Sunday, 31 December 2006

Parties, Pageants, Hiking in the Bogdkhaan Uul

I’ve had a little trouble getting photographs onto this blog, so for the time being I’ve decided to stick to small file sizes - however, if you want to see any of the pictures in their full glory, and also photos I don’t have room for in the blog, please check out my new Flickr site (also under the Ulaanbaanjo name, there should be a link in the column on the right). Once I figure out the technology I may be able to improve the situation and make it a little more user friendly. And if anyone has any advice, please be encouraged to either leave a comment or send me an email

Thursday 28th, Friday 29th & Saturday 30th December 2006
Following the party at the Grand Khan, the social whirl has continued: I’ve attended the students’ Christmas/New Year party - much of which was taken up by a beauty pageant style contest judged by the teachers to find a King and Queen of the Prom; I was also given a gift from the students (a giant candy Christmas tree made in China for export to the US, listed ingredients include Titanium Dioxide). I’ve attended the teachers’ Christmas/New Year party, where entertainments included an inevitable contest to find out who the King and Queen of the teachers were (I feel I was let down in this by not wearing a suit, otherwise then my banjo turn would surely have won me a crown); we also had two ballet dancing angels who danced for 2 minutes and posed for photos for 20. We had a traditional singer perform a few songs - the singing style seems to be a fusion of western operatic singing and oriental tones and melodies. At the Grand Khaan we had a woman singing who I’d seen a video of on Mongolian TV a few times - a really powerful singer.

Having learnt the error of my ways since the party on Boxing Day, I sat at the ‘Wine’ table, with the older and calmer teachers rather than at a ‘Vodka’ table, on the understanding that I would so be able to civilly stick to a glass or two from the vine, rather than struggling to keep down distilled grain. Having sat down, a waiter then brought a half dozen beer and two vodka bottles to the table, and a single bottle of cheap red wine. Later in the evening the ‘Vodka’ tables got an additional bottle of quality ‘Chinggis’ vodka - our table got a bottle of real French red. Still, I managed to wilfully refuse all but the most obligatory vodka toasts. As the party wound up our glamorous principal arrived and shortly announced to a cheering audience of inspirited teachers that we had all been invited to the corporation’s employees’ party, which was being held at an expo centre on the far side of town. I gamely attended, danced without being drunk, listened to one of the top young Mongolian rock bands play their hits (they were pretty good), amongst a crowd of wildly enthusiastic photocopier engineers, teachers, waiters and god knows what other lines of business (and I am assured there are many) the corporation is involved in.

Saturday morning, regardless of having avoided the pitfall of drinking copious amounts of vodka, felt I really needed to clear my head. Yet another bright and glorious day, but with a particularly thick and orange morning smog. I left my apartment at 10am, walked across the edge of the centre, past the Ulaanbaatar Hotel and the statue of Lenin out front, and down a long avenue south with little traffic. My map showed this to be an alternative route over the railway and river south in the direction of the mountains to the busy road across the ‘Peace Bridge’ which I had walked on Christmas Day. After crossing over the tracks of the Trans- Mongolian the long straight road continued, through a very quiet area with even less traffic, smart new apartment blocks being built, and the mountains south and east clear and inviting.

The road surface seemed smooth and quite new, and walking almost the only sound was the steady crunch of the powdery snow beneath my boots, the sky here clean and deep blue. Past the last of the construction sites and then a large and fancy looking driving range. Had almost reached the mountains - the road carried on, rising, clearly to bridge the wide river that runs from west to east at the foot of the southern mountains. Strangely, there seemed to be a few obstacles in the road - it occurred to me that although there were no signs to warn of it, the bridge was incomplete. Left the road then and walked down to the wide, frozen river: and indeed, 20 feet above me the bridge continued half way across, and then abruptly stopped, pillars in the middle of the river awaiting the bridge’s completion. Later, I was told that it is not uncommon for unwary and usually unsober drivers to drive off the edge. I didn’t actually see any sign of this, although I’ll have to go back and check out if it’s possible. How long the bridge has been incomplete I don’t know - I do know that for the obvious reason of the deep subzero temperatures, most construction in Mongolia grinds to a halt for the winter months.

Now at the foot of the mountains, headed west up the frozen river. The river must have been frozen entirely solid, but I still trod a little warily. When I’d previously walked to the war memorial (Zaysan Tolgoy) I’d been very drawn to the hills that surrounded it in a horseshoe ridge - presumably a small glacial valley. I was dimly aware that these hills presumably formed part of a very old National Park I remembered reading about. The eastern foot of these hills came down a quarter mile upriver from the unfinished bridge. As I reached that point, I past a large group of fellers, all dressed in the colourful sashed robes, boots and fur hats of nomads, playing a sort of curling/bowls game on the ice with pucks of some sort. It was a very picturesque scene - regrettably my camera was playing up at the time. I left the river and struck off up the hillside.

The hill was quite steep, and the going fairly slippery with slow (yellowed grasses growing through), but I took my time, knowing it would be easier on the ridge, enjoying the warm sunlight and the ghost of green in the grasses above me; pausing frequently to look back down on the game in the ice, and the higher I climbed, looking back in wonder at the city, and the thick dark sea of smog above it: all the time myself breathing wonderful, clean air, and wondering why no one else in a city of a million people would be out here walking on so glorious a day. In Britain it is a very hit or miss thing to go out hill-walking at winter - you have to be very wary of changes in the weather, have precious little daylight to walk in either - the day seems to be darkening as soon as it has begun, and your spirits inevitably harden and darken with it. I don’t know what the air temperature was during yesterday’s climb - it may have been unseasonably warm, but was undoubtedly no more than -8C and could feasibly have been significantly less. With no wind, and the air dry and crisp, I felt a lot warmer and in none of the life-or-death rush to get to the top and down of climbing Snowdon on a wet and windy summer’s day.

After the first small peak, the ridge was easy to follow, and eventually I came across the boot tracks of other walkers. My geology is pretty much non-existent, the hills reminded me of the Lake District, smooth sided, with broken rock showing through. There was practically no litter at all, which seems incredible contrasted with the casual filth and grime of dear old UB. The hills are pristine, feel wild - and always you look back at the colourful, sprawling chaos of Ulaanbaatar - at the power stations belching out smoke to the West, at the crowded tower blocks, cranes and construction sites, at the barely visible northern ger districts rising on the slopes of the northern hills - then the snow covered mountain tops rising like islands from the dark grey sea of smoke above.

Looking down into the basin the ridge surrounded, at it’s lip is the rugged pyramid of rock (I would like to say basalt, except I only have a vague idea of what basalt actually is), topped by the very splendid Zaysan Tolgoy monument, looking not unlike Isengard. Beyond that, too, the golden, shining Buddha statue (according to my city map, the “highest, bronze-plated statue of Buddha” in the world!) and from the gardens, the big bronze bell ringing out intermittently, clear, heavy and deep. There are ger in the little valley, and I watched as a farmer herded his brown sheep and maybe goats from one pasture to another.

I continued along the ridge from small peak to peak, stopping often, looking about and smiling to myself. After a while I met my first other walker - a man in blue robe and orange sash, bearing a large sack of chopped fire wood on his back. He smiled and nodded when, I raised my hand, and continued his laborious way down along the ridge. On the higher slopes there is a large forest - how legal it is to chop down the wood I am not entirely certain. It’s an extensive forest, but I am guessing it wouldn’t feed the stoves of UB’s ger for a week if it was open game.

Eventually I approached an ominous looking battered old sign - some fierce cyrillic words and beneath: PROHIBITED AREA. Oops. It may have referred to the area East of the ridge trail I was following, which was to be my excuse if anyone challenged me over being there. Later, I had a fresh look at my map and my Bradt guide. The National Park south of Ulaanbaatar is called ‘Bogdkhaan Uul’ (or Bogd Khan, or Bogdhan) - ‘uul’ means mountain. It is Mongolia’s oldest protected area - a minister declared it such in 1778. I am yet a bit vague on the details, but the guide refers to both a “Strictly Protected Area” and a “Transition Zone” - so whether I was breaking any rules I am not sure. I have a feeling that the area may not be much policed in the winter, but that I might risk a fine walking it in tourist season. I am reluctant to enquire at the official Bogdkhaan office as I have a pretty strong feeling that they will say that I need a pass whatever - so I think I’ll get Mongolian friends to enquire for me.

I walked up into the timber line. Most of the trees seem to be dead or dormant (as well as not being a geologist, I am not a great expert on flora or fauna, either) - so it was a pleasant surprise to climb one peak and find a tree fresh and green. I don’t know what kind of evergreen it is, but it was round-topped and the green very light and bright, and so a further surprise among all the lifeless, conical pines. I sat on a rock that was almost warmed by the sun, and enjoyed the peace.

Being around 2pm, having got most the way along the eastern arm of the horseshoe, I decided to find a path down through the forest. I came across what seemed to be a sledge track down through the woods, and shortly found a sturdy piece of plastic sheeting. Had to give it a go, and so slid very quickly down through the trees, panicked a bit as I sped up and up and was also entirely unable to steer, carried down by the track. I managed to bring myself to a stop, and walked the rest of the way down. At the bottom, in the middle of the small valley, is a collection of ger and ramshackle wooden houses. Approaching this I passed a group of kids playing with a sledge - maybe having come down the way I’d just followed, maybe just pulling each other around on the flat. They followed me, laughing, introducing themselves with “Hello, may name is...”, giving me the ‘peace sign’ and shouting out bye-bye as I left.
Walked through the settlement towards the Buddha park, dogs barking at me, feeling invigorated and a little footsore too. Ignored the buses though, and carried on up towards the Peace Bridge, through the increasing noise and dirt, occasionally looking back at the mountains, which seem to get larger as they get fainter towards the city. Past two police traffic officers deep in joking conversation, one miming beating someone with his orange traffic baton, the other wearing`a full santa outfit (including beard) beneath his Day-Glo outer jacket. Plodded across Sukhbaatar square, gearing up for tomorrow night’s big celebration. The tree, according to the UB Post, is the first real Xmas tree the city has had: a splendid Spruce from the Bogdkhaan Uul. “We sought and received permission of the Environment Minister for this,” the city’s head of the Cultural Office hastened to add.

