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.


Brian Power said...

I hope no-one ever attempts to cheer me up by playing banjo as it ain't gonna work.

patrick frost said...

much more cheery would be a view of the housecoat that sounds so enticing (in a Rigsby kind of way). Its good to see that Liverpool has exported its sense of thrift to such far off places.

julian_bishop said...

Jim. Am in your neck of the woods in early March. Let's go wolf hunting. Get in touch