An email sent to friends by an Iranian working for a non-governmenta organization (NGO) in Mongolia:
What a difference… between Seoul and Ulaan Baatar that is… not that I saw any of Seoul, but judging from the two airports, one is in the first and the other in the third world alright.
Although I can't claim that I can tell Koreans from Mongolians by just their facial features, there were other discerning signs that would tell you those two countries apart right off the bat. The high tech and shiny cell phones went off as soon as the plane landed in Seoul for example; the Gucci and Guess shops, the acceptance of credit cards, the state of the art Internet cafe, the rotating toilet seats which didn't require struggling with the manual paper handling, the convenience and the smiles on the faces of any one you approached from the immigration girl to the one explaining to you how to use the phone card internationally,…. and of course the vast, new, shining airport itself and the well dressed families walking about it.
The Ulaan Baatar airport was small and simple, … not the simplicity that you see in the Japanese serene surroundings, with the “just enough” attitude in their furniture that calms you and sooths your eyes! In Ulaan Baatar the simplicity had a “basic, small, gloomy” connotation. it had a rather depressing air to it. The place didn't seem to have enough light, but I could swear it didn't have to do with electricity… maybe lack of smiles on the faces of airport staff and the fact that your smile wasn't returned when you offered one?
The airport proceedings were uneventful: a glace at the arrival paper and the passport back to me in less than 30 seconds, no red tape.
My NGO contact was not awaiting me at the airport (she had mixed up the arrival time), so I was on my own to find my way to the hotel…. no big deal when you can find at least ONE person to speak ONE word of English, but…!
It's 12 midnight.
Among other things, these people do not seem to believe in elevators. I drag my heavy suitcase up 2 flights of steps to get to the Exchange Currency window. Nobody talks around here, … they just do their job, assuming what the person approaching their window must be wanting !
The boy who insists on taking me in his cab is sticking around and I know he wants to take me to the hotel, not because he says so or gives me any indication of knowing where the hotel is, but by just following me up and down the stairs!
Another guy who thinks he speaks English says a lot of things to me that I don't understand, while pushing and shoving other people in the Information Desk line to help me get in front of the line. I suppose he is being hospitable, but I can smell the alcohol on his breath and no way I'd do what he is trying to tell me!
I hear a Mongolian lady talking English with a blond curly haired Australian one in the crowd and take the opportunity to have her translate my questions about the hotel, etc. I tell her I don't feel safe to accept ride offers from those men because one doesn't seem to know the hotel and the other has had alcohol.
A nice, well dressed and seemingly career woman approaches me to help and even take me to my hotel. I don't want to impose, but get her help with finding a 'legitimate' cab driver. She explains to him where I want to go, tells me how much I should pay, shows me the bills, gives me her cell phone number and sends me off. Today, I intend to call and thank her for all her help.
The cab driver is great. Not a word throughout the long distance to the hotel, (how could he?!). His radio plays what I assume to be Mongolia modern music. The language sounds like a cross over between Korean and Turkish (from Turkmenistan maybe).
At the hotel the real language barrier becomes apparent. But these people are just as efficient on the basics of their job, going around mutely and taking care of business, such as picking up my suite case from the trunk of the cab, giving me the room key and the TV remote control at the front desk!
Going up the stairs to the 3rd floor (I told you they don't believe in elevators), opening the door, turning the light on, opening the cabinet under the TV set and pointing to the little refrigerator filled with cans of beer and small bottles of vodka and whiskey (plus couple of cokes, a bottle of water, and a large chocolate bar), and leaving the room.
I give the guy a 1000 Tukrig bill. No smile, but I know he was grateful!
I lock the door behind him and set out to find out whether I can call oversees from the room. To no avail. Several girls consult among each other (I assume trying to guess what it is that I am after) and send one girl after the other to the phone who is supposed to talk to me in English, but ends up telling me about the breakfast, and how much it would cost to call Korea vs. China!
I decide to let go and forget about it. At least the girl who came to the door to help me was sweet and constantly smiled.
The hotel room is nice, specially relative to my expectations. it looks brand new with some of the hardwood flooring and the marble-like steps not having ever been stepped on in part. The room is unnecessarily large, not that they will ever be able to put lots of people in it as it has only one bed, which by the way has been designed for those who have been recommended by their chiropractors to sleep on the floor because of their bad backs! Flat and hard as stone.
