17 August, 2005

A motorcade goes by the bottom of the Soviet war memorial.

A Red Army tank that commemorates the victory in World War Two.

The top part of the memorial looms in the distance.

The path the tank took to get back home.

The tank has been painted over so many times that it looks more like a Tonka toy.

Goats have a way of suddenly appearing in this country.

And of having the inevitable disagreement.

This goat opted to stay under a bench and out of the sun.

The view of the city from the top, including two coal power plants.

People like to just come up here and admire the view.

The symbol of the Soviet Union lives on.

The idea here is to get a flag from a temple and place it here. Blue flags are for good luck. It's your own bad luck if you don't have a flag since you can't get them up here.

This is a city experiencing constant growth.

This enterprising merchant hooked a car battery up to a printer so he could make pictures for tourists.

A piece of the circular mural at the top of the monument symbolizing the Nazi defeat at Soviet hands. I wonder if that's supposed to be Stalin comforting the child.

The peaceful nation of the Soviet Union. Evil empire indeed.

More construction is sparking some anger in town as many of these hills are considered sacred and land is handed out via corruption. Mongolians also resent fences and there are plenty being constructed here in these new zones.

Now this is a great idea and one that apparently is used in various parts of the world. It looks like a playground but it's actually a free way of getting exercise. If these could replace slides and seesaws in the States, we'd probably be a lot better off.

17 August, 2005

Day 32. What a place Mongolia is! It's always somewhat uncertain when you're in a foreign land for the very first time just how things are going to turn out. I have to say that this has far exceeded any expectations I had. The people here are so incredibly friendly and relaxed. None of the crazy bureaucracy we were subjected to in Russia. And none of the harshness I'm told to expect in China. Add to that the nice crisp air that's all around us and I really must confess that this country is the biggest surprise of the trip so far.

We started the day with a nice dose of confusion just for old time's sake. Last night the people at the front desk had called our rooms to ask us what time we wanted to have breakfast. That was nice, I thought, since I didn't even know it was included. And all three of us independently came up with ten o'clock as the best time. So when we went downstairs, the guy on duty tried to tell us that we were too late. "Breakfast finished" was the way he put it. But Hanneke had managed to get a piece of paper from the receptionist the night before that actually had the time we requested on it. In another place we probably just would have been refused and maybe even yelled at in a foreign tongue. But here they actually went back into the kitchen and made food for us since there had clearly been a misunderstanding. They seemed to really care about doing the right thing.

Later on, we met up with Todd who offered to show us around the city a bit and also help to get some footage for the movie. I really never expected to get much from Ulaan Baatar but the place had already surprised me plenty. Who knows what might happen?

We caught a cab to the Soviet war memorial on the outskirts of town. Todd discovered the driver was using a rigged meter and some words were exchanged. We paid the amount Todd deemed to be fair and that was the end of that, although the driver clearly wasn't overjoyed. This is why it's so great to have someone around who's familiar with how things should be. Otherwise you run the risk of really being taken.

Apparently the presidential compound was down the same road that the memorial was on. Various motorcades kept coming and going throughout our stay there, none having more than four cars total. Todd told us that if you tried to walk in that direction on the hills, you would be picked up by the police in very short order.

At the bottom of the memorial is a tank that was used to fight the Nazis in World War Two. This one had the distinction of having made it all the way back to Ulaan Baatar from Moscow. In fact, it was such a treasured relic that it had been painted over many times, so many that it didn't even look like a real tank anymore.

We had to practically climb a mountain to get to the top part of the memorial. From there you can see the city and surrounding countryside. There's also one of those typical Soviet murals that tells the story of how good triumphed over evil amidst many sacrifices and how the Soviets basically just wanted to be friends with everyone.

After admiring the view and investigating the memorial for a while, we started back down. There was a guy selling paintings and doing some of his own throat singing so we stopped to chat with him. He actually wound up agreeing to be in the film and he gave a demonstration of his vocal abilities. We must have talked with him for a half hour and he obviously had a great deal of pride in what he did along with the accomplishments of his relatives. He said everyone in his family was an artist of some sort. He was also selling pictures that he and other family members had drawn. So much information and knowledge just from making a random stop on a mountain. We wound up buying a bunch of his stuff and also attracting quite a crowd with our camera setup. Someone mentioned later that we probably made his day. I hope so because he certainly made ours.

