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Life in Ulaanbaatar

posted Oct 4, 2008, 7:17 PM by Pacific Rim   [ updated Oct 7, 2008, 9:05 PM ]
It was three in the afternoon, when we found ourselves surrounded by Mongolian university students in a cafeteria, dancing our hearts out to Justin Timberlake.

When first introduced to the idea of visiting the university, we were left with the impression that we would take a bus there, get a tour of the facilities, and maybe sit in on a class. Walking into the cafeteria that day, we immediately realized it was a mistake to assume anything when it comes to traveling in another country. At the front of the room, stood a podium, and two long tables, complete with bowls of candy and water for the honored guests—us.

We nervously looked out into the crowd of Mongolian students, sitting quietly through a lecture on Genghis Khan. We listened intently to a multi-tonal throat singing performance, clapped along with a traditional Mongolian dance, and awed at a beat box performance. After spending some time exchanging words with the students, we were asked to sit down again. Assuming another speaker was in line, we quietly munched on the candy provided to us. Then the music was turned on, the bass was pumped up, and everyone was told to get up and dance.

So we did. There are few things which the language barrier does not apply to. One is playing Frisbee, another may be music or an appreciation of a sunset, but one of them is most certainly dancing, as we demonstrated two days ago in a cafeteria in Mongolia.


It was over a month ago now, when we first stepped onto Mongolian soil, with a bakers dozen of vaccinations and every power adapter known to the modern world. Our first reaction was one of contrast. The uneven, dusty roads leading into the Ulanbattar, juxtaposed to the bright red, green and blue roofs that topped shaky structures many call home. The soviet style architecture, fading away, paired with Gers resembling beautifully decorated cakes, complete with vanilla frosting and a single candle on top. Women strutting down the street wearing patent leather boots, chatting away on their cell phones as they step over trash littering the uneven, partially paved streets where homeless sell bars of soap and chocolate for pennies.

Over the past four weeks, these sights have become home. The orange tents that line the streets, clustered near bus stops, are always brimming with fresh produce. We expect the occasional parked car, its trunk open to display a variety of sweaters for sale. Every once in a while, the city will close down at 4pm. The hours for construction work are equally erratic. Monday morning at 10am, the skeletons of emerging buildings sit vacant. But Friday night, it is time to get to welding.

There is a significant homeless population in UB, something which hasn't been as easy to write off. In our time here, we have grown to recognize the same children, who wait outside restaurants hoping for leftovers, and approach you on the street with two of the only English words they know-- “money...food.” They sing with a donation box sitting coyly at their side, visit your table as you eat trying to sell gum, or swarm you to steal a piece of cake.

We soon learned that for most of these boys, it is a choice to be homeless. There are orphanages and child resources readily available in UB, but they prefer the freedom life on the street offers them. They crawl into the sewers when it gets cold, entering what might be the real life version of Neverland, where these lost boys of Mongolia never have to grow up.

After a while, we took to bargaining with them when they would approach us. In one instance of this, a Pacrimmer was carrying a candy bar and slightly less sugary item, when one of the lost boys approached her. Pointing to the candy bar, he looked pleadingly at her.

“Food?” But she shook her head, and offered him the healthier option. He pointed again at the candy bar.
“It will rot your teeth.” Eventually he ended up with the sugary item, demonstrating that, in Mongolia, beggars can be choosers.

On our first night, we made the mistake of going to a restaurant advertising “good taste pizza.” Pizza is not Mongolia's strong suit. We did not find this out until much later however, since they were all out of pizza that night. They did however have “chicken bits.”After a few miscellaneous cuts of poultry, we stepped out from the smoke room, into the cold dark. The streets of Ulanbattar seem more broken at night, poverty kissed, laying down beneath the black suede of the bourgeois. Three of the lost boys approached us, one singing a haunting melody, knowing just how to tug on the heart strings of four American girls. So we passed along our chicken bits to these innocent children.

Several nights later, we passed the same trio, as they rolled around on the ground, singing joyfully, drunk.

At the opposite end of the homeless children spectrum, are the bundled babies, totted around by their fathers. Fathers seem to be very hands-on here, often acting in place of a baby carriage. It seems to be the mothers job to ensure that her family is dressed warmly, particularly as winter creeps into Mongolia, as I have found out first hand. Walking down the street recently, in a pair of sandals, a number of mothers walking their children to school paused long enough to look at my feet, make sort of a hissing sound, and shake their head “no” with concern.


The Gastrointestinal Experience

After the chicken bits incident, we learned that it is best to eat Mongolian food while in Mongolia. There have been many pleasant food experiences, and many questionable ones. Mutton graces most dishes, and after a month of dining on it, you either like it, or you hate it.

One Mongolian dish that has found its way into the PacRim heart is buuz. This delectable dish features meat and spice filled dumplings. Then there is boodog, a national dish that, when prepared, resembles a balloon with paws. To make boodog, you begin with a marmot or a goat. You remove its head, the pull out the entrails of the animal through its neck. Next, you fill the body with scalding rocks, cinching the neck up with a wire. As the animals is cooked from the inside out, you blow torch the outside, burning off the fur. While apparently delicious, the cases of bubonic plague in Mongolia elevate in August and September from preparing boodog with marmot.

Another Mongolian favorites is airag, or fermented mares milk. Luckily, there's no risk of the black death for this beverage, only a few horse hairs in your teeth.

