a week in Ulaanbaatar? God, help me” I muttered.

My saving grace was the very reason for my coming, the Naadam Festival was coming to town and the vibrancy it was bringing slowly lifted my spirits and as the cities dirt covered my body, a strange sensation stirring in my stomach. The public phones appeared charming, the weighing scales seemed delightfully kitsch, the drunks grew souls and the State Department Store became an object of fascination. The missing manhole covers however remained a gateway to reality, a constant reminder of the horror that hid in its shadows.

Come Naadam, I had agreed to join the hostels tour, at $42 it was more expensive than I would of hoped but it did at least ensure I would see the entire array of events; the opening ceremony, wrestling, ankle bone shooting, archery and horse racing. The ceremony, wrestling and archery were in and around the stadium and it unfolded in unsurprisingly comical fashion, you can see the photos here and each one will spare me a thousand words. Traditional nomads sporting mobile phones, or scantily clad wrestlers sipping from a Coca-Cola cup were eventually accepted and I hardly stopped smiling due to the fact that I was sitting in Mongolia, actually watching the coveted Naadam Festival.

While striving to view the ankle bone shooting, I stepped back to see an all familiar face, Tony had crossed my path once again, “we meet tonight?” he suggested after my explanation of the first nights failures. Glady, I accepted. The afternoon took me and my tour 36km out to the top of a scenic hill, adorned with gers (traditional felt tents) and horses while the vibrant event ensued. The race consisted of small boys, around 8 years old, upon stocky Mongolian horses racing 20 or 30km at a time. If Beijing 2008 can muster just half of the tension and character of this event, then the world will tip their hat in recognition.

We left the races and hit the dusty road, honking horns and swerving potholes as we bounced, full of glee aboard our creaking bus. Half an hour later we were the target for an orchestra of horn blowing, our driver had successfully struck another car. I say “successfully” as I’d figured he’d been trying all day. With beads of sweat forming on my brow, I arched my neck to see the victim, an argument ensued and we eventually alighted to fill various taxis, before steaming off in similar fashion to return to the Guesthouse. Upon arrival our senses were treated to a feast of Mongolian ambrosia, including airag (fermented horse milk) and a multitude of airag products. It tasted simply awful, like sour milk, but I slowly chomped away to avoid offence.

I met Tony that evening, and together we enjoyed a spectacular display of fireworks, reminiscing about our mishaps along the way. I smiled once again at the situation I found myself in; with a 40 year old Austrian, in a square adorned with Chinggis Kahn and watching fireworks to the sound of “oooh” and “arrrr” from the thousands of Mongolian fans. We made plans to return the next day to the horse racing, and did so with some success. I’ll spare you the detail of being kicked off a bus, and dragged off by a menacing Mongolian.

Today, the aim was purely to get my Chinese visa. But. The Chinese lady answered the intercom “hu he huuuu hu hu haaaaw Monday hu he haww hu he” she crackled. The worst case scenario had emerged, due to Naadam it was a national holiday. Still, I pushed the button and crackled “Hey HuHeHaw, can you just let me in? I really need to get this visa as my train leaves on Sunday? Can you let me in to speak to Ching Chang Chinaman?” I waited, tapping my blue shoes with increasing impatience. Crackle, crackle “hu he haw, Monday, haw he hu, sorry” she replied “look, can you at least fix me a Kung Po chicken with egg fried rice” I inquired. No response.

So as I write this overtly long post, I am contemplating how I fill another week in Ulaanbaatar, before I board the next train to Beijing a week on Saturday. The lack of manhole covers are in my mind, and I’m craving to understand how this is allowed to happen. I’d like to learn about their plight, and carry this through my journey to raise awareness. On the flip side of this, I’d also like to ride a horse and fly an eagle, so you can see my stranded week is far from a disaster, it’s simply a case of adapting to my situation, and smiling about it.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Becki July 19, 2007 at 1:12 pm

Where were the robots?! You said they were replacing the children with robots. I’m disappointed I tell thee, disappointed.

Ant July 20, 2007 at 7:29 am

“Exterminate, exterminate”, rest assured Becks, the Robots will rise again it’s just that Mongolian kids are so damn cute I could never replace the twinkle in their eye with a mere LED light now, could I?

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