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Chim-chim-cheroo, Gifting, A Dog is for Life

Wednesday 27th December 2006
I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to learn that not only do we get Monday off for New Year, but also Thursday and Friday. I suspect that I am almost beginning to enjoy teaching, nonetheless a break will be very welcome. I still have to get up pretty early tomorrow because the 11th grade students have asked me to play a couple of tunes at their New Year’s Prom, and I agreed to head down there at 10am to run through ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ and ‘Let It Be’ with one of the students who is a pretty good guitar player. I have now committed myself to running a Bluegrass jam at the school one or two nights in the week.

Last night was our parent corporation’s New Year do at the Grand Khan, and of course also my banjo picking debut there. I had been asked to come down at 7pm to play at the night’s “opening ceremony”: when I got there I found out that they had a whole slew of professional entertainers lined up for the night, and that they meant for me to play outside alongside an accordion player in a Santa outfit. I was dismayed at the notion that I was to be expected to freeze my fingers off as some kind of amusing hillbilly freakshow, while the real musicians would be playing in the pub’s luxurious and warm interior. A troupe of dancers were running through their routine for the chimney sweep song from ‘Mary Poppins’ as I sulked and Lhagvaa very generously said I could play a few tunes with a keyboard lounge jazz player. The old guy didn’t look massively thrilled at the honour of backing me up, but he gamely suggested ‘Country Roads’ as a song he knew, and of course picked up the ‘Worried Man Blues’ very easily.

Outside there’d been fireworks (and an accordion playing Santa), then the guests rolled in, in their tailored suits and flowing ball gowns. Tables for the serving of free booze were everywhere - a limitless supply of beer, wine, whisky and of course vodka - all the very best stuff. I did my best to pace myself and had a glass of beer then a bottle of Guinness before I played. Then a large Chivas Regal with plenty of ice as the lounge Jazz carried on and I hung around feeling very scruffy in my Wranglers, waiting to be called on to play, thinking that piano man had decided to just ignore me. The crowd were all elegantly dressed and suavely enjoying their wealth and privilege, and I couldn’t quite see “Now we’ll pick things up with a bit of Hillbilly music, folks!” going down too well. The professional dancers filled the floor and the PA blasted out Chim-chim-cheroo. Finally, just as I had decided that maybe I would have another whisky, the excitable announcer jumped up and let loose a string of showman talk and flung out his arm in my direction. There was a polite scatter of clapping, the keyboard player looked at me with world-weary reserve and I stepped up onto the stage.

Well it didn’t go down like a lead balloon, at least, and one guy shook my hand when I stepped of the stage, with what I felt was admiration - doubtless for my bravely giving it a go in spite of my obvious shortcomings. There was no rapturous applause, however, and kind of glad it was over, I settled down to some uninterrupted (except by amazing food) drinking. Let me assure any prospective future employers that there is no way that I would have allowed myself to drink excessively on a week night - but the principal and various big wigs from the school and the corporation behind it gave me every encouragement. I am sure that my extremely agile and energetic dancing later in the evening won me the many admirers that my banjo playing had failed to arouse; I am sure, but the memory is a bit hazy, so let’s just say it did.

Woke up this morning feeling considerably less than great, and then some. Sunlight was pouring into my bedroom - grabbed my watch: 9am. Got up and showered, brushed my teeth and gargled mouthwash. Did not really feel much better. Thinking that it might not be such a good idea to turn up in front of class drunk, I phoned the School. Someone answered in Mongolian, I said Good Morning and my name, they said something else in Mongolian and hung-up. I have spent so much time boasting to my employer that I never take a day off work that I realised that I would have no option but to go in, and catch my 10am lesson. This I did. The freezing walk didn’t really freshen me up any, but it certainly woke me up a bit more. I had three classes left to get through. Stayed sat down for them and didn’t write anything on the blackboard, which would have made me feel nauseous. Kept as far away from the students as possible, and found that, in all, the lessons went fine. Had a good chat with one of the best students in one of my worst classes after the lesson: she said that the previous teacher, an American who quit just before I arrived, had ranted at them on a regular basis about how much he hated teaching them. They aren’t bad kids, but this class simply do not understand the work that they are being shoved through - I need to go back over basic grammar with them, and hopefully some of it will stick.

Lunchtime I decided not to brave the canteen. Yuan Yuan, the Chinese teacher, arrived carrying a waste paper bin and a smile. In the bin she had a shivering puppy that she’d found out on the street. I guess it was a couple weeks old and in a sorry state, but didn’t look injured and its eyes weren’t glazed. I suggested she get a little rice and milk for it (my friend’s dog has just been ill, and the vet told them just to feed it that).

She came back shortly with a little bowl of the rice and milk, and the news that the school had told her that she must not keep the dog on the premises. “He’s so nice,” she said, “you take him, Jim. Yes, you like him.” “I can’t take a dog, Yuan, and I don’t know anybody here I could give him to.” “Yes, you take him, you like dog. He so lovely.”

I guess the drink still hadn’t quite worn off; I agreed to take the dog if she still had it after my next and final lesson. But I’d be taking him to the vet for an injection or finding someone with a gun. Yuan said it was no problem, I could just put him back out onto the street, and I was so very kind. “Please don’t ask me for any more favours, Yuan: you’ve used them all up.” She laughed.

We took the shivering dog back to my apartment (“Here your new home, dog! Very nice!”) and tipped the little feller into the bath. I showered him for about 20 minutes, until the water ran off him clear. He didn’t protest much and drank a bit of the water. I dried him a bit with a tea-towel and then carried him through to the kitchen, putting him down on a folded seat cover in a plastic basin. He lay curled up, and I shut the kitchen door and went for an hour or so to lie down.

I felt better when I got up. Checked in on the dog, who I’d decided to call Jamsran, after the chief ‘Wrathful Deity’ in the Mongolian/Tibetan Buddhist canon. He looked considerably better, and was still curled up in the basket. I had to go back to the school for a teachers’ meeting. Would try and get some dog food on the way back. The meeting turned out to be about the Christmas ‘Secret Santa’ system that the school runs. We had been asked, last week, to pick a number and so a name of one of the sixty or so members of staff. That person we would secretly give a gift to during the week. The gift was typically a chocolate bar or piece of cake. On the staff room door was a list of the names of the staff, with a column along side it for each of the days of the last week in the year. Throughout the week, it was eventually explained to me, people put stars or smiley faces next to their name as they received a gift. I got a piece of cake one day and a coffee mug on another. Smiley faces on the chart. Some members of staff had dozens of smileys, and some none. There was a great deal of gleeful excitement amongst many of the teachers about the whole process. Well, tonight was the grand finale of the whole thing - which I had had no idea about. A teacher read through the names on the list and then revealed who that person’s ‘Secret’ Santa was. They then gave the person they’d received a chocolate bar or piece of cake from an extremely expensive looking gift (a lot of framed paintings, baskets with champagne bottles and chocolates in, etc.) out of gratitude. It took about an hour to go through the whole list. I was the only person who hadn’t bought a gift for my secret Santa. Myself, I received a plastic bag, containing the very same box of chocolates that I had given as a gift, and a bound notebook. Is there any meaning to the return of the original gift in Mongolian culture? Was this some kind of snub?

After the long, long process of sitting through the counter-gifting we then each had a gift to collect with a lottery ticket we had each been given. Some people had dozens of tickets, so I assume that the school had been selling additional tickets. I stood in front of the gift table, hungry, tired and hung-over, while a mad scramble of teachers pushed past me to get their gift or gifts. I got another mug.

I was starting to worry a bit about having left Jamsran so long, was mentally preparing myself for a torrent of abuse off Puru’s mother for keeping a stray dog in my apartment. One of the teachers had told me that you need a license for a pet, and also gone on about the various illnesses the stray would probably have. Thankfully, things were drawing to a close at the school. There was now a raffle for which our lottery tickets doubled. A dozen prizes of ascending spectacularness, each winner being accompanied by much cheering and jollity. Sadly, I didn’t win anything; finally, the humidifier and the (drumroll) deep fat fryer were triumphantly carried off and I was able to leave.

Stopped off at a small supermarket on the way home in hope of finding dog food, but no such luck. Would try the bigger supermarket further past the apartment. First though to drop off my gifts and check up on Jamsran.

He had certainly picked up his spirits. He’d knocked over the bin, figured out what I’d put the newspaper down for (Good boy!) and playfully chewed at my boots as I walked in. I left the kitchen to discard my coat and he started to yelp as though he was testing out his voice: it sounded like he would have the capacity to get a fair bit louder. Felt very paranoid about my neighbours complaining, and tired and hungry. Went back into the kitchen and cut small slices of smoked sausage, which I attempted to get Jamsran to sit down for. He wanted more; he scratched at fleas. I left the kitchen, and he again started barking.

I would have to take Jamsran to the vet tomorrow, and I was supposed to be going to the students’ prom for ten. Well, gentle reader, I thought it through. I could not house train a puppy and leave it alone in the apartment every day. He’d been washed, warmed up, fed some. It wouldn’t be fair to let him get any more used to the apartment. If I took him to the vet, it would be for injection, because I couldn’t look after a dog. Maybe if I let him out near some warm pipes somewhere he might survive the night. Maybe some other dogs would look after him, like the cheery bunch I’d seen peering out of a hole in the ground near the market. I cut a few more slivers of sausage and put some newspaper down in the bottom of my school bag, wrapped Jamsran up in a teatowel, gave him a couple of slices to chew, and placed him in the bag. He sat quietly as I zipped the bag up.

