Friday, 29 June 2007

Certified Sane

29th June 2007
One of the first questions I've usually been asked by every group of students I've taught from the 4th Grade to Upper Management is "Are you married?" Next comes "Why not?" followed by "Will you marry a Mongolian girl?"

Finding these questions increasingly difficult to side-step, I've decided to change my answer to them, permanently. So if the paperwork is all in order, by this time next week it will be Mr and Mrs Ulaanbaanjo.

We've opted for a Soviet Bureaucracy-themed wedding at the local district government offices. The preparations have been entertaining. Firstly, my fiance had to get her mother to send paperwork from her home province allowing her to register as a citizen in UB - this came via a micro-bus passenger who arrived at 3.30 in the morning (and kindly phoned us at 2.30am to tell us that she'd be in our neighbourhood in an hour or so). This proved to be only the beginning of a landslide of forms and affadavits needed: we have had to visit three hospitals this morning - one to get our blood-type tested and to give a sample to be checked for HIV. Another to have our chests X-rayed for tuberculosis and the last, to have our heads examined by a rather shy-looking young psychiatrist. Good news from that last visit is that I am now certified sane, which is something of a relief, and contradicts much that has been opined in my direction over the years.

More tiresome are the proofs I need to provide from the UK: a clean criminal record and proof that I am not married. The criminal record should fortunately not be a problem as I happened to bring a Criminal Records Bureau check with me from my last job in the UK. But how do I prove that I am not married? In vain I argued with officials that in the UK it's recorded that someone is married, not that they are not married - there is no record to have confirmed. The British Embassy in UB shrugged their shoulders and offered to publish bans of marriage for $250 (3 times the national average wage to insert our names and print out a form - that's service!) Eventually it was pointed out to me the benefits of Microsoft Word and the fact that bureaucrats here just want to see the form in front of them and tick the correct box.

So all that remains is to get a letter from my employer confirming my good character, a form from the Office of Immigration, Naturalization and Foreign Citizens confirming that I haven't breached my visa status in any way, and a statement from ourselves confirming our love and affection, and come Tuesday - well - wish us luck.

Short Short Stories

I have previously posted about the educational benefits of Very Short Stories (6 words) and Mini Sagas (50 words) - they're fun and can be tried whatever a person's English level. The Normblog website is currently running a Short Short Story competetion - the definition of Short Short here being 250 words. Previous entries from last year's contest can be found by rummaging through the site - I think that this form of story is a good one for study, as I found that the traditional published length of story (2,500 - 5,000 words) rarely keeps the attention of students (the venerable exception being 'The Monkey's Paw'). I imagine that the reason that most professional writers have tended to write shorts on the longish side is that they were being paid by the word - I think that there's a lot of elegance to the truly short format. Anyway, check out the entries at Norm's site or submit one yourself. I found 'An Inconvenience' by a promising young talent named Jimi Fallows to be particularly compelling.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Museum of National History

I finally got around to visiting the Museum of National History the other day. It’s by far the most modern and best laid out of Ulaanbaatar’s museums, especially the Bronze Age exhibit on the ground floor. The cases are nicely lit and well labeled in both Mongolian and English. The various stages of the nation’s history are well represented on the other floors, although there is perhaps a bit of ‘editorial bias’ in the choice of items shown. The long period Mongolia spent under Manchu rule (from the 17th to the early 20th century) is represented by three display cases of instruments of torture and execution. I am under the impression that people were executed during Chinngis’ reign too, and probably later Khans, and I’m not sure that there’s any evidence that Chinese rule was any harsher – that in fact the centre of government being so far away and fervent Buddhism mostly keeping the populace equable, Mongolians were mostly allowed to carry on their lives as they had for centuries. The infamy of the Manchus is very much taken for granted by the majority of Mongolians today, however, which I think may well have been a version of history strongly encouraged in the Soviet era. This and some of the slant on the Soviet period should be borne in mind of the fact that this building was formerly The Museum of the Revolution.

