The Year of Living Differently #8: Mong-Struck – Ulaan Baator, Mongolia

7: Mong-Struck

ULAAN BAATOR, MONGOLIA – 4 July, 2002
We arrived at Ulaan Baator train station in the morning. I spotted Goretti who had disembarked before the others and went over to join her. She set her bag on her left side and turned to tell me, “Wow… It feels different already, ya? Mongolia seemed nicer, friendlier.” Then, she looked to her left and… “Where’s my bag??? Where’s my bag? Did you see it? Where’s my bag?” she started yelling.

OH NO!! HER BAG HAD JUST BEEN STOLEN! I told her to run and look around for her bag at once! I got Barbara to watch our stuff and I ran out of the train station to try and hunt for her bag too. I saw so many people getting into taxis and I knew we had to act fast before the thief got away. I tried different directions radiating out from the train station but no luck. Argh!!!

After awhile, I gave up and returned to the others. All of us were cursing and swearing. What was worse was that just before she got off the train, she had put her money-belt into her bag. So, she lost her passport, air-tickets, travellers’ cheques, money, etc… EVERYTHING!

Well, there was nothing we could do now except to make a report. Jus, who was Slovenian and could speak Croatian and hence, could fake a little Russian which we hoped the Mongolians knew a little, would stay with Goretti. The rest of us helped carry a little of their stuff and headed off to Nassan’s Guesthouse.

Nassan’s Guesthouse was delightful. It cost US$4 for a bed and US$3 for a mattress on the floor. Naturally, all of us took the floor. There were kitchen facilities too. We talked about making pasta one of these nights.

We met Vincent, a French guy now helping out for Nassan. He had apparently been stuck in UB for a long time now, because his motorcycle, his means of travel, was not working. Whatever… We asked him where were the cheap places to eat, nearest internet, etc… and Barbara asked where she could buy a bicycle. Hmmm…

Pablo needed to apply for a Russian transit visa and made it to the Embassy just before they closed. What they required from him was a Trans-Mongolian train ticket leaving on the 19th of July and his air ticket leaving on July 25th and they would be able to process a transit visa for him.

Pablo and I then hurried down back to the train station and made it there five minutes before they closed to buy our train tickets. I had my Russian visa for July 14 but there were no seats available until July 16 because a lot of people would leave Mongolia after the Naadam Festival. So, I bought a ticket for July 16 to Irkutsk. Pablo purchased his July 19 train ticket all the way to Moscow.

Jus and Goretti returned late in the evening. The Mongolian police did not speak English, some spoke a wee bit of Russian. So half the time, they had no idea what the police were doing. They simply followed them around here and there and signing forms they couldn’t understand. Sigh… It was not over yet, Goretti still had tonnes to sort out tomorrow and perhaps, the day after.

ULAAN BAATOR, MONGOLIA – 5 July, 2002
While Goretti went about with the things she had to do, we visited the Museum of Natural History in the morning. Pablo was a biologist and nature guide. So, he was the perfect companion and could explain a lot of things to us. Later, he left to submit his passport and train ticket to the Russian Embassy.

Jus, Tina and I then visited a very unique museum called the Intellectual Museum. The director of this museum was a genius who designed puzzles. The puzzles were three-dimensional blocks which you needed to push or pull to dissemble and assemble. They looked impossible to crack. He made chess-sets and each of the pawns were of a different design. And apparently, he had designed 2000+ chess-sets, all of different designs! Even the tables holding the chess-boards were puzzles themselves.

Some of the chess-sets were of regular size; some miniatures; some huge. There were all made from different materials. And the director personally carved, sculpted, hammered each and every one of the pawns himself. He used materials like leather, felt, etc… to dress up the huge pawns into Chinggis Khan or a Mongol wrestler. He used expensive red corals to carve the tiny ones into animals. He was also a carpenter and he made all the tables himself. What can I say… this guy was pure genius!

Besides these chess-sets which were mind-boggling enough, he collected other types of puzzles and toys from all over the world. Some of the puzzles were rather famous and I had seen them used in those expensive enrichment courses paid for by your companies.

