Wednesday, 28 February 2007


Wednesday 28th February
I'm moderately pleased with how my presentation on Ernest Shackleton went at school today. Classes have not been going so great recently (since English Literature has become optional classes have finally dwindled down to a stable number of students: zero), so the largely positive reception from the 10th and 11th graders cheered me up.

I had never heard of the great man myself until I saw the Imax movie 'Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure' whilst I was working in Boston five years ago. At the end of the screening the audience had erupted into spontaneous, sustained applause, the tears had rolled down my cheeks and I'd felt a surge of patriotic pride - as though I had somehow shared in the achievement of the crew of the Endurance.

What has, of course, played such an important role in making the story of Shackleton and his crew's incredible survival so immediate to a modern audience, is the photography of expedition member Frank Hurley. It took me a while to find the photos at a reasonable resolution for projection on the internet, but happily I eventually stumbled upon the website of the National Library of Australia. They have a pretty extensive collection of Hurley's photographs, all available to download free of charge for study or personal use. Searching on the keywords 'Hurley' and 'Shackleton' turns up 135 images.

What was a new perspective on Hurley's work for me was the realisation that the Australian photography was no accidental artist - there is evidence in the collection of double-exposures and touched-up images - most notably the phony sunset on this image of the launch of the lifeboat James Caird.

Anyhow, I used about 30 images of the expedition, and finished with a picture from the trenches in World War I (several of the crew members whose lives had been preserved with such care by Shackleton were then thrown away by generals in the bloody battlefields of northern France) and a moody photograph of Shackleton's grave on South Georgia, posted online by some recent pilgrim there. I didn't script my presentation, because I'm too lazy, but extemporised - hopefully without getting too lost. Given the photographs, the story of the Endurance tells itself.

The idea of asking students to give a presentation on Great People from History came when a student asked me for help with a presentation he'd been asked to give on Martin Luther King Jr. This was at a formal dinner on Martin Luther King Day - which was to say, about one hour's time. I very much admire the Mongolian characteristic of leaving things to the very last minute - it reminds me of somebody. He'd done a very reasonable job on it, although it was also pretty clear that he only had the vaguest idea who Martin Luther King Jr was, and had basically lifted a lot of very dry biographical data from somewhere on the web (great detail on King's education, various academic achievements and posthumous decorations). I suggested he think about why King had made a mark on history, to which my student very honestly admitted to having no idea. Amongst other characteristics I suggested that MLK had moral authority - a description I smugly felt to be very apt.

This same student is to be the first up to give a presentation on a great figure from history. His subject (once I said that he couldn't just recycle the Martin Luther King script that I (mostly)wrote) is... Adolf Hitler. I had a look at his subject headings for his work: "Rise to Power", "Military Success", "Genocide" and "Last Days". Oh, and also "Moral Authority".

Monday, 26 February 2007

Tsagaan Sar, Darkhan, Mealody

Monday 26th February 2007
I apologise for not reporting sooner on Tsagaan Sar - the Mongolian New Year. One problem has been that it is impossible to write about Tsagaan Sar without writing about buuz and, now that the festival is over, I don't find my mind (or my stomach, more to the point) returning to the subject of buuz with much enthusiasm.

Tsagaan Sar - either 'White Moon' or 'White Month' - is the most important festival on the Mongolian calendar. The practise and traditions go back a long way, and strongly reflect the nomadic culture. During Tsagaan Sar people visit the homes of their relatives and friends, greet each other with a special embrace that shows deference to the older party, and eat buuz. Each home, for the 3 main days of the festival has its dining table loaded with food: a boov: stacked layers of a special kind of bread (one layer for each decade of the senior member of the household) on which are piled sweets; and a lot of cold mutton - traditionally a whole sheep is cooked for Tsagaan Sar. In the houses of the older people I visited there was always the back and ribs of a sheep, in the houses of younger people there was simply a huge bowl with various cuts of mutton in.

