Friday, 25 May 2007

Manzushir Monastery, Highway Robbery

Yesterday I was finally able to get out of the city to breathe some clean air. Actually, as it was a windy day with clouds threatening rain, the air in the city felt cleaner than it has done over the past week, and noticeably less dusty. Nonetheless, I was extremely grateful that a Mongolian friend took a day off work and found a friend of hers with a car to drive us to Manzushir Monastery in the South of the Bogd Khan mountains - ie - on the opposite side from Ulaanbaatar, about an hour's drive away. A nice omen for any trip, heading out on to the airport road, is a billboard showing a merry, bearded actor on a horse representing the fearsome conqueror Chinggis Khan with the chilling message "Have a nice journey" scripted in English across it.

We skirted around the Holy mountain reserve counter-clockwise. Once the city and its power stations were out of sight, the scenery and the clean air are overwhelming. We passed numerous herds of horse, goats, sheep and cattle - many casually crossing the road (and for whom our driver only very marginally decelerated) and all with new-born young. The windows wound down and the cool air blowing fiercely, I found myself moved to tears.

The road to Manzushir is north out of Zuun Mod, the small capital of Tuv Aimag(province) - a town of mostly wooden houses and ger, with a few old soviet era buildings at the centre, including a couple of derelict factories - in other words, a town like most of the population centres outside of the capital.

The Bogd Khan mountains are not tall and imposing, but roll with many folds and spurs, the heights usually hidden from the low lands up in the forested tops. There are many changes of terrain and scenery - here North of Zuun Mod we found ourselves heading into a very Alpine valley. At the gates to the strictly protected area we paid our entrance fee (500T for the Mongolians, 2000T for me) and drove on up to a parking area. Manzushir is still in the process of being developed as a tourist destination. There are improved facilities being built at the ger camp, which, bearing in mind the proximity to the capital and the airport, ought to boost the number of visitors here, which in turn helps to pay for projects in the Strictly Protected Area. One hopes that a little would kick back to projects in the town, too.

As we drove I was very excited to see two almost golden-furred, big-headed rodents frolicking about in the sun - marmots, apparently. The beauty of the valley here is dazzling, and there were many falcons or hawks flying very low overhead, quite possibly on the lookout for marmots. The pine trees here seemed to be of substantial age, and now with fresh green needles. All around in the valley are scattered time-worn boulders of every shape and size, the heights they have come down from have fine cliffs and rocky pinnacles.

The Manzushir Monastery was founded in 1733, with many temples and a thriving community of monks: it was, of course, regrettably destroyed in the 1930s. There's now one wooden temple which has been restored as a museum, and the rest are picturesque ruins. I didn't spend much time in the museum here because I really wanted to climb up into the beautiful hills above, so I'm afraid I may well have missed out on some fascinating history to the place. I am sure that the valley is a location long-held to be particularly sacred, as the be`auty of the place seems to allow no other interpretation.

Above the monasteries are three main shrines in the rock face. In them are fine rock carvings of various buddhistic deities, some of which are painted. After paying mumbled respect at the shrines we carried on over fallen boulders, climbing slowly upwards. There is a strong feeling of having entered another world up there - again, it is so awe-inspiringly beautiful and, in the late spring at least, so fresh and revitalizing. Gradually, the temples below were lost to sight, and we were up in an entirely natural environment - but here, there are striking walls of rock, looking as though built carefully by giants. High above the valley, one such wall curves in a vast semi-cicle, towering maybe a hundred feet above, creating a natural enclosure, a fortress of rock.

The mysterious nature of the place was emphasised for us as the wind began to howl in the tree-tops, the sky blackened, and a fierce flurry of snow started to fall. We didn't dawdle too long, and took this as a sign to start heading back down. Perhaps unsurprisingly, once we had passed the shrines and were back down in the valley, the sky had completely cleared, we were back beneath the deep Mongolian blue sky of near summer.