But the toys were simply… Level 10 KITSCH. There was the pair of spectacles which had eyes bouncing out; there were Barbies in grass-skirts who danced to music when you hit a little switch; there were other dolls that responded upon clapping, one dancing to the tune of ‘Macarena’; there were toys that farted bubbles; there was Scooby Doo; there were clowns; there were crying babies with milk bottles; etc… It was incredible. Pablo was a kitsch-hunter. He would love this museum. We had to recommend it to him and all who come to Mongolia.

We collected Pablo from the hostel and headed to the State Department Store to shop for ingredients for pasta tonight. Pablo’s parents were Italians, so the Italian blood in him made him feel personally responsible in creating the most authentic pasta sauce possible. He fretted about and frowned over the ingredients, or rather the lack of ingredients. “No, this will not be good enough…. We need basil leaves…. Oh, if there was white wine… The real Italian sauce needed to be…. My mother cooked with….” He bit his lips and muttered away. “PABLO!! WE ARE IN MONGOLIA!!”

Despite the imagined limitations, he made great pasta for us that night.

At around 11pm, Barbara returned with a New Zealand lady from the next room, Margaret. She then ducked out to use the internet. Margaret solemnly informed us that Barbara had apparently bought an air-ticket back to the States this morning. She would fly off tomorrow.

We were stunned. She must have figured she couldn’t do this bicycle trip alone. But, she could still try and book herself on a jeep tour with Nassan’s. Yet, she did not give herself or Mongolia a chance and simply decided to flee after one night’s stay in UB. We felt sorry for her. She was very young after all. She was probably having a huge culture shock. We hoped this incident would not deter her from travelling in the future.

ULAAN BAATOR, MONGOLIA – 6 July, 2002
Goretti, more or less recovered from her ordeal, suggested going to the Central (Black) Market to see if her camera was for sale. If not, she needed to buy one anyway.

Just before we left, Vincent learnt of our intention and warned us very gravely to beware of Ali-Babas. These Ali-Babas or pick-pockets would usually carry a jacket or sweater. They knew about money-belts and used knives to slash pockets. So, we had to be very careful and not carry anything except a tiny amount of cash. Spooked, we returned and stripped ourselves of our money-belts and wallets and got Tina to watch our stuff. Tina had been having diarrhoea so she was not going anywhere for a while.

Goretti had stuck money in her bra. At the first stall, she realised if she wanted to buy something, she would need to reach inside her shirt in front of everyone to retrieve the cash. Ha ha….

Pablo bought 30 pencils for a project that he was conducting. He put them all in his front pocket. Later, a guy with a jacket slung awkwardly over his shoulder walked by and we suspected right away he was an Ali-Baba. He squeezed past Pablo. We turned around just in time to retrieve ONE pencil sticking out from under the Ali-Baba’s armpit. The crowd, perhaps part of the act, then closed in. Recounted the pencils – 24 now. What???? They were after PENCILS too?!?!

ULAAN BAATOR to GACHUURT, MONGOLIA – 7 July, 2002
Tina was feeling better. Goretti’s spirits had improved. It was time to get out of Ulaan Baator. We decided to go to Gachuurt which was a nearby village and camp by the river.

The village was nothing much, but once we headed away by the river, the countryside was really pretty… rolling hills, grazing horses and sheep, gers in the distance, sparkling river…

We agreed on a camping spot finally and put up the 2-man tent. I told the guys, “OK, you guys cook lunch. And we girls will go hunting.” “How the world has changed…” Pablo quipped. Well, actually, I meant, hunting for wood and branches for fire tonight.

After lunch, Tina and Jus went for a walk and the rest of us decided to take a nap. It wasn’t long before the rain came. The three of us hurried into the tent. Hmmm…. It was already crowded for the three of us. If it rained tonight, how were the five of us to sleep in here? Goretti suggested the Spoon Position. Well… ahem.

Pablo spotted the eyes of foxes in the distance. Wow… being the nature guide that he was, he was quite sensitive to sound and the reflections from their eyes when we shone our torch in the right direction. For me, I heard nothing and saw nothing.