The hall of Soviet history itself is pretty interesting, although unfortunately a lot of the labels are left untranslated. Mongolia has an interesting place in Communist history – it was the second country in the world to have a Communist revolution. Lenin is still quite fondly regarded in Mongolia, for his support in freeing Mongolia from Chinese rule. There’s a prominent statue of Lenin outside the Ulaanbaatar Hotel. The museum has one display case dedicated to the victims of the purges during the 1930’s – whether these were ordered by Stalin or just inspired by him seems unclear. The justification for the mass arrests at the time was a fabricated Japanese-inspired fifth columnist plot to take over the country. There’s no mention (in English anyway) of the many thousands (30,000?) of Buddhist monks who disappeared at this time, but there are the pocket watches of Minister of Finance S. Dovchin, former Party Secretary O. Badrakh and Minister of Justice D. Dorjpurev’s wife’s handbag: the perhaps unintentional impression that these three items are all that remain of the victims of the mass murder is chilling.

To what extent Mongolia's leaders were under the command of the Kremlin is a question that I would be interested to see historians answer. I believe that there’s evidence that Mongolia had a considerable degree of autonomy. For example, throughout World War Two, Mongolia’s contribution to the fighting on the Eastern front was the loan of a handful of tanks and planes – which Russia had presumably given Mongolia in the first place – and the sale of horses and a few other supplies to the Allies: this when Stalin was sacrificing millions of his countrymen to slow the German advance. Of course, Mongolia’s population was very small at the time (around 1 million? Less?) – and Mongolia was later to fight fiercely against Japan in the campaigns that led to VJ Day. Until the democratic revolution of the 90s, Russia stationed troops and carried out military exercises in Mongolia – but Russia also built apartment blocks, power stations, and factories and indeed provided a degree of security against the country’s other Marxist neighbor.

Anyhow, an interesting museum, with food for these questions and others - well worth a visit. 3,000T admission, I didn’t check how much it costs to take photos. I will try and remember to update this entry with a photo of the exterior, which is a piece of Soviet modernist architecture that is a credit to the city.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Construction Problems

Not very good news so far on Mongolia's "40,000 Homes" programme [a government initiative to ease the chronic housing shortage and encourage home-ownership amongst citizens of UB], according to the 21st June UB Post. At a recent conference of the National Chamber of Commerce, representatives of the country's construction firms voiced considerable complaints, particularly about the problem of bribery. Although the language given in the paper is a bit vague, it suggests that bribes in the region of $1,000,000 for the better areas of the city, have to be paid before a given project can commence. The bribes demanded by officials are so high that only foreign companies can afford to build there, so "Foreigners' townships will come up on lands near a water source and with pure air, while Mongolian citizens in their own country have to live in sub-optimal conditions." Even in the less desirable areas, a continual flow of back-handers has to be paid. Certainly, there is plenty of construction going on in the better parts of the city at the moment, and all quite clearly marketed at the foreign buyer. "Project 40,000" is set to succeed, however, because astoundingly, the government has said that every apartment built and sold in the country - including those developments exclusively for foreigners and the super-rich - will count towards the target. In other words, what began as an initiative to improve the standard of living of the population may only serve to push up rental prices and line the pockets of corrupt officials and property speculators.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Capital of Culture: 2008 Pledge

Friday, 22nd June 2007
Thoughts turn increasingly homeward - by the beginning of September I should be saying goodbye to Mongolia (only for a while, I hope) and returning to my much cherished home city of Liverpool. Of course, what with Skype, emails and blogs of all things, I've hardly been out of touch with home for more than a day or two in all the time I've been out here in Mongolia. Family and friends aside however, the homeward-turn of thoughts brings me to dwell on the excitement due to kick off on the 1st January 2008, when Liverpool will begin its year as the European Capital of Culture.

I regularly read through the letters pages of the Liverpool Echo and Daily Post on their shared website at and, sad to say, there has been a little bit of negativity now and then, concerning the readiness of the city for the upcoming festivities.