White Moon is very much a family occasion, but, hospitality being a deeply ingrained tradition, foreigners are invariably invited to spend Tsagaan Sar with a surrogate family for the weekend. I travelled up to Darkhan with Ganaa, one of my fellow to teachers, to visit with his family there. We caught a taxi there on Sunday evening, along with Ganaa's girlfriend and his brother, who was returning home from work in Korea (there are a lot of Mongolians working in Korea - I heard an estimate of 20,000 workers, from Mongolia's population of 2 million). Darkhan is about a 4 hour drive in a taxi, on what must be a pretty good road by Mongolian standards: single-lane and pot-holed, of course, and also fairly busy with traffic that . I couldn't see much of the countryside in the darkness, but when we made a brief relief stop I stepped off the road into a deep drift of snow. The stars were fantastically bright and clear above - such a profusion of stars that the constellations were almost lost amongst them.

Although we arrived very late, we were still able to visit three homes At each one making the traditional Tsagaan Sar greeting, drinking milk tea, followed by vodka; meanwhile, a big pan of buuz would be boiled. Buuz are boiled dumplings - balls of beef wrapped in dough. They don't taste at all bad, but it is kind of disheartening to be faced by a plate piled with 20 or 30 of the things, accompanied by nothing but cold mutton and maybe potato salad. Small gifts would be given by the host to the guests. More vodka was then drunk, accompanied by a round songs, one from each guest. More milk tea and then vodka - and then suddenly, everybody was putting on their coats to leave, we all piled into a car and slowly drove to the next home, where the whole process began again. From apartment to apartment, to a ger in the old town, back to another apartment in the new - it all becomes a bit of a blur.

There are many small ceremonial civilities that make up the festival, which, broadly speaking, is about reaffirming the bonds of family and friendship. Men exchange snuff bottles with a special open handed gesture. The bottle is always left slightly open, and returned to the giver that way. One of my fourth graders, dressed in the traditional deel, passed me a bottle for a snort at a class on the Friday before Tsagaan Sar.

Monday we saw the sights of Darkhan before beginning the circuit of calling on relatives again. With a population of 100,000 Darkhan is Mongolia's second city. The sights include Mongolia's Tallest Building (a 14 or so storey tower block which I am pretty sure is smaller than the Ulaanbaatar Bank building and numerous new apartment blocks in the capital) and the view of the old and new town from the top of the low hill between the two. Old Darkhan is wooden houses and ger; new Darkhan is a lot of crumbling tower blocks built in the 1980s. The graffiti painted on the wall outside Ganaa's brother's home included Take That and East 17.

It isn't such a pretty city, but the people are certainly friendly, to judge by Ganaa's relatives, and I was made to feel very welcome. By Monday evening, however, I was quite ready to head back home. Vodka-fueled 'negotiations' from my hosts regarding taxi fares finally secured us seats in a Micro Bus headed back to Ulaanbaatar at about 10pm. For the next four and a half hours I did my best to doze - my skull being cracked at every pot-hole along the way. I didn't exactly feel great at school the following morning, but pretty much everyone had a buuz-glazed look to their eyes.

It took me the remainder of the week to recover. By Friday, I was ready to head out in search of Mealody - a small jazz club/restaurant somewhere in the University district. I'd tried to find it the previous week, as Chuluun, the Inner Mongolian musician who played some Monrin Khuur and sang Khoomei at my apartment, had urged me to go and see his friend's band. Unfortunately, I'd gone to a place called Blue Melody, where a girl punk band were playing, not the jazz-fusion I'd been lead to expect. I'd then spent more than half an hour walking up and down (passing Mealody three times as it happens) looking for the place, before finally retreating home with the excuse, at least, that I would have died of exposure had I spent any further time searching. This time I phoned in advance to clarify the location.