That night, Goretti slept out in her hammock and Pablo right by the beach. With the earlier rain, it still felt cold. I was glad I was tucked in cozily in the tent with Tina and Jus.

GACHUURT, MONGOLIA – 8 July, 2002
After breakfast, we decamped. The river could be crossed as we had seen Mongolian holiday-makers swimming and walking to the other side.

Goretti and Jus walked across first. The currents got really strong and at one point, they had to walk parallel to the banks for about 50m because that area was shallow and hence, the currents were slower. The shallow parts finally became a beach on the other side of the river. Now, knowing the route, Tina crossed next. Pablo and I had no sandals with us. So, we removed our boots and crossed bare-footed.

Have you heard of pebble therapy? If your feet hurt when you walk on pebbles bare-footed, it means there are many problems in your body. Well, from the pain I felt, I must be pretty sick. This pebble therapy was used back home in Singapore so I had anticipated the pain and I tolerated it better. I passed Pablo. He looked at me, incredulous. He thought that it was not painful for me. Halfway through, he felt like giving up. I told him he would have a wonderful sleep tonight with the pebble therapy. Just endure.

This side of the river had rolling hills and gers. The weather was great today and everywhere was picture-perfect. Some boys were riding horses and herding their sheep. Very Mongolia…

There were edelweiss flowers too. We broke into the song ‘Edelweiss Edelweiss, every morning you greet me…’. Tina and Goretti plucked some of them, saying that in Europe, they were a protected species. Well, if Tina and Goretti stayed in Mongolia long enough, edelweiss would need to be a protected species in Mongolia too.

We wandered around for about an hour, trying to figure out a good camping spot. A Mongol herdsman rode towards us. He was glum-faced and serious. He indicated that this was his private property. We had to get out. We apologized profusely and gestured that we would cross the river back.

We crossed the river to an island. We walked further until we came to a slightly narrow river to attempt to get back to the same bank we were on. Now, this side of the river had stronger currents. Goretti and Jus again tried to be the pioneers to get across. They tried for a long time. The water would come all the way up to their chest. It was OK if we got wet. We just wanted to protect our passports, cameras, etc…

After another hour or so of being stuck out here, some Mongol horsemen across the bank took pity on us and brought their horses over for us to cross. We took turns without incident until Pablo’s turn. His horse nearly drowned! Pablo, sitting on the back of the horse, had water right up to his waist. And when the horse got ashore, it panicked and galloped away at top speed!!!! This was like a movie! We stared with our jaws wide open! Imagine, if Pablo had fallen off the horse, with his feet trapped in the stirrups and his head in between the tramping legs… it would have been a disaster!!

But Pablo steered the horse to a group of grazing horses and when it rounded a curve and slowed down, Pablo jumped off and walked away. What an adrenaline rush!!! We were so thankful Pablo was alright.

We set up camp and figured we had probably moved 200m from our last camp-spot but we had taken four hours or so to accomplish it. We started to prepare pasta for our dinner. The herdsman who had earlier told us to get off his property, surprised us by crossing the river on horseback and riding towards our camp.

We wondered if we were again on his private property. But he disembarked and looked at us curiously. Tina offered cigarettes. He sat down. Slowly, Tina charmed him further with her finger-pointing ability at her Mongolian phrasebook and managed to get a conversation going. We learnt: He had 8 children. His profession was ‘Herdsman’. He was a Hindu.

We invited him for dinner and he accepted. Through the phrasebook, he indicated he would bring some milk and yoghurt. That was nice. And he galloped away.

The first pack of pasta we cooked looked gross. The sauce looked dead. Goretti, Jus and I suggested cinnamon, raw onions, condiments from our pack noodles, etc… to spice up the sauce. Pablo slunk further and further away from the fire, as we proceeded to massacre his beloved pasta and sauce. His Italian heart must be bleeding now.

Indeed, this was the worst pasta I had ever tasted. To us, it was not a problem. Ketchup would fix all horrible food. But how could we offer it to The Herdsman? We had to finish up everything and cook our second pack of pasta.

This time, Pablo took over and he made a really wonderful bowl of pasta for The Herdsman when he returned. He was beaming from ear to ear when he ate. In turn, we gratefully drank his yoghurt and salty horse-milk.

