Thursday 3 June 2005
We left from the Chicago O’Hare airport on Korean Air an hour late. Something on the plane really upset my stomach, so I did not get a lot of sleep on the first thirteen hour flight into Seoul, Korea. The flight attendants were amazingly attentive and proper; I could only wish American flight attendants were as friendly. The brief amount of time we were in Korea was nice; Incheon Airport is very nice indeed. I did feel much better on the second flight from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar, and Sanchir was a great source of information about life in Ulaanbaatar. He only has one brother, but in honesty his many cousins he also considers his brothers. So before even entering Mongolia I met two Mongolians, both extremely friendly and able to speak English quite decently. Seeing Ulaanbaatar from the air at night was great, I was able to form a rough idea of the city’s size, containing about 700,000 people. Very windy, but a sweet smell and warm, dust everywhere. Our van ride into the city was quite interesting, but strangely it does not feel too strange here.
Friday 3 June 2005
We walked around the city, Ulaanbaatar, today. We quickly learned the taxis are the best mode of transportation, costing only 100 to 200 tugrik – the equivalent of about ten or twenty cents. Walking is plausible, however the sidewalks are cracked and cars would rather run pedestrians over than let them cross the street. The people helping us while we are here are very lovely people; I hope I do not seem ungrateful for all they are doing for us. Bayaraa met with us as well as Ariunaa, who then took us to lunch at a Chinese restaurant. I am surprised by how much food Mongolians are able to eat, and they still are thin! It may have something to do with the thin air as Ulaanbaatar is 1500m above sea level. We had a thorough history lesson at the National History Museum. On our walk back we did run into some hostility as a native started yelling at Briana, then threw a rock at us. We aren’t quite sure why he was so angry, but we became much more cautious afterwards. We also met our student counterparts for dinner, mostly guys to our surprise. Very nice, one guy in particular kept putting food on my plate and spoke some English. I got a fast lesson in Mongol, that’s for sure! The Mongol students were very excited to receive gifts from us. I was able to give the four students I actually had an opportunity to speak with gifts, and they were all grateful putting the handkerchiefs around their necks. Wonderful experience with Mongol company enjoying Mongolian food at Modern Nomads.
Sunday 5 June 2005
A day off from all our business, we started off bright and early. The State Department store was closed when we arrived. Most of Ulaanbaatar doesn’t rise until after nine, although the sun setting at ten or later in the evening makes rising so late understandable. I am still dumbfounded by the surges of people that sit in the many many parks after nightfall, with no lights, no fire, just talking. While this is such a communal activity, I find it very odd that it is done in complete darkness. It does not completely escape reality though, light is somewhat rare even in the city. Stairwells are very poorly lit and streetlights do not really exist. We find the rancid odor of rotten food and urine quite overbearing in the very dark stairwells as well, making our constant eight flight hike taxing both for our bodies and our noses. Many of the buildings also reek of urine; I have witnessed many men walking up to a wall to relieve themselves. The elderly are often seen rummaging garbage, a horrid sight and smell with rotten food strewn across dirt and broken sidewalks. I still have not determined why this lady in one park was sweeping the dirt ground. This is a very stark contrast to the actual people. Mongols are not inherent builders coming from a Nomadic tradition so many of the buildings have not been maintained since Mongolia was still under Russian control in the late 1980s. Regardless of the overall dilapidated state of everything, every morning we see people out sweeping without much result unfortunately. They dress extremely well, something we haven’t figured out how they can afford these styles. The women walk around in high stiletto shoes and boots on broken sidewalks in nice business suits or highly fashionable outfits. We went to several stores today and found some prices to be much lower than the U.S. would have, but fairly expensive for us to not be able to buy much. It is very unfortunate as so many of the clothes here fit me, and I do like them a lot. If I could, I would definitely buy an entire wardrobe. As it is, I only purchased one very fun outfit. Our mad shopping fiasco took us all the way to the square, so we taxied back, ate at Brauhaus, then went to a few more shops. At the Internet cafe we bumped into two Englishmen from London who had been traveling most of Asia. They just arrived from India and commented that Ulaanbaatar was much cleaner and friendlier. The people here definitely are quite friendly and seem to find humor in everything. The contrast in wealth of personality versus wealth in riches is a good reminder on what is truly important in life-humor, family, and a sense of pride in who you are.