We drove back to UB early in the evening, feeling very refreshed. Unfortunately, shortly before the city our driver committed a very minor traffic violation, for which he was stopped by a very smartly-uniformed and extremely serious-looking traffic police officer. His license was demanded and he was told to pull over off the road. Looking considerably apprehensive, our driver went back to speak with the police officer. Meanwhile, my companion expressed a fairly strong contempt for the nation's police force, which I have to say I have heard on any number of occasions before, and never heard contradicted. Finally our driver returned to rummage through his wallet. The situation was quite simple - he had been told "If you want your license back, pay me 4000T." This hadn't come as any kind of surprise. There wasn't even any discussion of the violation itself, nor any pretense that a fine was being paid, just a run-of-the-mill, petty extortion of slightly less than $4.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Inevitable Rant About Property Prices

Interesting piece in the Sunday Times on the sudden surge in the number of British people investing in the luxury flats being built here. When my mother told me about the article, my blood rose as it usually does over the subject of the British mania for investing in property, particularly in the spread of this to developing countries. I used to find house prices in the South East amusing, even with its knock-on effects on the British economy - but that was before Liverpool won the Capital of Culture 2008. How we larfed when we heard about someone from down south buying a house in Liverpool's Kensington, presumably on the connotations of the name, for £40,000. It reminded me of a competition in the 80s in the Sun newspaper to 'win a house on the Bread street!' Even in the late 90s the house Ringo Starr was born in on those streets sold in auction for just a few thousand pounds. Hang on while I do a quick search on the price of 2-up 2-downs in Liverpool 8... well, it looks like you can still find one in the Dingle for a mere £90,000.

It's ridiculous to blame the Capital of Culture per se, it's property mania that's at the root of it. And of course year after year those people who repeat ' You can't go wrong with property, it only ever goes up' are proved right, so who am I to call it madness?

The prospect of an article telling me how British investors are spreading their insanity here fired all the usual rage buttons with me. Property prices in Ulaanbaatar are currently going up by 20% each year, the population is set to triple in the next ten years, and so there are more and more people desperately looking for homes. As I have already said, the average rental price for an apartment is above the average salary. [Edit: Of course, this is on the private rental market. Families fortunate enough to live in social housing allocated by the communists pay around $10 a month rent, which with utilities brings it to just under half the average monthly salary. I do not yet know how much the rent will be in the city's new '40,000 homes' scheme, nor how much social housing has been allocated since the end of communism. Many thousands of homes were built in the communist era, the last big wave being in the 1980s. Of course, all this information I'm posting is extremely flakily researched and entirely subject to failures of my understanding.]

Are people looking for holiday homes here? Of course, there is a shortage of decent hotel accommodation, but surely if you go on holiday to Mongolia, you want to stay in a ger? As it is, there are dozens of sparkling new buildings standing completely empty, while children and the destitute are living in any hole they can find. The government is trying to push a bill through parliament to allow the building of casinos that only foreigners can visit, and of course next year's Beijing Olympics should mean a big knock on growth of tourism here. At present there's only half a million visitors a year to the country.

It turned out on actually reading the article that the flats being bought by Britons are luxury apartments being built for Western high-flying business men and executives. It surprises me that there's that much of a demand for them, or that the demand is predicted to increase, but that's probably correct. If the high-flying executives are prepared to pay astronomical rents to live in their ivory towers then where's the harm? One investor in the article, Lord Newborough (now, at least - if he didn't buy his title - he's following a long and noble family tradition of squeezing the life-blood out of tenants) said “I was looking for an interesting high-yielding investment. It’s a democracy and the government are keen to see more foreign investment. Providing common sense prevails, it should be a very good long-term investment.” My failure to see how the whole world can see property prices increase ad infinitum is probably just a failure of my common sense organs - after all, the world's population is ever-increasing - it stands to reason, don't it? Before investing in the long-term Mongolian property market, I'd be interested in finding out when the Mongolian government are going to get around to ascertaining whether or not UB is the most polluted city in the world, and what they propose to do about it. Actually, the answer to the latter is bound to be 'build more homes', so no doubt the boom will continue.

A new development of luxury apartments just behind the Zaysan Tolgoy, beneath the Bogd Khan Uul -the 'Holy Mountain'- the world's oldest protected National Park. Also, conveniently within sight or just two minutes walk of the Children's Prison.

Admittedly, the idea of owning my own home is as attractive to me as to anyone else. I'd quite like to settle in Mongolia. I could probably buy a flat like mine in one of the nicer old soviet buildings for around $30,000. By next year it wouldn't surprise me if the same would cost $60,000. I guess I could buy a fully kitted-out ger for $1000.

