Well, I’m here in Ulan Bator, at the end of the world, in Mongolia. Getting here was a trial—due to really bad weather in Chicago, nothing was going in or out all Thursday morning which backed things up all over the country. Even when I finally got to Chicago, the plane sat on the tarmac for an hour as the airlines had pulled their ground crews because of lightening.
O’Hare was a madhouse; my flight to Beijing finally left eight hours late—after another delay for a medical emergency. They had to take the sick passenger and BAGS off the plane while we waited! Of course I missed my connection in Beijing for Ulan Bator which meant lots of visa red tape and staying overnight in a hotel in Beijing. So I left on Thursday morning and finally arrived Saturday noon.
An interesting anecdote at the Minneapolis airport—while waiting in line to be rebooked to Chicago, a young businessman was ahead of me in line. Ahead of him was a man also with a connecting flight to Beijing, with whom I exchanged small talk—this man lived in Beijing, and directed an international school there, etc. After quite an exchange, in front of the businessman, the Beijing man left; the businessman turned to me and said, “Where’s Beijing?” to which I replied, “China.” He said “Ohhhhhh.”
Ulan Bator is a really odd place—I’ve never visited a city like this before. Many, many people still live in the city in gers (like yurts—round felt coverings over a skeleton of sticks) which are cheek by jowl with old Russian-built crumbling high rise apartments.
As the plane flew in, I could see small groups of two to seven white gers dotting the vast green steppes surrounding the city. Basically, that’s what one comes for—to see and experience the nomadic life in a vast open space with beautiful mountainous scenery.
I’m staying at a nice Guesthouse/hostel. My first night I was hospitably invited for a beer by a young Australian doctor—that’s the fun of staying in hostels. The not-fun was that I tripped and fell in the dark, rainy setting—and reinjured my hip that had just gotten OK. It really cracks one’s confidence to be falling down—am I getting too old? I hope not. So I’m taking aspirin and it’s getting better.
Four people played folk musical instruments, plus there were dancers and even a contortionist! Their costumes and the music/dancing were splendid in a beautiful setting on a vestibule of a temple.
One day I did part of a walking tour of UB, visiting several Buddhist prayer temples. The Russians had destroyed many of the monasteries in 1937 and dispersed the monks, but many have been rebuilt and reorganized. The Soviet Union controlled Mongolia until 1990—now it is independent. Interestingly, this morning I had a lively political discussion with the man who owns the hostel in which I’m staying. His view is that the Russians were right in their policy about the Buddhist monks, as he said that by 1937 huge numbers of Mongolian males were monks in the monasteries, and they were dependent on the few remaining males for sustenance. He feels that under Russian socialism, they made progress. Now he thinks that the country is totally exploited by foreign interests, especially China.
I notice that a good portion of the cars here have the steering wheel on the right, although they drive on the right side of the road. The traffic is pretty bad here in UB—what else is new?
Last evening I had arranged to take some ‘friends of friends’ to dinner. They have also invited me to stay with them which I will do later. Melanie and Paul Wilson are from Cass Lake, MN (!) and have lived in such places as Papua New Guinea, Albania (where they met) and now have lived here for six years. They have two daughters, four and eight years old. Paul is a nurse and works for the Peace Corps as their medical officer for the program here, which has something over 100 volunteers, many of which teach English. Before dinner at a Thai restaurant, we looked in on an art gallery, organized as a cooperative by lots of artists here. The paintings were marvelous. I was surprised when Melanie said that Mongolia has an extremely rich artistic culture—-the paintings certainly reflected that and were fun to see.
Today I must do such chores as looking up the Immigration office to extend my visa—since I’ll be here for more than 30 days this is necessary. Then on Thursday I have arranged to go on a jeep excursion to an area west of here, to see the ruins of the old Kublai Khan capital, Karakorum, as well as a famous monastery. We shall also attend a local Naadam, which consists of archery, riding, and wrestling competitive games. We will be sleeping two nights in gers.
The weather has been cool and rainy, requiring a jacket, but the rain only happens in spurts so hasn’t interfered with sightseeing.
This morning a new hosteler turned out to be from Juarez, Mexico, and had attended the conference in which Cookie and Ulises spoke about torture. Small world.
I hope all of you are happy and healthy—I’ll keep you posted as to Mongolian happenings!