Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Home

Somehow, I eventually managed to get out of Mongolia, although in the process I've had to leave my wife behind, in the hope that the British Embassy will grant her a visa once I have secured employment in the UK (which, fingers crossed, will be sometime early next week). I find I have no enthusiasm at all to write about the process of applying for a Settlement Visa at this stage in proceedings, so will spare you that particular joy. If the application is refused then it looks like I'll be returning to Mongolia a little sooner than planned.

As far as travelling goes, I'd like to recommend that people avoid having their credit card and driver's license stolen before a long journey - particularly if it's Natwest you bank with. I missed my connection in Moscow (even though the plane from UB landed a full hour before the London plane departed, and even though the arriving and departing gates were only a few hundred yards apart: making a connection in Moscow is not a fun experience) and so arrived in Heathrow at about 10pm. Avis were unable to let me have my car until they could phone the DVLA in the morning to confirm my driver's license details. Their shuttle bus driver kindly drove me to what he figured would be the cheapest hotel by the airport: I found myself reluctant, however, to take a standard room at £250 a night, and so dragged my bags and banjo and made my way over to Heathrow Police Station, happily close by, with the hopes of being allowed to sit out the night on a bench, or at least to report the criminal hotel rates in the vicinity. As with most British police stations, the door turned out to be locked at night, with no bell, phone number nor any other way of rousing the diligent occupants. After sitting on top of my bags beneath a security camera by the door for half an hour, I eventually decided to go find a likely hedge somewhere. Not too far away was what I took to be some kind of circular electricity sub station or something (a sign the next morning revealed it to be the "Customs House Escape Shaft")- its low hedge provided cover from the road and the gravel path made a bed as soft as any I'd slept in these past few weeks. Here I was, after spending nine months in the land of nomads, (and returning to take a job working with the homeless) - my first night back in England, staring up at the moon on this mild night, with Orion and more stars visible than expected so close to the airport's soothing orange glow.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Last days

Playing the waiting game now - hoping to get Mrs Ulaanbanjo's visa sorted next week, but we're at the mercy of the Embassy here. Things haven't been helped by having my credit card nicked, which was my only means of withdrawing cash here. Natwest kindly stepped to the breach and offered me an emergency cash transfer - 48 hours later they tell me that for a $130 fee they can wire me $80 from my account - thanks Natwest!

Had a very nice time staying with inlaws at a mining town between UB and the Terelj park. I finally took an opportunity to ride a camel, although it was a bit of a humiliating let down - being led round a fence by a little girl, I decided not to go round a second time. Managed to fit in a less touristy activity by going to see a comedy variety show at the Culture Palace, which, for the little I could follow, was very entertaining.

Was turfed out of my accommodation a week early by my former employers at the school (thankyou!) - it being the height of the tourist season we've had an interesting search for accommodation in the city - stayed a few nights at a charming fleapit near the black market for $10 a night but have finally fond a very nice, clean, disco-less hotel just by the Embassy (I think it's called 'Hotel Anna' or something) - $20 a night for a spacious double.

This may be my last post from Ulaanbaatar itself depending on when we escape - I'll try and wrap things up with my final profound observations once back in the UK - thankyou for reading!

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Goat Horhog


Sunday 19th August
Having spent so much time being rattled around in vans but having had such a wonderful time in Kharkhorin and the neighbourhood, we decided to postpone our return to UB for one more day's rattle. Enkhbold drove us by Russian jeep to Ugiin Nuur - Lake Ugiin which, although 90-odd km off, had a good road all the way.

We stopped firstly at the ger of Enkhbold's father, Peljee, a herder who lives a short way out of Kharkhorin. I was very excited when, after entering, Peljee and one of his other sons got out their snuff bottles, so that I was able to get out my own and exchange bottles in the traditional manner with my host. Each person holds their bottle (with the top slightly opened) resting between the four fingers of their right hand, this is then passed into the palm of the other, as their bottle is received in your palm. As with offering anything in Mongolia, the left hand also supports the right arm, as giving is always done two-handedly. You take a pinch of their tobacco or just sniff at the open lid if you prefer (which I opted for, not wishing to blow my cool by sneezing) and then the bottle is handed back, again with the top partly open. Well, it was a proud moment for me, anyhow, only marred by having taken my bottle out of a plastic bag rather than an embroidered pouch.

We were treated to milk tea, of course, and also a big pan of clotted cream to spread on bread, which was very good indeed. We then said our 'daraa ulzii's with the promise to return for goat horhog that evening.

En route for the lake we also stopped to visit a site where I neglected to take any notice of the fairly wordy signs erected by a joint Turkish-Mongolian project - as a result I am not sure if what we visited was the site of the Bugut stone - sort of the 'Rosetta Stone' of the Turkic-Mongol period, or if it wa just a replica, or indeed something else. It doesn't look much like the photos on this informative webpage, so is either a replica or a very sorry job of reconstruction. The area does look like a burial site, although is presently a building site, with a wall in construction around it to make for a visitor centre/pilgrimage site. If this is the site of the Bugut stone, a very important historical artifact, then it's frankly a mess, but it may well be that it's something else.

Ugiin Nuur is big and broad, and we arrived in perfect summer weather for a swim, which I did alone as most Mongolians don't. The water is very pure, and is filled with fish. It seems to be a popular spot on tour itineries, probably owing to the good road from Kharkhorin and the novelty of open water in Mongolia. After the journey from UB to Kharkhorin I'm distinctly less inclined to head out to Lake Hovsgul next week, as it would be torture to endure days of jolting bus travel for only a few days visit.

Refreshed by a swim, we now headed back to Peljee's ger. We stopped on the way to visit cousins of Enkhbold, who of course served us milk tea and let me ride one of their horses. This was my first experience of a real Mongolian saddle, not as uncomfortable as I'd feared, although ten minutes in it hardly leaves me fit to make any judgement. The stirrups were left high as usual, which made them very high for me, and I would not have been comfortable at a canter to say the least.

We were greeted very warmly on our return to Peljee's with another Mongolian cream tea, served with hard scones this time - jam would have completed the experience. Peljee was also very happy to serve me a glass of real Mongolian 'vodka' - a wine-strength clear drink made from cows milk boiled with yoghurt. It looks and tastes pretty much like water, but has a reputation for leaving your head clear whilst getting your legs drunk: everything is fine until you stand up. It's a shame really that Mongolians acquired a taste for the stronger stuff, I think a lot less damage would have been done to society here if people had stuck to the milk vodka.

Various sons, daughters, husbands, wives and grandchildren were also visiting, and everyone helped with preparation for the evening feast. Even me - I walked out and helped to herd up the flock of sheep and goats and drive them from where they were grazing on the open plain half a kilometre away back towards the ger. Once we'd got the flock back they were allowed to wander off again - except for one unfortunate healthy fellow, who was very deftly separated from his fellows. Peljee wrestled the goat firmly onto plastic sheeting on the ground by the ger, turned the animal over and pinned down its rear legs with a leg of his own while his son Enkhbold held its head and forelegs. It let out one long, unnervingly human groan of despair, but that was all. Once restrained Peljee took out his knife and made a short neat cut in the goat's belly. I was curious because I had expected the animal to be despatched with a hammer blow or something, as all I knew about animal slaughter in Mongolia was that they don't cut the throat - traditionally they don't spill the animal's blood. Indeed, no blood was spilled here, Peljee thrust his hand into the goat's insides, and with a look of concentration felt around, I guess until he found the goat's heart and stopped the flow of blood. Throughout this the goat became increasingly relaxed, but it was some minutes before it died. The heart or something was removed and left exposed on the beast's belly, and it no longer needed restraining for its final moments.

I can well understand people who become vegetarians after watching the proceedings in a slaughterhouse, but I wonder if anyone could be persuaded the other way on witnessing this approach? Mongolians are pretty much the polar opposites of vegans, the diet being almost entirely milk and dairy, but the traditional way of life here has such an affinity with the livestock, which live such a free life until they're needed in the pot. As I have previously remarked, Mongolians are repulsed by the notion of eating lamb or any baby animal.

Anyhow, such thoughts turning in my mind, I took up the invitation to borrow Peljee's horse and ride out onto the plain, which being my first time alone on a horse I enjoyed a lot, even though the plain was too big and night too close to do anything more than go out and come back. I did get to make my way, or rather make the horse make its way, over a ditch twice, which felt like an achievement.

Back at the ger night began to fall, and from nowhere a strong wind blew up. Two of Peljee's grandsons were outside butchering the goat and had to transfer their operations indoors. Before too long there were nearly twenty people in the ger, a small 'four wall' ger, but with plenty of room for the party, which became very close and convivial. Peljee remained sat on the floor and was the very paternal focus of the evening, telling humorous tales and explaining for me via my wife various Mongolian traditions.