Certainly, some of the poorest people in the city are getting rehoused - I imagine that the rate it's happening at is slow, but it is happening, and I believe that if they want to, the government here can get on top of the situation. I was giving my college students an end of term speaking test the other week. The student I was speaking to didn't have much English and so we chatted about his family. He lives with his mother and two sisters.

"Do you all live together in an apartment?"
"No, ger!" he replied with a smile.
"Well, uh, what do you think of living in a ger?" I asked.
"Ger is good," he replied proudly.
"So your family moved to the ger districts from the country...?" (he nodded) "How long have you been living in the ger district of UB?"
"Ten year!"
"Are you going to, would you ever move into an apartment if, er, if one was available?"
"Yes. Next year, next year we get," he said and his smile now broadened.
"So, you're going to be rehoused?" (nods) "Are you happy about that?"
"Yes, apartment wery good!"

The lad was about twenty years old, but he looked thirty or over. Living in the ger districts of UB is not great for the skin.

[My apologies to anybody reading this who buys-to-let, and who might take offense at my views on property investment. It is my personal opinion that spiralling house prices are harmful for a society and that, broadly speaking, there should be some kind of law against it. I'm a fan of social housing, where that can work positively alongside encouraging home ownership I am very happy. Where rents increase faster than salaries, then landlords are, as I see it, taking food from the mouths of their tenants. I am aware of the counter-argument that investing in property is investing in the infra-structure of a country, and is all for the nation's long-term good. I hope that it proves to be so]

Dust Pneumony, Man's Best Friend is a Fish, Knock-off DVDs,

I wrote most of this entry last Thursday and started
A beautiful spring day. We had a few days rain a week or so ago and now everywhere is green. It's quite a transformation, as the city has many tree-lined avenues. Wandering around before sunset last night I was quite stunned, realizing that more than having simple affection for the place, Ulaanbaatar can actually be, well, beautiful. If you're considering an impulsive jaunt to Mongolia then don't hesitate, get over here immediately.
Every word of it true, of course, however, that afternoon the sky turned an ominous muddy brown. Now, we've had plenty of windy days here where the dust in the street gets caught up in gusts and stings your eyes, but that Thursday's dust had clearly arrived from elsewhere, and with purpose. My cleaner warned me to batten down the hatches. By oversight I left the bedroom window open, and after a few hours a thick layer of black grime had gathered on the sill and much had blown out across the bed. The wind howled in the elevator shaft.

This weekend I have been down with a crippling flu, which I am fairly certain was brought on by the dust. A lot of other people I know have been ill, some think from food poisoning or a summer cold, but I am certain that it's the black dust. The first night I had difficulty breathing, the next two days I could barely move from fever, and I've had a pounding headache to today. The dust pneumony has threatened to break my proud record of only having taken one day off sick in my whole working life. (That day was when working in Holland - I had a cold which left me physically unable to cycle the six miles into a headwind to work. It was November and I was living in a tent in an unheated cow shed.) I managed to struggle in to school this morning, for the first of my last two days, to mark more exam essay questions. This did at least cheer me up. The 7th Grade question was 'My favourite pet animal'. About 70% of the students had memorised or were copying the exact same essay about owning a dog. The really clever students had cunningly substituted the word 'dog' for some other animal. So there were countless cats as "man's best friend", needing to be taken for daily walks, the same applying to rabbits, both of which "repay the kindness of their owner with loyalty and devotion". My favourite essay, however, was about a fish, which amongst other things "can be trained to do useful tricks, like collecting the morning newspaper."

The tourist season has begun, but I think that the number of travellers is still pretty low. I see a lot more westerners about, but so far I think that's mostly warm weather bringing the expats out. There is a fairly failsafe way of spotting an expat - 99% (myself included) can be spotted by our dress. Not traditional deel or leather caps, but knock-off 'North Face' gear from China.

Speaking of knock-off merchandise from China, and spring being the perfect time to sit indoors with the curtains closed, the 'Happy Shop' is still keeping stocked with the latest DVD releases from the US and Europe - usually with a good quality picture and costing just under $2 a movie. This week I bought The Last Confederate, which I believe isn't due to be released for a while yet, Frank Miller's 300, Flags of Our Fathers, Kill Bill (vols 1 and 2), The Last Samurai, Hot Fuzz, Seraphim Fallsand, er, the new Ninja Turtles cartoon and Mr Bean's Holiday (honestly, I bought it for Mongolian friends - having discovered that Mr Bean is enormously popular over here. In a popular culture quiz, just about every single student I have taught has correctly identified Rowan Atkinson as the actor responsible - probably making him the most famous living Englishman after James Blunt). Being housebound has given me plenty of time to catch up on my viewing, when the headaches have allowed it.