Puru and Mungun knocked on the door just as I was leaving - to give me a present of a 2007 calendar featuring the President of Mongolia or somebody. “Thank you, thank you, very nice. I’ve got to go out now, thank you.” Jamsran shifted in the bag, but didn’t bark. I did not want to let the kids see him. I did wonder why it is that you’re always smuggling puppies out of buildings to abandon them in the arctic cold when you’re hungover. Some kind of penance, I guess.

Jamsran kept quiet as I descended the six floors and left the building. It was some time after nine, and there were plenty of people about. I walked away from the tower blocks, hoping that I would get a chance to stop and let Jamsran out without anyone walking past. Maybe I should just unzip the bag and leave it somewhere.

As chance would have it, just round the corner from my building, I saw a homeless guy emerging from a manhole. I hurried over. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” I tried. The guy, who was not too scarily drunk, looked a bit confused. “Please, I have a dog,” I continued, opening my bag like a kitchen appliance salesman. He called to someone else beneath the ground, and a young lad climbed up.

I have been warned very strictly to avoid the homeless people here: the manner of these two (luckily) seemed to be very gentle and understanding. The young man held Jamsran against his chest and stroked him. They didn’t seem to be expecting any payment so I quickly handed them a T10,000 note, for which they were very grateful. I hurried off, feeling a little sad, but immensely relieved. Maybe things will work out for Jamsran.

With a certain sense of irony, I walked to the Korean restaurant, and treated myself to dinner for my good deed. The meat in my Bi Biim Bap was very good, although I couldn’t decide if it was pork or beef.

London and Belfast residents: Lhagvaa and ‘Beer Band’ are flying over to Europe today and playing sometime somewhere in your town! Lhagvaa does not know the details, but the Mongolian Embassy may know as they have sponsored their trip. Go see them, and say hi. Oh and tell them how famous and well-respected I am as a musician in Europe

Monday, 25 December 2006

Merry Christmas, Zanabazar Museum

Monday 25th December

Merry Christmas!

Yesterday I met a young American doctor whilst getting a meal at a Korean restaurant. He’s over here as part of an exchange program, working in Accident & Emergency for a few weeks. He had a piece of advice for me: “Whatever you do in Mongolia, don’t get sick. There’s a reason you don’t see old people here.”

Managed to get myself up, fed and out at a reasonable hour of the morning today. It was snowing when I left the house, which was very apt and seasonal, although the sun was shining brightly too: looking around, there did not seem to be any clouds in the sky. Quite possibly, as part of the seasonal celebrations, the city had a giant snow making machine hid behind one of the tower blocks, bellowing out chemically manufactured flakes.

Crossing Sukhbaatar Square I noticed that they were still putting up decorations around the tree that was erected yesterday: it has miniature Santas crawling up it, and a big red soviet star on the top. I guess the decorations may actually be getting put up for New Year’s Eve, but possibly they are just being erected on an unfathomable Mongolian schedule.

After a long visit to the Zanabazar Fine Art Museum (on which more later in this post) I started to walk south out of the city , heading for the War Memorial, with the intention of taking the day-time photographs I had promised after my previous night-time visit to the spectacular location. Outside a restaurant near the centre I was very impressed to see a bunch of guys putting finishing touches to a splendid ice sculpture of four life-sized horsemen, leading the way for a bronze sculpture of Genghis behind them. I got a couple of decent photographs, and a laconic sculptor taking a cigarette break took one of me pretending to carve the ice, before the battery failed on my camera.

Crossed the Peace Bridge out of the city: it takes four lanes of traffic over a wide valley of railway tracks (including the Trans Mongolian), concrete-clad pipes, and a sorry-looking frozen river. The view to the west is dominated by the city’s two monstrous, smoke-belching power stations. Half way over the bridge, eight fully battle-dressed Mongolian horsemen came charging from the other direction into the city. Behind them followed a cart pulled by two horses, containing a somewhat slim, but doubtless merry, white-bearded and crimson-clad fellow. Now that is Christmas, Mongolian style! I carried on walking in the direction of the looming mountains.

It doesn’t take long to walk out of the city and reach the Bronze Buddha park at the foot of the 'Zaysan Tolgoy', War Memorial’s hill. On the way I passed a lot of construction sites where, to judge from the completed sites, ‘luxury’ apartments in the shape (very approximately) of Bavarian castles, garishly painted, will be built. Otherwise, the usual mysterious pipes and broken concrete structures abound. Managed the few hundred steps up the monument without too great difficulty; passed an empty plastic ‘Vodka Blackcurrant’ drink cup near the bottom - further up, a mysterious splash of frozen purple fluid in the centre of the steps. The view, climbing and from the top, is splendid. The mountains look very Scottish, are dappled with snow, and forested with firs. Beyond the Monument there are a few old soviet buildings and a few ger encampments. Was very drawn to make my way up the encircling ridge of hills - if I can get out there earlier in the day maybe next weekend I could give it a try. Looking back at Ulaanbaatar, it is at least more visible than at night. Unbelievable that these hundreds upon hundreds of apartment blocks are barely lit after dark. It is a smoggy and scrappy sight: a considerable contrast with the beauty of the mountains.

Walked back into the city, deciding to treat myself to another restaurant meal. Unfortunately, the American Ger’ll Bar was closed for a private function, so I had very good Indian food at Los Bandidos Indian & Mexican Restaurant - indeed, Los Bandidos is Mongolia’s Only Indian & Mexican Restaurant - fancy that!

So, the Zanabazar Fine Art Museum. At the Choijin Lama Temple the other day none of the guides spoke English, but the lady who ran the gift shop spoke very fluent English indeed. She was reading a copy of ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’, although was reluctant to be drawn into conversation on it. “Ah,” I said, “’The Beautiful and the Damned’: one of my favourite novels.” “Yes,” she replied neutrally. “F Scott Fitzgerald is a really fine writer,” I ventured. “Yes.” It didn’t look as though we’d be starting a book club, so I had a look at the odds and ends on display. She was much more vocal on the merits of various pieces of tat (and otherwise - there was plenty of interesting stuff in the shop too, to be fair) for sale. Because I was a volunteer in Mongolia (I didn’t hasten to disabuse her of this notion) I would be entitled to a special rate and not have to pay “tourist prices.” Wow. Of course, as everything in the shop was labelled but nothing was priced, I had no way of ascertaining the veracity of this statement and - call me a cynic - I suspect that the T1000 I paid for a Mongolia sticker for the old banjer case was the same amount a mere tourist would have to shell out. I said that I was particularly taken with the Temple’s collection of traditional Mongolian devotional art, and enquired whether there were any other collections on display in Ulaanbaatar. “No,” shopkeep answered very vaguely, “well, some of the other Temples have some art, but our collection is the best.” She would be very surprised, then, to learn that in the centre of UB I found, with the help of my Bradt guide, the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Art - a museum entirely devoted to Buddhist devotional art.

Arrived at the Zanabazar Museum at 11am this morning. It’s a fine old dour soviet era building. The ground floor seems to be being prepared for an exhibit of some sort, but I was allowed upstairs to view the main collection. Again, I was the only visitor, but was allowed to view without a curator “tsk”ing at my heels. As I left each room, however, the lights were turned out, in what may have been something of a hint.

There’s some interesting Bronze Age pieces in the museum: I am assuming that I’ll find more at the Museum of Mongolian History so will pass over these for now. The centre of the collection is a room of bronze work by the master of the Mongolian Renaissance, Zanabazar (1635 - 1724). I took some notes from the decently labelled displays.

Zanabazar was the grandson of a Khan and so a direct descendant of the great Chinngis - always a good pedigree for a Mongolian national hero. He was born on the 25th day of the 9th month of the year of the Wooden Boar, which I don’t need to tell you is “the best day for the meeting of fairy goddesses between the autumn & winter.” As a young child he studied in Tibet as a disciple of the 5th Dalai Lama and was proclaimed to be the first reincarnation of the Bogd Jivzundamba. He received the title of Khalkun Gegeenten, or “Holy Saint.” He founded numerous monasteries and temples in Mongolia (his first when he was just 13).

He “created an ideogram and derived script in 1686 which he named ‘Svayambu” meaning ‘self-enlightening’; the ideogram, today the state symbol of Mongolia, was intended to express the idea ‘May the Mongol nation exist by its own right.’”

Zanabar’s bronze castings of buddhist deities are the work for which he was best known. The pieces in the museum are very fine, and about a foot and a half in height. The main pieces at the Fine Arts Museum are the five Buddhas, representing the defeat of “the five evils: anger, ignorance, pride and greed.” I am assuming that this list is a sort of buddhist mystery or joke, something like the painting of ‘The Three Asses.” The five appear alike, but “every detail of each differs.”

Zanabazar’s works “embody the 32 and 80 features (32 inner content, 80 iconographic[?]) for depiction of the beautiful human body, which include proportionality of the body and its various parts, strength, youthful muscles, straight and shapely shoulders and limbs, rounded waist and so on; so Zanabazar’s works were the Mongolian mode of Mankind’s dream of aesthetics.”

