I awoke at seven o'clock and got dressed right away. We were in Mongolia at last, and I wanted to see as much as I could of the vistas whose stark, uncompromising beauty I had read so much about. Skipping breakfast entirely, I stationed myself by the open window in front of our cabin and gazed out in wonder for the next seven hours until we pulled into Ulaanbaatar.
The first sight to greet me was the Gobi Desert. There was none of the sand dunes or oases that exist in the popular imagination of the West; the area we traversed was pure scrubland. In fact, the Gobi is but three percent sand, the remainder comprising of rock-hard dirt that barely allows for the growth of sparse grass and fist-sized clumps of weeds; only camels and marmots thrive in this harsh environment. The land offered nothing to the eye but a flat, green-brown expanse of waterless steppe, uninterrupted by the slightest asperity or change of colour. The only point of interest were the clouds overhead, which, set against the backdrop of a pristine sapphire sky, seemed drawn in thick black pencil lines; the delineation was almost cartoonish in its boldness and clarity.
It wasn't until mid-morning that the horizon slowly began to move, taking into its bosom the gently rolling forms of nascent hills. The grass grew thicker and greener; the weeds gave way to small bushes. Here and there, one noticed watering holes shallow reservoirs, one metre deep, carved out of the earth by herdsmen for their cattle and horses. The majority of the holes were dry; and even those with water were more often host to cranes and swallows than to cows or horses, thanks to the devastation of last year's dzud (lack of forage due to a late spring). I saw, at a few dozen kilometres' interval, two pits filled with the sun-bleached bones of various animals, mass graves for the victims who starved to death while waiting for the snow to melt.
We pulled into two small towns before our final destination, Sainshand and Choir. In each, there were people, mostly women, children, and elderly men in traditional dress, who stood on the concrete platform selling various snacks, fruit and beverages - a recent phenomenon evidently copied from the Chinese. Bottles of airag, the slightly alcoholic drink made from fermented mare s milk, were lifted up to buyers in the train by a simple and ingenious device made from a piece of concave plastic attached to the end of a pole. The airag is placed into the plastic - usually the top half of a big bottle of liquid detergent (I think) -, and the pole brought up within reach of the passenger, who pays by depositing money into the same container.
As we continued northward, ger camps were spotted in the distance with more frequency, as were, for the first time, herds of sheep and goats. Blue mountains rose in the distance, and we could see among the closer ones that irrigation ditches leading to watering holes had been unevenly dug into their flanks to funnel run-off during the brief rainy season that is to begin shortly. The clouds hung so low that they scraped mountain peaks, leaving great big gaping wounds through which sunlight poured as streams of white cumulous matter bled down into the valleys. Hawks hovering above were surveying their domain, on the lookout for prey.
Every now and again, we saw herdsmen riding alongside their animals, coaxing, gathering, driving. A growing number of gers were replaced by wooden cabins with pens for livestock, signs of settlement indicating that we were drawing near Ulaanbaatar. Suddenly, the train was chugging through a small mountain range, and we slithered our way round the foot of one mountain, then another, and another, for an hour, until the capital came into view.
As we crossed the suburban ger districts, Sun-duk could hardly believe that this was the centre of a nation as large, as old and as historically glorious as Mongolia. Her first glimpse of a developing country proved a shock to her, which the sight of the more Europeanised downtown area failed to dispel. She had expected a level of development similar to China's, I believe - modern, glittering cities surrounded by rustic villages. Mongolia, though, has probably just ended its transition period from communist dictatorship to democratic capitalism, so the worst is behind it, it would seem. It's difficult, however, to draw parallels with countries with similar recent histories (especially the Baltic states, each of which has a comparable population), because Mongolia is landlocked, far from all major industrial nations (with the exception of Japan), and still primarily nomadic. And yet, its past bespeaks a pride, a passion, a resourcefulness, and a singular power of will that leave little doubt that, despite the obvious handicap of having so much land and so few people, this country will progress at a pace far beyond that expected by Westerners.
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar at 1:30 and got off, our good Chinese friends helping us with our luggage. Seeing no one with a sign bearing my name, we relieved ourselves of our heavy bags and bid farewell to our friends. I set out by myself to find Bumangerel or an assistant, but after ten minutes of fruitless searching, I returned to Sun-duk. At that moment, a Western woman, of average height and short, dark hair, accosted me and asked whether I was Daniel. Relieved, I answered in the affirmative, and was told that traffic had slowed my companions' arrival to the station.