The storm quickly developed, rain lashed down and thunder and lightning played. Through the open door of the ger this was very dramatic - and using the open toilet facilities some way from the ger this was very dramatic indeed. Inside the butchering was eventually finished, and the horhog was prepared. Stones had been placed in the stove fire which had been stoked up high, these were now taken out and, red-hot, placed with tongs in a tall pressure cooker. In the bottom were a few pints of water, so steam quickly rose, and more stones and the whole of the goat flesh were added. Meanwhile the intestines were being filled with blood for sausages to be enjoyed on some future occasion. Once the pot was full it was placed on top of the stove, to cook for about an hour. Meantime, Peljee entertained us with a story of how a cooker had once exploded when he was making horhog, but that the burns on his leg had been healed by applying dog's blood, on the advice of an old woman. I would have prefered to hear this story sat further away from the stove, or at least wearing trousers rather than shorts.

We each took a turn singing a song, for which the reward was a shot of vodka. As always, and particularly in the warm and crowded ger, the Mongolian singing was deeply moving.

At last the food was ready. A few burnt bits of meat were at the top, but the rest seemed perfectly cooked. It was piled high on a big metal tray, and the greasy hot stones placed aside to be picked up and thrown from hand to hand, and held under armpits and against the brow for as long as we were able, for the well-regarded health benefits of this treatment. It is invigorating, and also a good way to acquire eau de goat.

The soup was served after the stones had cooled beyond efficacy, and was absolutely delicious - very rich and with a slight burnt taste that didn't detract from the flavour. The wife and I also got to eat most of the half dozen or so potatoes that'd been included with the goat, before taking the meat itself. It was very good, didn't quite drop off the bone the way the beef horhog I'd eaten way back in the winter did, but was very fine nonetheless, and even I managed to find the fat tasty.

A few more vodka toasts were drunk, and I promised to return one winter, when Peljee has promised me we will hunt wolf. We left under the most incredible night sky I have ever seen - clear overhead, with the milky way showing a thick, billowing band across a studded vault of stars, and yet on three quarters of the horizon lightning still flashing every few seconds from dark, distant clouds.

More photos at Flickr

Orkhon River Valley


Saturday 18th August
Today we made a trip up the Orkhon River Valley. As I have previously mentioned, the valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and probably the cradle of Mongolia's nomadic culture. It's a wide valley - 10km or more for much of its length, and there are no roads only dirt trails. Owing to volcanic activity in the distant past it's something of a bumpy journey.

We travelled by Russian ATV again, accompanied by most of the family this time, with the object of visiting Tuvkhuun monastery and Ulaan Tsutgalan waterfall. The Orkhon valley is incredibly beautiful, and after the overcast weather yesterday, we had wonderful blue skies and billowing cloud today - which lit the lush greens of the valley and the dark volcanic rock beautifully. The valley is a very popular destination for horse-trekking and I think there can hardly be a finer place on the planet for it - there are mountains, rocks and boulders, pine forests, the river itself and the wide plain. It's an absolute paradise of animalkind - of course there are herds of horses, sheep, goats, cows and yaks wandering freely, but we also saw dozens of chipmunks, a pair of marmot and at one point our van passed beneath a tumbledown boulder crag on which were perched a golden eagle hanging out with a ruffianly-looking dozen vultures: they stared at us with the nonchalant "who do you think you are?" contempt of cats as we past beneath them, just 30 metres away.

The Russian ATV we travelled in has to be the only other choice of transport for this region (well, apart from going by foot), although we did occasionally pass an ordinary car on the valley plain. Straight out of Kharkhorin we had to ford the Orkhon river which was flowing pretty fast, wide and deep (well, it can't have been much over three feet deep but that feels deep enough). We then followed the river as it flowed underneath rocks and mountains, before crossing out onto the boulder-strewn plain. Russian ATV's are built to take terrific punishment, although they pass a hell of a lot of that on to the passengers too.

After an hour or so we stopped by a stupa out on the plain, while the driver went over to a ger to buy some airag for our journey - he came back with six or eight litres of the finest fermented mare's milk. There was a richer, creamier taste to this airag than that I've tried previously. I like it, but it's hard to match the Mongolian enthusaism, especially during a day in which you might also be drinking a litre or two of milk tea, eating arrul (dried curds) and probably having a healthy supply of vodka too (although I managed to sidestep that duty today). It's no exaggeration to say that milk, meat and flour make up 90% of the rural Mongolian diet. Enkhbold, on being offered pine nuts, would later refuse joking "I only eat meat" - but it was one of those jokes which was in essence just the bare facts.

A good while later and we arrived at our first objective. We parked up the van in some beautiful pine woods, part of a protected area, and walked up a long path intothe forest and up the mountain. Finally we reached the end of the trees, beneath a singular rocky summit: the home of Tunkhuu Monastery. This small place of worship was founded by Mongolia's prime Buddhist 'saint' Zanabazar in the 17th century. There's a small temple - destroyed in the 30s and rebuilt in the 90s - and numerous meditation caves and, supposedly, the foot print of Zanabazar in rock. Very precipitous paths lead up to the caves and the summit - no deterrent at all to the many very elderly pilgrims who determinedly make their way up there. Beneath the summit there's a rock seat, by tradition Zanabazar's favourite spot for meditation during the 30 years he spent here meditating and practicing various skills and arts (including creating the 'soyombo' script, seen on Mongolia's modern state flag). The top of the peak is very flat, and houses a fine ovoo where, according to the sign, nagas or 'hidden spirits' of the mountain are offered prayers and praise - presumably the Buddhist translation of the older Shamanistic worship of the spirit of the place. The views are spectacular.

Some time later we'd made our way down the mountain, where we had a picnic of tinned sardines and airag. Enkhbold and the driver had somehow managed to polish off a bottle of vodka on the way, everyone was in a very jolly mood. We played 'dembee' - a kind of variant on 'paper-scissor-stone' (thumb beats forefinger/forefinger beats middle/middle beats ring/ring beats little/little beats thumb - keep playing until one of you scores a hit). The loser of each round would have to drink a bowlful of airag.

Eventually we got back in the ATV, and left the forest, to head further up-river. The road got rockier, big and small boulders of lava deposited everywhere along the plain. We continued for a good few hours before reaching our final target: Ulaan Tsutgalan, the 'Red Flood'. The waterfall was very impressive, pouring 27metres down into a steep sided canyon, created by a combination of erosion and the long-ago volcanic activity. After admiring the view from very close to the edge on the top, we made our way down into the canyon, to pose for photos at the bottom of the falls, and submerge our heads in the cool water. More photos at the top and a drink of the fresh-tasting Orkhon, before getting back in our vehicle to return the 125km to Kharkhorin.

On the way we went out to visit relatives of our host family, but when we finally got to the corner of the valley where one nomadic family after another had pointed us, we found that the family had long since left for distant pastures. The sun was setting now, and we still had a long way to travel. I have noted that the Orkhon valley is wide and uneven, and that there are no roads, just dirt tracks. In the day time it's easy enough to point your motor in the general direction of a distant landmark, and when the paths diverge, as they do every hundred or so metres, you can see ahead whether the way you're choosing veers off in another heading. This isn't so easy at night time, and in short we got pretty desperately lost on the way back, zigzagging aimlessly making only the most gradual progress. Often the van was bouncing over boulders under a cliff face or across a heavily rutted bit of plain. Before midnight we'd stop and ask the way on at any ger we'd passed - but I guess it breached etiquette to do so once people were in bed. I think we finally made it home about 2am, having taken nearly 8 hours to cross that 120km. We retired aching to bed, to be woken periodically by the dogs fighting outside, so fiercely tonight that the walls of the shack shook.

More pics at Flickr

Kharkhorin

Thursday 17th to Friday 18th August 2007
Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin by microbus (a compact 11-seater people carrier) costs Tg10,000 - about $9. It's about 360km - the road is being resurfaced for most of its length, so at present the journey takes about 8 hours over bumpy dirt tracks. My wife, her friend Tuya and I were very lucky on our way out as there was only one other passenger on the bus, so we had plenty of room to stretch out - on the return yesterday we weren't so lucky: there ten adults and four kids plus the driver - by no means overcrowded by microbus standards, but with the addition of one tape of the more bombastic Mongolian opera-style music played over and over for the entire journey, reasonably close to purgatory.