There is a large leather couch, a small coffee table, an odd size dinning table with no chairs in the room whatsoever. The light switch location is inconvenient, without any apparent logic all the way behind the door, instead of where you can reach immediately once you open the door.
Speaking of illogical features, the bathroom is on the same level as the continuation of the room itself, with a shower which has a drain on the floor and nothing to prevent the water from going right into the room itself. Come to think of it, it is even an inch higher than the room floor with no edge, making it easier for a potential flood! There is however, nicely packaged shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a shower cap, a razor blade, and other items for use.
The remote control doesn't work, but there is no problem finding various English speaking channels on TV.
I sat down at breakfast in their nicely decorated restaurant and was served the most interesting breakfast without being asked what I wanted (no menu in the restaurant), no napkins either and of course I didn't even try to ask for one.
The sweet girl brought me over a bottle of water, opened the cap and poured it in the glass for me. Then a cup of coffee (which I am not sure she brought because she understood the word 'coffee' or would have brought it anyway) with two sugar cube in the saucer, a plate of one loosely cooked sunny side up egg, a scoop of rice (I suppose instead of potatoes), some grilled vegetables (red bell pepper and zucchinis) and two pieces of hot dog cut and cooked to look like flowers on the plate, with both dark and light bread, jam, tea bag, and couple of packaged snacks.
I ate everything to the end except the meat. It tasted bland and weird (like I was biting on some thing's flesh! I particularly liked the rice (interesting to those who know me!) and dutifully saved away the packaged goods for the poor kids that I am about to meet within the next couple of weeks, just as I did with the packaged snacks they served on the plane, and just as I did when tara and Panthea were little!
I gave the girl a 500 tukrig bill and got a big smile and some English “Sorry… Thank you,… Thank you berry much.” She was great. I then set out to do some walking around and finding an internet cafe.
Sunday in Ulaan Baatar turned out to be a full day of sight seeing, thanks to the kindness of an ex-employee in my NGO who graciously spend her day taking us around and giving us a more well-rounded feel for the city. the real bonus of course was the fact that she spoke English.
We visited their Natural History Museum (nothing to write home about!), their downtown with the government offices, and a vista point with a panoramic view of the city. We were told about about the sacred mountains, the Mongolian traditions and a bit of their history, liberation from Chinese rule, resistance against the Japanese…
To return the favor we asked our host to choose the restaurant we would eat at, and ……we ended up eating at a Mexican restaurant owned by an Indian, serving both Mexican and Indian dishes. Nothing too unusual for us Californians until the food was served and I noticed that the Mexican dish was prepared using Mexican food ingredient, but Indian spices and vice versa! a delightful experience nevertheless.
We loaded into two mini-buses after getting a crash course on cultural do's and don'ts to avoid offending our host country people. Topics such as: use of which finger would be equivalent to the middle finger gesture in America, … to refrain from touching head and shoulders of a man, …offering and receiving things from others using both hands with the palms facing up, and that we shouldn't use the words cute and beautiful for kids (superstition: something bad will happen to them.)
Darkhan is Mongolia's 2nd largest city (right after the capital city, with a population of 90,000 (I am thinking my little neighborhood of Santa Clarita, California, has more than 150,000!). As recently as the 1930s, Darkhan was comprised of only 2 years!
I can't with a clear conscience say that we are roughing it here, at least not yet. We have been settled into a hotel and being served 3 meals a day to our liking (more than I can say about being back home). Oh, … I almost forgot, our rooms are on the 4th floor, … and you guessed it,… No elevators in the house!
There is however, no shortage of Karaoke bars, (and bars in general!) and internet cafes (as you can tell by the flow of communication from me!) No public phones, however.
We visited the work site today on the first day for couple of hours and helped the home owners with insulation of the houses, using styrofoam. The serious work is supposed to start tomorrow and we are to report to work, bright and early at 9;30am! (We had been advised to leave our type “A” personality back in the United States and adapt to the pace of progress and work efficiency in non-U.S. countries.)
I will write more as opportunity arises. However I want to leave you with one recommendation: If you are a vegetarian, you might move Mongolia, as a country to visit down your list, until such time you develop a taste for mutton or at least be willing to settle for ox, beef, pork, or chic ken…