As it turned out, the entire teaching contingent was present to greet us, as well as Bumangerel, Onol's director and vice-director, and several other men (drivers, yes, but fellow teachers from our host schools? Employees at MFOS?). I was introduced to John Silver, our teacher trainer; Elizabeth Tewari, the dark-haired woman with whom I corresponded briefly in June; Kelly Beery, a tall, blond girl who had arrived at the airport just a few hours earlier, and our youngest member; Bumangerel, an equally tall Mongolian woman, and, I should have mentioned earlier, the director of MFOS; Khanda, another tall, and young, woman, Onol's vice-director; and the Onol director, a kindly, middle-aged woman who speaks Russian, but no English.
We stuffed our bags into one car and one minivan, and set off presently for our apartment. Sun-duk and I were worried about where we would live, as the picture Bumangerel had sent us showed a rather plain, small one-room apartment with a single bed. However, she told us in the car that upon finding out I would come to Mongolia as a married couple, she went out and found a suitable home conveniently located halfway between the institute and the Soros office downtown. Though still somewhat apprehensive, we bit our lip and reserved judgment until we saw the flat for ourselves.
After years of living in tiny, noisy, semi-furnished Korean mouse holes, one word will best describe our new apartment: palatial! Three large rooms - a living room, kitchen and bedroom - each the same size as our previous living quarters, with plenty of storage space and the following creature comforts: wall-to-wall carpeting, a king-sized bed with linen, a couch and two easy chairs, a coffee table, a huge china cabinet, a large fridge, an oven, all the cooking ware one could possibly desire, a bathtub, pretty curtains, several smaller cabinets, a large entrance/hallway, a telephone, and, the piece de resistance, a large-screen TV with cable (channels in Mongolian, Russian, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Korean and Chinese). And did I mention all utilities are paid for? (Yes, the telephone, too, since no one can make private long-distance calls in Mongolia, though we can receive them. A person has to go to the post office if he wants to call abroad - just like in the old Soviet days.)
It was then made known to us that we did salivate extensively and attain a state of nirvana hitherto experienced only by Siddhartha Gautoma himself upon become One with the Universe. The next few minutes remain a misty blanket of amnesia, until the moment we found ourselves standing before a Korean buffet at the Seoul Restaurant. (If ever the West tires of the practice of using smelling salts for the resuscitation of fainted damsels and poorly trained boxers, surely the red pepper powder liberally sprinkled on all Chosun food will make a substitute of the highest quality.)
Gathered round two picnic tables, we spent the following two hours becoming acquainted with one another. I will wait a few days before describing my colleagues in greater detail, as introductions, modestie oblige, but touch briefly on that which has made us peculiarly us. Facts and experiences, qualities and virtues, will come out gradually over the days and weeks ahead, to be, with the permission of those involved, related to my faithful readers.
After a copious meal of kalbi and assorted Korean dishes (half of them Westernised), Sun-duk and I were brought back to our apartment, where we gorged on French, Australian and music television before turning in early. On tomorrow's agenda: a slight strategy session, then an overnight trip to a ger camp in the national park north-east of Ulaanbaatar.
One of my host school's managers, Jige (Jee-gye), came to pick us up at 9:30 to take us to the Soros office for a ten o'clock powwow. Jige only speaks Mongolian and Russian. He's a middle-aged, bespectacled man who graduated with a degree in engineering in Irkutsk back in the seventies. This was my first opportunity to speak Russian on a real, conversational level since 1994 (when I was teaching the language, actually), and it felt good, despite a few mistakes which, fortunately, I had the presence of mind to correct as soon as I'd made them. My background in Slavic Studies will come in right handy at Onol, since most of the teachers there speak Russian, but very little English. I look forward to brushing up on my Russian, improving my so-so Korean, and learning enough Mongolian to communicate on an intermediate level.
(My goal has always been to master at least five languages, but the hard way; for with very little time and effort, I could have made an even half-dozen out of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Ukrainian. However, anyone who knows me at all is also aware that I have spent my entire life taking the road less travelled - if my readers will deign forgive the cliché. That, and the fact that translators and linguists today make better livings not by being general practitioners, so to speak, but by narrowing their fields of expertise into very special, even esoteric niches.)