We'd set out around 4pm, then had to wait while the bus had an oil change, and didn't get out of UB itself until 6pm. The bus seemed to make pretty good time rocketing along - quite exciting after nightfall, with the headlights sending out beams into the clouds of dust, traffic coming at us and jostling to overtake those headed the same way over the twisting and turning tracks of a six lane dirt highway. Some time in the night we eventually reached a surfaced road again, and I stretched out and dozed off. When I awaoke we were parked outside a tall, irregular wooden fence, Tuya was banging on the gate and dogs all around were barking a protest.

We were staying in Kharkhorin with the family of one of my wife's old college friends. They live on the edge of Kharkhorin, in a yard with a ger, a 'summer cottage' and a little cook house. Through most of the year the family live in the ger, but in the summer they can also use their cottage - a modest, unheated wooden shack furnished, like a ger, with orange painted wooden box-furniture, pictures of wrestling heroes and a small buddhist shrine. Mother and father both work at the local hospital, their youngest son and daughter and the wife's mother all live here together. They have electricity, but of course no running water, and I guess their life is typical of a majority of urban Mongoloians in the country.



Kharkhorin is a city of about 20,000 people, there are no tower blocks, and very few brick buildings at all. It's not a prosperous-looking place, but it's noticeably cleaner than Ulaanbaatar - ramshackle, but without garbage and waste scattered everywhere. Our first morning there the sky was overcast, with light showers of rain, which seemed to suit the dark gritty earth here, and gave the place a fresh feel, reminding me of England's Lake District in typical weather. I love Ulaanbaatar, but after spending so long there it was very refreshing to be in a town that isn't awash with litter, where there isn't the constant blaring of horns and squealing of breaks, nor the pounding of drills and jack-hammers.

We walked to the Erdene Zuu monastery complex. This giant walled complex was once the centre of Buddhism in Mongolia - the first monastery was founded here by Zanabazar, Mongolia's Buddhist 'Renaissance man' of the 16th Century. By the time of the purges of the 1930s there were over 80 temples in the compound - most were destroyed, and the leaders were executed, the older monks disappeared to gulags and the young monks were sent back to their families. Since the 1990s a monastery has been reestablished here, and work continues both in restoring the temple complex and also building a modern school (with hopes for a sports field to "help our lamas win the World Cup in 2010") for the young monks. It's a very worthy project (the monastery also works in the local prison teaching felt craft to inmates and their handiwork can be bought at the monastery shop - the first such program in rehabilitation of offenders that I've heard of in Mongolia) - visit their website at www.erdenezuu.mn.



Later in the afternoon we took a tour round some of the local sights. Firstly we drove upriver a kilometre or two to a weir which standing at the foot of a small mountain ridge that cuts the upper valley out of view from the city makes the gateway for a rather spectacular change of view - the lower river runs swiftly but tamely down a single course, the old valley bed now stony and dry: the upper river bends and forks, leaving dozens of small ox-bow lakes form its twisting, sinuous course, and the valley is lush and green. Ger and herds can be seen here and there off into the distance: it's a breath-taking view of utter beauty, and well worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status - climbing the mountain, as the view expands there's a strong sense of looking out across the millennia at a scene that is both living and essentially unchanged.

We walked along the ridge back in the direction of the city, circling the ovoo (cairns) we passedthree times, and throwing on three stones. We were headed for an impressive monument of three giant, curving wall friezes, depicting the three great Empires of Mongolia's history - that of the Hun, the Turks and the Mongols. Traders had stalls alongside the monument selling what I will politely call 'replicas' of Mongolian antiques. One trader was particularly keen for me to buy a very shiny cooking pot and stand from the "hunnu period" (5th century AD), but I did happily buy a small snuff bottle, that my host's wife insists is made from resin but I choose to believe is from the rather beautiful and carefully worked 'rare stone' that the trader enthusiastically praised. Anyhow, perhaps to compensate me for my gullibility the family were later to give me a very nice little hand-embroidered pouch to keep it in as a parting gift.

We also drove out to see one of the four stone turtles that mark the limits of ancient Kharkhorin, and the "bodjra" stone - a phallus resting on a grinding stone propped up by a circular stone basin. At both places there were more cheerful traders selling pretty much the identical antiques. The city was usually visible in the distance - ramshackle, with its ger, shacks and wooden faces, but friendly-looking. I like Kharkhorin.

Back at home we entertained ourselves by playing the very popular card game known as "cards", at which my wife and Tuya firmly beat me and my host's young son Nymka, as they were throughout giving each other strategic advice while Nymka and I were unable to convey much without a common language. In revenge I beat my wife convincingly at chess, and in revenge for my letting him down so badly at cards Nymka then defeated me with a humiliating fool's mate after I had thought I was beating him very easily. I've recently rediscovered an enthusiasm for playing chess, which I'd lost interest in as a kid because of being too lazy to improve my game: now the wonder of the net has revealed to me the basics of chess strategy after a few idle hours at work, and suddenly I find the game exciting again. I still get beat all the time, though.

That night our sleep was occasionally disturbed by ferocious howls from dogs fighting in the street just outside the cottage - it sounded like we were being beset by wolves and bears.

More photos on my Flickr page.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Work: Over, Travel Plans, Farewell Performances

I just signed the agreement on the termination of my contract, and so am finally at the end of my work in Mongolia. My flight is booked back to the UK for the 4th September, so I find that I finally have some time to see a little of the country. In nine months I've only spent the odd night out of the capital, which has made me increasingly envious of all the merry back-packers passing through the city this summer - at last I can get to see some of the country myself.

Tonight or tomorrow morning the missus and I will be squeezing into a micro-bus and making the long, bumpy journey to Kharkhorin - Mongolia's ancient capital and part of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape. We'll then be back in Ulaanbaatar again on Monday, to check in once more with the British Embassy on progress with my wife's visa application (impeccable service for the $1000 application fee - we can call in any time to be told "The Consul will look at your application when the Consul looks at it" in answer to our queries) and for me to meet my mother-in-law. We're then hoping for the three of us to be able to make a journey to the famously beautiful Lake Hovsgul (0.4% of the world's freshwater) region, where I am also hoping we can find and meet my wife's paternal grandfather, who is a shamanic priest.


The extremely talented Andrew Colwell (double bassist, flamenco guitarist, khoomei singer, morin khuur player, etc, etc) had a leaving do at New River Sounds on Sunday - he's flying back to the States today. In the last few months (since the demise of the jazz night at Mealody) he's been playing a great improv-based blend of sounds with two very talented Australians (Dave Lipson on didgeridoo and I-am-sorry-I-forget-but-will-rectify-ASAP on cello) and they gave a final show to a very appreciative audience. The band may be called Khimoor or something very like, and they have a self-made CD in the works - I'll see what I can do about posting a link or a snippet when it's done - because until you've heard the bass, cello, didj and khoomei in sweet harmony your ears have been missing something important.

Andrew had also sent out an invitation to the many musicians he's made the acquaintance of in his time here to come down and play a tune, so I took that opportunity to make my own farewell performance, and actually play into a microphone for the first time here, which is much easier on the vocal chords, but less easy on the audience's ears. Dragged out the Worried Man Blues and Dirty Old Town yet again, but also properly debuted my own actual self-penned song (to the borrowed tune of Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms) called I Don't Want to Work Anymore.

(Note to any of the potential employers back in the UK I have sent my CV to these last few weeks: please don't take that last song literally - of course I do very much want to work anymore and am just looking forward to my Well Earned Break, and using a bit of poetic license.)

Monday, 13 August 2007

Vodka Camp, Sheep Gizzards

On Friday I went with the rest of my colleagues from the Vodka factory to spend a night and the following day at a pleasant ger camp tucked away in hills a few hours West of Ulaanbaatar. I managed to survive the night, aided no doubt by a very fortifying plate of boiled sheep's stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys and black pudding.
Sheep innards

Friday, 10 August 2007

76 Toyboys

I've mentioned before the subject of corruption in Mongolian public life - from government through hospitals to the police force - and the general perception that it is widespread and inescapable. Last year a bill passed through parliament established the IAAC - the Independent Authority Against Corruption. Public officials are now required by law to register their earnings and other financial interests and those of their families. The figures that have come in now that the majority of officials have complied with that requirement (and published in last week's UB Post) prove interesting reading. There's a law which according to the Post "does not allow MPs to have a private business entity", so how do the country's 76 monkeys manage to get by?

