Saturday 20th January 2007
The school holidays have begun, with a tremendous wave of joy and relief all around. We were to have one week’s holiday, but Friday morning I learned that the school management had met with the teachers and decided to give us two weeks holiday instead. Naturally I was very happy at the news, although if I had known how long I would get as a break I might have made arrangements to do something with my time. As it is, because of my committments to teach in the evenings, it is going to be difficult for me to get away from the city for more than a couple of days and I find myself wondering what I can do with all my spare time. Most of my students are going abroad - to Thailand, south China, London, and Korea. A lot of the kids’ parents work for the school’s owning corporation, and there jetting off in two chartered planes for warmer climes for a week - or now maybe two. I’m most envious of the students who are going to the countryside. One student did very kindly invite me to go skiing with his friends and himself at the weekend, which I felt a bit of a coward in declining his offer. I haven’t skied (skiied?) before and I feel fairly certain that there are dozens of better ways for me to break my leg whilst over here. Another student is going hunting with his father 300km away from the city. Two of his uncle's horses were recently “eaten by wolves” and he is very much hoping to hunt the creatures responsible.
Wolf-hunting is a subject of passionate enthusiasm for many Mongolians. Wolves are hunted with rifles and night sights and with bows and arrows,they are stalked on foot, chased on horseback or fired at from the comfort of a Mitsubishi Shogun. A student in my night-school class very eloquently explained the national obsession, and poured scorn on the objections of Europeans who had been shocked to learn during a study visit he made to Ireland that he enjoyed killing wolves. “We hunt the wolf and kill them. When we find their hole, we pull out the wolf cubs and kill them, but we leave one alive. Then, when this cub is grown he makes noise - awooo! - and brings the other wolf, they hear him, and we kill them too.” Something every Mongolian confirms when I ask is that “no part of the wolf is wasted.” A lot of the Mongolians who I have discussed wolf-hunting with have been tour guides, or from the middle and upper classes of UB society. They have told me that, once killed, they give the carcass to the “countryside people, who are very poor.” This seems quite an act of generosity, as from their accounts the individual parts of a wolf when sold have a total value around $1000. Whether this figure is accurate I don’t know, but certainly every Mongolian I have asked has stated an absolute belief in the medicinal qualities of the wolf: which is to say that following a fairly straightforward homeopathic rule you eat wolf liver for cirrhosis, lung for bronchitis; the brain is a cure for headaches, the heart for pulmonary ailments; wolf throat beats lemsip every time, and of course the wolf testicles, preferably eaten as soon as the wolf is slain, will guarantee a man unshakable vigour and virility. Most people I have spoken to have a personal testament to the efficacy of these cures.
Assuming that noone invites me to go wolf-hunting, I find myself at the beginning of the holiday well-disposed towards the notion of doing some class preparation. So far, preparing for a class has meant knowing roughly what grade of students I was to be teaching and checking my notes from the previous lesson (usually something like "No students brought books to class. Most students settled down to answer p.67 q2 once 5 mins of lesson remained."). Now I have two weeks' breathing space I supppose I can sit down and plan lessons properly.
A student from my night school class took me to the 'Swiss library' which has quite a lot of decent books on the subject of teaching English. The library is nestled in the 'Cultural Palace' on Sukhbaatar Square: a fine building which contains a theatre, the Ulaanbaatar symphony, numerous other small libraries and also Dave's Place English Pub (a cosy little cellar bar frequented by Anglophonic ex-pats, where you can eat very passable 'real English chips' and also cheese and baked bean toasties).
I am constantly looking for reading material. I have recently become an avid downloader of e-books from the Project Gutenberg site. The website has thousands of out-of-copyright books in its catalogue and the books are free to download and distribute as you see fit, which is a considerable resource indeed. There's a lifetime of reading material on there. Reading books off a screen isn't the chore you may imagine it to be when it's the only way of getting something worth reading. Reading in the bath is a bit more of a problem. The e-book format has many advantages - for example, using the 'find' feature of your word-processing software to scan through the complete works of Shakespeare, the King James bible or the unabridged Pepys diaries makes a very useful research tool. And it's free! Some of the books are available in audio format. Obscurities that you would have to pay a lot of money for in print, such as 'The King in Yellow' and 'The House-Boat on the Styx' are yours for the click of a button.
I was delighted to find on Gutenberg a book I have been trying to get a copy of for years: 'Enquire Within Upon Everything' the ultimate Victorian gentleman's guide to, well, everything of course. A friend once had a copy he found at a flea-market. The section of medical advice will give many hours of hilarious reading, and is really quite an alarming insight into the state of medicine in the late 1800s. They make Mongolian wolf-cures look like the height of medicinal sophistication. To treat 'Hysterics': "the fit may be prevented by the administration of thirty drops of laudanum, and as many of ether." Inflammation of the brain? "Application of cold to the head, bleeding from the temples or back of the neck by leeches or cupping... Avoid excitement, study, intemperance." 'Cupping' is one of the treatments used against mad King George - placing a glass cup on the back of the patient and heating it with a candle to cause blisters. May possibly make 'avoiding excitement' a bit of a problem. The dutiful husband is advised to treat 'scanty' menstruation from his wife by (in 'strong patients') "'cupping' the loins [and] exercise in the open air." Is your child suffering convulsions? "If during teething, free lancing of the gums, the warm bath, cold applications to the head, leeches to the temples, an emetic, and a laxative clyster, No. 20." 'Laxative clyster no. 20' by the way is a "pint and a half of gruel or fat broth, a tablespoonful of castor oil, one of common salt, and a lump of butter; mix, to be injected slowly. A third of this quantity is enough for an infant." For those unfamiliar with the term, a clyster is an enema. That should keep the buggers from convulsing.