by Brian Awehali
We arrived at Peking airport for our flight to Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital of Mongolia, several hours before our flight. We visited the cosmetics and perfume shop to smell the fragrances and to take advantage of the free samples of high-end lotions. F. was overzealous in her application of scented face lotions and was afflicted with burning red eyes for most of our flight because of it. There is no good reason I can think of for face lotion to be scented. I mean, if your face stinks the solution is probably more medical than cosmetic.
When we eventually moved into line for our flight, I realized my passport wan’t on me, or in my bag. Had I left it at the restaurant where we’d eaten? Had someone stolen it? (U.S. passports are worth a small fortune to people in China who know how to alter and use them.) I couldn’t imagine that I’d taken it out of my pocket, and as the last passenger before us boarded, I felt sick. Forgetting that my ankle was still mending from a bad break and still had three-quarters of a troublesome surgical pin embedded in it, I sprinted for the restaurant. No one there had seen my passport.
As my feet and heart pounded the length of the airport, I thought I’d ruined our trip. I’d carelessly let it all slip away by losing track of my passport and Chinese visa, costing us the considerable expense of the flight, not to mention that we’d now be stuck in the Beijing airport for probably a very long time, until an expensive expedited replacement passport and visa could be arranged for. I would not be able to re-enter China without these.
I sprinted back to the gate, panting heavily. When I got there, a smartly dressed flight attendant told me that my passport and visa had been found at the security check. The flight had now been held at least fifteen minutes beyond it’s scheduled departure time she said, and informed me that they would hold the flight for only ten more minutes. Flights from Beijing to Mongolia only happen twice a week, and they are generally fully booked.
We got back to the gate in about ten minutes, and they were still holding the flight.
During our flight, we chatted with our seat mate, a guy named Tim, from Nova Scotia, who was wearing a hat like Crocodile Dundee and that a-hole, Steve “The Animal Guy” Irwin used to wear before they both died. Tim told us he worked for a mining company that was setting up a work camp somewhere in the Gobi Desert. I’d heard that a huge mining boom was kicking off in Mongolia, and that the Russians, Chinese and international mining interests from many other countries were salivating over the country’s relatively untapped reserves of copper, gold, silver, and coal. So I was curious to chat with Tim, and he was eager to talk about his work.
Tim said his company was headquartered in Australia, that they were setting up a copper mining operation that they’d be expending $40 million on this year alone, and that the camp would likely become the next biggest city in Mongolia once the operation got underway. He said the Mongolian government had a 20% stake in the operation, and that it presently employed about 50% Mongolian nationals, with an eventual goal of training enough Mongolians to have more like 80% Mongolians running the operation.
Tim shared that he had worked for mining operations in many parts of the world, including Nigeria and, most recently, Nevada. He had a wife and two kids, with another on the way, back in Nova Scotia, and was trying to convince his wife to move to UB.
“The tax advantages alone are huge,” he explained. Tim was a nice enough guy, warm and seemingly open. He shared his Lonely Planet guidebook with us, as well as various information about UB that proved mostly helpful. If we hadn’t been committed to a retreat of sorts, I’d have asked Tim if I might make the trek to his mining camp to see for myself what such an operation was like.
After touching down at Chingiss Khaan airport and making our way through customs and getting our backpacks, we were greeted on our way to the parking lot by a tall dark-haired woman in tight-fitting striped button-up shirt, a short black pair of shorts (a “skort,” really), and high black heels. She was holding a sign that said “Brian Awehali.” This was Bogi, owner of the Mongol Guesthouse, where we’d be staying. For no good reason, I’d assumed Bogi was a man.
But Bogi is a woman, and a hard-working entrepreneur running two separate guesthouses for foreigners. She often gets up at 6am or earlier to go meet passengers getting off the Trans-Siberian Railroad to see if they need lodging or a tour guide. I later learned that “Bogi” means “crystal.” Bogi was 24, from a Western Mongolian herding family, and she grew up with one sister and several brothers. Later, when she spoke somewhat disgustedly about two gay men who were coming to stay at the Mongol Guesthouse together, and professed no understanding of how that was even possible, I kept her country origins in mind when I opted to make jokes about love and passion having wills of their own, rather than judging her harshly for it.