That night, Goretti and Tina made edelweiss tea. Can you imagine that? We were crazy. With excellent weather, Pablo and I slept under the stars, with the rushing river right by our feet. Magic.

GACHUURT, MONGOLIA – 9 July, 2002

At around 7am, Goretti shouted to us, “Hey, I think it’s going to rain, ya?” We peeped out of our sleeping bag. Indeed. She scurried into the tent right away with her hammock and sleeping bag. Pablo and I continued to lie on the bank, comatose until the pelting rain was too strong to ignore. We then crawled into the tent. Somehow, we contorted ourselves and fit one another’s sleeping bags in all available space and managed to snooze for another three hours or so.

We were finally up at 10am. The Herdsman soon came over with five horses. We had breakfast together with the cheese he brought along. He told us to decamp and pack up. Hmmm…. we were heading back across the river to his ger, it seemed.

At his ger, we met his entire family and his neighbours. His wife prepared some bread and more salty horse-milk for us. We were offered his snuff-bottle and sniffed some of the snuff. This was a Mongol custom – offering snuff-bottle to friends to sniff. To be very frank, we had no idea what was in it but if you sniffed too much, you coughed and sneezed for a while.

Pablo asked The Herdsman’s children to draw pictures of the place they lived in. They got excited over it and drew many wonderful pictures. Goretti returned to UB today to pick up her temporary passport. We later took a walk around the hills behind his ger.

That night, we asked him where we could set up our tent but he insisted we slept in his ger with his family. Oh, what a wonderful experience this was!! We were in a ger with a real Mongol family… and NOT in some tourist gers with hot showers and sauna that cost ‘only’ US$50. Excellent!! This would go down as one of the best trip experiences I had had so far!

GACHUURT to ULAAN BAATOR, MONGOLIA – 10 July, 2002
The next day, we thanked The Herdsman profusely and made our way back. He took his horse and lasso to see us off. We crossed the river on bare-foot again. This time, my feet didn’t feel that painful.

When he finally left, the picture was of him riding the horse, in the middle of the river and turning back to wave at us. It really looked like a movie… the ending would be a circle around this picture shrinking to nothingness!

Nassan’s Guesthouse was more crowded because the Naadam Festival starts tomorrow. We told Nassan we did not mind having no mattress to sleep on, we just needed floor space. We were finally allowed to return to our original room to try and find ‘floor space’. OK, if we squeezed a little, we could crunch out floor spaces for three… and we would get in the way of everybody. Tina took the only free bed.

There was a sullen and silent German couple reading and smoking in the room. Negative energy oozed from them. Actually, they pretended to read. They eyeballed us the whole time we were in the room, watching us as we went from toilet to kitchen sink, hung our underwears, scratched ourselves, wrote our journals… Weird.

There was a local cinema opposite Nassan’s Guesthouse and naturally, we felt we needed to pay due respect to the Mongollywood industry.

Waiting for Tina and Jus to show up at the cinema, I wondered what movie we were watching. Found the poster. Well, there was a bare-breasted woman and a bare-chested man pressing their bodies against each other on a bed and next to it – ’8pm’.

“Hmmm…. is this porno? Pablo, we watching porno?” I queried. A voice came from behind brusquely – “Nyet porno”. We spun around and saw a very serious-looking woman who seemed to know her Mongol movies well. Ooookay….

The only people in the cinema were four other tourists, also from Nassan’s Guesthouse.

The movie began with a dying elderly woman lying in bed, being taken care of by a pretty young woman dressed in traditional Mongolian costume. They were inside a ger, whispering and crying. We intuitively knew that the dying elderly woman was most likely NOT the naked woman featured in the poster. Our attention turned to the pretty young woman in traditional garb and appraised her slowly. The lights popped on and the cinema attendant entered sheepishly, waving a video-tape in her hand. Oh, that was the wrong movie.

The movie began again with a naked man and a naked woman frolicking in the shower and then, romping about on the bed. Now, that was more like it… Nyet porno.

