Monday, 5 February 2007

Back Streets, Bookshops, Morin Khuur

Monday 5th February 2007
The tree-lined avenues north of the Government Building at the centre of Ulaanbaatar stretch out to east and west and are the main university district of the city. The buildings along these avenues are rather grand and sombre, built, I suppose, in the early soviet era. They are brick buildings, with plaster facades moulded as stone. There isn't the profusion of shops selling bootleg cds and cut-price cashmere, but rather some very good restaurants here and there, and otherwise the heavy wooden doors and dark stone-linteled windows don't give much clue to what goes on within, except to suggest serious business of some kind.

I enjoy cutting through the back streets between this area and my apartment block, which is at the north western edge, behind blocks of accommodation known, I am told, as Student Town. The surface of the street rolls like a frozen sea, and the cars that do pass down there make their way as cautiously as I do, no more eager to rip off their exhaust pipe than I am to slip and break my neck. There are two make-shift ice rinks behind what I suppose is a school, most evenings and throughout the day at weekends children and teenagers skate around to Mongolian and Russian-sounding pop music played from tinny speakers screwed to the wall of a wooden shack. In an impressive building between the back wall of the Chinese Embassy and back alleys where dogs root through discarded vegetables and shredded plastic bags, running off with the prize of a large filthy leg bone, there's a karaoke bar and the neon-lit sign for the King Arthur restaurant. I'll pass this having left my home, ignore the temptingly-priced menu, turn a corner then pass through a gap in a wooden fence.

Just before reaching the main road there's a great square of a building with one of the ubiquitous 'PC Game' establishments in the basement, and on the first floor, behind a typically anonymous great wooden door, a little supermarket that I tend to buy bread at and - sorry mum - cigarettes. Of course I'll give them up again once I'm back in Blighty but at 40p a pack I'd be losing a fiver every time I didn't buy any, wouldn't I?

In the hallway before the the supermarket there's a door leading to a bookstore which has thte best collection of second-hand English books I've found so far. It seems that most have found their way there through the hands of diplomats at the US Embassy - there are an awful lot of very dry books on American politics, mostly 30 years old at least but with the odd book on Clinton in between numerous appraisals of the Nixon era. A lot of Grisham and Grishamesque thrillers, which I assume is also popular reading with diplomats. When my iBook had decided to take a five day rest I was very happy to find a copy of 'Creation' by Gore Vidal which I am enjoying working my way through. They only charged me 3000 Tugric ($3) - a lot cheaper than most second-hand books here. Actually, I was very happily surprised to receive my first piece of mail when I arrived at school today - my sister Helen had sent me 'Out of the Ordinary' by Jon Ronson. At first I was deeply disappointed because I thought I'd already read it just before leaving the UK: then happily remembered that I was confusing it with Louis Theroux's book. A confusion which I am given to believe Mr Ronson would not find flattering.

Having passed through this area on Saturday whilst wandering aimlessly in the direction of Sukhbaatar Square, at the corner between the Natural History Museum and the rear of the ominous Government Building I noticed that the building on my left called itself National Musical Instruments and Instrument Makers of Mongolia. Couldn't see up to the windows, so I climbed the steps to the door. Most of the souvenir shops in UB sell somewhat gaudily painted Morin Khuur - known as the Horse Head fiddle - a beautifully carved two-stringed cello most typical of Mongolian folk music. For all I know the instruments flogged amongst mocassins, fur hats, bows and arrows and paintings of Genghis on stretched hide are as good musically as any, however, this small establishment has the sombre feel of the home of the work of true craftsmen. The walls are lined with Morin Khuur and other instruments: including large snake-skinned Chinese banjos, an array of different sized and styled dulcimers, European fiddles and, somthing I was hoping to find, a lovely fretless Khulsan Khuur. The Khulsan Khur looks pretty much like a Morin Khuur - with the same two strings and box-shaped body - but this one's head was carved as an ibex rather than a horse. It is plucked or indeed (for the benefit of Old Time banjo enthusiasts) frailed - at least it was when I saw one on TV a while back. I had a little play around with it - was very delighted with the silly little melody that fell onto my fingers, and the beautiful feel of the neck. They're asking 100,000T for it and I may have to go back there on pay day.

The back room is a workshop, where it seemed at the time mostly old instruments - some very fine and venerable looking, very intricately detailed and carved - were being repaired. The smell of sawdust in the air, and clouds of it dancing in the sunlight, contrasting with the shadowed darkness of wood hanging all around.

I picked up a brochure for the shop: they're the Eshiglen Magnai Co. Ltd: established in 1991 by Purevdavaagiin Baigal av, "famous master on production of Mongolian traditional instruments", they now have more "40 masters leading in the field of traditional musical instruments" working with them. Their mail address is

Eshiglen Magnai Co. Ltd
Ulaanbaatar 210646
PO Box 46-178

and they can be contacted by email via