"THE Capital of Culture next year is the biggest farce of all times...It is not safe to be in Liverpool at night as there are loads of thugs, then you have the nightclubs and most of them should be closed down." J.W. Hill, Bootle (Liverpool Echo 19th June)

"WITH regards to Capital of Horse Manure. I would like to express my concern for the vast amount of horse manure on the pavements in the city centre. Besides it being an obstacle course, trying to get from one place to another with building work, you have to dodge the horse manure. It is not being picked up and traffic is actually driving through it and spreading it even more. It is disgusting for we who live here, I just can’t imagine what visitors must think." J.L.H., Bootle (any relation?)(Liverpool Echo 18th June)

A letter arguing that Liverpool needs a Giullianni-style mayor reads like poetry in its description of the state of the city:

"JUST an average day's commute into Liverpool ...

A residential suburban street covered in dog faeces.

A man at the back of the bus with his feet up on the opposite seats.

A teenager on the same bus who looks like he hasn't washed in a month, scratching his filthy head with even filthier nails.

An alcoholic vagrant using a low-rise wall in London Road as a bed.

A discarded syringe near the pharmacy in London Road.

Pavements near the Odeon cinema covered in thick black gunge.

A man blowing the contents of his nose directly onto the street.

A passenger throwing cigarette ends from his car window in Water Street.

What a filthy, degenerate city this has become..."
Peter Bradshaw, L36 (Liverpool Echo, 15th June)

I am kind of assuming that for all the changes in the last 6 months (no more NORTON FOR CRAP! That's the city turning its back on its culture and heritage right there!) Liverpool is still something of an untidy city with a degree of social decay, but I'm not sure that these are really enough to hold the culture year back. Of course Bill Bryson famously gave the city a gentle ribbing for the "festival of litter" in his "Notes from a Small Island", and it's certainly arguable that both the litter and the whingeing are integral aspects to the city's culture which it just would not be the same without... Well, on second thoughts, it may well not be the same without them, but it would clearly be an improvement.

Anyhow, to cultivate a a more positive atmosphere for proceedings now that the countdown is ticking, and acknowledging that in the past I've had more than my share of sarcastic comments to make about the city and about 2008, I'd like to ask people to join me in a sincere pledge to be not remotely cynical about the Capital of Culture year from now on; not to complain about the failures of the City Council (which can easily be acchieved by not making any reference at all to the City Council); or the Culture Company (ditto), nor about the involvement of 'outsiders' in the celebrations; to refrain from throwing MacDonalds cartons into the gutter or a garden hedge, perhaps even to pick up the occassional coke can or snickers wrapper; not to spit noisily and aggressively whilst passing people in the street; not to opine that everything in the John Moore's Prize Exhibition at the Walker is shit (even if it is - which in 2006 it most emphatically was not - for which, incredibly, we had Tracey Emin of all people to thank); not to complain that Manchester is trying to steal Liverpool's limelight with its own highly successful festival; not to bemoan the lack of funding for bluegrass related events, nor the complete lack of interest or indeed response shown by the various committees for pet projects (such as a 'Mongolian Invasion' of Sefton Park which, by the beard of Genghis, I will see happen!); not to be smug that however crap we thought the 08 logo was it's nothing like the joke that got foisted on the London Olympics; not to complain about property prices; nor make jokes about the Writing on the Wall 'literature' festival; such as, for example, putting 'literature' in quotes; not to revel in past glories when Liverpool was the GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD, but to take a degree of pride, tempered by humility, in its evolving present; not to make fun of the letters in the Post and Echo, nor the reports by the hard-working journalists, be they about Stab Boy or even Stab Boy's Mum, and especially not if it's the latest Funding Crisis being reported on by Deborah James; not to repeatedly complain that the Literature section of the official Capital of Culture website neglects to mention Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Olaf Stapledon or even "Redburn" by Herman Melville; nor to wonder what over-priced events citizens of Liverpool will need a special discount card to attend, and why we should be following in the footsteps of tourist traps like Chester and Windsor in implementing such a discriminatory scheme, against the Liverpool museums' fine example of being free to everybody; not to call for the head of Boris Johnson, Margi Clarke, Ulaanbaanjo, or whoever else might inadvertently offend somebody by giving an honest opinion on the city; not to subvert a list of pledges into a catalogue of complaints; in fact, to each do our humble best towards making the year a memorable one, for ourselves and for whatever visitors and guests might grace us with their presence; to celebrate Culture in as many aspects and with as open a mind as we can; and finally, to reserve a special place in our hearts, pockets and all headline events for the Banjo, which was, after all, John Lennon's first instrument, to say nothing of the city's many other fine banjoists over the years.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