Seraphim Falls, the new western starring Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan (or Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson according to the credits on the back of the dvd sleeve, which appear to be for "Batman"), is a pretty interesting movie: cinema-goers get two films for the price of one. One is a gritty and engaging struggle for survival, the other a mysterious and allegorical something-or-other. I prefer the former. Both, however, are representative of some of the more interesting westerns of the '70s, when the genre - post-Wild Bunch, post-Leone, post-Vietnam and Watergate - lost its way. Just how far the western lost its way is indicated by the fact that Dances With Wolves was considered to be the genre's return. The finish of Seraphim Falls seems thoughtful and well-meant, but is on the whole pretty lame. Still, the first half-hour or so might be one of the best man-hunt sequences on film. A shivering Pierce Brosnan struggle to light a fire or die after escaping pursuit by falling into an icy river, will prompt you to think "This film can't get any better." Unfortunately, it doesn't.

Friday, 18 May 2007

School is Over, Some Lessons Learned

The school term is suddenly over - a little sooner than I expected, having again failed to realise that it wouldn't occur to anyone to keep me informed about a little thing like my job being finished. To be fair, I've had a summer tutoring job offered to me and so discovering that I now have two weeks holiday is a very pleasant surprise. There'll be a few exams for me to invigilate and mark next week, but no more classes, the Wednesday just gone being my last.

I'll certainly miss teaching the little blighters. All told, I have to admit that I found teaching the 4th grade a lot easier than teaching the 9th, 10th and 11th. I also have to say that I've not had any indication from the school that they're particularly happy with the work I've done - although they have found me a very nice job to move on to. I can't be certain whether this is a cultural thing or a reflection on my abilities or personality. I'm aware that I'm not a particularly easy person for a manager to have to deal with - I have no time to listen to criticisms of how I work, and I generally have a thousand and one suggestions on how everybody else involved could do things better to make things work for me. These aren't qualities that I generally put on my CV, but I'm aware of them. I do believe that I am genuinely committed to doing a job conscientiously, and I hope that I've done as well as I am able over the past five and a half months.

Some things have worked, and other things haven't. One problem I had right at the beginning of the job was expecting students to address me by my surname. Nice for me to feel like a teacher and a bona-fide member of the adult world. Unfortunately, I was unaware that Mongolians don't have surnames - so typically a teacher would be addressed as "Jim Teacher" rather than, say, "Mr MacTavish, sir!" I guess I partly had it in mind that the whole social structure of a school depended on such fundamental forms of repectful address - ignoring the fact that they were entirely meaningless in Mongolian. Furthermore, I was denied the opportunity to bellow "Jones: stop running in the corridor!" or "What was that you said, Smith?"

I am glad that I abandoned trying to teach from the coursebook after the first term. It made no sense to be boring the students rigid with material they were already covering with a teacher who they could actually understand. Of course, this made me entirely responsible for the quality of the materrial I chose in replacement.

The students preferred working in teams rather than alone. I was never able to persuade the students to address each other in English much on these occasions, but they must have got something out of these lessons, by virtue of their remaining awake at least. Of course, in a larger team there would always be an opportunity for somebody to doze off - likewise, working in pairs it would usually be the case that the brainiest student would carry the burden of the work. If students were expected to work on their own, it was only the smallest proportion that came up with anything at all.

Most of the students did not want to discuss or work on current affairs, pretty much whatever the topic. They might say that they would like to work on something they werte personally interested in - like say a certain movie or singer: invariably that would engage the interest of only those students who particularly liked that subject. If the entire class were allowed to chose a subject to work on (even within a limited scope, such as "My Favourite Movie" or "A Person I Admire") then that would be taken as a signal for students to do absolutely whatever they wished, and no work at all would be done.