Bogi teaches English at a school in UB, but we had frequent challenges communicating with her. If we asked her something like: “Since you’re from here, what part of Mongolia do you think is best to visit?” she’d respond: “Mongolia, I know all” — sweeping hand gestures — ”Yes, but… what part? East, west…?” Answer: “Yes. All.”
Two endearing things about Bogi: when she told us the words for “thank-you” and “hello” in Mongolian, she immediately pop-quizzed us sternly: “What’s ‘hello’? What’s ‘thank-you’?” She was also blunt about the foreigners who come to UB: “Mongolians like Russians, Koreans, Japanese, Americans, and Germans, but hate Chinese.” When I asked why, she said: “Chinese ruin everything.” She’s got a point.
The skies our first day in UB were epic, and as Bogi drove us into town, I marveled at how blue they were and how ridiculously distinct the clouds appeared. UB is not a pretty city, though the hills around it are lovely. Mostly, the city is a succession of drab Soviet-style structures made of concrete, with large dirtily-belching smokestacks and the curved flumes of coal power plants punctuating long stretches of crude wooden structures and gers (yurts).
In contrast to my own overall negative experience of UB, F. found it to be an “ethereal concrete city,” somehow surreal and charming, not least for its odd juxtaposition of Asian-looking people filling a Russian-looking landscape. Sometimes F.’s abstracted relationship to things vexes and mystifies me, but sometimes I am also just a bit jealous of her ability to ignore or overlook overarching unpleasantries.
At a vegetarian restaurant the next day, I struck up a conversation with a woman from Colorado—let’s call her Becky—who was a climatologist and, she was exceedingly quick to point out, a Fulbright scholar. Becky had perfectly braided hair, smooth manicured hands, and an earring and necklace set of matching bright blue felted balls of wool. Becky claimed UB was the most polluted capitol city in the world, especially in the winter, because everyone burned coal to heat their homes and the extreme cold requires that they burn it constantly. She claimed the sky was gray and you couldn’t see it in winter because of all the coal smoke, which is true enough. She also claimed that Mongolia was being more impacted by climatological change than any other country, a preposterous claim if you take into consideration places leveled by tropical storms or tsunamis, or the island nation of Kiribati, which is in the process of disappearing under the rising sea.
When we told her we were heading to the countryside, Becky commented that we’d really appreciate taking a shower once we got back to UB. Then, when we shared that we were presently staying in a flat upstairs from the restaurant we were in, and it turned out she lived in the building as well, she briefly bitched about how loud it was, and how people in UB made noise all night, adding, “I have no idea when these people sleep.”
Giving her some benefit of doubt, I wondered if it was particularly hard to be a woman traveling alone in Mongolia, and if perhaps she was experiencing some culture shock. Still: These people. I’ve heard this phrase repeatedly from foreigners in China and in Mongolia, and it never fails to sound ugly to my ears.
The main square of UB has a giant statue of a man named Sukhbataar in the middle. Sukhbataar was a courier and mail dispatcher who won national fame for his bravery in the 1921 battle against the Manchurian-Chinese army.
Sukhbataar’s fame in Mongolia is eclipsed only by that of Chingiss Khan. Khan succeeded, despite obscure beginnings as a boy in the countryside, and despite commanding a fairly small group of men on horseback, in establishing through the almost complete militarization of society an empire the size of which no one on earth has ever exceeded. It lasted from around 1207 until 1368.
One of several keys to the success of Khan’s army was that they didn’t care if it was summer, spring or arctic winter: they were relentless, while their unfortunate neighbors thought fighting wars in the winter was inhumane. Under Khan, the Mongols also invented one of the sounder war-time strategies of the past thousand years when they decided that killing all of the leaders was better than slaughtering peasants. Khan and his immediate descendants also basically created China when they unified it through conquest, and made previously warring dynastic quarrelers share commerce and knowledge, though the Chinese are aghast to admit the truly long view of their origin, growth and metastasis. See Jack Weatherford’s superb Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World for lots of interesting details about this. It’s what I read on the plane to UB.