In any event, the meeting with Buman, John, Elizabeth and Kelly was cut short for reasons of travel fatigue. (Sun-duk has been made a junior partner, and will attend all our functions, since her degree in English-language education makes her, as I remarked out loud, more qualified than I!) Sun-duk and I were introduced to the staff and given a tour of the offices, which are located downtown on the third floor of a very nice building. We were quite surprised at the breadth and professionalism of the organisation: there are over 60 full- and part-time employees devoted to all aspects of EFL and teacher training. This might sound churlish, but any enterprise under the aegis of a man as savvy and successful as George Soros can not help but make Korean university administrations look amateurish, bumbling, brutish, petty and vindictive by comparison. It's already been such a pleasure working with these people, and only reinforces my opinion, shared by the great majority of Westerners, that Korean business practices, and particularly the Korean education system, have a long way to go before they're considered world-class. (Or as one CNN wag recently put it, "When will the country upgrade to Version 2.0?")
At around noon, we all went to a nearby bank to open up savings accounts, but I'd forgotten my passport, which I've been keeping in my money belt for the last month, at home, so we simply exchanged into Mongolian tugriks the US$120 I had received earlier in the day as part of my monthly salary.
While the others had lunch, Sun-duk and I were driven back to our apartment to collect the money-belt I had forgotten (Buman was especially worried that it might get stolen), as well as a few fruity vittles - the plums and grapes we bought in Zamyn-Uud. Our driver was Batbold, a jocose and impressively polyglot individual: he speaks Russian, Czech, Slovak and English in addition to his mother tongue. When he told me about his six years in Bratislava, and his friendship - not acquaintance! - with the Stastny Brothers, I just went insane! I was such a great big fan of Les Nordiques de Quebec, and they played such a significant role in the lives of all French-Canadian sports fans, that I grilled poor Bat for twenty minutes. He actually played shinny with them on a regular basis, and described them exactly as they'd been in Canada: classy, intelligent, caring, and above all, extremely talented. Maybe because of the 'Slavicity' of our topic of conversation, we spoke only in Russian. Later, Bat would speak only English to me.
Back downtown, at roughly three o clock, it was all aboard the mini-van (Buman, her 12-year-old daughter Enkhe, Khanda, Batbold, and us foreigners) for an hour-long trip to Terelj, a popular camping destination 80 kilometres northeast of Ulaanbaatar. Terelj is located in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, an area that covers parts of three aimags (provinces) and stretches all the way to the Russian border. For Sun-duk and me, it was déja vu, but for the others, who had come in by plane, the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. The nature here is unique, and beautiful in the roughest, most unspoiled way.
Along the way, we stopped at a real ger camp and watched the women milk the horses. Then we entered the family ger clockwise and sat down on the three beds standing by the walls. (The left one is for male guests, the right one for the women, and one in the middle for the hosts.) We were given glasses of homemade airag (fermented mare's milk, and the Mongolians' beverage of choice), followed by a pinch of snuff, and two more equine dairy products: a rich, creamy butter that we spread on slices of baguette-like bread and gobbled up, lips a-smacking, and a delicious, slightly chunky yoghurt with a flavour all its own. Elizabeth bought a jar of the latter, and we a bagful of the former, before we set off for our own camp.
We stopped twice more to take part in traditional Mongolian customs. On one hillside stood an ovoo, a large heap of stones crowned with a sort of flag or pennant. There are thousands of ovoos all over the steppes; they're graves, and some of them predate Chinggis Khaan's era of conquest. We were told to gather a small handful of pebbles and scatter them across the grave while walking around it two or three times. It's a show of respect, and a form of ancestor worship that is supposed to bring good luck to those who perform it.
A little further on, we ran into a herd of goats and horses lazing about a large rock formation with a cave deep inside its upper reaches. While some remarked upon the coolness of the place, I couldn't help but notice a mouse that kept poking its head out of a hole not far away. It was the size of a small rat, with very distinct colouring: its back was all grey, while its belly showed lily white. For some reason, this rodent captivated me more than the ponies, foals and kids did.