Monday 6 June 2005
We met with several more very important people today in the media world. Our first actual day in UB we met with B. Bayaraa, the senior officer of library and publishing policy at the Ministry of Science, Technology, Education and Culture of Mongolia. Only seven people set policy and staff the Ministry, and she is one of them. Today was an intense introduction to the newspapers found primarily in UB. We started at Tonshuul and spoke a lot with the editor in chief then the actual owner A. Amarsaikhan. Humor is a very important element in Mongolian life and the existence of literature such as Amarsaikhan’s humour magazine emphasizes this fact. The Daily News was also interesting, hearing from the editor in chief and seeing the original September 12, 2001 front page next to the released copy once news of the hijacking was received. I must insist that driver’s in the US are not nearly as scary. No words can describe the utter chaos that ensues once a Mongol is behind the wheel, whether it is on the right or left of the car (as both types of cars are available here). Surprisingly no accidents have yet been witnessed, but it is definitely among one of the scariest experiences I have had, and repeatedly too. Worst so far was on the way to the Press Institute when our driver tried going around a bus, heading into oncoming traffic that had to go around us as there was no way of getting back in the proper lane. The road connected perpendicularly to a highly congested street we nearly got crunched on, narrowly making it across to take a scary dirt road, in the process losing our second taxi. We eventually met with the Press Institute’s managing director, M. Minkhmandakh, very friendly and personable. The last stop was at Seruuleg newspaper, although instead of speaking with someone from the paper, but rather the executive director from the Newspaper Association of Mongolia that recently became a member of the international organization. B. Oyungerel had previously worked at Seruuleg, a yellow paper, as she was quite knowledgeable. She had very adorable shoes on which brings to mind the high heels question once again. Not only is the sidewalk seriously cracked, but large drainage holes with missing mancovers are everywhere. I am so surprised no one has fallen down one, especially since they walk around the park in complete darkness in the evenings. Another baffling and somewhat annoying feature is the septic system or lack thereof. Most public restrooms do not provide toilet paper in the city, so I have made sure to use the moody toilet in the apartment or go somewhere catering specifically to Westerners. We aren’t able to flush the paper though, so the toilet room smells from our makeshift garbage quite horribly. The worst smell goes to the stairwells though. That smell is indescribable. Regardless of its shortcomings we are all enjoying it so far with its beautiful mountainous backdrop, friendly and beautiful people, and nice cheap stores with fashionable clothes I fit into.
Tuesday 7 June 2005
Cell phones are extremely popular. I can’t help but notice the myriad of unique ring tones, not one has been the same yet. Communication in general is very important with the wireless phone “holders” located every thirty or so feet apart. During all of our meetings they ring but are typically ignored. The Metropolitan Central Library of UB was our major stop today. Many foreign countries have provided many funds and resources, the most recent at MCL coming from the US Embassy to build an American Culture Room with very cutting edge technology. Apparently impressions of America from the socialist era still remain, so we are hoping to educate them better. The automation technology is quite advanced with biometric identification methods instead of library cards. The book collections did feel small though. The Children’s Palace was very interesting with reading rooms for different ages and languages. Most of the foreign language materials were donated by those countries. Speaking to the larger group of librarians and directors was insightful in learning where their interests lie according to questions they asked us. Unfortunately lack of time prohibited any real discussion as translating took a long time. We are all extremely grateful for Sayanaa’s wonderful skills. We will definitely have to find a great gift for her.