There is an excellent collection of Mongolian Thangka paintings, Mandalas and applique (embroidered silk) wall-hangings. The Thangka and Mandalas are basically of the Tibetan school of devotional art - which Liverpool residents can see an extremely good collection of at the World Museum. Thangka painting came to Mongolia in the early 19th Century and reached its artistic peak in the early 20th century. These portraits of deities are characterised by “precise anatomical proportion, the incorporation of symbolism from religious parables and artistic amplification.” They’re very trippy. The ‘Ten Wrathful Deities’ - the protecting demons of Buddhism of which our pal in coral Jamsran seems to be chief - are a favourite subject.

Mandalas, the museum informs, serve to invoke ”the Holy Force within the contemplator... not communion outside oneself with the Divin Power, but an ecstasy or invocation whose purpose is to find and realise the... Divine Power in one’s own heart.” The Mandalas are designed to suit “all levels of consciousness... for the spiritually highly developed, for average people and for the people not yet developed... who are politely referred to as children.” The Mandalas will typically incorporate into their design the Eight Auspicious Symbols: The White Conch, The Wheel, The Lotus Flower, The Auspicious Drawing, The Golden Fish, The Vase of Treasure, The Victory Banner and The Precious Umbrella. My favourite is The Precious Umbrella.

The final section of the museum is mostly devoted to the art of Marzan Sharav - and features his most famous work ‘A Day in the Life of Mongolia’: a large traditional zurag painting on cloth - which depicts many colourful incidents typical of Mongolian nomad life (and with a great deal of humour). I spent a good while absorbing some of the details: wool and hides are prepared; a blacksmith’s privates are exposed when his pants catch fire: an old man points and his wife covers her eyes; sheep are butchered, and someone throws a boot at a dog escaping with a sheep’s head - it jumps over a roll of wool, beneath which a man and woman secretly embrace; a priest says rites over a dead body in the desert while dogs (or wolves) watch - other dogs meanwhile devour a fresh corpse, while vultures pick at the remains of another; men brawl in various encampments; at the top of the picture trees are felled and carpenters work the wood at the edge of the forest; there feasts, traders, ger being assembled, women attacked by snakes that have hidden in their baskets; farmers tend fields and scrubland is burned; at an encampment of camels a man and wife make love, and a midwife assists at the birth of a child.

Saturday, 23 December 2006

Cruelty, The Choijin Lama Temple

Saturday 23rd December
Yesterday evening my former helper Puru got a severe dressing-down in front of me by her mother, for neglecting her duties cleaning the halls etc by taking time to tidy my apartment. Her mother (or grandmother or aunt - I don't know which) drove home one point by slapping the poor girl backhanded across the mouth. It was a sorry scene. I felt particularly useless and stupid as of course I could contribute nothing except protests in English. I had had a cleaner start working for me earlier in the day: I may see if she can speak to the vicious woman for me to clarify matters. Meanwhile, the incident did at least spur me to make a phonecall to the Christina Noble Children's Foundation - who work with street kids in Ulaanbaatar, please visit the link on the right where you can sponsor a child from $24 per month - to see about doing some voluntary work out here whilst I'm getting paid an extremely comfortable salary teaching the spoilt offspring of the city's wealthy.

Today the sun was glorious and in the direct sunlight, felt almost warm. I walked down to the Choijin Lama Temple. Traditionally, Mongolia’s Buddhist temples were mobile structures, to move with the mobile population. From the end of the 19th Century more permanent structures of wood and brick were built. During the 1930s however, the majority were destroyed by the communists. Of the few surviving temples, according to my Bradt guide to Mongolia, Choijin Lama, built around 1905, is one of the finest.

The temple compound is close to the centre of Ulaanbaatar. It is surrounded by half built concrete towers and cranes, but faces south where the mountains loom blue and impressive. The curling roofs and their carved and painted eaves are dimmed and coated by the city’s dust. The Choijin Lama Temple is a museum now: June to September traditional Mongolian ‘Tsam’ masked dances are held here: on this fine sunny December afternoon I was the only visitor.

A guide opened each of the different temples for me and did her best not to show impatience as I slowly strolled around the chilly interiors. The main temple building has dozens of glass cases containing the elaborate and monstrous Tsam costumes. The daddy of the lot is this here costume, which I believe is Jamsran. The mask is made of coral, and weighs thirty kilos. That’s more than three full-size bluegrass banjos! The total weight of the costume is 70kgs. The sign on the case notes that the costume is worn by particularly strong and healthy young men.

There are many fine brass and gilted buddhas and the like. I was particularly interested in two paintings one of the ‘cold hells’ and one of the ‘hot hells’: many amusing little Bosch-like details (a flaming elephant walking on sinners; demons using naked men as pack animals; naked warriors chopping each other to pieces: all the damned wearing dolorous and pained expressions, as you might expect).

A frequent motif in the temples is that the ceilings are often decorated in what I guess is Genghis-fashion: with rows of the carcasses of enemies hanging down from broken knees. I first noticed these painted on the ceiling in one temple and so was pleased to see silk, stitched corpses tied together with pink silken entrails around what I take to have been the throne of the chief priest of the complex.

Most tantalising stop on the tour was The Temple of Yadam: forbidden to the public when the Temple was operating as intended - home of secret Tantric rites. After the gruesome silk work mentioned above, I had hoped for something outrageous and carnal in the decor, and so was a bit disappointed. Finally, paid my respects to the Mongolian deity of Banjo-playing, a cheery-faced little chap, who has his home, most appropriately, in the Temple of Peacefulness.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Banjos & Morale, Statistics

Thursday 21st December 2007
[temporary edit]

In this climate, and Christmas being just round the corner (which we teachers from God-fearing Christian nations get off as a holiday out of respect for our deeply held religious beliefs), I saw it as my duty today to do my best for school morale by bringing my banjo into work with me today. I am ever reminded of the importance that the great Ernest Shackleton placed on the banjo in helping bring his men through the ordeal of 18 months or so trapped in the Antarctic: “It’s vital mental medicine, and we shall need it.” I played in most of my classes (although managed to also actually teach some, too), and also in the school lobby and staff room. On 26th December the corporation which owns the school and numerous other enterprises, including the Grand Khan Irish Pub, have now formally requested that I perform at said prestigious venue (which a colleague informs me is the most expensive restaurant in Mongolia) for the corporation Christmas Party. The request was made through the school - I was given the number of what presumably turned out to be the manager (who I'd already met many times) to phone to make the necessary arrangements. I am not very good with Mongolian names yet. After googling the correct name of the pub - now changed in all posts - I discover that my ambition of being the first banjo player to pick at the Grand Khan has already been crushed - see link on the side panel

Was charmed yesterday to uncover another little feature of my soviet time-capsule of an apartment (which I have had to sign a contract for today - have refused to sign the inventory until it is itemised - I need to know if I can take the collection of cheap pottery elephants and the puppy emerging from a barrel with me) . Up on the wall by the door to the flat there is a battered little plastic box which I had thought was some kind of heater or ventilator. My young home help (whose name I asked and found out is Puru Tstszga - her little sister is Mungun Tstszga) gestured at it and I realised that it has a little plug. Once inserted the right way round the box came alive and beautiful cello music played in a haunting blend of classical western and oriental style wafted out. The radio is tuned to only one station, and I guess was there for the voice of Big Brother back in the communist era. I tried to stop them but Puru and Mungun insisted on tidying my flat yesterday which took them about an hour. I gave them a few candies and some bacon to give to their parents (ok - it’s Mongolian bacon which I tried and don’t like. I buy expensively delicious imported Hungarian bacon for my own consumption now) - and of course also thanked them by playing 'Old MacDonald Had a Farm.' Mungun thanked me by bowing down to the floor in a ‘salaam’ gesture. Through someone at school I am aiming to hire a cleaner so I can avoid either cleaning up for myself or becoming dependent on child labour.

The UB Post, which is one of two Mongolian English language weeklies, has printed the National Statistic Office’s report on the ‘Economic and Social Situation of Mongolia.’ I learn that my salary is certainly a comfortable one here - for the first time I find myself beating a national average: by more than four times. What’s more, I am going a good way towards keeping my monthly expenditure below the N.A. (T242,000) - having no rent to pay and being such a tight-fisted bastard. The average monthly income in Mongolia (T190,000) is up 42.6% on last year. I don’t know how inflation stands here but the stats say household expenditure is up 9.6% on last year, so I guess the average Mongolian’s standard of living has probably improved (the average salary being T52,000 below the average expenditure notwithstanding).

Production of beverages, handbags, fur, petrol, clocks and coal are up! But, sadly, knitted goods, spirit alcohol, metal sleepers and macaroni noodles are down.

Concentration of Nitrogen Dioxide in the 13th microdistrict was 19 times the maximum allowable quantity for air quality; various other stats relating to atmospheric pollution baffle me but look suitably ominous. Incidentally, I can’t believe that I managed to write about my trip to the country without mentioning the wonder and sheer joy of breathing such (however cold) fabulously clean air for a day.

Crimes against freedom, human rights and reputation are down 50%! Attempted murder is up a mere 5.7%,’ negligent murder ‘(well, you know, with the best will in the world, it’s going to happen from time-to-time) a better 9.1% and death by ‘unfortunate occasion’ (most regrettable) a respectable 20.5%.

Finally, the report tells us that for the first 11 months of 2006 the nation had in total “2,492 disasters of T5.4 billion loss registered” in which 178 people died, 1061 ger and houses burned down and 14.6 thousand head of livestock were lost. No indication in the report as whether this is up or down on 2005.

Now to do my bit for the flagging Mongol spirit alcohol industry. Cheers!

