Saturday, 9 December 2006

Arriving in Ulaanbaatar

Friday 1st December 2006
I landed in Ulaanbaatar (henceforth, following standard practice, in the main referred to as UB) around noon. It being a beautiful cloudless day, the flight provided compelling window-gazing: looking down after take off from Beijing almost the first thing I saw, with a leap of excitement (such as is possible strapped into an airline seat) was the Great Wall as it zigzagged crazily over a ridge in a sea of mountains. Much of the Gobi was dusted in snow: I could make out the spokes of tracks made by horses and herds centring on gers; then gentler mountains, forested on their shaded sides, and, as the plane circled round to land, Ulaanbaatar: tower blocks dimly visible in a haze of smog. The contrast with the wild beauty of the landscape was staggeringly emphasised by the cooling towers and one enormous chimney of a power station belching out smoke and vapour in the foreground. An ominous sight, although perhaps coloured by my optimism it also had the look of a frontier town: a colony on a near virgin planet, poisoning its own air but as yet unspoiling the vast beauty around it.

I was very much arriving to the unknown. For the next 6 months I'll be living in UB and teaching English and as much as possible playing and teaching Bluegrass banjo. It is understood that I have zero experience teaching English. As for what I have to expect I know very little except that I'll be teaching full-time and that as far as my accommodation goes I "don't even have to bring a spoon"

Smart black uniformed guards, both women and men, in the tunnel connecting the plane to the airport had perhaps been selected for their posts for their powerful, broad mongolian features - skin flawless, dark, calm eyes, assured and competent expressions. And in that tunnel (which had twee carriage-style lamps on the wall) a first touch of the frigid chill outside, which the pilot informed us was 15 below zero under the dazzling midday sun.

No hassles, thank God, at immigration; no eyebrows raised at my ticking the ‘work’ box of my entry card and my final apprehensions vanished when on walking out into the arrival lounge a tall dark woman approached me and asked “Mr Fallows?” (I was disappointed, though, very disappointed, that she had not seen fit to stand there with a card with my name , which I have always seen as an essential part of the (however sterile) romance of airports. My contact from the school introduced me to an older, short and broad fur-hatted gentleman whose name and position I did not catch, and we left the terminal.

Walking out of the building - seen framed there in the doorway as I approached - stepping out into that bright sun and cold air, there was what I swear seemed to be a wolf (and so I like to think must at the very least have been a dog with some wolf in it), watching me calmly.

We walked to the car.

My hosts drove me through the city for my first look at my future place of employment. It was cheerfully explained that most of the pupils were from well-off backgrounds, spoiled and entirely unmotivated to learn. The school - closer to UB’s centre than I had expected - stands out as being a very flashily modern building, but was much smaller than I’d imagined from the pictures I'd seen. I didn’t seem to elicit more than the occasional curious glance from pupils, who were obviously quite used to seeing westerners about the place. I was introduced to the staff in the staff room - who again happily appeared to be the best sort of run-down, get-through-the-day teachers on the whole and who all spoke English, mostly pretty well too.

Dinner was a compartmented tray with four hand made burgers oozing grease on a bed of pasta and soggy chips that could have acchieved English canteen standards - also a purple-coloured side-helping of pickled beetroot, potato and peas. A small hundreds-and-thousands topped piece of cake and a cup of sweet tea to wash it all down. I actually managed to eat most of mine (left the chips) and can in theory see how the fatty meat is suited to the climate, but I cannot hide the disappointment to have gone from the best Chinese food I ever et in Beijing to school-bloody-dinners. Well, they made me a cup of lemon tea and most importantly of course it was free - a perk of the job.

As I asked for it I got approximately five minute of introduction to the course I’ll be teaching from Monday (the course proper may start a week on as next week is an ‘English Olympics’, whatever that means) - once I’m settled in I’m to teach literature however the hell I please and of course there's my afterschool Bluegrass class too. I was told that I’m to set homework ‘at least weekly’. Will try and have a good look at the course books on Monday.
Having had a chance to send a few emails I was summoned to go and see my new home, which (forbodingly) up to this point had ‘not been quite ready’. It seemed and indeed surely was even colder when we stepped out of the school than earlier at the airport, causing genuine relief once shut into the car. The cold is certainly invigorating.