ESL Teaching Resources Online

My attempts at teaching English have been, ah, somewhat hit-and-miss over the past six months. The main excuses I have given (where directly blaming other people couldn't be got away with) has been a lack of training and of suitable teaching materials to hand. I've spent too many hours trawling the web through well-meant but practically useless free ESL sites, and probably-not-quite-as-many hours devising lesson plans of my own invention which 90% of the time have proven to utterly fail to engage students in any degree. When I've asked other ESL teachers for advice I've mostly been recommended to "unlock my inner teacher within" as it were - ie, do whatever I think best.

Although I was aware of the BBC World Service web pages devoted to teaching English, I had failed to notice the downloadable lesson plans, of which dozens are available on line and many seem to be of excellent quality. Likewise, I missed the link to the British Council's Teaching English site, which has even more lesson plans (aimed more at school-age children), and a number of very useful books in PDF all completely free to download. There are also a wide range of articles for the edification of teachers, and both sites make good use of downloadable audio to be used in conjunction with classes, if desired.

Both these sites are extremely well-designed, and I suspect that they contain material as good as if not better than the many pay-for-access ESL resource sites. And if you please you can still go back to one of the open forum "Hey, here's a totally awesome idea for class!!! It REALLY works!!" sites for a handy back-up when in need of a change of pace, ie: a totally awesome variant on Hangman or Eye Spy. (OK, a lot of the ideas posted on sites such as Dave's ESL Cafe are very good indeed, but you do have to read through an awful lot of half-brained stuff before you find anything worth embarassing yourself in front of a room full of bored students for.)

The one actual, physical text-book I have, which I got my mother to order me from Amazon, is "Rediscover Grammar" by David Crystal. Concise and conveniently pocket-sized, it says on the back that it "remains the ideal guide and reference for teachers and students" - and so it is. I don't teach from it, I just occassionally use it to avoid embarassment by discreetly dipping in to check exactly what a preposition is.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Guinea Pig

Day three of my new job involved another tour of the plant and a visit to the tasting room. I confirmed that yes indeed there are paid employees who's job is to check the quality of each day's output of spirits - and that involves actually drinking vodka. You may well say that of course there is somebody who's job it is to taste the vodka, but until I met such a person in the flesh, I had feared that perhaps the job was done by a Taste-o-tronic 3000 or something. Hiding my excitement and asking how somebody gets such a post, I was disappointed to discover that the tasters were all highly qualified chemists. Why did nobody take the tame to explain this to me in school?

The taste test is just one check on the quality, and there are a whole series of much less exciting tests done with laboratory equipment that probably take some of the joy out of the job. In Mongolia, as with Russia, there is a considerable problem of counterfeit spirits being sold, particularly in smaller retailers and in the countryside. After putting my stamp of approval on the day's regular and premium product, I was invited to have a taste of some of the bootleg vodkas. I am fairly certain that the regular testers do not bother with passing these through any taste test, particularly when one look at the cloudy contents confirms that it certainly ain't the real thing. More likely they just time how many minutes it takes to dissolve an inch of steel. However, in me they had a daring and needless to say moronic volunteer, quite curious to take a small sip "just to see."