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

China's WTO Membership, Generosity, Serious Discipline Issues

Tuesday 19th December
Yesterday I went for a meal at a Chinese restaurant with one of the school’s Chinese teachers, Yuan Yuan, and her friend. On Friday Yuan Yuan had asked if I could help her friend by checking over her dissertation for her Masters degree. I would be very happy to help, I said, but it might take some time to check through it all. Oh, that was not a problem, her friend had “19 day” before she had to hand the work in. “19 days to do the work?” I asked. “No, 19 day, 12 month,” Yuan replied with a smile. “The 19th of December?” I asked, reluctant to hear the reply. Yuan smiled again and nodded: “Yes, 19 December.” “Next Tuesday, the 19th of December?” although by now the question was purely rhetorical. “Yes.”

The dissertation turned out to be 50 turgid pages of economics; the subject being the advantages and benefits of China’s membership of the WTO. Most of the english was passable, however there was a slight problem with inconsistencies in the text. I made a brief check on the internet and confirmed that China has been a member of the WTO since 2001; all the material that the student had lifted from the internet spoke of China’s future membership: almost the entire paper was written about possible outcomes of something that had already happened. I spent a good four hours of Friday night drinking vodka and orange and changing the tense of what seemed to be every sentence in the paper - and resisting the temptation to spice up the dissertation by turning it into a reckless argument in favour of democracy sprinkled with a few choice phrases about the beloved Chairman Mao or the ideological bankruptcy of the ruling Communist regime.

Anyhow, as thanks for my selfless generosity, Yuan and her friend treated me to a meal at one of their favourite restaurants. It was 10 minutes walk from school in the opposite direction from my apartment; just next-door to the Wrestling Palace. Disappointingly, no be-diapered Mongolian wrestlers were catching a quick snack between bouts - maybe next time. The food was very nice - Szechuan, I believe, and a welcome relief from the school meals and my own uninspired cooking ; which are between them now starting to grind me down a little. Not nearly as good as Beijing, of course, but far closer to Beijing than Chinese food in the UK. I have no idea how much it cost because I didn’t make even a token suggestion that I pay anything. During the meal (and very happily after we had already been served) I had the excitement of experiencing my first Ulaanbaatar power-outage. It seems that it was only our building affected as light still came in from the street, and in about 15 minutes the power was back on. Yuan Yuan also kindly taught me essential Mongolian taxi driver speak (if memory serves me correctly): “tsu “(left), “balong”(right) and tchigili (straight on). I now have about a half dozen things I can say, which at this rate I should have the vocabulary of an underachieving dullard by the end of my stay.

While we're on the subject of my selfless generosity, I somehow neglected to boast that after being paid Friday (joy), I took a walk down to the old State Department Store and bought my two very good friends and helpers (whose names I still don’t know - must remember to learn how to ask) from the apartment building a colouring book and pencils each - which I was able to give them when they called round early that evening to see if I needed any chores doing. I took a photograph as evidence of my joy-bringing generosity, which, while it may know bounds, is at any rate now proven.

[temporary edit]

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Genghis Khan, Horse Belly, Old MacDonald Had a Ger

Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th December
Thursday and Friday I suffered with a very heavy cold, still making it to school and heroically managing my enormous workload of classes. Happily, I managed to recover most of my strength by the weekend. The Mongolian family I know had invited me to join them on a visit to their relatives in Baganuur, a town some 75 miles from Ulaanbaatar - which meant that I would make my first journey through the Mongolian countryside. The family - husband and wife Tso and Shinee and their daughter Misheel - arrived to pick me up around 8am on Saturday morning: we were leaving early to catch the sunrise. The outskirts of Ulaanbaatar as we headed East took us through crowded Ger districts, where the smoke was thickly rising from chimneys: picturesque, but also a considerable contribution to UB’s air pollution problem. The road itself was cracked and broken, filled with craterous pot holes. The scenery, however is quite spectacular - the mountains surrounding UB are part of one of the country’s longest-established national parks - and before too long the charming grime of the capital was left behind, and we were passing herds of sheep, goats and horses, where the ger now belonged to livestock herders. Everything was dusted with snow, though happily for the grazing animals the tops of the grass still shows brownly through. Sunrise was quick and dazzling, and brought with it the unearthly blue skies that had greeted me to Mongolia two weeks ago, and the memory of which had been a little lost in Ulaanbaatar’s grimy haze. Happily for the top of my skull and any eventual long-term effect on the roof of the car, the road surface improved too. Considering that this was the only road East out of UB (as far as I can gather) we met precious little traffic coming in to the home of half the nation’s population; such traffic as was largely consisted of big green trucks overloaded with furs and hides.

Our first stop was to see a forty foot tall shining steel representation of old Genghis himself, sat astride a Horse and glowering out over distant mountains and grasslands. This statue, The Chinggis Khaan Monument, is quite an awe-inspiring sight: it’s also somewhat surreal in its present state as the statue has been built, but not the base - so it is currently supported about 15 feet above the ground on iron girders, and a giant crane stands beside the fierce father (both figuratively and, statistically speaking, literally) of the nation.

Shortly afterwards we stopped for breakfast: tea, ham and gherkins. My companions introduced me to another Mongolian culinary delight - they dropped slices of ham into their tea (which was English Breakfast tea, for your information). I decided not to join them in this.

Shinee’s younger brother lives in the residential district of Baganuur. The town entirely consists of the familiar concrete soviet architecture: the lack of the bumper to bumper (and too often closer) traffic of UB made a welcome change. As in the capital though, the streets were full of people wrapped up well but otherwise ignoring the chill and passing the time of day in a very cheery manner. Our host’s apartment was in a building even closer to disintegration than mine; the apartment itself, of course, was very comfortable, modern and clean - in complete contrast to my own.

We were treated to our second breakfast of the day: tea, sweet pastries, some chopped ham and gherkins and an enormous bowl of cold horse meat. Tso very enthusiastically tucked into the horse meat, and carved me off a big piece. Of course it tasted very good. I asked what the large and less than appetising thing was in the middle of the bowl and was not surprised to learn that it was the stomach. Tso sliced off a piece that I was surprised to see him manage to fit in his mouth and laughed as he insisted that I try some. The verdict? Well, certainly chewy, with an interesting texture. I am sure that it has many beneficial properties.

Eating was not entirely the business of the day, but the rest served only as interludes. We paid a brief visit to the town square, where there is a monument to the town’s favourite son: a greatly admired early 20th century poet and writer and general champion of the Mongolian language.

For the afternoon, now accompanied by two of Shinee’s brothers and their wives, we drove out into the countryside along a frozen mud track for several miles, to a Ger camp: one of the many tourist camps in the country, which do not only serve as an attraction for foreign visitors, but which are a convenient way for town and city dwelling Mongolians to stay in touch with their nomadic roots. I don’t know the figures, but I imagine that the majority of Mongolians are now apartment dwellers - nonetheless, only going back as far as their grandparents’ lives must probably take the overwhelming majority of Mongolians back to the Ger.

We had to wait about half an hour in a small restaurant building whilst the stove was lit in our ger. Once it was ready the party tramped over to it through the crisp snow. First, however, I paid a visit to the ger where our evening meal was being prepared by two cooks. As soon as I stepped inside the heat enveloped me. The stove in this ger had been burning for hours and the entire place was as warm as you could possibly want it. My attention was occupied by the stove, in which the fire was burning fiercely. A round lid had been removed from the top and in it a large pressure-cooking pan was placed. There was an inch or two of fiercely boiling water in the bottom of the pan. One of the cooks used tongs to remove red-hot stones from within the stove; these were then dropped hissing into the pan. Next, a layer of meat - large chunks of red beef on the bone - were pressed down onto the stones. This was followed by another layer of stones and another of beef, until the pan was almost filled. Finally, a packet of chopped herbs was sprinkled liberally in and what little space remained at the top of the pan was filled with peeled potatoes, carrots and swedes. The steam and odours arising from the pan were already pretty enticing. The lid was fitted and the pan left on the heat of the stove (although with the hole in the stove top re-covered too): I was told that it would be left to cook for half an hour.

Our own ger was not as hot as the kitchen ger, but was certainly warm enough. The atmosphere was very convivial; the ger was prettily decorated by the hand painted wooden furniture - chests doubling as beds around the side of the ger and a a big table doubling as a chest in the middle. I warmed myself by the stove until Shinee told me that the men’s side of the ger was across the table on the far side from the stove, to which I reluctantly but manfully retired. Touching the woollen sides of the ger I was surprised that I felt no chill at all. The camp is by a frozen river and it must easily have been past -20c outside.

Whilst we waited for our food there was a round of shots of Chinggis Vodka accompanied by toasts of very high-minded sentiment. There were a good few of these. Finally, the pressure cooker was brought in and the lid removed, issuing gouts of rich-smelling steam . I was served with a sizeable piece of backbone, and we all ate heartily with our hands, exactly as I had previously only seen in cartoons and Robin Hood movies. The result was extremely good - the meat wonderfully well cooked and seared by the hot stones. I ate the marrow or whatever the buttery stuff is in the middle of the vertebrae - very tasty. After eating, we took up the hot stones and juggled them from hand to hand - this being good for the circulation, apparently. Then more Vodka.

I went out into the starry night to slide around on the frozen river for ten minutes or so with the kids. Damn cold outside but a very suitable after dinner pastime. Back in the ger my banjo had been got out for me and left to warm up on a bed at the back. I very happily repaid the hospitality of my hosts by playing through a good number of tunes and singing as well as the vodka had left me able. 'Old MacDonald Had a Farm' is definitely going down well here. Apparently the song is known to Mongolian kids with lyrics in their own language. They only get animal noises at the end of verses rather than throughout, however. Tso and the kids had earlier taught me a melody to a very popular Mongolian nursery rhyme, which I fully intend to keep playing.

