Flat and hard as stone
Notes from Mongolia
August 30, 2004
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
airports, one is in the first and the other in the third world
Although I can't claim that I can tell Koreans from
Mongolians by just their facial features, there were other discerning
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,
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
the "just enough" attitude in their furniture that calms
you and sooths your eyes! In Ulaan Baatar the simplicity had
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
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
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
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!
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
I lock the door behind him and set out to find
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
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
I ate everything to the end except the meat. It
tasted bland and weird (like I was biting on some thing's flesh!
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
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
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
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!
We loaded into two mini-buses after
getting a crash course on cultural do's and don'ts to avoid offending
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!
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!
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,
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...