Students did very much enjoy doing quizzes, particularly in teams. The favourite format for this was "Jeopardy" - where teams pick a category and then a difficulty level of question to answer. I found that even in quizzes where I'd made the questions far too difficult, causing annoyance and complaint, the students at least remained involved. The students liked the introduction of random factors - engineered by a coin toss or the draw of a card - into the game. Also, they got a lot of fun out of thinking up stupid names for their teams. With the 4th grade I would usually insist taht the boys and girls play in mixed-gender teams. This would provoke howls of protest from all, but as soon as the game started, the teams would be united in their desire to win.

Competitions with the 4th grade students did create a few situations where tears fell. A short while back, my mother posted me some jars of Marmite. For the next two days I had little else to do in class but dare the students to try the stuff. One group of 4th graders formed a very eager queue, with each trying to eat more bread coated in the black substance than the others. In the next class, I decided to use Marmite as a forfeit in a Spelling Bee. Unfortunately, the poor girl who lost was so overcome by the situation that, although she gamely ate her piece of bread, she burst into tears and sobbed for the rest of the class. "Look, it tastes horrible, but it's really, really good for you," was the best I could guiltily manage in an attempt to console her.

I have reported that I was entirely unable to convey a love for literature to any of my students. Whilst the 11th grade managed to get through some pieces and express a degree of appreciation for the subject matter, it was very clear that they would have preferred not to have bothered. Students in all grades, however, produced some excellent pieces of creative writing in class. My favourite responses came from an essay question I set asking the students to write an imaginary news report to fit one of the following headlines from the year 2027 "Scientists abolish sleep - Welcome to the 24/7" and "Knowledge Implants - 40,000 gigabytes of learning direct to your brain. Never study again!" The responses were imaginative and entertaining. Somewhat sinisterly, very few of the students foresaw any negative impact from these two very probable future developments - but why should they? By and large, the students I taught are very happy to embrace the changes that technology brings.

Their embracing of the modern world led to my pretty much entirely abandoning the concept of homework. I decided that if I wanted to read a Wikipedia article on a subject it would be quicker to visit the site myself, rather than ask the students for a 500 word essay. One area of creative writing that produced some really worthwhile stuff was poetry written during class. One student cheerfully completed his two poems at home, and came back the next day with a rhyme from a greetings card (complete with unfunny innuendo) and a poem from somebody else's blog - which was so bad that it could have been written by my 9th grader, except that it included the words nostalgia and forlorn. Forlorn! the very word is like a bell! Tolling a warning to the wary: here be plagiarism. I printed out the Plagiarism entry from Wikipedia and put my name to it, but the irony went unappreciated. Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry makes some very good points about how plagiarism is perceived in different cultures - that developing societies do not share the western aversion to it.

Some class exercises that I picked up from sites like Dave's ESL Cafe, which were 100% guaranteed to capitivate a classroom went down like the proverbial lead balloon. However, I was very glad to have that kind of resource available, and usually if something worked with one class, it would go along well in the others. My hit rate might have been 50/50, which is surely good enough. No matter how many times it happened, however, I was left feeling pretty abject when a class did not work out.

Fortunately, I had started the job with one thought at the back of my mind: at the very worst, all I'll turn out to be is a bad teacher - and teachers are supposed to suck. What kind of education would a child get if all their teachers were wonderful, creative, inspirational human beings? At the very best, it would set them out in life with unrealistic expectations.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Rubik's Cubes, iBooks

Confiscating or attempting to confiscate Sony Walkman phones and iPods all the time is one of the untrammeled joys of my profession. I can get a bit carried away: meeting recently with two Ukranian friends I had to stop myself from yanking the ear-phones out of the ears of one, and restrict myself to an "If you were one of my students..." admonishment.

Recently a bit of variety has been injected into the situation at school by some genius deciding to present all of the students with a Rubik's cube each, and giving them a month to hone their skills before a competition at the end of term. What a great idea. I guess someone thought that there was a risk, however infinitesimal, of students getting bored of listening to BX or System of a Down or wottevah, and actually start paying attention to their classes. Happily that possibility has been averted, thanks to the timely intervention of Professor Rubik's 1974 invention - a record low of attention-paid has been achieved, and I've got a growing collection of the bloody things in my locker.