Buman's daughter, Enkhe (I think that's how her name is spelled), proved to be excellent company - as outgoing and inquisitive as her mother, and fluent in both English and Russian. She brought along a Russian textbook for young women that appears to have been written a hundred years ago, so stereotypical - and dare I say it, sexist - was its content. (Chapters headings included "Taking Care of Your Family", "How to Cook", "How to Clean", and so on.) I assume, given her mother's accomplishments, that the book was chosen more for its linguistic component than for the outdated ideas promoted within.
Finally, we reached our camp, eleven gers set atop concrete blocks and arranged in pyramidal form with the restaurant/lodge forming the Masonic eye in the middle. The interior of each was richly decorated and elaborately painted. Colours abounded on the bedsteads and cabinets; the wooden ribs had been varnished, carved and sculpted into intricate designs and animals; thick carpets, similar to Turkish rugs, covered the floor; and a wood stove held centre stage, its smoke pipe shooting straight up and out the ger's pointed top. A cozy place to spend the night, in spite of the daddy longlegs we caught snoozing in our beds.
When rain and thunder dashed our plans to explore our surroundings (only Elizabeth was undeterred, and returned, an hour later, a tad wet), it was decided that we would watch the Mongolian mega-hit movie, Chinggis Khaan, have dinner, and go to bed.
The restaurant was an incredibly big ger, with about fifteen walls all lined with wolf pelts and bear skins - real ones! Literally dozens of them, and on the ceiling, too. An impressive, even slightly frightening, sight. (A little later, John and I inspected two strange, square-shaped contraptions on the edge of the camp. Upon closer inspection, the objects were actually frames of wood with goat hides being stretched and cured.)
We only got through half the movie (it was mostly talk and intrigue, extras and battle scenes proving too expensive for an all-Mongolian production), and waited almost three hours for our food, but a good time was had by all, and we didn't turn in until well past midnight. A good bonding session, and the meal wasn't bad, either (I had a traditional meal of mutton dumplings and pirozhkis, served with potatoes). Best of all, we got to take our pictures with Batbold's distant cousin, who played Chinggis Khaan in the movie we had just watched!
The day promised to be rainy and gloomy, and it was. Morning brought with it covered skies and a constant drizzle, while the temperature hovered around zero. And yet, it will remain one of the most memorable days of our lives.
Breakfast turned out to be just as slow in coming as last night's supper, so the lot of us gathered in a ger and munched on chocolate and cookies. By ten, we received the announcement that the bread and eggs were ready for our hearty consumption, and greedily consumed they indeed were.
Buman then told us that for a reasonable price, we could go horseback riding for an hour with a champion rider in the Mongolian countryside. John, Elizabeth and I immediately jumped on the chance to taste the life of a northern nomad, and within twenty minutes, three fine horses were brought us. Elizabeth, the shortest of our brave trio, hopped onto the tallest, most noble-looking steed. John was astride a black-and-white horse, sitting (quite painfully, in the end) on a wooden saddle. And I, at 194 centimetres, found myself on the smallest, oldest horse in the stable! Knees knifed upwards and arms akimbo, I trotted away with my three companions, full of optimism... and just a wee bit of apprehension.
About twenty minutes later, John expressed a desire to ride through some mountain paths - maybe the combination of wooden saddle and hooves slapping asphalt was just too hard on his derriere. With our guide's approval, we climbed up a particularly steep and slippery hill, and enjoyed the view afforded us at this height.
At times, whenever the terrain flattened out for a sufficient distance, we galloped, using an extension of our leather reins to slap our horses' haunches and crying out, "Tchu! Tchu!" to prompt them to greater speeds. It was a lot of fun, but hard on the stomach, what with all the bouncing. Neither John nor I could stand up in the stirrups to alleviate and partially absorb the shocks; the horses' small size relative to our weight, and the strain that we might put on their backs, prohibited our straightening up. My horse, in particular, seemed apt to slip or trip at the most inopportune moments, and on at least two occasions, I almost fell off. He also tended to choose the paths with the most shrubbery and overhanging branches, leaving me gamely batting away rain-drenched greenery before it could slap me smack in the face. Perhaps the horse did it out of spite - after all, I do weigh 90 kilos, and the animal may have sensed some reluctance and inexperience on my part.