As a small child, I once asked a friend's dad who was siphoning petrol out of his car , what petrol tasted like? He held the end of the tube to me and said "See for yourself." I found out, and I also learned not to ask stupid questions. Well actually, I didn't at all learn not to ask stupid questions, but I did discover the somewhat humbling knowledge that there is such a thing.

The first vodka, which upon being held to the light had quite large, yellowy sediment quite easily visible swirling around in it, tasted and smelled of water. The second vodka, which had a finer sediment, tasted of, well, petrol. I'm not entirely sure how I benefited in learning this, except to acquire a rather chronic 24 hour stomach bug. I did learn that the visual test is one of the most valuable tests for counterfeit spirits, as it is very rare for counterfeiters to employ particularly high standards of filtration: real vodka should be entirely clear, without bits, especially big yellowy bits. For anyone to whom that is new information, I am very happy that my experiment has been of service.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Grain Spirit

Wednesday 13th June - only 2 days to go to get hot water!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find that in spite of the longer hours, I am so far enjoying working at a vodka factory. I've had a tour of the plant, of course, and for my second day I was required to pose for news cameras drinking our premium product at an expo in the city. I also felt duty-bound to test our competitors' products at the same time, to confirm that we really do make the best.

Of course the regular workplace is an excessively sober environment, in spite of the presence of dozens of bottles of product in every office. My teaching schedule is pretty full - teaching two departments each day and then holding a conversation class each evening. In-between I have to prepare hand-outs etc, which is at least forty times easier than at school as here I'm supplied with both a computer and a printer that actually work, which I find makes a considerable difference towards getting things done.

It's an interesting time in the vodka trade in Mongolia, as the big companies are all on the point of breaking into the international market. I think that the potential for export sales to exceed the considerable domestic sales is certainly there, there surely being a certain cachet to Mongolian vodka. My own company, and a number of the competitors, are producing some real high-end stuff: to my surprise all made with 100% Mongolian organic wheat grain - I wasn't aware that wheat was grown on such a scale in this country, but it's one of the proud boasts of the industry.

One of the biggest problems for companies here is simply getting the product out of the country, as the only route is the not-always-reliable Trans-Mongolian railway - particularly complications arising over the degree of cooperation between the Chinese, Mongolian and Russian monopolies operating each section of the route. There's been considerable wrangling reported in the press this past six months between Russia and Mongolia over responsibility for a series of derailings near the border. As Mongolia's leading businesses start to get involved in a larger volume of international trade, these problems are likely to become acute, without considerable investment in the infrastructure of the only one viable route for freight to get in and out of the country.

Of course, the size of the vodka industry in Mongolia can certainly be seen from the negative side and the extent of alcoholism in the country. I'm told that the trend in the nation is slowly away from vodka drinking towards beer, which is maybe one incentive for companies to look abroad for sales. I'm also told that after copper mining, tax on the spirit industry represents the largest contribution to the state coppers - so for all the damage done by alcoholism in the country, I'm assuming that the new road that's been laid over the dirt track behind my apartment and the promised pay rise for teachers would not have happened without it.

My employers are very keen in sponsoring a number of worthy social initiatives in the country to promote a better image of what they do, and can at least justify themselves against the cheapest spirits on the market - those naturally favoured by the more committed drunks - in that they are producing a clean, quality product. Of course, once they get a good foothold selling as a luxury item abroad, then the significance of the domestic market to their profits will diminish: so you can do your bit towards securing the future of this great nation by rushing out and buying a bottle of Mongolian fire-water today. I would try and discreetly point you in the direction of the vodka made by my employers, by recommending that you buy the bottle with a picture of Genghis on the label, but unfortunately that distinction applies to every one of our competitors brands too.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Summer Teaching, Sore Thumbs

Thursday 7th June 2007
Extremely good news is reported in today's UB Post for Mongolia's hard-working primary and secondary school teachers: the state is set to increase their salaries to in the region of $300 a month. This is a considerable raise - at present teachers in state schools are earning $60 - $100 a month - even in private schools the salary is only $200. The article was a little bit vague about when this increase will take place, however, as there seems to be an indication that the aim is for teachers to be earning $350 by 2015... so I'm unsure just yet whether the news will be any cause for celebration.