The apartment (see charming photo at the top of the page - my apartment is close to the centre of the picture, four floors down from the top) turned out to be very close to the school - 5 minutes walk, in fact. My heart rose with delight on turning into the giant frozen mud courtyard overshadowed by our building: having been alarmed last night on finding on-line dreary pine and chrome ‘luxury apartments’ for rent in UB, I was pleasantly relieved to see a crumbling concrete relic of socialism. We entered a narrow yellowed hallway and found the creaky lift, which I intend to avoid using as much as I can. A second guess on the unmarked buttons found my flat on floor 6. The landlady was inside: on seeing the living room I thought for a moment that I would be living as a guest, but no, the whole apartment is mine and yes, it seems that the school are paying. The kitchen has a painted Mongolian dresser; there’s a Russian Doll, a puppy emerging from a barrel, two Chinese tigers and countless other bits of charmingly revolting tat in the front room's enormous wall cabinet. A 3-piece suite (altho it appears that the Mongolians don’t bellieve in slouching - the backs are certainly going to do my posture a bit of good); the bedroom has a carpet on the wall and a traditional Mongolian style of wooden bedstead; there’s a balcony between the kitchen and living room for drying clothes and I guess summer use; bright, ill fitting carpets and plenty of heat but it’s by no means stifling. I love it. Mountains visible towering over the city (and later, the sun setting red over the power station I’d seen earlier from the airport, lighting it redly afire).

No spoons though.

I felt a twinge of a tear when I was left there alone, suddenly a resident of this crazy post-soviet city on the far side of the world. I unpacked and then (around 2.45pm) resolved to go out and change my last Y100 note to get some groceries in. Wrapped up plenty before going out, but resolved to skip a few layers so as to guage what’s suited and also so as to be able to upgrade my cladding. So: t-shirt, cotton sweater, fleece, berghaus, boxers, socks, jeans, hiking boots, gloves and lastly, me hat.

Needed 'em - the cold was biting where my face was exposed. but without the wind and wet, by no means unendurable if I kept walking. And in the bright sun, amongst bustling bodies it was exciting - again, the most apt word I can find is exhilerating. Saw a young man emerge from beneath boards at the foot of a building, maybe a street kid, and later a young man with flowing black hair and tall leather boots striding puposefully and warriorlike. The traffic honking and people laughing and shouting at each other - mini vans pulled up outside cigarette kiosks calling out some kind of trade (I later read that these are unofficial taxis, shouting out a destination for any takers [Edit - wrong! They were licensed 'Micro-buses' - the unofficial taxis are literally any car that stops]) - dozens of little internet cafes, bars, saunas, phonecard booths: all with grimy neon plastic signs in garish script and illustration. The air sadly had me choking on the fumes, possibly owing to a contrast between an inherent clean quality not fully mixed with the auto poison, probably in reality just very unhealthily polluted.

At the Khaan Bank I changed my Yuen for crisp new Mongolian notes. I found that I can live cheap here if I can avoid being tempted by baubles and fripperies. Just round the corner from my flat there's a supermarket, where I was happy to be able to find ample groceries to suit my tastes. For T12000 (£5?) I bought:

1 small (250ml) bottle vodka
1l orange juice
1l milk
1/2l cooking oil
1 loaf (delicious) bread
1 tub butter/marg
2 onions
6 carrots
1 bag beansprouts
1 jar chilli sauce
small bag washing powder
small bottle washing up liquid
1 jar strawberry jam
2 2l bottles drinking water.

I cooked myself a passable stir-fry once home, followed by bread and jam. Ran myself a bath of passably hot water. Poured myself a congratulatory vodka and orange. And so to bed.


lynda said...


I have really enjoyed your account of your arrival and first impressions of life in Mongolia.

Looking forward to the second chapter!