The movie seemed to be shot with a video-cam by someone with shaky hands. There were harsh lightings that caused the faces to be featureless and there was absolutely no regards for sound-editing. We couldn’t figure out who was who because they all looked alike under the bright lights. But, we pretty much knew exactly what was going to happen because the storyline was thoroughly predictable. After the abrupt ending, we stood up and applauded, yelling “Mongollywood! Yes! Mongollywood!!”

ULAAN BAATOR, MONGOLIA – 11 July, 2002
We had timed our visit to Mongolia to coincide with the Naadam Festival. This morning, we followed the procession from the main square to the stadium. There was a parade getting ready to walk around the stadium. While some of the paraders were wearing the gorgeous and varied traditional Mongolian costumes, there were also Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, Pluto, a boy with a poodle and acrobats dressed up like Xena and Hercules, etc… We found the latter extremely odd and disturbing.

After a long wait for the opening ceremony, the wrestling began. Pairs of wrestlers, with no weight segregation, arrived on the field, doing a slow-mo eagle dance. They spread their arms like wings and bounced around slowly. They removed their pointy hats and began their wrestle. The loser would be the first guy who touched the ground with any part of his body, besides his feet and palms. Then, the winner would retrieve his pointy hat, do the eagle dance towards the centre, around a podium-thing, bow his head on the podium and depart. The loser would NOT retrieve his hat. He would do a loser-dance on the spot and ‘fly’ away. How I knew this was that we sat under the sun for hours, watching the wrestling (which eventually got boring) over and over again.

We found the archery competition in an open stadium outside. Here, there were women competitors, as well as men. All were dressed in their thick Mongolian wrap-around dresses. They looked wonderful. The targets were the judges in the distance, apparently. I was pleased to note that some of the competitors were rather young.

Negative-energy couple were reading and smoking in the room again.

ULAAN BAATOR, MONGOLIA – 12 July, 2002

Headed to Yarmag for the horse-racing competition on this second day of the Naadam Festival. The whole plain was wide and dusty. People were riding horses everywhere, kicking up the sand. It was difficult to see. Sometimes, a horse would gallop by you, nearly crashing into you. It felt quite dangerous, actually.

We squeezed to the barrier with the crowd and waited. Slowly, slowly, the crowd thickened. I had my camera in front of me and with the crowd pushing and shoving from behind, I was nearly sliced into two by my own camera. Remember, I had mentioned the Mongolians were pushers. With each rude, forceful push, I would look around for the culprits and what I saw were shiny, happy Mongolians, smiling away. I was packed so tight I couldn’t breathe. Perhaps, I could slow my breathing rate down to suspended animation and hope to be revived later.

Finally, the horses arrived with the young jockeys. The crowd went wild, cheering and pushing some more. Some horses had lost their jockeys earlier, it seemed. Ooops.

Later, when the race was over, Pablo told us that he was at the section where some horses keeled over and died of heart attacks in the middle of the race. The concerned crowd surged forward with intention to help the jockeys being dragged down and crashed the barrier! It was mayhem as behind the human crowd, there were spectators on horses and these horses were easily spooked. So, the horses were panicking and kicking up sand everywhere. Pablo and the nearby tourists simply gathered together and tried to protect their heads.

Meanwhile, Jus encountered an Ali-Baba whom he caught red-handed. Ali-Baba simply slithered away in the crowd.

Later, when we took a bus back to UB, the same Ali-Baba got onto our bus. He even moved to stand behind Jus and Pablo, back-to-back. As I was seated down, I could see the guy between Jus and Pablo. His left arm was holding the railing. He had his head bent and was eyeing at us below his left arm-pit. I stared at him straight in the eyes. He then decided to try somewhere else. Just before the bus pulled away, he shoved further into the bus and then suddenly dashed off the bus. Rats. He got something.

Negative-energy couple were reading and smoking in the room again.

ULAAN BAATOR to KHARKORIN, MONGOLIA – 13 July, 2002

Jus, Tina and Goretti would be heading to northern Mongolia today to the lake. They had a longer time here in Mongolia. Pablo and I didn’t. We decided to head to Kharkorin because it was only eight hours away and seemed to have an interesting monastery nearby.