Mongolia's brief Spring seems to be over, and a hot and sweaty summer firmly established - although I'm told it may yet snow again, as it did overnight a week ago. For now the heat is here - to happily coincide with my district of the city having no hot water for the past three days and, I'm told, none until the 15th June. Bracing cold showers are now the order of the day.

There having been a short period of doubt since the school term ended, I've now had my summer job confirmed: I'll be working for three months tutoring the management team at a vodka distillery - perhaps it's an environment that I'll find myself better suited to. The plan is to give a structured lesson each day and then follow the lesson up with conversation with my students. I'll assess each student's ability and come up with an achievement plan for each and, god willing, we'll work together until September on improving their English, hopefully to everyone's satisfaction. There have been hints that the job may get me out and about in the countryside occasionally, but for the most part I'll be office-based.

Other than any opportunities that work throws up, this does now mean that I'm highly unlikely to see much more of the country for the remainder of my stay - as it is my firm plan to head straight back to Blighty once my contract is up in order to get over to Ireland in time for this year's Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival. Oh, and of course to see family and friends and stuff. For the present, in as much as I am planning for the future, I'm thinking that if I spend a year back in England working I'll be able to come back to Mongolia with some money in my pocket, and that then I'll have the luxury of not needing a salary, and be able to do as I please. I'd like 2009's sequel to this blog to be a year in a ger, far away from the smog, general chaos and satisfying variety of restaurants and bootleg dvds of the metropolis. It is entirely possible that my childhood ambition of becoming either a lighthouse-keeper or an astronaut may intervene, but I'm advised that it is a good thing to have goals.

Be assured that if work does give me the opportunities I will get myself out into rural Mongolia. I recently met a University professor of traditional medicine who I'm helping with a translation of a paper he's written on the early influences of Indian medicine in Mongolia. A very interesting man, he has kindly offered to let me join him on one of his trips to the countryside when I am free to go.

I did get back to Manzushir on Saturday, with a group of friends. It turns out that there's a bus to Zunmod for just under $1 each way, although this time we were getting a lift in a hybrid camper truck that had started its life in Ireland. There must be an increasing flow of traffic from Western Europe braving the journey here: at the hotel outside my apartment there are two 'Rotels' parked up today - converted HGVs fitted with every convenience - that appear to have made their way here from Germany.

We stayed at a new ger camp tucked away in a small valley at the edge of the park, and a very pleasant evening was had by all. I think that the ger cost around $30 for the night, which price included unlimited wood. The wood was needed as it was a cold night - it snowed some time around 2am. Worryingly, the chimney of our stove was propped up by a piece of wood and did not look remotely sturdy. After catching the chimney as it toppled out of place early in the evening we alerted staff at the camp, who made a makeshift repair. Later in the evening the chimney fell down again, narrowly missing braining and branding one of our party, and filling the ger with thick smoke. We got out into the very fresh air and this time staff replaced the stove with one that wasn't falling to pieces.

Out in the streets the bars now have their tables and sun shades out. Dave's Place now commands a respectable corner of the Culture Palace's tall-columned terrace - where along with the English conversation club host Dave and a very talented travelling Irish trad musician Sarah, I played a few tunes last night to a very generous audience. I'm hoping to make it a regular Wednesday night thing for the summer, at least until somebody objects forcibly enough. We'll be playing a mix of bluegrass and sing-along rock favourites by request. I've really not been playing much since things stopped at Mealody, so it's good to get back into it. I seem to have lost all my thumb-picks, however, so if anyone happens to be heading out to Mongolia this summer, please consider bringing me a few, as a desperately needed act of charity. Golden Gates by preference - large size, medium gauge.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Happy Alcohol-Free Children's Day

