Thursday, December 7, 2006

Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar

Here’s an account of my day, which was fairly eventful.

Had an interesting meeting with Lkhagvasuren. Through the weight of his reputation and his impressive contacts, he has secured funding from the American Embassy for an ambitious archaeological preservation project concerning sites throughout Ulaanbaatar and Tov aimag. So I’m connected to another project for next summer, in this case as “field archaeological advisor.” Fortunately, I have been well-trained and know just what to do: as Prof. Michlovic said at the start of my field school so many years ago, “You guys’ job will be to move the dirt; my job will be to sit in the shade and drink gin-and-tonics.”

I stopped in at the law office. Tsendee asked me about the book I’m working on. I gave her the one-line pitch: “it is a philosophical novel about a man who lives alone in the steppe, fighting and eating mythical monsters.” She asked if I knew about Dalan Tav, a cemetery in the ger districts. Up until the 1960s, the bodies of deceased people were taken into remote areas and left exposed to return to nature quickly, similar to Tibetan practices. In the ’60s, they started interring bodies at Dalan Tav. The cemetery is entirely surrounded by gers now. She said I should go there and talk to people. She said they tell countless ghost stories.

While I was at the office, in came a Russian couple. Standing behind a partition with Jon, in full earshot of the front desk, he asked me if I could swear in Russian. “Of course.” – “Teach me some.” – “Not right now.”

The Russians were actually russophones from Kazakhstan. “Where is Kazakhstan?” Martin asked comically. “It’s right next door.” Which is accurate, though thousands of kilometers separate the capital cities of Ulaanbaatar and Almaty. They spoke of Kazakhstan as reverentially as people here speak of Mongolia. I have only ever heard good things about Kazakhstan. I would like to visit Almaty soon. It is a diverse city, with a Russian population of up to thirty percent of the total and significant populations of Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz, as well as the slim majority of Kazakhs. Kazakhstan is presently in the news in the West through the film Borat, which apparently depicts Kazakhstan negatively yet in such an over-the-top manner that the depiction is impossible to believe. The Kazakhstan government bought expensive ad space in the West to try to counter the film’s portrayal. In an article about the affair, it was mentioned that within one week of the movie’s opening, British travel agencies booked out all of their tours to Kazakhstan for next year.

Later, I noticed a new sign across the street from the Chinggis Khaan Hotel: “American Cafe.” I stuck my head in the door and asked if they had hamburgers. No. “How can an American cafe not have hamburgers!” I said, and they laughed. So I stepped inside and sampled their khar shol, which was above average. The Korean pop music they were playing on the stereo had an ’80s vibe, but they eventually put on some khoomii.

There were Foster’s Beer napkin holders on the tables, complete with blue silhouettes of Australia. Of course, they did not carry Foster’s Beer because Foster’s Beer is currently unavailable in Mongolia. The napkin holders are puzzling and I will have to mention them to Martin, because he still holds the exclusive license for Foster’s in Mongolia.

I tried to visit Marc and Saraa, but they weren’t home. As I was standing outside the security-controlled door to their building punching their number into the keypad, a young man came out. He saw me and immediately introduced himself, shook my hand, asked where I was from. His name was Purevdorj. He asked if we could speak in English. He told me that he is going to India next month to study, and he needs to improve his English. He is going to study some form of Buddhist meditation, I forget which one, I’m not familiar with them all. We talked for a bit. He lives on the first floor of Marc and Saraa’s building. He said that he used to study Buddhism in Tibet and that he speaks Tibetan, but that’s no good to him now because they speak English in India. Of course, his English was more than passable. He told me to drop by sometime to eat and speak English.

Walking home as it was dark and snowing, I passed Sukhbaatar Square. I saw that the new Chinggis monument is open, so I checked it out. I haven’t liked that the Chinggis statue is way out of scale to the other figures in the monument, but when I got up close to it, it was pretty awe-inspiring. Still, I think the best components of the monument are the mounted warriors flanking Chinggis. I was able to see now that the one on the right is carrying an enormous bevy of arrows – I have never seen so many arrows on a person, as a statue, in a picture, anywhere. I tried to count the arrows and I couldn’t because the shafts are so many that I could not clearly distinguish one from its neighbors, and when I changed position just slightly, new shafts would appear and others would disappear. The figure on the right is carrying far fewer arrows in his quiver and, interestingly, a war mace in his right hand. Both figures are wearing heavy armor. So, the monument is kind of cool, but I still don’t like to even think about it; I’m certain I will never agree with the decision to spend millions of dollars on it before investing in the transport, sanitation, and water systems.

Passing Chez Bernard, I stopped in and flirted with Tuya. I told her that I had just seen the “Tom Chinggis” (Big Chinggis) monument. “You just saw it?” she said. “It’s been open for a month.”

I took my dinner at the Turkish restaurant across from my flat. They had one of the Pierce Brosnan -as- James Bond movies on the tele. As I walked in the door, the first thing that flashed on the screen was the location identifier: “Kazakhstan, Central Asia.”

I just noticed that today is December 7th.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the cemetry is Dalan Davhar, not Dalan Tav! Probably you missheard your friend. lol