Mealody is a very pleasant, cosy little place, and I'm very glad to have found it this time round. Furthermore, the band were phenomenal. The jazz was less experimental than I guess I had feared - it was just good, exciting, entertaining music. 'U-Bop' (I must say that Ulaanbaatar's name really lends itself to musical puns) are an English guy on piano (Steve Tromans), a Mongolian drummer (N. Ganbat) and an American Double Bass player (Andrew Colwell). They play original music, arrangements of popular Mongolian songs and jazz standards. Throughout their playing is characterised by energy, enthusiasm, and sheer talent - they are a bloody good band. For a centrepiece they played a wonderful, moody tune, in which Andrew sings Khoomei - tri-tone ‘throat singing’ - which you should listen to on the JazzMongolia MySpace site to get some idea of (the site’s shared with other bands so I’m not sure who’s doing the singing on it). It was a wonderful evening.

Furthermore, the band very generously allowed me to take things down a notch or two in terms of musical sophistication and play ‘Cumberland Gap’, ‘Down the Road’ and a few others in the break. I’d missed an earlier set by a Japanese player of the Cavalkino (I’m not sure of the spelling, but as all those who attended the Grapes bluegrass jam will remember, it’s the Brazilian cousin of the ukulele), but we chatted and hope to get a chance to jam together in a few weeks’ time.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Line of Dance

Does "Line of Dance" Club mean what I think it means?

Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Jon Ronson

Saturday 17th Feb
Having abandoned teaching from textbooks, but still wishing to put the burden of work on my students rather than myself, I’ve themed the first part of this term on one of the few subjects suggested by students as ‘interesting’: Famous People. To start with, in each of the 9th to 11th grade classes I got the kids to play ‘Who Am I?’ - I wrote the names and a brief bio of a selection of famous persons living and dead onto pieces of paper and a student chose one at random, to answer yes/no questions until somebody guessed their identity. It’s a game that is presumably known the world over, and the students seemed to enjoy it. Napoleon was the easiest to guess - once the students had hazarded European and French then there was no hesitation. I was surprised that the only Mongolian I had included, Zanabazar - who is probably the most culturally influential person in Mongolia’s history - proved to be extremely obscure for the students. It seems that beyond the Khans and Sukhbaatar (hero of the revolution, and founder of the still ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party) the students only have a vague notion of their nation’s history. I am sure that they would strongly object to that statement, but that’s the appearance given to me.

Almost half the students - mostly but not exclusively the boys - have no interest in any history beyond The Secret History - the near contemporary narrative account of Genghis Khan’s reign. The Secret History probably comes 3rd place after Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code as most commonly cited favourite book. Comic book versions of the life of Genghis and his generals are extremely popular with young lads, and even the 4th Grade girls will hotly dispute which of Genghis’ wives was the most intelligent or beautiful. It has been much noted elsewhere that since the beginning of democracy in Mongolia, the cult of Chinggis has grown and grown. Young Mongolians are fiercely proud of their ancestor, and it colours their perception of every other period or person in history.

For example, Adolf Hitler. Hitler, or ‘Gitler’ as the Mongolians usually call him, is, I am sorry to say, greatly admired by the young men I teach. “He was a great general” “He gave great speeches” “Everybody was afraid of him”: these accolades are given in a reverent tone by every student who has spoken on him - except, happily, for the scorn from a handful of the girls who have objected that Hitler was a terrible man. Ironically, however, whilst the lads can accept with an amused grin that Hitler is usually perceived as being the very worst criminal in history in western countries, they are deeply shocked and offended at the notion that Genghis Khan is also often included in the roll-call of historical infamy.

I’m hoping that I can encourage the students to look at other aspects of greatness in historical figures than the numbers of millions murdered or subjugated. I’ve set the classes to do a presentation on a chosen person from history - for myself I’m going to do a slideshow about Ernest Shackleton. A very macho figure, but someone who’s notable achievement was a heroic failure, and who is remembered because of the people his ambition didn’t kill.