The returned figures show how progressive Mongolia's MPs are in promoting women's rights, against a culture which generally puts women in second place: the majority of MPs earn less than than their wives. Considerably less in many cases. Prime Minister Enkhbold earned a very modest 3.2 million Tugrik - around $3,000 - last year, while the Prime Minister's wife brought home Tg24.2 million. L. Gundalai MP, chairman of the Popular Party, registered his earnings at Tg3 million , Mrs L. Gundalai is doing a bit better with Tg74 million, although even her paycheck doesn't seem to account for how the minister acquired his Toyota Landcruiser, Mercedes Benz, six motor boats, three horses and Tg500 million of shares in the SOS Medica Hospital. I guess, contrary to the general economic trend in the country, 2006/7 was a lean year for MPs. B. Erdenbat has the pretty thankless task of Minister of Fuel and Energy, earning him a paltry Tg3.2 million. His immediate family managed to improve on this with Tg66.3 million. And I guess if times get hard he can always fall back on his Tg17.2 billion worth of shares in Erel bank, Erel Insurance and assorted companies or sell one of his two Mercedes Benz 500s, or his Lexus 470 jeep, two Land Cruiser 100L jeeps or maybe one of his pair of Hummers.

Well, the list goes on (Supreme Court judge A. Batsaikhan has 20 pigs) and can be seen on the UB Post's website. It's interesting reading, and clearly shows that the law against MPs owning businesses is not achieving much.

In President Enkhbayar's case, the declared earnings provide more food for thought - he earned Tg121.9 million, owns a Tg35 million apartment, and aparently his family earned nothing. To quote the Post "He does not own any mining license, savings, land, credit, debt, shares, automobile, or commercial property." I don't think that many people in Mongolia believe a word of that, but (if only because of his good taste in translating Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf into Mongolian) I'd like to believe in his honesty and probity. Of course he doesn't have to declare how many of his cousins and friends are doing very well indeed thankyou, and I shouldn't think that he'll do too badly in retirement. The real test is what he achieves in his job. The President has been a prominent supporter of anti-corruption laws - now that those laws are revealing to the public the extent of the problem (if largely by inference), what Mongolia needs to see now is action to correct this. Otherwise the cynicism with which government and indeed democracy are viewed will surely grow.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Asashoryu, Wayne Rooney

Much sympathy for Mongolian sumo giant Asashoryu, whose homesickness and running around in a Wayne Rooney shirt have cost him the biggest official rebuke of his colourful career. At least it gets him column inches in the Independent and Guardian again.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Mongolian Invasion

Reading the unfortunate news that Liverpool's Culture Company have cancelled this year's Mathew Street Festival three weeks before it was due to take place (will artists still get paid, I wonder? Presumably the paying of musicians is one of the smaller expenses of the event anyhow), leads me to buck up spirits on Merseyside by rashly making the premature announcement of my own ill-planned musical/cultural event: please mark Saturday May 3rd 2008 in your diaries as 'Mongolian Invasion Day'.

I haven't yet ironed out all the details (funding, licensing, etc) but I do have an artist booked - the incomparable Tserendavaa, one of the most highly respected performers of khoomei throat-singing in all Mongolia. My good, gallic friend, ethnomusicologist Johanni Curtet, has arranged a tour for Tserendavaa and his son in France for the early summer, and they've agreed to come over and perform for the people of Liverpool.

There may be workshops - for the curious I'm told that it is possible for some people to pick up the basics of khoomei in a couple of hours. I am also persuing contacts with Mongolian artists and dancers currently based in the UK - if I can get hold of a couple of ger then we'll set up in Sefton Park for a day or perhaps longer. By coincidence, 2008 will be the 100th anniversary of Marzan Sharav's "One Day in Mongolia" painting - I think I can borrow a high quality reproduction from a friend to exhibit for the day.

There could even be buuz for those who like Mongolian cuisine, and barbecue for those (like me) who like the idea of Mongolian cuisine. Furthermore, in a spirit of utter philanthropism, it's my wish to make this a free event providing I can secure the sponsorship/funding to pay the artists (and get them to Liverpool from France). Any offers of assistance with the event should be directed to me at ulaanbaanjo@yahoo.co.uk - particularly if you have a spare ger, bactarian camel, leverage with the Palm House or lactating mares. More details to follow.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Mining

Thanks to Chris Shannon for sending me a link to an interesting and well informed article from The Times last week about the economic changes taking place in Mongolia. The article focuses on 'Ninja Miners' - Mongolian '49ers risking life, limb and lungs at a number of mining sites/ecological disaster zones throughout the country.

Recent protests held by the Nationalist 'Soyombo' party in Sukhbaatar Square were against contracts granted to the Canadian Ivanhoe Mines Company which, according to opponents, give the foreign company "66% of the sub-soil wealth of Mongolia" (UB Post). There is a general sentiment that foreign investors are securing deals that short-change the Mongolian people via the expediency of bribing key officials.

One reason that Mongolia has such large unexploited natural mineral resources is a very strong tradition holding the land, especially mountains, sacred - a sanctity which specifically prohibited digging the earth in such places, specifically prohibited treating nature as a resource to be exploited. There is, furthermore, a very strong tradition carried since Chinggis' times - and reinforced by some of the higher ideals of communism - that this land belongs to the people as a whole, and is a common wealth to be shared and protected for future generations. Whilst opponents of the current state of affairs mostly do not call for an end to mining in its entirety (although this opinion has been expressed by no small number of people), there is a strong sentiment against the national wealth being squandered by the few, and by foreigners.

Deeper resentments, social division and the uglier face of nationalism will only be fed unless the management of Mongolia's gold and copper is more equably handled in the future. I often find myself coming back to the thought that Mongolia is a large country with such a tiny population - just over two million people - and so it's conceivable that the problems faced here, if there is political will and people of the moral fibre and strength to fit the task, can be resolved.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Rain Missiles, Miss Mongolia Controversy

Sweltering heat in the capital and the rest of Mongolia this week. We'd had a fair few days of rain before Naadam, which brought some very welcome cool air. I read in today's UB Post that the precipitation was the product of "rain missiles launched from Gachuurt".

There are a number of interesting pieces in the Post this week, which will save me from writing (and you from reading) about the tedious tribulations involved in applying for a spouse's visa from the British Embassy. Headlined "Many Must Have Been Very Disappointed" there's an interview with a runner-up in the recent 'Miss Mongolia' contest full of very pointed questions alleging irregularities in the selection of the winner. The interviewee, one B. Ganbolor, was the popular favourite, for whom the studio audience "had shared the hopes expressed in sections of the mass media" for her to win. Alas, the crown went to a G. Gantuya, of which Ms Ganbolor says in the interview: "When [she] was being crowned there were screams of "Stop this farce!"" Here's the winner and disgruntled runners-up with their striking float at the Naadam opening ceremony:
Miss Mongolia 2007 Float

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Three Manly Games (and Anklebones)

Firstly, definitions. Naadam, which Mongolians call the "world's second oldest Olympics" is a three day festival of competitions in the "Three Manly Games": archery, wrestling and horse racing. Actually, women take part in the archery (possibly for a separate prize) and girls race the horses too. The story behind the traditional chestless jacket worn in the wrestling is that once a jealous woman competed, much to the shame of all the men she defeated, and so steps were taken to prevent this from happening again.

My wife and I had tickets for the two main days of competition (the 11th and 12th - Nadaam is held on the 11th - 13th July every year). She'd made me wait outside the ticket office at the Culture Palace while she bought the tickets in case there was the usual extra charge for foreigners - but for ordinary seats the tickets were a very reasonable 7500T ($7) regardless of nationality, for the whole event.

Wednesday morning was hot, with ominous clouds in the sky. However, rather than dress for rain I was determined to wear the short deel jacket I've recently had made - which put me in the exclusive company of old ladies and other foreigners. The National Stadium isn't far out of the stadium, and the route over broken ground, railway tracks, and beneath insulation-clad pipes was busy and lively. Traders lined the route selling cheap sunglasses, plastic toy guns, kvass and skewers of barbecued meat. Our timing was lucky, as on arrival at the stadium, we just managed to find seats, and didn't have too long to wait for things to get started. The stadium was full, but not overcrowded. I wrote the other day about an opinion piece in the UB Post suggesting that visitor numbers are down this year - whilst many more may well have been drawn by last year's 800th Anniversary of the Mongolian State, I find it hard to believe that there's been a significant fall - maybe there are more tour companies and hostels competing for the business.

The opening ceremony was quite enjoyable: a parade of horses followed by people in the various national costumes of the country. A lot of people bearing brightly coloured banners with swastikas on, too - the swastika being an ancient revered symbol in Mongolia and the personal seal, I'm told, of Genghis Khan. After marching round the stadium a few times there were dances performed - unfortunately, the banner holders were positioned so as to form a wall making it impossible for about an eighth of the stadium,including us, to see much of what was going on.