Well, one hour soon became two, so that by the time we sauntered back to camp (we d gotten the hang of it by then), we were ready for lunch. Sun-duk and I ordered more pirozhkis and dumplings, made a doggy bag of them, and stuffed them into my rucksack. I then climbed up a hill and onto some very tall boulders, and took a few pictures, not only of the gorgeous scenery, but also of a ger camp (a real one) just next door, with a score of horses grazing peacefully under the watchful eyes of three dogs. I drank in the pure clean air and let the beauty of my surroundings possess me for several minutes. Then I went back down, got our gear, and hopped into the minivan. Our trip was over, but this was unquestionably one of the most eventful 24 hours of our lives. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine we would experience the most common elements of Mongolian nomadic life within a day of our arrival! Yes, life is good...
Our first day of rest in several months
We slept a solid twelve hours, then set about unpacking our bags and making ourselves a home. Sun-duk did most of the cleaning, secure in the knowledge that I would thereafter reprise my role as Mr. Mom, while I played interior decorator. I had chided Sun-duk for buying so many souvenirs in China, but they served well today, filling up quite a few holes in this high-ceilinged, well-furnished apartment. It's actually rather nice, in a tacky, late-60s sort of way, what with its outmoded furniture, predominant earth tones, and Honeymooners-era kitchen, all reminiscent of my own childhood home.
The evening saw us take our first trip to a Mongolian supermarket. The one near our apartment complex is a two-storey building; the ground floor has approximately twenty food kiosks selling fruits, vegetables, meat, bread, canned goods, etc., while the first floor specialises in household items, clothes, medicine, books, and the like. Since I hadn't yet mastered Mongolian numbers, or their declension, I had to use a combination of English of Russian to get myself understood.
We didn't buy very much: some bread, potatoes, water, rice... the bare essentials. We'll get some meat and cheese next time.
The beginning of Orientation Week.
We spend the day in the company of Christopher Finch, the director of MFOS. Like everyone else we've met so far, Christopher is a man of intelligence, integrity and kindness. He's recently married (to a Mongolian woman), not much older than us teachers, and has an impressive background that includes a stint with the UNDP's Environmental branch. He's been here for six years, and so has witnessed the immense changes which have transformed Mongolia from a Communist 'backwater' to a nation embracing democracy, free enterprise and the forces of globalisation.
Our meeting today consisted chiefly of self-introductions, a briefing on the goals of George Soros' Open Society initiative, and our missions here at MFOS. Later, we let down our hair and had some real Italian pizza at a restaurant called Marco Polo's. Sun-duk and I ended up with the lion's share of the leftovers, but they won't be gathering mold in the refrigerator, believe me!
Sun-duk and I, with the help of Mandla, an intern at MFOS, visited Yonsei University Friendship Hospital in the hope of finding a Korean doctor who might help us determine our possible state of parenthood. However, we went there during the lunch break (12 to 1:30), and so returned to the office for our meeting with Christopher. We did get a hospital card for our troubles, though!
At three o clock, we met Paul from VSO, an Englishman who's been here for two years and who briefed us on the travails of quotidian life in Ulaanbaatar. Much of what he said corroborated with what we already knew from Lonely Planet, Ian and Tanya, and many other sources, so the talk was both useful and reassuring.
Khanda picked us up at around three and brought us for the first time to Onol. There, I again met Mrs. Byambajav, my director, and three other teachers with whom I will work this academic year. A very enlightening session, the implications of which will become clearer as time progresses. Basically, they need help on all fronts, especially in regards to spoken English - although I will also have a lot of input in other courses related to English and translation. My most important duty, though, and the real reason for George Soros creating the SPELT (Soros Professional English Language Teachers) Program, is to give methodology seminars to as many Mongolian teachers as I can. The Mongolian education system, like that of many other Asian countries, is teacher-centred. The communicative method, which the West has used most effectively in the field of foreign-language teaching, is not well-known in the Far East. We hope to not only help teachers increase their knowledge of and proficiency in English - a necessity if Mongolia is to modernise as rapidly and as painlessly as possible -, but also produce native teacher trainers who will eventually be able to take over for us. If we can create competent, self-sustaining pre- and in-service teacher-training programmes, then we will have done something truly worthwhile.
Orientation week continued with a two-hour lesson on Mongolian political and social issues. We were supposed to have another class on history and culture, but it was cancelled.
For lunch, we had perhaps our finest meal in over a year at Le Marquis French restaurant. I savoured a perfectly prepared slice of glazed ham in pineapple sauce and a glass of dry white wine; dessert was an almond-and-pineapple crepe lovingly coated in honey (all at Soros expense, of course. :-). Everyone was very pleased with the food, the service and the location, right next to a German beer garden!