Today is International Children's Day, one of the big celebrations on the Mongolian Calendar. It happily coincides with the formal end of school for the summer, although as I have remarked in the case of my own school, all practical teaching ended about a month ago. As with Women's Day and Teacher's Day, the observation of International Children's Day seems to be one of the happier legacies of the country's socialist past. Preparations at Sukhbaatar Square began on Wednesday night - a giant marquee was erected and, in pouring rain, cables bearing what must have been many thousands of balloons were hoisted around the not-inconsiderable length of the square's perimeter. In one corner of the square a display of different styles of ger and teepee (which is traditional amongst the Tsaatan (Reindeer) people of Northern Mongolia) has been assembled. Walking home across the square after a sunny day Thursday, I noted that every single balloon had already burst.

Exactly what celebrations will take place on the Square today I have no idea. All over the city, however, shops and businesses are closed, so that families can spend time together. My local Nomin hypermarket was open, however I found myself a little less inclined to be good natured towards the younger component of humanity on discovering that no alcohol was to be sold today. No alcohol! Putting my own unwilling sacrifice aside, it is, if you'll forgive me, a sobering reflection on the extent of alcoholism that a great number of children in this country, and indeed everywhere else, have to live with. A few weeks ago I saw a twelve year old girl at a shop buying a loaf of bread and a bottle of vodka. I didn't have the impression that the vodka was to be drunk at a bus stop with her friends - not having yet seen any indication of child-alcoholism here as is found in Liverpool and the UK - but rather that she was running an errand for her parents. A lot of the children who beg on the streets here - and their numbers are escalating with the beginning of the tourist season - must surely be runaways and orphans, but one guesses that a significant proportion are begging on behalf of their families, and that some of the money they get will be buying vodka for their parents. I've only actually been approached on maybe three occasions by adults asking for money, whereas pretty much every time I walk down Peace Avenue at least one child will see me and run up calling "Money, money, money."

An article by Madelene Beresford in this week's UB Post quotes official statistics saying that 35% of Mongolia's 5 to 14 year-olds (60,000 children) currently work. There are many cases where owing to sickness or alcoholism, the children are the only people working in a family. A further piece in the same paper tells the story of a woman and her children recently catapulted to fame after being randomly invited to participate in the reality show called "Lets stay overnight at your house." Their plight, which is surely typical of many other women and children in the country, has touched a chord nationally, and fortunately help for the family has poured in. Briefly, the woman had taken her two children and left the husband who had beaten her and indeed brought another woman into the house. Suffering from a damaged liver, quite possibly as a result of her spouse's ill-treatment of her, she struggled on with her life, getting by on 29,000Tugrik a month (approx $26) state benefits, having to spend 20,000T of that to rent a ger.

Anecdotally, I've heard too many stories here of people struggling against the odds after having been abandoned by an alcoholic husband or father. Family ties are strong in Mongolia, surely much stronger than in the West - but it seems that where those ties are broken, people are left acutely in need. I've heard some speculation on the root causes of men abandoning their families - some tending to blame socialism, and a tendency to turn over responsibility to the state, others see it as a problem arising from the selfishness of a consumer-capitalist society. Whatever the causes, hopefully the plight of Tungalag and her two young children will, having brought more attention to this common problem, generate some agreement and will to change the circumstances for the people who are getting left behind.

In other news, I'm still hoping to get away to the countryside this weekend. Unfortunately I can't make my big trip to stay with a nomadic family and milk horses because my boss at the school, quite possibly out of spite, has insisted that I can't have Monday off and must attend a meeting about the next school year (at which I have not been asked to teach) - for which I'll be asked to make recommendations about the syllabus in order for them to be shot-down and or ignored. I wrote a 5,000 word report with such revolutionary recommendations as 1) for teachers not to actively encourage, indeed to actually discourage students from open plagiarism and cheating; 2) for foreign teachers to be supplied with teaching material. I haven't bothered to suggest that a tiny degree of support from management and colleagues wouldn't go amiss, as I didn't want to make my report a mere record of grievances. I have a blog for that.