Either the stove was burning low or my enthusiasm for the banjo was not shared as much as the vodka gave me to imagine: at any road, it was soon enough time to clear out and head home. The ger had got somewhat colder once we’d stopped feeding the fire: I was left to imagine how cold it would get overnight as we travelled back to the fully central-heated apartment in town. The road presented no problems in spite of the ice: there was no other traffic and I am thinking that the breathalyser is yet to be introduced to rural Mongolia. Once home, there was time for my kind hosts to prepare one last meat-focused meal (beef dumplings), to be washed down with beer and then bed.

The sky was overcast once more as we drove back to Ulaanbaatar this afternoon. Approaching the Genghis statue we stopped as a horseman herded his shaggy-coated, short, stocky horses across the road. The rider, thickly wrapped up against the cold, was the first horseman I had seen in Mongolia. He seemed to look at me with equal curiosity as we passed.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

UB Banjo Debut, and Hypocrisy

Wednesday 13th December
Drinking a can of Hite beer with a picture of a fearsome looking rap group/ overweight boy band called ‘guys666’ on it. They appear to mean business.

There’s an acoustic guitar in the staff room which one of the Mongolian teachers gets down and strums on from time to time. He strums through Beatles songs or 12 bar blues and indicated that I should bring my banjo in to school today (by pointing at me with a nod, miming strumming and asking “Yes?”). I did so, and we had a pretty good pick together in one of our free periods, he had no problem with the 'Worried Man Blues' and another teacher asked for 'Country Roads,' which impressed no end. I managed to fall in on a Mongolian song in A minor and we played a few others. I then proceeded to start teaching him 'Duelling Banjos,' which entirely undermines the past four years of my complaining about having to play it - but now I have it in mind to impress drunk American businessmen in the Great Khan. All very promising.

Earlier, in the first of my 4th grade classes I managed to last 10 minutes of trying to teach a very reluctant to study class, before offering that if they finished the present piece of work I would sing them a few songs. I guess it shows how much I am pining for an audience that I had to resort to bullying a bunch of 9 year olds into demanding that I play for them. I left the room for a minute to get the banjo and they were all, as threatened, sat quietly for my return. Gave them a brief history of the instrument of course and a run through ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’ my playing given an extra bit of sparkle by the certain knowledge that this was the finest bit of banjo-picking they’d ever seen. Followed with ‘Oh Susanna,’ to which I chalked up the words on the blackboard. Of course, it was all part of a structured lesson plan: in the previous class we’d done the weather (“Yesterday it was snowing. It was very cold.”) so ‘The sun so hot I froze to death,’ was a great lyric to have the class sing along to. I say sing along - I considered changing key to suiting their voices etc., likewise the tempo to make it easier for them to follow the words, but decided that that would compromise the performance too much. Anyway, they enjoyed it, and I did too. I did get the class to help me write another nonsense weather verse, which I won’t reproduce here for copyright reasons. If only I could record them singing it, overdub some sleigh bells and release it in time for the Xmas no.1 spot. We even went on past the lunch bell without the kids scrambling for the door.

Later in the day I had a second 4th grade class. Some of them actually already knew the words to ‘Oh Susanna,’ or close enough to the words for Mongolia. Somehow though, I didn’t get the same buzz - until I got a request for ‘Old Macdonald Had A Farm’- which has a fine bluegrass pedigree, having been recorded by Flatt & Scruggs on their Carnegie Hall album. I undermined two weeks of building a stern disciplinarian persona for the class by jumping up and down and making farmyard noises to a host of animals/verses shouted out by the kids. Another teacher walked in at the end of the lesson and I made such a good impression that I was required to sing her a bunch of songs too.

At the end of school there was an English Department staff meeting. We had it whilst sat on the kiddie stools in the Disney Room. If that room is chosen to keep the meeting from running on and on then I’m glad we were only in there for two bloody hours. The subject was discipline in class; I suspect that the reason for the meaning was not so much to placate us non-Mongolian teachers regarding our concerns, but to make us consider not saying anything and just getting on with things in the future. It was most probably the meeting with the highest ‘number of things written on a blackboard’ to ‘actual decisions made or any kind of meaningful conclusion’ reached ratio discrepancy I have ever sat through. The gist was: just deal with it. I did manage to have a good say on the subject of discouraging the younger kids from associating the foreign teachers’ lessons with ‘having fun:’ a sad failing of so many of my predecessors, which has been a foundation of many of the problems later teachers have experienced. One thing about teaching, which anyone who knows me will have gathered from my tedious list of unacceptable behaviour in the classroom, is that I am really, really enjoying being an unashamed hypocrite. On which subject, I don’t allow my students to use “really, really” because “it’s crass.” Red line though the second "really" and a snidey comment every time.

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Disruptive Behaviour, Very Short Stories

Monday 11th December 2006

Any teachers reading this will be very smug about my emotional naivety in this matter, but today the kids pissed me off. I mentioned that the department head is off in China shopping for household goods this week; what I hadn’t guessed - which should have been obvious really - was that I would be taking her classes as well as mine this week. So I arrived to a full morning of double-sized classrooms (30 kids, that is, barely a classroom by UK comprehensive standards, but a bit of a handful for my second week of teaching) who had absolutely no intention of studying at all - that being the usual course in case of teacher absence. There were two streams of students (advanced and intermediate) in each class, and I still have only the vaguest idea of what they are supposed to be studying in both cases.

Do not think that I did not rise to the challenge. So much teacherly behaviour is so deeply ingrained into us from years at the receiving end that when a situation arises the required pompous edicts just roll off our lips. In fact, how did the first teachers learn this, back in the mists of time? We may never know.

The further advantage in my situation was that when a student came back with a sarcastic comment I could come back at them at double speed, leaving them floundering with their English. As for what comments were being made in Mongolian I can only surmise - but of course it was easy to retain a contemptuous disdain for anything I couldn’t understand.

After my third straight lesson that morning I went to see the deputy with a list of names (which I had got students to write down themselves at the moment of admonition - another neat little psychological trick I must have picked up off some sadistic teacher at some point) and the intention to introduce the concept of detention. One of the American students was already in the office complaining that she too refused to tolerate any further disruptive behaviour from the spoilt brats in her charge.

The deputy spoke to the students concerned, and returned to tell me that the students might benefit from having clearly laid down rules. Now, as I understand the concept, Rules are there to be broken, twisted, questioned, or to have loopholes exploited. A very unreliable tool for this situation. How did British courts respond to the challenge of dealing with young offenders within the legal framework? By introducing the nebulous concept of Antisocial Behaviour of course.

So, I wrote the following list, to explain some concepts to the Mongolian kids. I am so set against rules that I was very pleased with the final result - not a rule in sight.

Commonly accepted standards of behaviour in the classroom:

-To arrive for the lesson on time. If late, to explain to the teacher the reason for lateness.

-To take your seat promptly and to get out the relevant course books, exercise books and writing material for the class. Certainly to have this done so by the time the teacher is present in the classroom.

-Not to listen to walkmen, mp3 players, etc; not to talk on mobile phones, watch videos, play games or engage in any similar activities at any time during class. Whether or not a phone, mp3 player, etc is in use, not to sit with earphones on. To expect that should such activity be engaged in, the items will be confiscated, at the least for the remainder of the day, if not for the remainder of the week or longer.

-Not to have work or books relating to other subjects out during a given class.

-Not to eat or drink during class.

-Not to engage in private conversation while the teacher is talking nor while the class are working.

-If asked not to do something, to immediately comply with the request, and not to repeatedly engage in the outlined behaviour.

-Not to put away books at the ringing of the class bell nor in anticipation of the bell ringing. To only put away course materials when the teacher says that the class is over.

-If a student has a question for the teacher, not to shout it out , but to raise their hand until the teacher indicates that they may ask their question.

If any of these activities are engaged in, it is to be understood that they present a serious obstacle to a subject being taught, and that it is therefore understandable that a teacher may need to use disciplinary measures to deter such infractions. Typical deterrents include (but are not limited to):

-Confiscation of items that should not be present during class; such confiscations enduring at least for the remainder of the lesson, more probably for the remainder of the day, week, or in some instances longer.

-Detention: requiring a student to attend an additional class at the end of a given school day.

-Lines: The writing of a line such as “I must not behave ignorantly and oafishly during class”, typically to be repeated 5, 10, 100 or more times. As seen in the opening credits of The Simpsons cartoon.

-Generally, additional homework being assigned to the miscreant student, such as “Write a 500 word essay on the benefits of self-discipline.”

Tuesday 12th December 2006

I guess I must have worked something out of my system by writing my vindictive code of conduct, because today went fine at school. It was helped by the fact that the students had to do a 2 hour maths test in the morning, enabling me to finish marking the exam essays from last week. I was still teaching the double-sized classes, but the lessons went much more smoothly today.

WIRED magazine recently asked a bunch of leading science fiction and horror writers to write a 6 word short story - based on the fact that Hemmingway wrote such a story and apparently considered it the best thing he had ever written:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

My favourite contributions to WIRED were from Frank Miller:

With bloody hands, I say goodbye.

which could stand in for the majority of Miller’s work, I think; and also on a theme often visited in the author’s work, this gem from Alan Moore:

machine. Unexpectedly, I invented a time

(which took me a long while to get, possibly owing to ‘machine’ being published online with a capital ‘M’; surely an error?).

So I introduced the concept to my classes today, and we discussed why any of these might (or might not) be considered a story, and so on. I wanted to force the students with a weaker grasp of English to write something and get the better students to think more about word choice, and be more concise in their writing (hey, maybe I could learn something there too...). I was very much surprised at the results, because the students got the idea and really worked on it, seemed to enjoy it too. I ran around the class reading out the stories as they were finished. Some were really good. After such successful lessons, feeling that I’d encouraged a little bit of creativity in the classroom I decided to run a contest for the school for the best Very Short Story. The winner gets an English language paperback of their choice (max value T10000) from the State Department Store.