Eventually, after a rock song or two, speeches from the president, poems and so forth, the wrestling began. To be honest, it didn't really grip me, as I couldn't make out much of what was going on at the distance from our seats. We decided to take a walk around the outside of the stadium. That evening I watched some of the wrestling on TV, which I found much easier to follow.

Outside the stadium, we wandered over to the Archery field and the Anklebone tent. Both these events are unticketed - there's bustling crowds at the entrance to both venues, but inside it was possible to get right up on the action. We were at the Archery just in time to catch President Enkhbayar opening proceedings there. The Archery was very impressive to watch - particularly the way that crowds of judges hung very nonchalantly around the targets 75 metres away, it being presumably unthinkable that a Mongolian archer would miss by as much as a metre and a half.

The Anklebone tent was very crowded, and quite a racket was coming from inside - shouting and laughter, but beneath it all a loud, rising and falling drone, like some kind of meditative chant. Two sheep's anklebones - used for a wide variety of Mongolian games - are set up on a box in front of a black cushion. Some 10 or so metres away, the shooters line up on one knee, whilst squatting along either side towards the target are their team-mates - from whom the droning chant comes. With a powerful flick of their middle finger, and without looking up, the shooter fires a small rectangular puck along a piece of wood they have meticulously lined up to face the target - the object being to knock down both the bones. It doesn't qualify as a Manly Sport, unfortunately, so presumably owes its presence at Nadaam to the fact that it's both skillful and very entertaining.

We left the horse racing for day two. This year the races were taking place at Khui Doloon Khudag, some 40km outside of the city, necessitating a microbus journey. We went to see the Shudlen race - for 3 year-old horses. The aspect of the horse-racing that draws most attention internationally, and no small degree of criticism, is that the jockeys are all children aged from about six to ten years. Understandably, where hundreds of horses take to the field, there have been fatalities over the years. According to the UB Post, this year the children would "have to wear some protective gear" - which seemed to consist of an orange day-glo jacket, although about one child in ten was wearing a helmet. Another child in ten or so was also riding bareback.

There can be no doubt, but life can be hard on children in Mongolia. Many children have to work, and others beg for a living for themselves or their parents. Seeing the children ride, though, I find it very hard not to sympathise with the Mongolian instinct to take deep offense at any suggestion that the Naadam races should be ended. I suppose what becomes a bit uncomfortable is the fact that over the years, the race may well become more and more of a tourist event, and that starts to edge more into an area that I'm far less comfortable with, not least from my own perspective as a foreign spectator.

The race was thrilling and entertaining. It's 15 km in all - the 250 horses and riders competing set off for the start line at the foot of mountains on the horizon. Their return was heralded by a steadily approaching cloud of dust. The leaders came in at a thunderous pace. A fair few horses, understandably, were riderless, although I'm given to believe that there were thankfully no serious injuries this year. It was hard to consider the potential danger as the children were all quite clearly such competent riders. If children are going to ride horses at all, then why shouldn't they race? Well, anyhow, for my sins I enjoyed it. The presence of a very large number of country people on horseback - coming and going, suddenly breaking into a gallop through a crowd of pedestrians - kept the event from feeling like a tourist occasion, however many foreign spectators were around. Also, the fact that the two hundred or so ger selling food seemed to only be cooking the boiled flour and mutton buuz and khorschor was proof enough for me that this is still very much a Mongolian event.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Naadam: Equine Indifference

From the final horse race (15km, 250 horses, jockeys aged 6 - 10 years). This one wasn't the winner.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Naadam Update

Some photos from day one at my flickr site. I'm afraid I didn't get much closer than a zoom shot to any of the Naadam wrestlers, but managed to get to see some of the archery and the anklebones contest, on which more later. Today we're going to head out of town to the horseraceing, and see what we can in the dust. Incidentally, I suspect that the UB Post piece I referred to in my last posting (on the drop in tourist numbers) may be well off the mark - perhaps there are many more firms competing for the trade, because there certainly seems to be a substantial number of foreigners amongst the crowds.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Naadam, Airag, In-Laws

July 11th to 13th is Naadam, the biggest event on the Mongolian calendar. Three days of competitions in three sports: horse-racing, wrestling and archery. We've picked up tickets for the first two days, so I'll submit a report on all the fun in a couple days time.

According to an opinion piece in last week's UB Post, there are significantly fewer tourists here than last year - possibly because people are putting off a Mongolia visit to coincide with next year's Beijing Olympics. The tourist presence is definitely noticeable, but there is general disappointment in the trade. These few weeks are when the many Mongolians who work in the tourism industry expect to make most of their year's salary, so a poor year means that a lot of people will be feeling the bite. I had to diappoint a taxi driver the other day by refusing point blank to pay ten times the correct fare, about which he was most bitter. I could hardly begrudge him his bitterness, as his greed had given me a chance to show off my mastery of Mongolian and meet his outrageous demand with a cry of "Yakshtay!"

However many tourists are here, the festival is a big holiday for everybody in the country. Street vendors selling Kvass are everywhere. Kvass is a Russian drink that has a lot in common with ale, I think, but is very low in alcohol and sweet - it tastes for all the world like a bitter shandy, and I find it really refreshing on a hot day. Most of the bars have now got tables out on the street, and are barbecuing beef or mutton, the smell of which is very enticing, a lot more so than the usual waft of steamed buuz.

Just down the road from my friend Niall's home, there's a ger just set up selling the traditional Mongolian summer drink, Airag- fermented mare's milk - so walking home the other day we popped in to try a bowl. The taste is not much of a surprise - salty and tangy, somewhat like a pro-biotic yoghurt drink. Traditionally, menfolk drink gallons and gallons of the stuff until they vomit (as depicted in Marzan Sharav's picture "The Airag Feast") - particular kudos going to those whose powerful stomach muscles allow them to projectile vomit clean out of the ger door. I quite enjoyed the Airag but didn't feel overly keen to test out my regurgitative prowess. This might not have taken much encouragement though, as I'd just spent the day at a large village outside UB meeting some of my very charming and kind in-laws. My wife's Uncle was fascinated to find out how much vodka a man of my height could drink before getting drunk. The fact is (and it's nothing to boast about, of course) I can put back a considerable amount, providing it's just straight vodka I drink, and that at no time am I required to go out into the fresh air or indeed stand up - both of which prove instantly fatal.

Anyhow, Naadam kicks off tomorrow at 11am, with an opening ceremony at the Central Stadium, and we'll do our best to get down there in time to get a seat. The horse-racing takes place somewhere out past the airport, I think, but we ought to be able to find a bus going there. Apparently you don't see much unless you're chasing the horses by car, but I'd still like to get out there and soak up some of the atmosphere. In the evening there's a free concert at Sukhbaatar Square, which I aim to catch from the terrace of Dave's Place. I might make my own contribution to festivities, as it's wednesdays that I like to go down to the English Pub and play a few banjo tunes (speaking of which - thanks for sending the thumb picks Barry! Golden Gates too, just like I asked for). My wife is trying to teach me to sing a few Mongolian songs, but I'm finding memorising the lyrics a little bit more challenging than the 'Lonesome Road Blues'.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Heroes and Villains



The photo shows a statue which is found at the end of an avenue near my apartment, not far from the Indian Embassy. I had assumed from the uniform and jaunty pose that it was the statue of a hero of Mongolia's war for independence from Manchu China. As I recall from what I read at the National History Museum, Mongolians also fought the White Armies during the Russian Civil War, for which many generals were decorated, and this feller looked a likely candidate to be honoured as such.

Not long after I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the statue disappeared, leaving an empty plinth. I asked a few teachers at work if they knew what had happened. Most didn't have any idea, but eventually someone told me that it was 'stolen by the Chinese' to be sold as scrap metal. The winter months went by, I used to sit on the marble step to take a cigarette break from school (no longer - I quit again two months ago). I felt some sympathy for the stolen general, the victim, I felt, of an ambivalence towards the heroes of a past regime.

To my surprise, in the late Spring the statue reappeared. It looked different from how I remembered it, but it didn't seem possible that it would have been recast. I asked another teacher what had happened, and was told that the sword arm of the statue had been cut off by someone, presumably for scrap, and so the general had been sent to China to be repaired. I was reminded of the Victorian worthies who disappeared from Princes Avenue, Toxteth, in the Eighties - Florence Nightingale and some chap sticking a needle into a baby's backside? It's a shame Liverpool can't meet UB's turnaround time on repairs - although the Peltier Monument has been doing a worthy job in the meantime.

The general being back, and having decided to commemorate his return with a small post, I asked my wife the name of the General, for the sake of factual accuracy. "That's Choibalsan," she told me.