Then there are the choco pies and alibi bars, small treats, packed with sugar, which have become a snacking staple for many of us. If the mutton doesn't clog our arteries with cholesterol, it will most certainly be these tasty treats that we will continue to feel the effects of.

Successfully navigating a grocery store in Mongolia has proven to be an acquired skill for most. Figuring out which mysterious white substance is yogurt and which is milk, while we plow through the instant pad thai supply. Lack of labeling, or lack of English said labels makes finding mundane items quite difficult. Especially baking powder. It took seven stores, and an accumulative of at least five hours to track down what I presumed to be one of two boxes of baking soda in all of Mongolia.

Once you have nailed down a substance basket of food, the next challenge is to check out. We soon learned to a) not take it personally when three people cut in front of you, and b) that is it necessary to be aggressive about your place in line in order to keep it. Many of these markets, advertising as being “24 hour,” close around 10 in the morning, or at other odd intervals throughout the day, making the shopping experience, from entry to exit, always an adventure.

Hostel Life

Aside from our ten days spent in the Gobi, we have stayed in the same hostel while in Mongolia. It's been nice having a place to refer to as “home,” not having to pack up every day, and knowing where we will be sleeping in the evening. But, living in a hostel has also alerted us to some of our “Americanisms,” whether it is through our own observation, or through if it is pointed out to us.

To get into our Mongolian “homes,” we have to ring the door bell. At least every half hour it calls for attention “ding...ding...ding...” In response, the hostess trudges to the door, in her Adidas flip flops. “Ding...ding...ding...” The trilogy pulls her away from the laundry or other task at hand. “Ding-buzz...ding-buzz...ding-buzz...” She puts down her magazine. This is a unique instance in which slaying the messenger might be appropriate.

Sensing her annoyance, we've taken to trying to beat her to the door, or knock lightly so one of us will hear, but she won't be bothered. This hasn't always worked in our favor. Taped to the door is a sign that reads “Don't let in locals.” There have been a few times when one of us has failed to peer out of the peep hole in the door, and instead of the silly American grin, we are greeted by a tall man with graceful high cheek bones, smelling of vodka. At which time we retreat, allowing the hostess to do her job.

Now each time we hear that familiar “ding...ding...ding...” We are reminded, “Don't open the door if its a local, or a yak...I hear they're not very friendly.”

Then there was the toast incident. It was breakfast one morning, and Rachel had just finished asked if anyone wanted more toast. When there were no takers, she popped in a single slice for herself. That's when Zaya, the owner of the hostel, walked out, and spied into the toaster.

“See, this is not a Mongolian mentality...this is American, one slice of toast. Only thinking for yourself. A Mongolian would never do this. Very different mentality.” We looked sheepishly at one another, until she had made her point. Now we never toast only one slice of bread. Even if it means having to stuff down another slice on top of a full belly.

Between the lectures, we are allowed to relax in our hostel, our guard lowered, not having to worry about pick pockets, broken class, or whether we are dressed appropriately. The second we step out onto the sidewalk, the streets of Ulaanbaatar require heightened senses, as we dodge cars and elderly Mongolian women who could easily take us out, proving just how tough Mongolians are.


International Shipping and Mongolian Museums

Since we haven't had to pack up our things at the dawning of each day, it has been easy to accumulate more. The Black Market, a huge market on the outskirts of town where you can literally find anything—from saddles to nylons to ankle bones, has been a fantastic place to collect things at. We've purchased camel sweaters, dels or Mongolian-style jackets, yak socks, toothpaste, and scarves. A trip to the black market means a sensory overload, a chance to refine our bargaining skills and the potential to find treasures you didn't even know you needed until they lept into vision. Now, as our time in Mongolia nears the end, we realize our collection has grown to sizes we will be unable to fit into our luggage. And so beings the quest for international shipping.

Over the past year or so, air mail is apparently the only method of international shipping available, which means, for most of us, it will cost more to ship something home then it did to originally acquire it. Upon entering the post office, you are greeted with a serious of instructions to ensure a positive postal experience.

1.    Check your stamp
2.    Check the mailing address
3.    Check question number three.

Something must have been lost in translation with these directions, because, as one student reported, when she arrived at the post office, they proceeded to disembowel the box addressed home, carefully examining each article. Once they had removed a few of the items, like the rocks she had wanted to send home, they taped the box back up and charged an arm and a leg to send it off.

Many of us, having purchased geodes and gems in the Gobi, took heed to the removal of the rocks. We later found out that you cannot ship rocks from Mongolia. But you can ship the ankle bones used for the game ankle bone. You can ship rocks from China, but you cannot bring bones past the borders. It seems that each country will have its own oddities in international shipping, making what would be a mundane chore in the states transform into a grand adventure.

Aside from trips to the post office, we have also had a chance to view a number of different museums in Ulaabaatar, including the Natural History Museum and the Hunting Museum. Both were very interesting and informative experiences, having one thing in common—taxidermy. Stuffed animals lurk around every corner. Their numbers so altitudinous in the Hunting Museum, that we were greeted by the intense smell of jerky upon entering. Making this museum experience more memorable was the fact that it was located directly above a disco.

As it turns out, the most dangerous thing you can do in Ulaanbaatar is to cross the street, and the most difficult thing it finding baking soda. These challenges may seem mundane, but if I have learned anything on our trip so far, it is that assumptions don't suit a traveler well. Mongolia, a country of contrasts and a place we've grown to love over the past month. From the poshly-dressed people, to the open man holes, Ulaanbaatar is a place like none other, and one that I will be sorry to leave.

(Story and photos by Tara)