These kids with their iPods though, tchah! I have complained often enough on this site of the difficulty in finding decent English reading material in Ulaanbaatar (I mean, what is this place, Outer Mongolia?), and mentioned that I have been very much taken by the ebooks available to download from the Project Gutenberg website. The problem with ebooks is that while they're convenient with clogging your hard drive with every major work of literature in western civilization, even laptops are not very portable as far as a quick read goes. And there's me with an iPod mostly empty other than a very extensive collection of Bluegrass and Johnny Cash (the new 'Personal Files' release is, incidentally, just incredible) and now the occasional video download of Prime Minister's Questions and the sister broadcast Ask A Ninja. Well, slowly the wheels of my brain ticked and I thought to check online whether it's possible to download an ebook onto an iPod. Of course it is indeed possible - the book gets stored in the iPod's 'Notes' section. There's a website where over 11,000 books from Project Gutenberg have been converted to formats for downloading to 'readers', including iPod Notes.

Of course many people will say that it's no fun reading from a screen slightly smaller than 2 inches across, and on the whole it's not - I do find it leaves me a little groggy after an hour or so. However, it's tolerable, especially when the alternative is reading a disintegrating copy of R. F. Delderfield's "God is an Englishman" and paying 3000 Tugrik for the privilege. The backlight of course means that you can read without disturbing sleeping companions or indeed getting out of bed to turn the light off when you're finished (which has always been a considerable chore during those times of my life when, as now, I've been without the luxury of a bedside lamp). And when someone asks "Is that Jeremy Clarkson yer watching there on yer iPod?" you can reply "No, I was just reading 'Jurgen' - you know, the controversial 1919 James Branch Cabell satire. It's rather good, actually." This affords a warming glow of smugness and self-satisfaction that can sustain oneself long after the battery on the bloody thing has died again.

One Million and Counting

A ceremony was held in Ulaanbaatar on May 8th to honour the birth of the city's one millionth citizen (born April 11th). Actually, the honour was bestowed on three babies born around the same time. After the birth of the children, the President and other worthies rushed to congratulate the families and speak proudly of this milestone event. All well and good, but a Mongolian friend remarked to me that all this celebration seemed a poor joke to him, considering the problems facing the city. The city's real millionth citizen was clearly born some while ago now and possibly to one of the uncounted thousands of people living here off the census books. Some estimates put the city's unofficial population at 1.2 or 1.5 million, with the ger districts growing and getting more crowded, and an unknown number of homeless people still living under the city in the heating system. The estimate for growth of the official population, as quoted in Thursday's UB Post, predicts 3 million citizens by 2015.

New apartment blocks are being built everywhere, but it seems that the demand must be well ahead of supply - for one thing property values are currently increasing by around 20% each year. I am hopeful that if the '40,000' homes scheme - which aims to use public money and private investment to build a new stock of social housing - begins to look like working then the government here might increase the project, as it's my guess that 40,000 homes ain't enough.

Happily for the city's three 'one millionth' citizens there need be no concern over their future housing. The one month olds were each presented by UB Mayor Ts Batbold with keys "too big for their little fists to grab" (UB Post) to single-bedroom apartments. Yes, in a city where people live in the sewers and the monthly rent for an average sized apartment is three times the average wage, the Mayor is handing out flats to babies.

I'm curious about these flats, but there weren't any other details included in the paper. Have they been handed over with any conditions? I mean, do they belong to the babies or their parents? I'm hoping that, however small these flats are, this means that at least three ordinary families here will get a chance to move into their own place and start building a better future - but maybe the flats will just be moth-balled for twenty years until the babies can make use of them - or sold so Dad can buy a Humvee.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Supermarket English, Taxi Mongolian, F Grades, Poetry

Thursday 3rd May
There's now a very languid heat throughout the day and warm night breezes, but still no green shoots appearing: as yet there's been no rain. Thursday afternoon is now the calm lull in my week - no lessons at school and no evening classes either. I've just started a job teaching the managers of a supermarket chain basic English three nights a week. It's the first class that I've been left entirely to my own devices to devise and run, which I am slightly surprised to find is coming as an almost welcome challenge rather than a dreaded chore. It's strangely enjoyable trying to work a supermarket twist into every lesson plan - suggestions are welcome, folks. So far the students seem very happy with the class - although admittedly I've only taught two classes so far, so there's plenty of scope for disillusionment to settle in before my contracted month is over.