At three o'clock, we had our first Mongolian language lesson, which I found interesting (The Mongolian Cyrillic script is not as phonetic as, say, Russian or Spanish, but is roughly comparable to Korea s hangul), but left Sun-duk discouraged. (It's probably just a combination of culture shock and hormones.)
She cheered up at the Anatolia Turkish restaurant, where we dined with Khanda, Jige and Director Byambajav's assistant. (The director herself had invited us the day before, but she couldn't make it tonight.) The Mongolians all had donairs, while Sun-duk ordered Turkish salad, and I a regulation shish-kebab. It was good, if not excellent, but as I said to John later - and he wholeheartedly agreed, having spent four years in Azerbaijan -, mediocre Turkish food is still better than most national cuisines!
We had to hurry up this morning: the hospital opened at nine, but we had an important meeting at ten. As we arrived at Yonsei, I asked, in Russian, whether we could see the hospital vice-president, or at least a Korean doctor. She understood me, I'm sure, but she directed us to a room which, it was apparent to my eyes, was presided over by a Mongolian doctor. Fortunately, Sun-duk spied a young, berobed Korean man and dashed toward him. He immediately gave us a pregnancy test kit, and five minutes later, confirmed our suspicions.
Doctor Kim then directed us to the obstetrics unit and performed an ultra-sound on Sun-duk's belly. There, in black-and-white, was her uterus, with a three-centimetre-long grey spot that looked more like a peanut than a foetus. The doctor estimated the baby's age at roughly six-to-eight weeks, and predicted a birth date of April 10.
Sun-duk asked him whether he knew of any Korean women giving birth in Mongolia, and he replied no - Korea being so close, and its medical system much more advanced. He said there were several Korean paediatricians in Ulaanbaatar, but no obstetrician. The thing is, these people have money, and we don't. Anyway, Mongolian women give birth here every day, and the infant mortality rate is not much higher than Korea's.
Before we left the hospital, the doctor informed us that the Korean community was meeting at Ulaanbaatar College this Saturday afternoon at three, and offered to take us there in his car. We're to meet him in front of the hospital at 2:45. Sun-duk is very happy at the prospect of meeting some compatriots and perhaps making some invaluable contacts.
The rest of the morning and afternoon was spent touring the various EFL organisations in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia. We visited the offices of ESPI, VSO, ELI, and one or two others. Interestingly, right next to the Peace Corps headquarters, I found the Canadian consulate, where I was finally able to register my whereabouts in case of an emergency. I also received the consul's and his assistant's business cards, which will no doubt prove useful in the future. (For the sake of interest, the French, Czech and EU embassies were also nearby.)
For lunch, we had some delicious Mexican food. It may surprise readers to learn that Ulaanbaatar has a greater variety of foreign-cuisine restaurants than Seoul and better-tasting, as well -, but it's a fact, a happy fact. We ordered burritos, enchiladas, nachos, tacos, fajitas... Tasted just like at home, but slightly pricier.
Dessert was a little more upsetting. I bought ice cream from a sidewalk vender, and almost immediately lost my Russian vanilla treat to homeless children of five or so. They were dressed in rags, unwashed, and starving. After a few seconds - surprise, I handed them the ice cream and wished them more food and better luck in the near future.
Sun-duk was growing wearier with each step. The weather was hot - around 25 degrees -, and we walked all around town rather than take taxis or crowded buses. We stopped often to let her rest; we even stopped at a supermarket filled with a great many Korean goods, the sight of which overwhelmed her and gave her added strength. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to us, the day was far from over
In the evening, all six of us went to the National Theatre to see traditional Mongolian dance, music and song. The dancing was much livelier than the Korean variety, and slightly akin to Cossack dance. It's very energetic, and both women and men participate. They had a couple of steps and arm movements which I'd never seen before, and which were very peculiar in their execution. It looked as though they'd broken their ankles and wrists, and were letting their feet and hands flap about. And yet, strangely compelling, as were the other performers
There was a twelve-piece orchestra that played wonderful music very like classical Western music, but played on traditional Mongolian instruments. They usually accompanied an opera singer who sang ancient Mongolian ballads.