We then headed over to Sukhbaatar Square where earlier there had been a demonstration by some elderly citizens, presumably to voice an opinion on the state of their pensions. They weren't there when we arrived but plenty of other people were. With the help of Todd and his wife (who was native to Mongolia), we were able to talk to a few people and get them to be on camera. The people we talked to were also selling various works of art, many of which had their signatures on them. There was one little kid who was occasionally lapsing into his own throat singing which was really really cool. And while we were talking to him on camera, all sorts of other people started swooping in, by foot, by bicycle, in much the same way that pigeons arrive when one starts getting fed. Everyone was curious about what we were doing but in a totally non-combative way. We talked to a few people, bought some more pictures, and moved to another part of the square.

This is where we saw the payphones. Now when I say payphones, forget about the picture that just flashed into your mind. These payphones are different. They're human. Yes, human payphones. It's what everyone calls them. They sit around on corners and on stoops holding a desk phone. You walk up to them, give them money, and you can place a call. The phones are on a CDMA network. Sometimes the payphones wear masks, supposedly to cut down on germs. We talked to one of the people involved in this but didn't make any calls. I was taken with how friendly these merchants were, completely unlike what I was used to.

Across the street we found one of the elusive Internet cards at a kiosk. I bought that and a prepaid phone card which would allow me to call the states for around eight cents a minute. We'll see about that. After stopping at a cafe in search of Mongolian Coke in a glass bottle (which we failed at and were forced to settle for Hong Kong Coke in a can), we headed back to the hotel after saying goodbye to Todd. After a bit of fine tuning, we got the connection established at a whopping 28.8 kbps. This certainly brought back some memories.

Later we took a walk back into town to get dinner. We had heard of a place with a California motif so we set out in the direction we had been told to go to get there. I have to say, of all the cities I have ever been in throughout my life, Ulaan Baatar has got to be the single most pedestrian unfriendly. Cars don't slow down in the least for people who are crossing. The white crosswalks mean nothing. Traffic lights are few and often inaccurate. A green walk signal may very well be overridden by a green signal in the other direction for the cars. The streets are wide with traffic flying from every direction, everyone honking at each other, cars cutting each other off in the narrow lanes, total and utter mayhem. And yet, I haven't seen a single accident or even someone getting noticeably angry. This was truly as different as I've ever seen.

But crossing the street was only half the fun. Once you're actually on what could pass for a sidewalk, you had to somehow find your way down its completely dark path, often being forced back out onto the street because of something blocking your progress. You most definitely have to be careful when doing this as all sorts of things are hiding in the darkness, from garbage to potholes to metal just jutting out of the pavement. And then I saw it: a manhole in the darkness with no cover at all. The guide books warn tourists of just this sort of thing, it being a two meter drop to the bottom. I honestly don't know how the people survive.

The California place was closed when we got there so we wound up going to a different one that claimed to have the best Chinese food around from an actual Chinese-born cook. When we got inside though, all they had was German food. That and a projection on the wall that showed fluctuating beer prices. Depending on when you ordered it, the same beer could cost anywhere between 1000 and 3100 togrog. Very weird.

We closed the day with a bit more confusion. Hanneke only wanted some fries at the German/Chinese place but we had trouble making that clear. The rest of the food eventually came so we asked them if her fries were coming. To illustrate the point, we pointed to the fries on my plate and gestured "two" since Hanneke wanted to get two portions since she wasn't getting anything else. More time passed and eventually the waiter came out and triumphantly placed a carbon copy of my dish in front of Hanneke. Completely not what she wanted. After asking for some clarification, we realized why they thought they should bring another one - we had pointed at the fries that were in front of me and that was interpreted as "bring another one." After some discussion, we found out that it was impossible to order what she did because fries were only a side dish that came with something else. We all realized that we weren't going to get anywhere so Hanneke relented and we figured out ways to divide the food we had so everyone got what they wanted. I wonder how many people I know would have gone the diplomatic route in a situation like this. It was clearly the right move to make since it was a genuine misunderstanding and the guy probably would get in some trouble for bringing the wrong thing. In Mongolia, life is about making changes to what you wanted in the first place and accepting that things are going to be somewhat unpredictable. From where I'm sitting, it's not such a bad way to live.