The lessons are at the supermarket's HQ, which is at the very western edge of the city. In conversation I'm frequently challenging the way that my fellow expats criticise the driving here, countering that it's certainly no worse than London even if the lane-changing and light-jumping is somewhat colourfully individualistic. It now occurs to me that my experience of Ulaanbaatar's traffic has been fairly limited, my opinions, some might say, coming from a sheltered viewpoint - spending most of my time around the city centre and only usually getting a cab late at night when the streets are mostly empty. The experience is a bit more enterrorficating on the ring roads at rush hour, particularly at the big junctions. My admiration goes out to the traffic cops who stand in the middle of the tornadoes of steel and rubber, permanently blowing on their whistles and vigorously waving their batons as ton after ton of painful death speeds by them with mere inches to spare, or screams to a juddering stop and reluctanctly concedes his authority.

I can now ask "How much?" and count to nineteen, whilst also knowing the words for hundred and thousand - an achievement I am very proud of in spite of the fact that it has taken me five months to attain. Combined with "Yakshtay?!" ("Are you taking the piss, mate?") this means that I am rising to a level of mastery of taxi-driver Mongolian hitherto only dreamed of. No longer do I settle for tourist rates! No longer do I accept a charge of 40p when I know damn well it should be 15p! In outrage I will complain "Bi bagsh, bi bagsh" ("Me teacher, me teacher") - I guess that once I can say "I am not a tourist" then I'll have learnt everything I need to know. I can give the number of my district, and have an impressively accurate mental GPS of the city, although this isn't guaranteed reliable after 2am/five pints. There's a sizable degree of confidence that arises from conquering this sphere of daily life.

Incidentally, as I don't think I've mentioned this before, in UB every car is a potential taxi - one just stands at the edge of the sidewalk (a more appropriate term than pavement as it simply indicates where pedestrians are found, rather than any expected degree of surfacing) and waits for the first fume-belching, exhaust-rattling vehicle to pull over. This is how everybody who gets around by taxi manages it, and there doesn't appear to be a level of risk to the activity worth worrying about. In fact (very much contrary to the advice given by hotels etc all over the city) in my experience it's generally only in the licensed cabs with meters that a really concerted effort is made to rip-off foreigners: every single time I've got into one on my own the meter has either been switched off or else it climbs at an astronomical rate. I had a fairly heated exchange with one driver who was trying to charge me about ten dollars (enough to get you to the moon and back) which might have turned ugly were it not broad daylight and outside a fancy hotel. Private citizens have always been far more modest when they've tried to overcharge me - only doubling the fare rather than asking for 5 or 10 times the going rate.

My job at the school, as I have previously remarked, is now drawing to a close. Final exams are underway or approaching for all the grades. I am being magnanimous in my scoring, only partly because my departmental senior has politely and cautiously informed me that F grades are not given in Mongolia. They're built into the school's grading software of course, but they have to be creatively avoided. Sometimes I'm reluctant to play along with this - such as today stopping the 10th grade (advanced class) student who can neither speak, read nor write a word of English, from transcribing the essay his neighbour had generously scribbled out for him. I have been given the freedom to teach my classes however I liked so this a bit spoil-sportish of me, I know, and will doubtless gamely give him a D when the time comes, but I do kind of enjoy the exasperated "he-just-doesn't-get-it" looks from students when I insist on their not copying work in exams. Looking at the results as far as their essays and this terms creative writing go, I allow myself the luxury of shaking my head and concluding that they just don't get, because a lot of the work that I've insisted they do for themselves has actually been fresh, original and a pleasure to read. The classrooms and walls of the school are plastered with the students' poetry and prose. This is because the Mongolian teachers get a cut in their pay if the walls aren't plastered with the "students'" work. Almost every single word so neatly printed out in curly fonts is lifted from a 1950s rock and roll song or is just direct from Wikipedia, complete with all the link words still underlined. And yet, when I force my students at a metaphorical gun point to write a poem in 10 minutes or less if they don't want an F grade this term, I get charming results like


Spring is beginning of
something new
In Spring we saw
new herbs, vegetables
In Spring it
rains very first time
of the new year
That rain brings love
all living things
will fall in love
That's the beginning of

which may not be Keats but it's refreshing indeed to read after marking 20 essays about "A Mongolian who has made a great contribution to this country" - which proved, surprise, surprise, to be 20 identi-kit potted bios of guess-which plucky young son of the steppe, visions of oceans united in his merciless eyes? I particularly liked the inclusion of the word "vegetables", which has an earthy and prosaic rhythm that takes the poem away from mere cliche.