Choibalsan was a general, who became the ruler of Mongolia after the communist takeover in 1921, until his eventual execution (or 'disappearance', I am not clear which) in Moscow in 1946. I wrote in my previous posting about the Museum of Natural History that Mongolia's limited involvement in the Second World War caused me to question the extent to which Mongolia was under the direct orders of the Kremlin. During Choibalsan's regime he initiated 'purges' to coincide with Stalin's mass-murderings, and consigned 10% of his populace - 100,000 people - to death or the prison camps, at the clear instigation of his master in Moscow - so perhaps there are other reasons for Mongolia's non-involvement in the Western theatre. There is one book in English on the subject of the purges, "Poisoned Arrows", which you can find a few inter3esting reviews of online. A curiosity thrown up by Yahoo was the news that in 2005 a Mausoleum containing the remains of Choibalsan and the much-loved Sukhbaatar was removed from Sukhbaatar Square, and the remains of both cremated in a Buddhist ceremony. Somewhat ironic, to say the least, as Choibalsan was directly responsible for the murder of at least 30,000 Buddhist monks. My wife told me that at school she was taught that Choibalsan was Mongolia's greatest modern ruler, and only learned about the purges at University.

At work today I showed the picture to a colleague who told me that it is not Choibalsan - it's Lhaugvasuren, a general who fought the Japanese in the Second World War. "So is there a statue of Choibalsan?" I asked. Indeed, his statue is in the city centre, half way down the same avenue, behind the Government building. The persecutor of intellectuals stands rather smugly outside the Mongolian National University, and not too far from the monument to the victims of political oppression outside the National History Museum. There's no name on the plinth, just the year (I assume) of his death, 1946.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Hitched

Thursday, 5th July
Sweltering heat already at half nine this morning as we made our way to the Mongolian National Citizens Registry Centre, which happens to be fairly close to my apartment, down a ramshackle road lined by car part traders, dark, grimy ironmongers, and battered yellow trailers selling kvass at 150T a cup. We'd done our best to get hitched yesterday afternoon - after a morning of visiting hospitals to pick up paperwork, taking the paperwork to be translated and spending a fruitless hour at the Bureau of Immigration trying to get a certificate that the office no longer issues. Anyhow, the over-worked guy in the office responsible for marriages to non-nationals asked us to come back this morning at ten.

Arriving back at the office good and early, the registrar directed us to the bank next door, to pay the administration fee for the wedding: 1000 Tugrik, about 90p. Back with our receipt at the bare little office we both signed our names in the records, and that was that. With a smile the registrar handed us the card that is our marriage certificate, and we were married. We invited the registrar to join us for lunch, which he politely declined, so Mr and Mrs Ulaanbaanjo left the office and walked back home.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Certified Sane

29th June 2007
One of the first questions I've usually been asked by every group of students I've taught from the 4th Grade to Upper Management is "Are you married?" Next comes "Why not?" followed by "Will you marry a Mongolian girl?"

Finding these questions increasingly difficult to side-step, I've decided to change my answer to them, permanently. So if the paperwork is all in order, by this time next week it will be Mr and Mrs Ulaanbaanjo.

We've opted for a Soviet Bureaucracy-themed wedding at the local district government offices. The preparations have been entertaining. Firstly, my fiance had to get her mother to send paperwork from her home province allowing her to register as a citizen in UB - this came via a micro-bus passenger who arrived at 3.30 in the morning (and kindly phoned us at 2.30am to tell us that she'd be in our neighbourhood in an hour or so). This proved to be only the beginning of a landslide of forms and affadavits needed: we have had to visit three hospitals this morning - one to get our blood-type tested and to give a sample to be checked for HIV. Another to have our chests X-rayed for tuberculosis and the last, to have our heads examined by a rather shy-looking young psychiatrist. Good news from that last visit is that I am now certified sane, which is something of a relief, and contradicts much that has been opined in my direction over the years.

More tiresome are the proofs I need to provide from the UK: a clean criminal record and proof that I am not married. The criminal record should fortunately not be a problem as I happened to bring a Criminal Records Bureau check with me from my last job in the UK. But how do I prove that I am not married? In vain I argued with officials that in the UK it's recorded that someone is married, not that they are not married - there is no record to have confirmed. The British Embassy in UB shrugged their shoulders and offered to publish bans of marriage for $250 (3 times the national average wage to insert our names and print out a form - that's service!) Eventually it was pointed out to me the benefits of Microsoft Word and the fact that bureaucrats here just want to see the form in front of them and tick the correct box.

So all that remains is to get a letter from my employer confirming my good character, a form from the Office of Immigration, Naturalization and Foreign Citizens confirming that I haven't breached my visa status in any way, and a statement from ourselves confirming our love and affection, and come Tuesday - well - wish us luck.

Short Short Stories

I have previously posted about the educational benefits of Very Short Stories (6 words) and Mini Sagas (50 words) - they're fun and can be tried whatever a person's English level. The Normblog website is currently running a Short Short Story competetion - the definition of Short Short here being 250 words. Previous entries from last year's contest can be found by rummaging through the site - I think that this form of story is a good one for study, as I found that the traditional published length of story (2,500 - 5,000 words) rarely keeps the attention of students (the venerable exception being 'The Monkey's Paw'). I imagine that the reason that most professional writers have tended to write shorts on the longish side is that they were being paid by the word - I think that there's a lot of elegance to the truly short format. Anyway, check out the entries at Norm's site or submit one yourself. I found 'An Inconvenience' by a promising young talent named Jimi Fallows to be particularly compelling.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Museum of National History

I finally got around to visiting the Museum of National History the other day. It’s by far the most modern and best laid out of Ulaanbaatar’s museums, especially the Bronze Age exhibit on the ground floor. The cases are nicely lit and well labeled in both Mongolian and English. The various stages of the nation’s history are well represented on the other floors, although there is perhaps a bit of ‘editorial bias’ in the choice of items shown. The long period Mongolia spent under Manchu rule (from the 17th to the early 20th century) is represented by three display cases of instruments of torture and execution. I am under the impression that people were executed during Chinngis’ reign too, and probably later Khans, and I’m not sure that there’s any evidence that Chinese rule was any harsher – that in fact the centre of government being so far away and fervent Buddhism mostly keeping the populace equable, Mongolians were mostly allowed to carry on their lives as they had for centuries. The infamy of the Manchus is very much taken for granted by the majority of Mongolians today, however, which I think may well have been a version of history strongly encouraged in the Soviet era. This and some of the slant on the Soviet period should be borne in mind of the fact that this building was formerly The Museum of the Revolution.

The hall of Soviet history itself is pretty interesting, although unfortunately a lot of the labels are left untranslated. Mongolia has an interesting place in Communist history – it was the second country in the world to have a Communist revolution. Lenin is still quite fondly regarded in Mongolia, for his support in freeing Mongolia from Chinese rule. There’s a prominent statue of Lenin outside the Ulaanbaatar Hotel. The museum has one display case dedicated to the victims of the purges during the 1930’s – whether these were ordered by Stalin or just inspired by him seems unclear. The justification for the mass arrests at the time was a fabricated Japanese-inspired fifth columnist plot to take over the country. There’s no mention (in English anyway) of the many thousands (30,000?) of Buddhist monks who disappeared at this time, but there are the pocket watches of Minister of Finance S. Dovchin, former Party Secretary O. Badrakh and Minister of Justice D. Dorjpurev’s wife’s handbag: the perhaps unintentional impression that these three items are all that remain of the victims of the mass murder is chilling.

To what extent Mongolia's leaders were under the command of the Kremlin is a question that I would be interested to see historians answer. I believe that there’s evidence that Mongolia had a considerable degree of autonomy. For example, throughout World War Two, Mongolia’s contribution to the fighting on the Eastern front was the loan of a handful of tanks and planes – which Russia had presumably given Mongolia in the first place – and the sale of horses and a few other supplies to the Allies: this when Stalin was sacrificing millions of his countrymen to slow the German advance. Of course, Mongolia’s population was very small at the time (around 1 million? Less?) – and Mongolia was later to fight fiercely against Japan in the campaigns that led to VJ Day. Until the democratic revolution of the 90s, Russia stationed troops and carried out military exercises in Mongolia – but Russia also built apartment blocks, power stations, and factories and indeed provided a degree of security against the country’s other Marxist neighbor.