After the Very Short Story I’ll be stealing Brian Aldiss’ ‘Mini Sagas’ competition from the Daily Telegraph - for stories no more than 50 words in length. I found some good examples of these online from foreign language students (to which I may link here if I can figure out how to) and some not so great ones from a competition where the winner was a synopsis of The Lord of the Rings. 50 words? I did it in 6 for the benefit of the class:

Frodo gets Ring. Sauron is defeated.

Monday, 11 December 2006

Mongolian Hospitality, Black Market, Big Buddha and the War Memorial

Sunday 11th December 2006
Today was gloriously sunny. Pottered around in the morning and had a fairly long bath. Downloaded a Today program piece about the 'Special Relationship' mainly out of Radio 4-longing . Need to get a little radio so I can hunt for the World Service.

The daughter of the building supervisor does not ever seem to be off duty herself. She knocked on my door to indicate that she needed me to turn on the light outside my flat. Then she very conscientiously scrubbed the floor outside my flat; following which she also started to wash the metal security door to my flat. I felt pretty guilty about this and eventually managed to persuade her to stop. Played her 'Blackberry Blossom' on the banjo in a very feeble attempt to compensate her for her troubles without getting into the awkward territory of paying her any cash. She smiled and at least allowed me to think that I had somehow repaid her hard graft. Resolved to buy her some colouring books or something.

Around 2pm I was collected by the one Mongolian family I know, who very kindly took me to their home for a Sunday roast. They live further out of town, and the mountains loom massive over their home. Their apartment is very nice but also very small: thye are waiting on a bigger apartment that they hope to get early next year. Between their home and the mountains is a settlement of ger, from which smoke curled up very picturesquely. My students largely blame the air pollution on people living in ger and burning anything they can get their hands on as fuel - which undoubtedly contributes to the problem, but here the air was noticeably cleaner. The dinner was wonderful - mutton, rice, roast potatoes and carrots and a lot more. The family apologised that they had run out of the Bisto gravy granules that they'd bought in England, so I'd had to make do with real gravy made from the mutton fat and absolutely delicious. Far too much dessert - including the discovery for me that the things that they sell in the supermarket that look like bags of miniature cream horns are miniature cream horns. I crammed in as many as I could.

As the family had very kindly promised me, I was taken, as the sun set behind the mountains, to Narantuul, the famous 'Black Market', which is close to their home. I know that a lot of this blog has so far been about how I bought this for 30p or that for £1 - frankly, an obsession for me, but I do hope to get onto other subjects about this fascinating country. Please indulge me one further time at least, or skip to the next entry.

The Market is definitely one of the must-sees for any tourist visiting UB - I am very happy to have had a guide, though. Nonetheless, the sheer number of vendors there mean that if you can resist being wheedled into making a purchase you will be certain of getting yourself a good price (i.e. not the tourist rate, as it were) on whatever you buy. The market is huge: conveniently, traders seem to be located together - so that you get rows of coats here, jeans there, boot-makers together, etc. Stalls are neatly laid out, and in general resemble a UK knock-off gear market - one nice forrin touch being that all traders keep the goods not on display in giant wooden chests. The aisles are narrow, and the ground was frozen so there was a considerable hazard from the people busily pushing past.

I would heartily recommend the clothing that I brought out with me to anyone visiting a similar climate to Mongolia who would prefer to travel light. Good quality but cheap canvas hiking boots provide ample insulation from the ground; M&S merino longjohns beneath hiking trousers; thermal long-sleeved vest topped by one top, over which a body warmer and a gore-tex jacket; ski gloves and a hat that covers as much of the face as possible: this is all plenty warm enough for -25c, I believe would stand up well to wind chill (with a scarf) and importantly is all very breathable so allows you to move about plenty. The moving about plenty could well be part of it - I don't know how well it would suit shooting the breeze in the middle of Sukhbaatar Square. So I felt that I needed to get some gear more in line with what I see worn about me - something a bit more substantial.

I looked somewhat boggled at the endless ranks of coats - determined to find a decent parka to wear into school (meaning that I'd like to get something more traditional, but don't want the kids laughing at me). Settled on a huge Diesel 'Canada -Style' parka for a princely 45,000, or around £20. It certainly seems to be the real thing but curiously none of the labels say
Made in China - but maybe they leave those off for the domestic/semi-domestic market.

I had a pretty good time amongst the boot stalls. Every cobbler insisted on me trying their boots. By and large they were in no way big enough to fit me, but of course they all insisted that the leather would stretch, etc, and I couldn't possibly find anything any bigger. As I was about to give up hope (or take up one of the offers to have a pair made for me for next week) an old lady ran up with a very sizeable looking pair. They are hand-made Mongolian boots - in less of a traditional style - basically resembling biker's boots, tan in colour. They fit like a dream - a good shape, with a bit of room enabling me to wear an inner 'sock' for the winter or stuff in an extre insole. Sadly, the same lady also offered me another pair for only a little more, these others didn't fit quite as well. It was a shame because, as my friend translated, these were made with "real dog fur" inside. "But I like dogs!" I had her translate, "not wear, I like them." Everyone found this very funny. They were very cosy boots, but as I said, sadly did not quite fit. Stuck with the biker boots: T35,000, or around £15.

I bought one or two other things, shirts etc, but topped it all off with a delightfully revolting chinese padded dressing gown in gold and brown. It is a little on the small side but will do until I find something a bit bigger - whereupon I can sell this one to a fancy dress shop.

After the market, the family drove me up to Ulaanbaatar war memorial, the Zaysan Tolgoy, where I got to tramp around at night in the snow in my new boots and parka, which was very pleasing. The memorial is just outside the city on top of a col at the foot of the mountains. At the bottom of the hill there's a 20 foot or so golden buddha I am told was built in the last couple of years. To one side is a giant temple bell and on the other a drum. These can be rung or beat upon to your heart's content; the vibrations as they reverberate are incredible.

Once I'd tired of banging away like a school kid we drove halfway up to the monument then walked the remainder of the way. It must be an impressive sight by day - with the mountains behind, that were now shrouded in darkness. At night it has an utterly impressive character, though. The memorial, built by the soviets, is on the top of a very conical hill. It's a viewing platform maybe 50 feet or more in diameter. There's a wall around it about four foot high, into which there's one entrance - and then, from a pillar at the front of the memorial (which seems to be a stylized soviet soldier unfurling a flag) a band of concrete encircles the platform from aboev. This turns the whole surrounding landscape into a diorama , with the stars forming the ceiling. Somewhat difficult to describe, but utterly awe-inspiring. Inside the higher band we have a representation of the history of communism from Russia to Mongolia, that can be dimly made out in the dark.

We'd climbed the hill for the view of Ulaanbaatar. At night, it is a bunch of lights - and not that many. I think in the UK or America you'd be moved to say "Is there a town over there?" Must get there in the day some time, so as to get a photo of the monument and see the UB smog as a whole.

Home, I decided against/chickened out of walking over to the Great Khan yet again. Some instinct told me that there was a distinct possibility that any banjo picking was not guaranteed, and I now no longer have the money left to buy a pint. Will think about it again once I have a few Torogs in my pocket.

School's Out, UB Banjo Debut Postponed

Thursday 7th, Friday 8th & Saturday 9th December 2006
Thursday it snowed: a light powdery snow which was almost invisible even walking out in it, but which fell all day and compacted hard on the pavements. I think I have already mentioned a significant hazard of walking out on the streets of UB: that there are manholes left uncovered presumably by people living down in the sewers and amongst the city's hot water pipes. Steam rises from many but not all. Walking to the nearby supermarket after school in the snow I spotted a further hazard: one manhole had been covered, presumably by the inhabitants, with a doormat, on which a centimetre of snow now lay, turning it into a pretty effective pitfall for the unwary. I haven't had a really good look down any of the holes, being well brought-up I am always reluctant to gawp into people's homes, but the drop seems to usually be only a few feet, and so unlikely to cause instant death. I will report further when I inevitably take a fall.

Friday of course I could have faced just about anything, the weekend being upon me. I even managed to get the 4th graders talking about the weather in the past, present and future tenses.

Saturday morning was another cold and mostly cloudy day. Ate sweet pastries and chocolate biscuits for breakfast, washed down by tea. Headed out around lunchtime, determined to 1) post christmas cards and 2) get an Internet phonecard. Slippery out on the ice, particularly at Sukhbaatar square. Lot of people milling about as usual in very sociable groups, entirely impervious to the chill which may be deduced from the photograph I took. Although there has been less sun than my first two days may have led me to expect (this being the first really sunny day since), there still has been no wind to speak of so the weather is quite easily tolerated, and when moving simply feels fresh and crisp. I bought a couple more hand-painted cards from a dishevelled old guy outside the central Post Office. Swapped a few Russian phrases (“Ya iz Liverpoolya”, “Mnya za voot Jimi” and “Rusky, err, ya n’panyemai-oo”). He was only asking T500 for his cards - again, there was no way I could refuse. In the post office, fairly run-of-the-mill printed Christmas cards are T1000 - T2000. Browsed through the small selection of English books in the State Department Store - which I am told is the largest selection in Mongolia. Not an enormous range of choice but there are quite a few Wordsworth Classics at T9000 of which I may return for ‘Tender is the Night’ and maybe ‘Nicholas Nickelby’ after payday. Most of the other books I would read there are very short, and I’m reluctant to shell out T9000 unless I’m guaranteed a decent length read, goddammit.

Back to the Post Office to address my envelopes and write out the new cards. Quite a few homeless people hanging around in the Post Office - one guy going through the bin next to me as I wrote and slurping the remains of coleslaw from a food carton. Not that you won’t find the same thing happening in any British town, and furthermore I wasn’t directly harassed in any way. It may be that they are allowed to hang around but not to harass people, and so instead play up on the guilt of wealthy westerners. Or it may be that he was hungry - well, indeed, he must have been.