I think I’d also like to see how the class respond to reading some Jon Ronson, too. Ronson’s English in “Out of the Ordinary” is clearly written, with short sentences, and to the point. I think that his writing is well within my student’s reading abilities; they hate being given a piece to read that’s more than 500 words long. I’d like to see the students’ reaction to humorous writing about social embarrassment and ostentatiously failing to be a good role model to his son. I’ll try the piece on Goths in Starbucks or the one about getting his trousers mended. With startling generosity, Ronson has posted most of the best short pieces from the book at his Amazon Blog.

Like Larry David, Ronson’s best asset is writing about his own failings and insecurities. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of merit to his attempts at serious ‘offbeat’ journalism, but where the implied Ronson sometimes irritates there, it delights in those pieces that focus entirely on himself. I enjoyed large parts of “Them” - particular the first piece concerning Osama Bin Laden's 'mouthpiece’ Omar Bakri, but grew increasingly irritated by Ronson's faux naiveté in the rest of the book. It was after reading "Them" that I first came across Jon Ronson’s by-line in the Guardian. Initially I read his self-obsessed pieces in a rather sneering manner - “What ‘amusing’ anecdote has Ronson got to say about himself this time, I wonder?” I’d started out reading Auberon Waugh’s columns in much the same way - not that I would wish to draw too strong a comparison between the two writers, beyond the fact that it was what offended me about each writer that initially drew me to reading them.

One thing that Jon Ronson admits in his book, is that he is an occasional self-Googler. Mentioning Jon Ronson in the text of your web site is a well-known technique in the blogging community for artificially boosting site traffic. Within two hours of my first post that mentioned him I had a hit from a blog search for “jon ronson”. The ISP address for the visitor included Ronson in the host name - suggesting that, as a cyber-equivalent of the Devil himself, no sooner do you mention Jon Ronson’s name online, than he appears. The same searcher has visited the site four times, all from Googling “jon ronson”. Curiously, no other ISP has visited the site with that search. And no one at all has arrived by Googling “louis theroux”.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Khoomei Sweet Khoomei

Thursday 15th February
My attempts to track down some traditional music have been a bit half hearted in the two and a half months I've been here in Mongolia. I've heard a few traditional singers at Christmas parties, but other than my visit to an instrument maker's shop last week the rest of my time I have been somewhat culturally delinquent. At last I have rectified the situation, thanks to my friend Bulgaa who texted me this afternoon to ask if I was free this evening. Would it be okay for him to call around to my apartment with his friend Chuluun?

Chuluun is originally from Inner Mongolia and plays the Morin Khuur and is a Khoomei singer. He arrived at my home with the distinctive, roughly bar-bell shaped Morin Khuur softcase on his shoulder. I've heard the Morin Khuur played and I've heard throat-singing before - Bela Fleck and the KLF have both recorded with the unearthly tri-tone singing. Words fail me to describe the experience of hearing the music sung in my living room. I'm hoping to hear Chuluun play tomorrow so I will try and find something to write worthy of his art.

In the meantime, here's Chuluun with his instrument, and also in mid-Khoomei playing the banjo. I had hoped to possibly post the first picture on the web of Khoomei being sung to the banjo, but then I Googled and confirmed that there's nothing new in cyberspace - here's the Myspace page of Arjopa, a Khoomei singer in Germany who plays an old English zither banjo.

Monday, 12 February 2007

English Literature is Optional

Monday 12th February
Inevitably, the first week back in school after two weeks’ recovery time was a mixed experience, mostly of the spirit-grinding character. I would surely have benefited from doing more preparation during the break, although I did concoct a lot of ambitious but extremely vague notions of doing a lot of themed classes throughout the coming term. The fact that I hadn’t actually physically planned anything out turned out not to matter a great deal, as, presumably some time late Sunday night, the school's entire timetable had been completely rewritten.