Sunday 12 June 2005
The drive back from Tsetserleg was rather uneventful, and it was quite painful on my back that is still recovering. An overcast day, seeing the clouds ring or drown out the mountains completely is a sight to stare at. The eight hour trip back to Ulaanbaatar was quite dreary with sprinkles near our destination. Being back in Ulaanbaatar has its blessings and curses. Access to constantly running water, and hot water even, Internet Centers with fast connections everywhere, banks to finally have money again, and many shops to wander into. The traffic is horribly scary with its loud honking a constant stain on the ear drums, the pollution and smell of rotting garbage and human refuse heady in the air and buildings, and poverty spilling out of the sewers bountifully. We did not miss our mischevious little orphan, and he even brought a friend this time. I do feel bad for them, and the others make sure to give them food and money. I cannot soundly give them “gifts” as freely, I feel bad for it as well. Today, however, proved a good reason why it is not the best idea as even after we gave them food we were followed until we hailed a taxi simply so he was unable to follow us back to our apartment. The cab driver was extremely jovial seeming to understand our predicament and providing us with some of that wonderful Mongolian friendliness. I feel so much better finally getting a nice hot shower, relish in simple luxuries such as this before we head to the desert.
Monday 13 June 2005
Another full day with mostly cloudy rainy weather. We started by going to Ulaanbaatar’s Gandean Monastery to meet the famous lama Purevbat. Inside on temple grounds everything felt peaceful despite the confusion on where we ought to be. The pigeons were a sight to see, moving in such coherent motion as if a wave rollicking a boat gently then finding ground again. I enjoyed most when a swarm would rise from one of the old temple buildings as if rising spirits or prayers. Meeting the lama was an experience I shall not forget. He seemed a very friendly man with many tasks that do not seem to stress him, and surrounded by people seeking his insight. Indeed he did sound knowledgeable and proud of his heritage and Mongolian traditions. He spoke fondly of their inherent gift to coexist with nature as the nomadic way of life is still in the heart of all. I was moved by his stories and enjoyed his recounting of the history of Buddhism and its tie to the people. We next visited the Cultural Institute to speak with the director and a few of our Mongolian counterparts. The education system at the Cultural Institute is not too different from America, requiring one hundred twenty credits for a bachelors and another thirty credits for a masters degree. The library program does require passing two exams as well. After a fairly miserable Korean lunch, we met with Ariunaa for a brief introduction to the situation between main Ulaanbaatar and its suburbs that consist primarily of the ger district. Going to the cultural center in the ger district was a sight as a bus appeared to have broken down in the middle of the street with dozens of people standing around it, traffic upset with the mess. In the district roads were all dirt, reminding me a little of the “save the children” commercials on television. Not that bad, but reminiscent. Many children were at the center, the library was in a small back room the children had to sit in to read. I was surprised to hear World Vision had donated all the books it owned, and in Mongolian no less. We also took a side trip to the newer section of town, very nice condominiums with many more luxuries. This was on the way to a monument residing atop a hill overlooking the city, donated by the Russians to commemorate their friendship. The view, after a winded stair climb, was worth seeing. Cities, from a distance, seem much more peaceful.
Friday 17 June 2005
It is Adrienne’s birthday today so we all tried our best to make it a great day for her. We left the ger camp at 7:30 in the morning for our early flight back to UB, and I listened to Green Day’s American Idiot album on my iPod. It had me comparing the positives and negatives of both countries. In Mongolia we find love; love for their traditions, love for their Mongolia, love of friendship and laughter. In America we have pride, sometimes empty based on fear, controlled by hysterics of the media, afraid to love the enemy and neighbors alike. This is, of course, a crude and dramatic contrast, but I feel as if I can see the problem having experienced Mongolia, and now I should do what I can to help. I felt a great purpose to me, looking at across the rocky Gobi at the mountain-rimmed horizon. Then I saw a rainbow. One wouldn’t have guessed a rainbow to survive the desert, but life is full of small miracles. The plane ride was uneventful, nice to finally be back in our apartment. We went shopping again, the sun was so bright it in the end gave me a horrible headache. The sun was not the only contributor however. The rest wanted to to buy make-up and go to the salon, so I ended up shopping alone. I was almost robbed, in broad daylight, and when I caught the pickpocket before he found anything he just started walking back flicking me off. It happens everywhere, I know, but it is terrible when young men feel compelled to do this in broad daylight knowing no one will stop them. I did not wish to frighten anyone or ruin Adrienne’s birthday, so I said nothing. We all went to an Indian restaurant named the Taj Mahal and enjoyed some very tasty food in the evening. We were joking that we were in Mongolia at an Indian restaurant eating a Korean made cake with wine from Australia, later to have a beer at an Irish pub Mongolia’s capital is becoming very diverse like that, and many of its donations for all projects are equally global. Hopefully they will gain the skills to someday be self-sufficient.
