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.