The big change for me is that my literature classes had now been made optional - something I had begged for in relation to the 9th graders but would like to have saved as a last resort for the 10th and 11th. I spent most of last weeks classes holding ‘surveys’ of the students opinions about English and what to do about it. A great way out of getting around not having planned work for the week but also for stealing ideas from the students themselves (Not that the ideas would necessarily be any good, but then I could have the joy of telling the kids “Yes, this lesson sucks, but that’s YOUR FAULT because it was YOUR IDEA - Hah!”) Well, particularly to the background of timetable chaos, the results of the survey were pretty uniformly depressing. The greater part of the students requested “More interesting lessons” with only about two out of sixty students suggesting anything that might be of interest to themselves (“Talking about famous people, shopping, movies”). “More interesting” basically means more games and fun exercises, and more oportunities to chat to each other (in Mongolian). Well, I’m prepared to concede them a little more fun, in strictly measured doses of course, but on the whole, I reserve the right to be as boring and un-fun as I like. It is a teacher’s most sacred prerogative.

My 11th grade got quite involved in a discussion of what to study in Literature, with an agreement to read more short stories and look at something in the vein of Harry Potter and “The Da Vinci Code”, both of which these bone-idle kids have read from cover to cover. I had it in mind to maybe try and get copies of “The Hobbit” at least or “A Wizard of Earthsea” as a Rowling antidote, and half a notion to force extracts of “The Name of the Rose” and the “Illuminatus!” trilogy to de-Brown them. The 11th grade did pretty well last term, giving the extracts of “Hamlet” a sporting chance, suffering Dylan Thomas with dignity and generally hiding their disappointment that the course would not be all Monkey’s Paws. Everything looked quite promising: and then the class became optional, and 5 students out of the twenty turned up. No students from the 10th grade classes are choosing to take English. And the 9th grade class which I had begged to be made optional is still on the syllabus, sat there in the ungodly monday morning hours, with the students less willing than ever to have anything whatsoever to do with books.

Still, the five-student classes will hopefully turn out to be very worthwhile, although I do feel that i am losing the battle to force these kids to appreciate English literature. The students were very keen to read Sherlock Holmes and so I settled on “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” purely on the merit of it being one of the shortest stories. It turns out on reading it (and preparing a vocab sheet! Before the lesson! I am a teacher!) that it has lots of good use of English idioms and phrases that are still common currency (“at the end of my tether” “I was in the swim” and so on), but it isn’t the most exciting of Holmes’ adventures - and is indeed just a rewrite of the funnier “The Red-Headed League” which Conan Doyle seems to have forgotten having written. Well, I’ll see how they got on with it tomorrow. In the meantime I wrote them a very clever little essay about the character Sherlock Holmes and his wide influence on later fiction, which they are sure to find informative and inspiring. I even managed, in the best teaching tradition of disparaging everything the students admire, to work in a snidey reference to “The Da Vinci Code” (which, needless to say, and also in the best teaching tradition, I have never read). Once they’ve finished with that I’m intending to try some Jack London, particularly “To Light a Fire” and “A Piece of Steak”, both of which I recall as being short but gripping, and concerning the cold, wolves and boxing, all of which ought to be able to hold a Mongolian’s attention for half an hour at least.

For my other classes, I am belatedly dispensing once and for all with the text book I have been given. The course (Upstream Intermediate and Advanced) is extremely good, but the students, who are already studying the course with the Mongolian teachers do not want to study it with me too. Personally I think that if I could get their attention they could really benefit from letting me teach it, but as soon as the text book opens their minds close, and I am finally giving up. All remaining classes will be conversation or based on newspaper articles and lessons I steal off the Internet. I have also had the brilliant notion of getting the class to prepare Power Point (ie slideshow) presentations on subjects of their choice, with that whole class being their lesson - cleverly getting myself out of having to prepare that lesson, and again giving me recourse to being able to say “Yes, this lesson sucks, but that’s YOUR FAULT because it was YOUR IDEA - Hah!”