Saturday 18 June 2005
Today was black market day. I have never seen a larger flea market anywhere. Tons of vendors covering just about anything that can be thought up. It is amazing how all the merchants work together, then they all struggled to canvas the outdoor area as rain kept pouring down. Everyone was able to find something. After, I joined Shana to gander the shops and to see the opera La Boheme. The German Association is helping to sponsor the Mongolian opera, so we only had to pay 5000 tugrik. Watching Mongolians perform a Puccini or Western opera was interesting, the choreography could not fill all the music so the actors stood on the stage watching the conductor for their cues. Their voices were wonderful though, and overall were able to make it back to the apartment in time to meet our friends. Only the girls were able to make it, so we offered them cake and ice cream while playing Uno. They took us to the New York Café for some food then the Tornado disco club for a night of dancing. At about one in the morning a contortionist came out and performed followed by two Indian dressed strippers. An interesting experience indeed.
Sunday 19 June 2005
A good relaxing day, I opted to stay in most of the day and simply not move. The sheer number of flies I have killed here is phenomenal. We are fairly certain they have grown in number due to the excess of garbage in and around the building. A few days ago the worst smell imaginable permeated the neighborhood. A garbage truck parked itself outside our door, filled with garbage. With the strong winds here the smell carried quite a distance and was even unbearable to the Mongolians used to it. Taking the already frightening elevator was also difficult as swarms of flies found the little box of an elevator an unlikely hot spot for a cesspool. These, of course, follow the passengers off and into the apartment. The truck sat there for about two days, always someone in it digging as well. Once garbage leaves the room, it’s fair game for anyone to rummage and pillage. Our professor has shared many stories of finding her own trash at the black market. The saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is highly significant here. We are still dealing with these clever flies, however, they seem to spawn rapidly doubling daily. Can’t kill them fast enough. The hot days probably contribute to their in-house migration as well. Hopefully garbage burning and pick up can be planned more efficiently for the city in the future. One of many aspects still needing organization and development.
Monday 20 June 2005
Back to meetings for our last week, we visited the US Embassy first. This embassy is one of America’s smallest with one director and one officer both of whom we’ve had the pleasure of speaking with. Not much money flows through the embassy, so no new programs have been initiated. We did see several photos that commemorated the 70th anniversary of the first American to come to Mongolia. Apparently in 1921, Roy Chapman Andrews of Wisconsin made a number of archaeological trips whereupon he discovered dinosaur eggs. This changed the entire perspective on how dinosaurs were born. Andrews is also the historical figure Spielberg based his Indiana Jones character on. I will have to look into this more when I return. After a break we visited the National Information Technology Park once again. This time we spoke with its director, an interesting fellow who has very strong opinions on gender roles, then with Helen’s father who is also head of the MIDAS/MONITA NGO. This organization prioritizes increase in technology use with local, and soon national, businesses. We of course made our way to Ariunaa, who gave us a brief lecture on the ICT development in Mongolia, as well as her sister Sayanaa. From what we heard today, the people have very high plans to make Mongolia one of the top ten technological countries in the next decade. A high goal for the little infrastructure available. Already most aimegs are being wired with fiber optics though, so it may be possible.