We found the bus-station and were looking around for the bus when we saw a wrinkled hand extended from within a minivan and heard a booming voice, “If you’re going to Kharkorin, hop in. We are ready to go…”

The voice belonged to, we learnt later, a Zen Master nun. Her name was Lily-Marie; she was from Switzerland and she was 71. My goodness, she was quite a character. I never imagined in my entire life that I would meet a true-blue Zen Master.

She had with her, and I quote, ‘my lama’. The monk’s name was Demberil and he seemed the sort of sweet, patient, humble guy forever serving the needs of others.

Throughout the ride, Lily-Marie would tell the monk, Pablo and I anecdotes and Buddhism stories with really profound meanings. Pablo was more interested in religion than I was. I shall not pretend that I was intellectual enough to understand the deep, profound meanings of some of her stories. But, I must say she was very wise and funky as well. What a spontaneous lady! She made wisecracks, ate ice-cream and even snapped her fingers to the dance music playing in the minivan. Wonderful character!

We accepted her invitation to meet her tomorrow at Erdene Zuu Monastery and ‘her lama’ would give us a tour. What a treat!

Kharkorin used to be the capital of Mongolia at one point in their glorious history. Now, not a trace of the majesty remained. It now had a ghost-town feel. Every other shop or cafe seemed to be shut. The buildings looked neglected. Strong gusts of wind would blow sand everywhere suddenly. Dogs roamed the streets at every corner.

KHARKORIN, MONGOLIA – 14 July, 2002

We met up at Erdene Zuu Monastery as agreed and had the privilege of learning more about Buddhism from Lily-Marie. One concept that rang deep in my memory was: “One should not fret and regret about the past… One should not fret and worry about forcing the future… One should live for the HERE and NOW. By the time one became aware of the Present, it had already become the Past.” Or something like that. See what I mean? I am still trying to understand this.

There were many tourists visiting the monastery as well. One came up to Demberil and said, “Hi. I’ve always wanted to take a photo with a monk. Do you mind taking one with me?” Was this a zoo? I wished Demberil had said, “Why, thank you. What a coincidence. I’ve always wanted to take a photo with a stupid tourist. So, where should we stand?”

We hurried to one of the temples for the chanting ceremony.

Sadly, throughout the ceremony, tourists who had paid extra for the privilege of photographing the interior of the temples, also assumed they had paid for the privilege of disturbing the ceremony with their flash-pops and snappy-snaps.

That evening, I encountered my first ever mini sandstorm. We could see it brewing and blowing towards the town. I stood in the middle of nowhere, mesmerised. Then, suddenly, we were engulfed and totally blinded by the sand. Everybody was scurrying to hide behind barriers and buildings. Dogs were howling. It was amazing…

KHARKORIN to ULAAN BAATOR, MONGOLIA – 15 July, 2002
Zen Master Lily-Marie wanted to leave Kharkorin at 8am today and had invited us to join her this morning to get a vehicle back to Ulaan Baator.

8am? Kidding me… We slept til way after 9am. Then, at 10am, sauntered our way to the front of the market and found many minivans waiting to leave for Ulaan Baator. In fact, one was lacking two passengers. Perfect.

And to our surprise, Lily-Marie was in the van! She was in her most cranky mood. Well, she HAD wanted to leave at 8am and now it was after 10am. Apparently, the van had a flat just now and the door crashed down earlier too. She insisted we would not make it back to Ulaan Baator alive.

Just before we left, the van spun around for another half an hour, loading more canisters of horse-milk and more passengers. Lily-Marie got really mad and kept scolding Demberil about how they should have gone with the other van and not this. In fact, throughout the ride later, she couldn’t stop blaming Demberil for this and that.

Pablo and I giggled away. She was a Zen Master. But she was also human. In fact, she was like a diva. We finally reached the Ulaan Baator toll-booth in the evening. She applauded at once, utterly relieved. Then, we had a flat! That was it! She stormed out of the van with Demberil and marched out to the road to flag down random vehicles.

We returned to Nassan’s Guesthouse without further incident. To our surprise, negative-energy couple was still reading and smoking in the room.

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