Anyhow, an interesting museum, with food for these questions and others - well worth a visit. 3,000T admission, I didn’t check how much it costs to take photos. I will try and remember to update this entry with a photo of the exterior, which is a piece of Soviet modernist architecture that is a credit to the city.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Construction Problems

Not very good news so far on Mongolia's "40,000 Homes" programme [a government initiative to ease the chronic housing shortage and encourage home-ownership amongst citizens of UB], according to the 21st June UB Post. At a recent conference of the National Chamber of Commerce, representatives of the country's construction firms voiced considerable complaints, particularly about the problem of bribery. Although the language given in the paper is a bit vague, it suggests that bribes in the region of $1,000,000 for the better areas of the city, have to be paid before a given project can commence. The bribes demanded by officials are so high that only foreign companies can afford to build there, so "Foreigners' townships will come up on lands near a water source and with pure air, while Mongolian citizens in their own country have to live in sub-optimal conditions." Even in the less desirable areas, a continual flow of back-handers has to be paid. Certainly, there is plenty of construction going on in the better parts of the city at the moment, and all quite clearly marketed at the foreign buyer. "Project 40,000" is set to succeed, however, because astoundingly, the government has said that every apartment built and sold in the country - including those developments exclusively for foreigners and the super-rich - will count towards the target. In other words, what began as an initiative to improve the standard of living of the population may only serve to push up rental prices and line the pockets of corrupt officials and property speculators.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Capital of Culture: 2008 Pledge

Friday, 22nd June 2007
Thoughts turn increasingly homeward - by the beginning of September I should be saying goodbye to Mongolia (only for a while, I hope) and returning to my much cherished home city of Liverpool. Of course, what with Skype, emails and blogs of all things, I've hardly been out of touch with home for more than a day or two in all the time I've been out here in Mongolia. Family and friends aside however, the homeward-turn of thoughts brings me to dwell on the excitement due to kick off on the 1st January 2008, when Liverpool will begin its year as the European Capital of Culture.

I regularly read through the letters pages of the Liverpool Echo and Daily Post on their shared website at http://icliverpool.icnetwork.co.uk and, sad to say, there has been a little bit of negativity now and then, concerning the readiness of the city for the upcoming festivities.

"THE Capital of Culture next year is the biggest farce of all times...It is not safe to be in Liverpool at night as there are loads of thugs, then you have the nightclubs and most of them should be closed down." J.W. Hill, Bootle (Liverpool Echo 19th June)

"WITH regards to Capital of Horse Manure. I would like to express my concern for the vast amount of horse manure on the pavements in the city centre. Besides it being an obstacle course, trying to get from one place to another with building work, you have to dodge the horse manure. It is not being picked up and traffic is actually driving through it and spreading it even more. It is disgusting for we who live here, I just can’t imagine what visitors must think." J.L.H., Bootle (any relation?)(Liverpool Echo 18th June)


A letter arguing that Liverpool needs a Giullianni-style mayor reads like poetry in its description of the state of the city:

"JUST an average day's commute into Liverpool ...

A residential suburban street covered in dog faeces.

A man at the back of the bus with his feet up on the opposite seats.

A teenager on the same bus who looks like he hasn't washed in a month, scratching his filthy head with even filthier nails.

An alcoholic vagrant using a low-rise wall in London Road as a bed.

A discarded syringe near the pharmacy in London Road.

Pavements near the Odeon cinema covered in thick black gunge.

A man blowing the contents of his nose directly onto the street.

A passenger throwing cigarette ends from his car window in Water Street.

What a filthy, degenerate city this has become..."
Peter Bradshaw, L36 (Liverpool Echo, 15th June)

I am kind of assuming that for all the changes in the last 6 months (no more NORTON FOR CRAP! That's the city turning its back on its culture and heritage right there!) Liverpool is still something of an untidy city with a degree of social decay, but I'm not sure that these are really enough to hold the culture year back. Of course Bill Bryson famously gave the city a gentle ribbing for the "festival of litter" in his "Notes from a Small Island", and it's certainly arguable that both the litter and the whingeing are integral aspects to the city's culture which it just would not be the same without... Well, on second thoughts, it may well not be the same without them, but it would clearly be an improvement.

Anyhow, to cultivate a a more positive atmosphere for proceedings now that the countdown is ticking, and acknowledging that in the past I've had more than my share of sarcastic comments to make about the city and about 2008, I'd like to ask people to join me in a sincere pledge to be not remotely cynical about the Capital of Culture year from now on; not to complain about the failures of the City Council (which can easily be acchieved by not making any reference at all to the City Council); or the Culture Company (ditto), nor about the involvement of 'outsiders' in the celebrations; to refrain from throwing MacDonalds cartons into the gutter or a garden hedge, perhaps even to pick up the occassional coke can or snickers wrapper; not to spit noisily and aggressively whilst passing people in the street; not to opine that everything in the John Moore's Prize Exhibition at the Walker is shit (even if it is - which in 2006 it most emphatically was not - for which, incredibly, we had Tracey Emin of all people to thank); not to complain that Manchester is trying to steal Liverpool's limelight with its own highly successful festival; not to bemoan the lack of funding for bluegrass related events, nor the complete lack of interest or indeed response shown by the various committees for pet projects (such as a 'Mongolian Invasion' of Sefton Park which, by the beard of Genghis, I will see happen!); not to be smug that however crap we thought the 08 logo was it's nothing like the joke that got foisted on the London Olympics; not to complain about property prices; nor make jokes about the Writing on the Wall 'literature' festival; such as, for example, putting 'literature' in quotes; not to revel in past glories when Liverpool was the GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD, but to take a degree of pride, tempered by humility, in its evolving present; not to make fun of the letters in the Post and Echo, nor the reports by the hard-working journalists, be they about Stab Boy or even Stab Boy's Mum, and especially not if it's the latest Funding Crisis being reported on by Deborah James; not to repeatedly complain that the Literature section of the official Capital of Culture website neglects to mention Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Olaf Stapledon or even "Redburn" by Herman Melville; nor to wonder what over-priced events citizens of Liverpool will need a special discount card to attend, and why we should be following in the footsteps of tourist traps like Chester and Windsor in implementing such a discriminatory scheme, against the Liverpool museums' fine example of being free to everybody; not to call for the head of Boris Johnson, Margi Clarke, Ulaanbaanjo, or whoever else might inadvertently offend somebody by giving an honest opinion on the city; not to subvert a list of pledges into a catalogue of complaints; in fact, to each do our humble best towards making the year a memorable one, for ourselves and for whatever visitors and guests might grace us with their presence; to celebrate Culture in as many aspects and with as open a mind as we can; and finally, to reserve a special place in our hearts, pockets and all headline events for the Banjo, which was, after all, John Lennon's first instrument, to say nothing of the city's many other fine banjoists over the years.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

ESL Teaching Resources Online

My attempts at teaching English have been, ah, somewhat hit-and-miss over the past six months. The main excuses I have given (where directly blaming other people couldn't be got away with) has been a lack of training and of suitable teaching materials to hand. I've spent too many hours trawling the web through well-meant but practically useless free ESL sites, and probably-not-quite-as-many hours devising lesson plans of my own invention which 90% of the time have proven to utterly fail to engage students in any degree. When I've asked other ESL teachers for advice I've mostly been recommended to "unlock my inner teacher within" as it were - ie, do whatever I think best.

Although I was aware of the BBC World Service web pages devoted to teaching English, I had failed to notice the downloadable lesson plans, of which dozens are available on line and many seem to be of excellent quality. Likewise, I missed the link to the British Council's Teaching English site, which has even more lesson plans (aimed more at school-age children), and a number of very useful books in PDF all completely free to download. There are also a wide range of articles for the edification of teachers, and both sites make good use of downloadable audio to be used in conjunction with classes, if desired.

Both these sites are extremely well-designed, and I suspect that they contain material as good as if not better than the many pay-for-access ESL resource sites. And if you please you can still go back to one of the open forum "Hey, here's a totally awesome idea for class!!! It REALLY works!!" sites for a handy back-up when in need of a change of pace, ie: a totally awesome variant on Hangman or Eye Spy. (OK, a lot of the ideas posted on sites such as Dave's ESL Cafe are very good indeed, but you do have to read through an awful lot of half-brained stuff before you find anything worth embarassing yourself in front of a room full of bored students for.)

The one actual, physical text-book I have, which I got my mother to order me from Amazon, is "Rediscover Grammar" by David Crystal. Concise and conveniently pocket-sized, it says on the back that it "remains the ideal guide and reference for teachers and students" - and so it is. I don't teach from it, I just occassionally use it to avoid embarassment by discreetly dipping in to check exactly what a preposition is.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Guinea Pig

Day three of my new job involved another tour of the plant and a visit to the tasting room. I confirmed that yes indeed there are paid employees who's job is to check the quality of each day's output of spirits - and that involves actually drinking vodka. You may well say that of course there is somebody who's job it is to taste the vodka, but until I met such a person in the flesh, I had feared that perhaps the job was done by a Taste-o-tronic 3000 or something. Hiding my excitement and asking how somebody gets such a post, I was disappointed to discover that the tasters were all highly qualified chemists. Why did nobody take the tame to explain this to me in school?