Tuesday 21 June 2005
A blistering hot day combined with a lot of walking makes for crabby sore people. We did our best with all our appointments today, but it felt as if we were liquefying under the unforgiving sun. Our first stop was MagicNet, a company that broke off from the first Internet provider for Mongolia beginning back in 1994. Apparently they provide not only dial-up services, but also cable, DSL, satellite, wireless, and wi-fi. The State Central Library was beautiful with columns and marble lining the interior. Their collection of old and rare books was an awesome sight-the backroom full of rows and rows of multicolored shelves, each sutra wrapped in a silk scarf like a present waiting to be opened. Preservationists were going through each sutra to clean it for those who could read the Tibetan script to find where astrew pages belonged. A very long and arduous task, especially with another “floor” of them, built with makeshift boards as if an attic to an old barn, wide gaps presenting the lower level beneath. The actual display room for rare books was equally interesting containing the oldest Mongolian book, books written in gold and silver, the smallest book, and many other fascinating relics. A must see if ever visiting Ulaanbaatar. The open forum library was very modern and the closest example to a North American library so far due to its use of DDC and open stacks. They do not own many book, so we were all very interested to find out they classified the books with a general call number, not uniquely. This does work for the collection size they have, but it will become an issue when it grows or they begin collaborating with other libraries as they wish to do. An interesting misinterpretation of how DDC works, but definitely easier to use. Our last stop was at the ICTA, the governmental authority over all ICTs. This was our most knowledgeable speaker, explaining all UB’s projects in good detail with forefront knowledge and understanding our other speakers did not have. He has successfully “unionized” the ISP providers to get bulk discounts and lowered telephone call expenses for dial-up Internet access. He is essentially organizing in an efficient and effective manner; bringing high speed high access connectivity across Mongolia. It is unfortunate most of our group was exhausted from the heat and too many meetings that he could see it on their faces, cutting his thorough explanation short.
Wednesday 22 June 2005
Following yesterday’s heavy winds came today’s cold and rainy weather. We toured one of the oldest radio and television broadcast system stations today, even walked out into the largest broadcasting room they had. Visiting parts of the radio station we ran into a very popular hip hop artist, so it made sense why it was difficult to get through the building entrance. On the way out the lobby was busy with Mongolian Idol contestants, so the station is popular both in the competitive city and the coutryside nationwide. A few hours of free time spent at the Internet Café and some shopping, then the Cultural Concert that held many foreigners. I did not know it was simply a tourist attraction, but it was enjoyable to see traditional dances and hear Mongolia’s traditional music. Afterwards we met up with our people including Bayaraa, Sayanaa, Ariunaa, and Helen to eat dinner together. The ride was forty five minutes to the outskirts of the city to eat at Chingghis Palace, a ger camp containing memorabilia from the Chingghis Khan movie. They had horses and camels to ride at a price, but it was too cold to enjoy so I instead shot a few arrows, quite poorly I might add. The food was delicious and company very good. At the end we exchanged gifts and expressed how much we enjoyed having met each other with wishes to continue lines of communication strong. They truly are wonderful people, I will miss Sayanaa the most. I do wish them all the best of luck, but I am also glad to be going home, back to the familiar, once again.
Thursday 23 June 2005
Our last actual day in Mongolia was spent walking around the city lazily, looking for the last few items on our lists. We had an adventure finding the musical instrument shop, but a very nice man at the Union of Mongolian Artists was able to interpret my poor Mongolian language skills and draw a very precise map to the actual production shop. The actual moorin khuur was quite expensive being of the professional lot, but I was able to purchase a hard case fairly cheap. The actual moorin khuur was not much more as I opted for a less professional model only slightly more than the case itself cost. Otherwise we spent much of the day cleaning and sitting at the Silk Road and Brauhaus. Enjoying the weather, the atmosphere, relaxing and taking our time. I really love the building the Silk Road is in, and if ever I have my own restaurant I wish to use it as a model. Getting to the airport was also an adventure for as we were about to enter the elevator, it broke with several people crammed inside. Thus we were forced to walk down the darkened stairwells, all eight flights, with our luggage. A feat, to say the least. I will bring back with me very memorable moments, both good and bad as life tends to balance itself. Hopefully only good ones will leave a lasting impression for my first trip beyond American borders.