Managed to get myself an internet pre-payment card and so get online at home - hence this blog.

Around 9.45pm packed up the old banjo, wrapped up, and again marched off across the centre to the Grand Khan. Place busy as expected. The manager wasn’t around, I got a beer and watched some Man U v Man City. The band were setting up when he did finally arrive. He uncomfortably explained that he needed to find a band I could play with, like a Jazz band, as the banjo didn’t really go with their music. I heartily agreed with the latter but suggested that instead I’d like to play a few tunes solo before the main band, mainly for the hell of it. He agreed to this and said I should come down tomorrow. Stuck around to watch his band: he didn’t play with them tonight, instead there was a slim sunglassed rocker type singing and the band played Mongolian rock - either covers or songs of theirs that were famous as people often joined in with the singing.

I got home shortly after one, after a ride in one of the unlicensed taxis. He took a minor detour before heading towards the house and then shook his heaed no when I, in my typical magnanimous fashion, offered T1000 in payment - had to shell out another T500: very disappointing.

The front door to my building was locked, to my alarm. I rattled on it a bit and was considering what my next step would be other than freezing to death, when movements sounded within, and the door (which had been padlocked) was opened by the young girl who helps me with my shopping. I felt very guiltily ashamed, even though it wasn't so late really, at having disturbed her, maybe because she looked a bit reproachful, as one does on getting woken up from sleep. Glanced into the window of the super's room as I passed and it appeared she had been asleep in there on her own on night door duty. [Edit: actually, her entire family of four live in the tiny 'super's room' beneath the stairs.]

Sunday, 10 December 2006

More Teaching Joy

Wednesday 6th December 2006
Was entirely capable of getting up this morning at 7am, head clearer by far than I’d feared, eyes perhaps a trifle ringed. Had slept well. There seemed, however, to be no hot water in the pipes so I washed my hair with cold water and swallowed half a cup of tea, before bolting out to work. Extremely thankful to live just 5 minutes brisk walk from work. Have noticed that noone ever seems to be in much of a hurry walking about here, which loitering frankly does not seem to be good for the health.

School, was a much more equable affair today. I put my pupils through the paces in their spoken examination, throughout the whole day. They did fairly well, and I managed to keep order from breaking down in class. Spent far too long agonising over awarding them their scores. For most of today I had the company of the department head: she is from, I later learned, a town in the Gobi desert, has been in UB only 2 years and lives with her daughter who, as with other teacher’s kids, is a student at the school. Next week she's going to China to buy furnishings for her apartment. Anything not produced in Mongolia is generally pretty expensive here, especially compared to the price of food and clothing and, presumably, people's wages. There's a floor of the State Department Store devoted to electronic goods and it is not impressively well-stocked, nor are goods flying off the shelves.

The department head has been very flattering about my Englishness. The course books the kids study are British and there is a bit of snobbery against American English from some of the teachers, which I am politely playing along with at present. The teachers here have by and large come from the States (and unfortunately, from some of the expressions used I detect evidence of antipodean involvement at the school too) so someone who speaks 'real' English is a novelty.

I had suspected that I was xpected to teach one of the lower grades, and indeed I was. Without any warning I was suddenly dumped on a class of ten or so 9 year olds. The kids were very much enjoying themselves chatting and getting into little fights. A few of them welcomed me cheerily with calls like "Hello teacher! Are we going to be playing games today?" I suppose in a manner of speaking, we were.

Their English, really, was just as good as the higher grades but the boys were even more incapable of sitting still for a moment. I was pleased to rise to the discipline problem rather than teach and make the most troublesome boys sit to their horror next to girls; gave them lines when they repeatedly disobeyed instructions (“I will not talk in class” "I will sit still in class" "I will listen to teacher"). All of which had some effect on the stunned little mites. However, they still did not quite get it, so after one interruption to many I was forced to unleash the "Oi!" - which has been known to stop stone-throwers and car-vandals dead in their tracks in Liverpool - and demand to know in a bellow whether they had been listening to me or not. The remaining five minutes of class were very orderly indeed. How long this all lasts, of course, we shall see. The boys were pretty sheepish when they left class. In a later class an older student referred to me as Mr Grouch and I felt a thrill of pride that I might have already earned such a teacherly nick-name.

I had a very disappointed look at the school’s library. Several Harry Potters, a lot of Hardy Boys books, a couple of airport thrillers; leaving maybe half a dozen books that I could face reading. I have borrowed ‘The Wind in the Willows’ to which I will now return - the god of the pipes willing - in the bath.

Teaching Already, UB Banjo Debut?

Tuesday 5th December
Arrived at school at about 8.20am today - staff room very quiet. Was checking my emails when a teacher said I should have started teaching a class at 8.30am. What class? where? teaching what? Of course, no one had bothered to tell me. And so my day began, dropped right in at the deep end with my first class - no idea at all who the students were, where the students were or what they’ve been studying.

I have 3 classes - years 9, 10 and 11 - maybe I also teach one class of year 4 some time too? Did my best to be a hard-ass - insisting on conversations being stopped, phones and iPods put away. Had a markedly low turn out for the second of two classes, where I had thought the first had gone well. I did enjoy teaching "The Monkey's Paw" which proves to be a most entertainingly written yarn that seems to have caught the class’s imagination - though that may well prove to be a product of my imagination. A Ray Bradbury story has proven less captivating for another class, although I’m enjoying it, and surely that's what counts? Have been given the impression by my class that English (American that is) teachers come and go pretty quickly - I am beginning to suspect that the English the kids do know has been mostly self taught through the internet and time spent in the States. Got some pleasure out of telling the students what low grades I’d given them for their ‘Olympics’ work. Well, I’ve got 7 months to get better - and surely one good class is a good hit rate for my very first day teaching?

Was given yet more work to mark which kept me in school until half six. I also wasted ages, as requested by the deputy, organising a schedule for tomorrow’s Oral exam (well okay, the time was actually wasted figuring out (with a little help) how to use Excell) only to be told at 6pm that the schedule had already been done. One and a half hours after my contracted finishing time.

“Did I email you a copy of your contract before you came here?” I was asked breezily.

“No you didn’t,” I replied, and did not add: ”the only thing you did was tell me not to bring me a spoon. And I needed a bloody spoon.”

Anyway, the contract looks okay. I get paid at the beginning and middle of the month, presumably $350 a time, cash. My rent’s paid while I’m at the school - I’m responsible for utilities. Foodwise, I can easily live on $10 a week when I need to[Edit: ! ], which should leave a bit of money to play around with, once I get all my cashmere and oil-painting buying out of my system.

Strolled over to the Great Khan at a quarter to ten, swinging the old banjo from one hand then the other, keeping as good an eye to the dim and uneven ground as I could - wary of the many missing manhole covers (but stumbling nonetheless on a piece of rubble in the darkness). Strolled in the brisk cold, the streets now much emptier but folks still as always strolling about and none, happily, too menacing looking as I rehearsed how I might explain to my insurance company news of my mugging. Strolled briskly then arrived gladly in the welcome warmth of the Great Khan and dispensed with my body warmer and berghaus - these providing quite ample insulation, particularly with my ski gloves tightly cuffed into the sleeves, and my hat tied beneath my chin. Pushed through the busy bar, many wealthy young Mongolians and a liberal sprinkling of American business types quaffing beers and chatting, to find the manager of the pub and lead singer of The Beer Band at a tall stool with a group of equally burly sorts all drinking and joking - the manager greeting me expansively and asking what I might drink, and approving when I said I would join them in a beer. His band, he told me, would be arriving late, maybe 11 o’clock, as they were “filming a strip” somewhere else - they being “the best band in Ulaanbaatar.” Their absence did not seem to be any source of concern to him, and I was truthfully very happy to delay my Mongolian performing debut and relax after a grinding day at the school, by drinking and dodging the banter as best I could.

Well the band, it seemed, were not coming at all, and more beers were drunk, on the generosity of an ex-pat American colleague mein host. After eleven, however, the band did arrive, so it was announced that they would be performing four or five songs, and that I should come backstage and meet the band. I did so, and shook hands with the band and on my sponsor’s prompting rattled off two rounds of the Worried Man Blues, possibly to the band’s polite confusion. I didn’t play with them on stage, and was rather relieved when I went out and listened, as there was no rhythm guitar for me to follow. I could easily see why the lead was frequently described as “the best guitarist in Mongolia” - he played blistering, competent solos throughout on “Money for Nothing”, “Smoke on the Water” and “Sweet Child of Mine” - and with an entirely relaxed manner. I think that I’ll ask if I can play a couple songs solo before the Saturday set, and am feeling cautiously optimistic that I’ll pleasantly surprise them if I show I can hold my own.

So, with a merry glow I sauntered off, retrieved my coat from the beshawled check room woman, who happily received a T100 tip that I felt I dispensed with the generosity appropriate to the business class company I was keeping, wrapped myself up and bounced outside. I half intended to walk but, even though I had lost the address that the manager had written down for me (that is to say: my own), I confidently crossed the street to a parked-up taxi - and perhaps my confidence communicated well to the driver, who quickly understood my request for the Chaplin Bar, and drove me home. This time handed over a T1000 note with what I felt to be the correct degree of confident generosity and we bid each other a cheery farewell. Realised I had left a glove in the taxi and had no trouble flagging him back down and retrieving it, which inexplicably added to my satisfaction with the night’s proceedings.

In the apartment building, 1am or thereabouts, the little girl rushed out of the super’s room again to call me the lift, but I indicated I’d take the stairs. I guess maybe she doesn’t go to school herself.