The taste test is just one check on the quality, and there are a whole series of much less exciting tests done with laboratory equipment that probably take some of the joy out of the job. In Mongolia, as with Russia, there is a considerable problem of counterfeit spirits being sold, particularly in smaller retailers and in the countryside. After putting my stamp of approval on the day's regular and premium product, I was invited to have a taste of some of the bootleg vodkas. I am fairly certain that the regular testers do not bother with passing these through any taste test, particularly when one look at the cloudy contents confirms that it certainly ain't the real thing. More likely they just time how many minutes it takes to dissolve an inch of steel. However, in me they had a daring and needless to say moronic volunteer, quite curious to take a small sip "just to see."

As a small child, I once asked a friend's dad who was siphoning petrol out of his car , what petrol tasted like? He held the end of the tube to me and said "See for yourself." I found out, and I also learned not to ask stupid questions. Well actually, I didn't at all learn not to ask stupid questions, but I did discover the somewhat humbling knowledge that there is such a thing.

The first vodka, which upon being held to the light had quite large, yellowy sediment quite easily visible swirling around in it, tasted and smelled of water. The second vodka, which had a finer sediment, tasted of, well, petrol. I'm not entirely sure how I benefited in learning this, except to acquire a rather chronic 24 hour stomach bug. I did learn that the visual test is one of the most valuable tests for counterfeit spirits, as it is very rare for counterfeiters to employ particularly high standards of filtration: real vodka should be entirely clear, without bits, especially big yellowy bits. For anyone to whom that is new information, I am very happy that my experiment has been of service.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Grain Spirit

Wednesday 13th June - only 2 days to go to get hot water!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find that in spite of the longer hours, I am so far enjoying working at a vodka factory. I've had a tour of the plant, of course, and for my second day I was required to pose for news cameras drinking our premium product at an expo in the city. I also felt duty-bound to test our competitors' products at the same time, to confirm that we really do make the best.

Of course the regular workplace is an excessively sober environment, in spite of the presence of dozens of bottles of product in every office. My teaching schedule is pretty full - teaching two departments each day and then holding a conversation class each evening. In-between I have to prepare hand-outs etc, which is at least forty times easier than at school as here I'm supplied with both a computer and a printer that actually work, which I find makes a considerable difference towards getting things done.

It's an interesting time in the vodka trade in Mongolia, as the big companies are all on the point of breaking into the international market. I think that the potential for export sales to exceed the considerable domestic sales is certainly there, there surely being a certain cachet to Mongolian vodka. My own company, and a number of the competitors, are producing some real high-end stuff: to my surprise all made with 100% Mongolian organic wheat grain - I wasn't aware that wheat was grown on such a scale in this country, but it's one of the proud boasts of the industry.

One of the biggest problems for companies here is simply getting the product out of the country, as the only route is the not-always-reliable Trans-Mongolian railway - particularly complications arising over the degree of cooperation between the Chinese, Mongolian and Russian monopolies operating each section of the route. There's been considerable wrangling reported in the press this past six months between Russia and Mongolia over responsibility for a series of derailings near the border. As Mongolia's leading businesses start to get involved in a larger volume of international trade, these problems are likely to become acute, without considerable investment in the infrastructure of the only one viable route for freight to get in and out of the country.

Of course, the size of the vodka industry in Mongolia can certainly be seen from the negative side and the extent of alcoholism in the country. I'm told that the trend in the nation is slowly away from vodka drinking towards beer, which is maybe one incentive for companies to look abroad for sales. I'm also told that after copper mining, tax on the spirit industry represents the largest contribution to the state coppers - so for all the damage done by alcoholism in the country, I'm assuming that the new road that's been laid over the dirt track behind my apartment and the promised pay rise for teachers would not have happened without it.

My employers are very keen in sponsoring a number of worthy social initiatives in the country to promote a better image of what they do, and can at least justify themselves against the cheapest spirits on the market - those naturally favoured by the more committed drunks - in that they are producing a clean, quality product. Of course, once they get a good foothold selling as a luxury item abroad, then the significance of the domestic market to their profits will diminish: so you can do your bit towards securing the future of this great nation by rushing out and buying a bottle of Mongolian fire-water today. I would try and discreetly point you in the direction of the vodka made by my employers, by recommending that you buy the bottle with a picture of Genghis on the label, but unfortunately that distinction applies to every one of our competitors brands too.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Summer Teaching, Sore Thumbs

Thursday 7th June 2007
Extremely good news is reported in today's UB Post for Mongolia's hard-working primary and secondary school teachers: the state is set to increase their salaries to in the region of $300 a month. This is a considerable raise - at present teachers in state schools are earning $60 - $100 a month - even in private schools the salary is only $200. The article was a little bit vague about when this increase will take place, however, as there seems to be an indication that the aim is for teachers to be earning $350 by 2015... so I'm unsure just yet whether the news will be any cause for celebration.

Mongolia's brief Spring seems to be over, and a hot and sweaty summer firmly established - although I'm told it may yet snow again, as it did overnight a week ago. For now the heat is here - to happily coincide with my district of the city having no hot water for the past three days and, I'm told, none until the 15th June. Bracing cold showers are now the order of the day.

There having been a short period of doubt since the school term ended, I've now had my summer job confirmed: I'll be working for three months tutoring the management team at a vodka distillery - perhaps it's an environment that I'll find myself better suited to. The plan is to give a structured lesson each day and then follow the lesson up with conversation with my students. I'll assess each student's ability and come up with an achievement plan for each and, god willing, we'll work together until September on improving their English, hopefully to everyone's satisfaction. There have been hints that the job may get me out and about in the countryside occasionally, but for the most part I'll be office-based.

Other than any opportunities that work throws up, this does now mean that I'm highly unlikely to see much more of the country for the remainder of my stay - as it is my firm plan to head straight back to Blighty once my contract is up in order to get over to Ireland in time for this year's Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival. Oh, and of course to see family and friends and stuff. For the present, in as much as I am planning for the future, I'm thinking that if I spend a year back in England working I'll be able to come back to Mongolia with some money in my pocket, and that then I'll have the luxury of not needing a salary, and be able to do as I please. I'd like 2009's sequel to this blog to be a year in a ger, far away from the smog, general chaos and satisfying variety of restaurants and bootleg dvds of the metropolis. It is entirely possible that my childhood ambition of becoming either a lighthouse-keeper or an astronaut may intervene, but I'm advised that it is a good thing to have goals.

Be assured that if work does give me the opportunities I will get myself out into rural Mongolia. I recently met a University professor of traditional medicine who I'm helping with a translation of a paper he's written on the early influences of Indian medicine in Mongolia. A very interesting man, he has kindly offered to let me join him on one of his trips to the countryside when I am free to go.

I did get back to Manzushir on Saturday, with a group of friends. It turns out that there's a bus to Zunmod for just under $1 each way, although this time we were getting a lift in a hybrid camper truck that had started its life in Ireland. There must be an increasing flow of traffic from Western Europe braving the journey here: at the hotel outside my apartment there are two 'Rotels' parked up today - converted HGVs fitted with every convenience - that appear to have made their way here from Germany.

We stayed at a new ger camp tucked away in a small valley at the edge of the park, and a very pleasant evening was had by all. I think that the ger cost around $30 for the night, which price included unlimited wood. The wood was needed as it was a cold night - it snowed some time around 2am. Worryingly, the chimney of our stove was propped up by a piece of wood and did not look remotely sturdy. After catching the chimney as it toppled out of place early in the evening we alerted staff at the camp, who made a makeshift repair. Later in the evening the chimney fell down again, narrowly missing braining and branding one of our party, and filling the ger with thick smoke. We got out into the very fresh air and this time staff replaced the stove with one that wasn't falling to pieces.

Out in the streets the bars now have their tables and sun shades out. Dave's Place now commands a respectable corner of the Culture Palace's tall-columned terrace - where along with the English conversation club host Dave and a very talented travelling Irish trad musician Sarah, I played a few tunes last night to a very generous audience. I'm hoping to make it a regular Wednesday night thing for the summer, at least until somebody objects forcibly enough. We'll be playing a mix of bluegrass and sing-along rock favourites by request. I've really not been playing much since things stopped at Mealody, so it's good to get back into it. I seem to have lost all my thumb-picks, however, so if anyone happens to be heading out to Mongolia this summer, please consider bringing me a few, as a desperately needed act of charity. Golden Gates by preference - large size, medium gauge.