Another extraordinary act was the throat singer. Some of you may have seen reports or documentaries on this art form, which is practiced in Siberia, as well. The singer, through careful control of diaphragm, throat, vocal cords and tongue, is able to produce two, three, and sometimes even four notes simultaneously, thereby emitting the strangest sound ever to be heard leaving a human mouth. John was especially impressed!
Sun-duk's favourite was the contortionists. Two eight- or nine-year-old girls twist their bodies into incredible shapes, all the while balancing a rice bowl on their heads without ever letting it drop. They were standing on their hands most of the time, bending their legs way over and past their heads, picking up the bowls, passing them to each other, turning them 'round... The smaller of the two did similar handstands and acrobatics on her partner's stomach. At one point, they even did a mouthstand!! We'll try to find pictures of these acrobats on the internet; I know personally that many of them have been hired by Montreal's Le Cirque du Soleil, so maybe their website has some pictures I can lift!
By now, it was seven-thirty, and Sun-duk was almost too tired to walk. We turned a corner and saw the number 26 painted on the rear fender of a bus, so we hopped on it right away and got ourselves a choice seat. Then we noticed the bus was taking a different route; in fact, it was crossing the Tuul River and heading straight into the southern ger districts! I couldn't find anyone who spoke English or Russian, and the one young man who dared speak to me confirmed that I was on bus 26 (I said the numbers very clearly in Mongolian, but I guess he still misunderstood). By now, it was dark, and we didn't know whether we should get off or not. The man did manage to get one word out in Russian: Nazad! ("Back!"). That reassured me, and Sun-duk and I stayed put and waited for the bus to turn around and return downtown.
When we got off at our point of departure, I asked several people in Russian where we ought to take the Number 26 for Bayangol, and could not get a definite answer. Finally, we took the bus at the same stop where we normally get off when we come in from Bayangol, and discovered that this bus also turns around and retraces its route. Within fifteen minutes - during which I had a very pleasant discussion with a young programmer who'd studied for six years in Moscow -, we were home. It was 9:30!
Sun-duk stayed at home all day and did the laundry. She was completely exhausted from the last couple of months, and considering yesterday's news, it's best that she take it easy for a while.
A funny thing happened on the way to school, however, and which bears recounting. The bus this morning was as crowded as usual, and, as usual, I carried my rucksack in front of me to discourage pickpockets. I hadn't figured on anyone being brave enough to stick their hands in my front pocket, where I keep my wallet; my jeans are fairly tight, and the slightest trespasser is doomed to discovery before he can get the first joint of his sticky digits past my groin. And yet, there was this little man of about fifty, with numbers and letters tattooed on his left forearm (the marks of a convict?), whose fingers I felt and whom I caught on several occasions quickly bringing his arm up to his ear whenever I turned around. Although I might have gotten angry and confronted him, I turned the whole thing into a game, similar to Charlie and Sydney Chaplin's hilarious bit in 1918's A Dog s Life. In this scene, Syd, the proprietor of a small roadside restaurant, knows Charlie the Tramp is stuffing his mouth with a batch of fresh biscuits sitting on the counter while his back is turned (the pile is growing smaller and smaller, and there are no other customers), but doesn't shoo him away or call for a policeman, as he no doubt should - he just wants to catch him pilfering the biscuits. I felt the same way about this poor man, obviously down on his luck and getting by as best he can in these hard times. We played cat-and-mouse for ten minutes until I arrived at my bus stop, then bid him goodbye!
At Soros, we had another strategy session wherein we discussed extra-curricular activities, which include seminars, English clubs, editing, and online newsletters and sites (the MFOS has no homepage, and with my recent experience, I've been tagged to consider the feasibility of creating something for cyberspace). Buman also gave us a look at the contracts we ll be signing with our host schools, as well as a list of Mongolian customs, and other do's and don't's, which I've transcribed on another page on this site for the greater edification of all our faithful friends and family.
At three o'clock, we had another Mongolian language lesson, this time focusing on hostelry and shopping, particularly of the culinary variety. Everyone had fun again, especially with the numbers! (Numbers are always tough when one is learning a new tongue.)
Halfway home, our bus driver slammed the brakes without warning, sending everyone, even those sitting, flying a good six feet forward. He was probably trying to avoid an accident, but in doing so, he flooded the motor. This bus being no Lazarus (five minutes of futile attempts at resuscitation confirmed this), we all had to get off and wait for the next 26.