Friday 2nd February 2007
It is eerily quiet in the school today, only a very few members of staff coming in for the day after the annual Teachers' Day celebrations.
The socialist era gave Mongolia special days celebrating the acchievement of many different workers - there's a Builders' Day, a Nurses' Day, etc. My colleague who told me this proudly informed me that Teachers' Day was the first such holiday and, as everybody has had a teacher or has a child who currently has one, it is by far the most important. Mongolia's revolutionary hero, Sukhbaatar, believed that Mongolia needed modern and effective education, so in honour of him and as a mark of extreme respect for the most noble of professions, Teachers' Day is held on the weekend closest to Sukhbaatar's birthday (which I believe is today, Friday 2nd Feb).
Preparations for the day were impressive. We were told to be at the school for 9am sharp to take a bus out to a Ger holiday camp for the day. Indeed, by 9.45am everyone had arrived and we were ready to go. There was a very good turnout, although my American colleagues opted out of the experience (ominously owing to having previously experienced Teachers' Day). I helped load up one of the busses with the boxes of fruit, crates of soft drinks, and the six crates of beer and two crates of vodka.
We drove west through the city in the direction of the airport. As we neared the power stations the smog got thicker and thicker, until the power stations themselves as we passed were completely lost in the dirty yellow air, the tops of the smokle-belching chimneys somehow visible above and ghostly silhouettes of ger and ramshackle buildings in the foreground. I am glad I live in the east of the city.
We spent the day in a deluxe camp just outside the city, at the foot of the Bogd Khaan mountains. Our bus had turned off the paved road, and hurtled up a muddy track to the camp, up in a valley above and out of view of the pollution around the city. It's a beautiful location for an impressively ugly camp. In the 'Modern' part of the camp there's a new hotel building made from Lego and surrounding it a dozen of Barratt's finest semi-detached housing cubes. We, however, were in the 'Traditional' facility and so made our way to the four large concrete gers for each team of 15 or so teachers that the school had been arbitrarily divided into. The weather yesterday and today has been ridiculously warm: getting out of the bus into the sunlight of this sheltered valley really felt like spring.
By 11.30 we'd settled into our temporary home: Russian MTV playing on the flat-screen TV, the chairs all gathered around a table on which fruit and drink had been piled. To allow one more person to take a seat I sat on a bedside cabinet which was just as comfortable as the flat-seated wooden chairs - when I offered to bring a second one over I was told that while it might be ok for me to sit on a cabinet, it wouldn't do for Mongolians. I later got in trouble for leaning on one of the fake ger's two fake centreposts and then for walking between the centreposts across the non-existent hearth; this was poor ger etiquette, even in a fake ger: although the teacher who informed me of the first custom broke it herself within five minutes and most teachers didn't show much compunction about crossing the hearth.
We started the day, of course, with a vodka toast, and much wishing each other a happy Teachers' Day. Then we went to the giant concrete ger restaurant for lunch with the rest of our colleagues. For all my sneering at the ugliness of this luxury camp, the food was very good. Of course we had more vodka with the meal, and glasses of Grants Whisky too to toast the success of two of our prize-winning teachers. As Grants is so much more expensive than even the very best vodka here, my colleagues did their best to like it, albeit with somewhat confused expressions on their faces.
A humorous film made by each of the teams in the past week was shown, for which Oscars were awarded. Best Female Actor went to a male teacher - not previously known for being in a great deal of touch with his feminine side, too say the least - who did an extremely entertaining Les Dawson-esque routine. I'm not sure which film was made by my team; presumably owing to some kind of unfortunate error of communication, I hadn't been asked to be in it. There were a lot of speeches and giving of prizes and plaques. Everybody seemed to be having a very good time. After a decent amount of food and an indecent amount of alcohol we merrily made our way outside for numerous games and challenges.
In the end the only challenge I took part in as a participant was the tug-o-war, and I'm afraid that my team, for which I was the anchor, got pretty quickly and convincingly defeated. I really think that the rest of my team has to take the blame for their poor coordination. I was a very enthusiastic spectator to the extremely serious sumo wrestling bouts, of which the female contests seemed particularly aggressively fought. Sumo is a very popular here since the rise of Ulaanbaatar's champion Yokozuna; I have yet to witness the Japanese variety but can safely say that I am at least a convert to Drunken Female Teachers' Sumo.
There were no horses available to hire for a trek yesterday, which is probably as well. Instead with a few of my colleagues I climbed the mountain over our camp in time to catch the spectacular sunset. Fist to the top I was also very excited to see a very large dark brown-feathered bird gliding from the forest on the far side of the hill, across the ridge below me and out across the valley. My colleagues insist that I can't have seen an eagle, but it was a very big bird of some kind, and I'm glad I saw it.
Back at the restaurant we had our evening meal accompanied by more vodka, whisky, Russian champagne and Bulgarian wine. This was followed by a very enthusiastically danced disco. Finally, before leaving we returned to our team ger to polish off remaining beer, tangerines and pseudo-Ferrero Rocher (actually, of all fake brands, Russian chocolates seem just as good if not better than the brands they rip off). My colleagues very kindly and easily agreed to sing some traditional Mongolian songs, which I am now determined to learn. Most of the teachers joined in, and they sang very feelingly and well. And indeed, once they'd started with the singing it carried on onto the bus and all the way back to the school. I think there was a plan to invade a night club somewhere, but fortunately the people I caught a taxi with dropped me off at home, meaning I was very gratefully able to call it a night at 11pm.
No doubt the fresh air and exercise managed to dilute the excessive drinking, and I didn't feel too bad today. Went to the State Department Store to return the 1Gb memory stick which I bought 5 days ago and which stopped working after the second time I used it. The guy at the desk of the electronic goods section when he eventually deigned to serve me helpfully confirmed that the stick is indeed broken, but regretted that in spite of the piece of paper saying '1 year guarantee' the code on my receipt says that the product can only be returned on the day of purchase. He sympathetically suggested that I speak to a manager on the 5th floor. Following directions on that floor I found a corridor with two dozen assorted despairing wretches standing and sitting on the floor ouside an ornate office door bearing a sign in Mongolian. I turned away from the Kafka-esque scene with a deep breath, and resolved that the $30 spent on the stick needed to be considered a lesson learned, and so calmly walked away. I resolved not to shop at the State Department store again - although I took that not to include the Nomin supermarket at the back of the ground floor, where I stopped by to pick up some washing powder.
Crossing Sukhbaatar Square I saw an impressive military parade - the soldiers in red and blue with the sunlight shining from their gleaming pointed helmets as they marched with sabres and guns to the foot of the Sukhbaatar monument, where they slightly spoiled the effect of their neat and orderley marching by shuffling about somewhat comically so as to stand in an evenly spaced line. This and the accompanying brass band I later realised was to be for the President or Prime Minister to perform some ceremony to mark Sukhbaatar's birthday Unfortunately, I had to get to the school to tutor a student and sadly I did not have my camera with me to record the very impressive scene.
I get numerous text messages from my network provider everyday on my mobile phone. Mostly I can't understand them - although sometimes I can see that they're the times of movies on TV, or of the Tugrik's exchange value to the dollar. Occassionally there is an English 'Word of the Day' accompanied by a translation in Mongolian. Today's word is 'fecund'. There was even a helpful example sentence given to illustrate the word in context: 'That field over there is fecund.' I imagine that all over the city there are now students of English fervently hoping to asked whether they can recommend anywhere as particularly suited for the planting of crops. They're sure to be gutted if there are no fecund fields in sight when the question is asked, though.