In UB, before heading for the northeastern part of the country, we first headed for a bank to exchange currencies. There’s nothing like wildly disparate exchange rates to impress upon a person the convoluted mysteries of the international currency system. All currency, not just the Chinese yuan, is manipulated, and although economists will tell you the value of a given currency owes to many sober, well-reasoned factors, it also true that it’s just one big consensual hallucination, with a few elites pulling strings to various advantage, often to the detriment of ordinary people with no clue about such manipulations. In China, the current 100-to-15 yuan-to-dollar exchange rate had seemed luxurious. (Awesome! That whole meal cost just… $3.) Here, 10,000 Mongolian tugriks (MNT) equals seven dollars. When F. stepped away from the window, she was holding a thick 900,000 MNT wad, and after I exchanged my own money, we were Mongolian millionaires.
Armed with our wads of cash, we then walked around, took in the giant five-story shopping mall called the State Department Store, looked over lots of cashmere and felted wool sweaters and handicrafts, and picked up two bottles of quite good Chingiss Khan vodka that Tim, the Canadian miner from the plane, had recommended.
Mongolians, I think it’s fair to say, can really drink, and I was glad to have this vodka to share with Baul (Ba-OOL), a son of the herding family we wound up staying with, over many heated games of chess. I’d actually dropped the game years earlier, once I discovered Go. But it was supremely pleasant to attempt creative, slightly drunken “Monglish” communication with Baul while being generally overmatched on the checkered battlefield. The several-game matches in our cozy candle-lit ger were always followed by deep and dreamless sleep. I could not help but think, as we passed weeks with Baul’s family, that they were better, not in some stupid, condescending idealized way, but for having a vital relationship to their natural world and its rhythms. Watching their daily lives, and their devoted work with their horses, then being invited on a ride, on hard, small wooden saddles secured to horses much wilder and freer than those you encounter on fairly gentle, accommodating American horses, made me feel truly humbled and contemplative about what I had lost or given up in mostly unwitting sacrifice to my modern and relentlessly-advertised life.
Due mostly to globalization and the reach of media, many people in traditional cultures are clamoring to have the advertised fruits of the life I, as an American from a basically middle class family, know to be mostly hollow and slightly but irrevocably rotten. And I find this tragic.
On our second day in UB, it was Children’s Day, a national holiday in celebration of children. Many businesses were closed, and there was a big parade down the city’s main street, with children in costumes on floats, children in dress-up clothes walking, children singing… and military troops marching. That makes perfect sense, right? We watched the parade from The Amsterdam Cafe, which seemed like the place where every ex-pat in town was hanging out. The place was almost full, and besides the staff, only one customer appeared Mongolian.
While we sipped decent coffee and used the wireless internet connection, I read a copy of the not half-bad English language Mongolian Messenger, and noted the mining-centric Bloomberg commodity price listings right on the front page.
Inside, among other mostly informative articles, was this: “Base metals plunged on Monday, with copper prices falling to their lowest levels since February, after signs that China’s economy was slowing spooked investors already worried about fiscal problems in Europe.”
The Messenger also published a report from the National Statistical Office listing various social and economic indicators for Mongolia for the first four months of 2010. For non-mining-related factors, almost all indicators looked healthy save for a dramatic drop in live births for livestock. For mine-related matters, total industrial output had risen 12.7%, “mainly due to an increase of main industrial products such as coal, crude oil, iron ore, molybdenum concentrate…copper, metal steel, and steel casting.” The report also noted that during the same four-month period, the rate of extraction of crude petroleum and natural gas increased by 260% over the same period in 2009, and that the mining of coal and lignite extraction of peat increased by 65.2%.
Later that day, a massive dust storm rolled across the city, making it impossible to walk without getting grit in our eyes and throats, and we both had a persistent dry cough for several days after.
Before we drove from UB to Gorkhi Terelj, a protected area to the northeast that Chingiss Khan came from, Bogi took us to the city’s black market, where most of the same products we saw in the part of town catering to foreigners were being sold for about one-third the price. The vast majority of the products were imported from China. Mongolians may not care for the Chinese, but they are landlocked and trapped between Russia and China, and they are not at all above getting most of their cheap goods, as well as most of their produce, from the Middle Kingdom.