Discoveries from Living in Ulaanbaatar

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official – I am a foreign citizen residing in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, at least for the next three months.  I was a wee-bit late of the 7-day grace period foreigners have to register with the Mongolian Intelligence Agency, but luckily I arrived on a weekend, so if you only count business days, which most government organizations do, I was only a day late.  But as my new Mongolian friend that just arrived about a month ago from Dallas, Texas, Billy, would say, “It’s Asia, if you have the money, everything will work out just fine.”  This statement is more true than not, and in most countries, although he said this remark in relation to a car accident he had where he gave the other guy 1500 tugriks, shook hands, and drove away.

I also registered with the U.S. Embassy so I expect Uncle Ben to save me if typhoid fever breaks out in Mongolia.  In addition, I got a cell phone!  Like any urbanized area, people live by their cellphones as a means to tell time, contact others, or goof off when there’s time to kill.  Ulaanbaatar is no different in this respect.  I was 16 again and so excited to get my first cellphone.  My Mongolian cellular resembles a lot like my first mobile device – slightly on the chunky side and a little cumbersome to say the least, but it works!  I have been diligently collecting people’s number in hopes of getting a phone soon so of course my first task was putting in everyone I had received numbers from in the past week into my new cell – I suddenly feel less bored with the potential new company and activities I can do now.

Some things I’ve noticed about Ulaanbaatar, water and electricity are finicky like a Kate Perry’s song.  You’re not always guaranteed hot water, or any water or electricity.  Apparently in the summer they like to do massive reconstruction work and city-wide shutdowns of electricity and water are as regular as a bad habit.  I’m assuming this only happens in the summer, especially if the outside temperatures drop 20 to 30 degrees below Celsius on a regular basis during the winter.  There is also no dryers, or at least there are very few households that would have dryers outside the top-tiered politicians in the capital.  I must say its a new experience to dry my dirty (but really clean, now) laundry for all the world to see.  This may explain the Mongolian’s curious habit.  Westerners usually have polite conversation until you feel more comfortable with one another before asking one’s more intimate details – how old are you? Do you have a boyfriend?  What type of clothes do you normally wear? What do your parents’ do?  Do you smoke?  How many siblings do you have?  (and the inquisitive questions continue) .  I’m beginning to get used to the no-buffer zone of meeting new people in Mongolia, but it was disconcerting at first when confronted with so many personal questions when I couldn’t even pronounce their names.

Most pubs, bars, and nightclubs close at midnight in Mongolia, because people here would agree with my grandparents that nothing good ever happens past one o’clock a.m.  This is very odd for a twenty-something American woman who’s used to arriving at the night scene around 11/12 p.m.  But on second thought, since probably don’t want to be out late on the streets, the early closing times here are to my advantage.  Although I haven’t taken advantage of any pubs, bars, or nightclubs, I do hope to experience this with some newly made friends at some point in the future, so it’s a good thing to note in advance.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that all Mongolians smoke, from the young to the old.  You can find little cigarette-selling booths in the most random locations throughout the city because of the smoking prevalence here – on street corners, in parking lots, next to buildings or in stand-alone huts, they’re everywhere.  The smoke just adds another layer of soot to the dusty city.  The more I look around me, the more I realize that someone had the hare-brain notion to build a city in the middle of a dessert and actually went about doing it.  Ulaanbaatar covers a large area, much greater than I had originally estimated, and like many other cities around the world, some areas are “more equal” than other areas.

I was on an assignment for Voice of Mongolia to cover John Waldman, a professor of biology at Queens College, New York, who was presenting a projectproposal at the American Center for Mongolian Studies, when I stumbled upon my first major Mongolian adventure.  I finished my interviews and left the ACMS without the foggiest idea how to get back to my home base here in Ulaanbaatar.  An MNB driver had taken me to ACMS, but he only worked until 6 p.m. and I left the lecture at 6:30 p.m.  I was fortunate to have been stranded at the National Mongolian University area where most of the people were students who know both English and Mongolian.  So like any charming, young, twenty-something American woman, I grabbed the attention of the closest male and had him hail me a taxi (which if you remember, aren’t really taxis).  This was the best idea I’ve ever had.  Why?  The taxi man, although a middle-aged, well-dressed individual, is a student studying Japanese at another learning institute nearby.  He was keen to work on his English, and I was excited to make a new friend so we hit if off immediately!  He even helped me find a jacket!  The prices in Ulaanbaatar are ridiculously high, especially so for a tourist on a tight budget, so he took my to a bazaar a.k.a. black market.  I’ve never been to anything like it before, and sadly, I did not have my camera with me on this evening.  I’ll have to return another time with my camera because the bazaar was a unique experience.  Imagine stalls squished together in a large parking lot, filled to the brim of every type of merchandise from food to clothes to nicknacks.  Although as a tourist, don’t go by yourself because the prices will be too high and pickpocketing can very easily happen in the tight corridors between the maze of stalls of merchandise.  I was fortunate to have a native Mongolian who could bargain the prices for me and protect my purse.  I’ll definitely want to go back, if nothing else, just to see it again (but like any girl, I’ve already made a mental list of other items I’d like to buy . . .)

National Opera House

The kind taxi man also introduced me to his friend, who I will call Billy.  Billy has traveled for 8/10 years throughout the U.S.A., but as the eldest son in his tall family (the shortest person being 5’9″) he returned to Ulaanbaatar about a month before my arrival to take care of his elderly parents.  He flew in from Dallas, Texas and spoke excellent English.  Needless to say I definitely exchanged numbers with Billy, if nothing else, I’ll learn some basketball tips from him, an avid player from youth.

On a side note, did you know that many videos streamed online are only available in the U.S.?  I was not aware of this until I tried watching Hulu and my other usual websites over the weekend.  This is very distressing news considering watching Mongolian TV is pointless for a non-Mongolian.  Stay tune for my weekend adventures later this week, because like any good journalist I have to leave you with a cliffhanger.

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