You may be wondering whatever happened to my threats to teach Mongolians bluegrass, which had caused a degree of consternation in some parts of the globe. Many historians consider that the rampages of Genghis Khan were only alleviated by the fact that the banjo had not yet been invented in the 13th century. As of yet, the world is safe. I have not been able to inspire a sudden interest in all things hillbilly amongst my young charges, but I am working on it. Last week was my first after-school music group, which a handful of students finally signed up for once another student helpfully rewrote my unsigned “Bluegrass Music Club” poster and replaced it with “Live Music Club”. I’ve now got 6 8th grade piano-playing girls, who want to form an EMO Rock Band. In my own time I am trying to meet up with some local musicians who a mutual friend is in touch with - hopefully after all the meatballs and vodka of next weekend’s White Moon celebration are over with we can manage to get together.

Finally, just to prove that I am complaining about my job from Outer Mongolia and not Basingstoke, here's a picture of the ger recently assembled outside my apartment block.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Sumo Corruption Scandal

Thursday 8th January
Last week my good friend Chris Shannon sent me a link to an article in The Times about Mongolia's Sumo champ Asashoryu, who has been at the centre of allegations of match-fixing. Asashoryu, who is aptly described by Lloyd as swaggering into the ring "like a 23st loincloth-clad cowboy" is a big hero to Mongolians of all ages. They are proud of his phenomenal success, but also fond of his humorously bullying and irreverent attitude. Many people have told me with a smile how at the party held for his recent record-breaking victory, he punched celebrity guests who were reluctant to drink with him, and forced them to down their vodka.

The story is very big news in Japan, however even the article in the Times was considerably more in depth than the small piece that I had read in the UB Post. Curiously, when I asked my students and colleagues about the allegations, no one had heard them, in spite of many being very keen followers of the sport. In previous discussions concerning Mongolia's limited successes in the Asian Games and prospects for the Olympics, students have complained that competitions have been rigged against their country's favour. I am told that bribery is very common - in the early stages, at least - of the Naadam wrestling competition, with the lowest ranked wrestlers paying those of higher rank to take a fall.

Needless to say, these current allegations from Japan are treated by Mongolians with contempt and shocked outrage, and dismissed out of hand. Richard Lloyd's piece in the Times (there are several other articles by the same writer about Asashoryu's controversial career which make good reading, available at timesonline) points out that the details of the current accusations are "less than convincing" and quotes Sumo commentator Kunihiro Sugiyama on the possibility that the allegations are a "concoction by some of his many detractors":

“It’s possible — just because he is so strong. That creates jealousy. The fact that he’s a foreigner gives people a harder attitude towards him. But we have to face up to his great strength. At the moment Asashoryu is stronger than the Japanese.”

A colleague has just told me that Asashoryu has answered these allegations in the Mongolian press, and assured the Mongolian people that the story is false: "I don't have any interest to buy these rounds and the victories." Asashoryu has promised the Mongolian people that he will become the greatest Sumo Yokozuna of all time - a record that he is close to acchieving. The article that he has made this statement in is more concerned with Asashoryu's recent purchase of Ulaanbaatar's State Circus building. There are fears that the Yokozuna plans to abolish the circus and use the building to stage Sumo matches. Again, however, he reassures his people that he has loved the circus since visiting it in the 3rd grade, and has had a particular admiration for Mongolian circus entertainers since seeing them perform in Las Vegas last year.

I'll put my faith in Asashoryu's honesty, but I guess that the measure must be what happens to the dear old, decrepit State Circus - whether it blossoms as a showcase for the stupendous acrobatic talents that have long been a tradition of the Mongolian people (and for performing dogs and cats), or becomes instead the number venue in UB to see two large, sweaty men grunting and tugging at each others' mawashi.

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

Friday, 2 February 2007

Teachers' Day, More Technology Gripes (State Department Store Boycott!), Word of the Day is 'Fecund'

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.