Mongolian Weekly News no. 4

Date: December 12-13, 1999

Sunday night, 1 am:
Dear Friends,
Welcome back to another gruelling round of MWN. This time, though, the @#$% computer has stabbed me in the back and malfunctioned, so after a lot of lost time, whatever nerves and good spirits left will be squeezed out into a more shorthand-type mail. So:

The title of the mails is being contested; of two local English-language newspapers in UB, one is also similarly titled. Feel like an unaware plagiarist. Maybe better to rename it the Mongolian Weekly Cybernews. Or the Mongolian Weekly Cyber.
Thanks to people who write, show interest and give reason to write this, which I sometimes doubt why I’m doing and whether it’s boring people, but still at the end the argument that it’s worthwhile wins. Also good way to receive news from others, thanks for sharing them, too. Thanks to Nondas for his gorgeous Ramadan e-card, by the way.

The evolving nature of these news. The initial intention of entertaining some friends with some humorous and interesting aspects of my personal daily life seems to be turning in the direction, with suggestions from some, of a more comprehensive account of the culture, politics, economic and social life of Mongolia. Both tempting and demanding. Will try to keep the pleasant moderation between these, as have actually, sub-consciously been trying to…

Bryn’s questions. Do you get involved in politics- if you are asking about me, I have no obligation, I am only my father’s daughter (he certainly does need to follow it). But indirectly, as a matter of circumstances, because you are a family, you live together (at least sometimes). Because you live together, you are subject to some common effects of the same environment, like the discussions at home, the outlook of local people toward your country and nation, and some threats as well. That connects us to another of Bryn’s questions, the one on taking a bodyguard. My father is the principal person who has to be with the bodyguard, who also comes with my mother and me to some places we go without my father, but not necessarily all of them. This past week, I personally went to a site only with the driver, and to the post office by myself (the postage prices are the same for all destinations- I guess since the days of Chinggis Khan’s pony express riders, they’ve neglected to sophisticate their postal system! Or maybe all post goes to the same destination, i.e. Moscow, before being distributed worldwide, as my mother theorized). I would guess that it also depends on their availability, i.e. a simultaneous program of my father’s, or the bodyguards’ resting/leave times. Back to the first question now- every traveller represents their own country inevitably, but when you’re a diplomat’s kid it’s a bit more, and in some strange way, you are pulled into your parents’ job. The wives- not really the husbands, I can’t make a confident comment because I’ve seen so few instances of female diplomats with their spouses accompanying them without their own jobs- are automatically in the game anyway, hosting dinners and parties, attending receptions, being generally gracious, a miniature version of first ladies. In fact, I heard that Scandinavian women, in zealous pursuit of human rights, pleaded bills to Parliament for diplomat wives to have salaries as well. I don’t know if they got results. Anyway, as to the kids, I remember in Berlin, when a Turkish NGO there had elections for president, and I helped some friends in their campaign. The other side running, who was incumbent, called my father to complain and report my doings and wanting me to stop helping sabotage their campaign. So we see that impartiality demands some sacrifice from normal friendly behaviour.

About the staff- it’s not huge, but feels like it to me. I’d prefer to toast my own bread any time rather than live through the formal ritual of every single meal. So I made an excuse out of a weight-loss attempt for not coming down to lunch some days. In large official meals, cooks (we have one) and serving maids (two Turkish and 1-2 occasional Mongolian) are quite essential, of course, and depending on your luck on having ‘your type’ of personality appointed to your post, you can socialize more, or less, with them. We also have a maid for the upper floor (a Mongolian woman who speaks to us with half English and half Turkish sentences, a funny challenge), a handyman (the fixer of the paintings if you recall), two drivers and three bodyguards, taking turns. The Mongolians (one of each) are nice guys, very helpful in extremely ‘localised’ situations needing translation, and the Turkish ones who are here with their families are quite nice, too, and we chat at a simple level. They are after all a part of the Turkish community here. My mother and I helped the cook’s daughter with her lessons a little. Solidarity going on organically. As to the more professional staff, this varies with the amount of work in each country, and here it is at the modest level of about 5-10 people. We have a lovely Mongolian secretary, who is the hidden hand behind the order of our universe- she knows every single thing on the programme of every one. Amazing woman. Aligirmaa is her name. We keep taking her poor husband Ganbold hostage (this must be a sub-conscious diplomatic metaphor…) who is unfortunate enough to have been exposed as a computer engineer, to come and fix the computer/ IT problems occasionally (or rather, incessantly!). At night, when the staff has gone home either to their own quarters in the residence compound, or to their separate UB addresses, or withdrawn to security positions, the house (the office part of which is attached to the residence part) suddenly becomes a big, dark castle, and we try to go downstairs to the
kitchen as little as possible to avoid the mysterious, echoing corridors (brrrr!).

As to access to local libraries and the like, I heard that there is one bookshop run by foreigners in UB, where you can get books in the main international languages. In the state department store (a central shopping place) and the art shops I mentioned earlier, you can get occasional English books, but don’t count on it. The Museum of National History had very nice books on cultural heritage and on Mongolia’s special natural heritage- one of the top reasons to come here- fabulous wilderness. Comprehensive books on the country, like the Lonely Planet and others, seem to be purchased before coming here, or through the new wonders of & co.

Monday morning, 11:30 am.
Universities and educational institutions, there are, like the University of Art and Culture of UB, whose students performed a piano concert and a ballet premier that I had the chance to see this week. Because of Russian influence (I understand that Mongolia has been much closer to the Soviets than to the Chinese throughout this century, and the reason it became communist was their closeness to the Bolsheviks who helped them gain independence from China’s Manchu warlords in the 1910s), many young people studied in Russian universities, and Russian is spoken by most people as a second language. That’s why Nondas suggested to try Russian to the museum attendant who didn’t speak English- nooow I see… Our Karakurum guide Batkhu had told us that the literacy rate was 100% before the end of socialism, and now it’s unfortunately going down a bit. One of those side effects of a fast transition into Capitalism…

By the way, as Bryn was telling about her ‘feet itching’ for new travel, I can pass on the names of nature conservation societies here (as a landscape conservation graduate you might be interested) that I read just now in the Lonely Planet:
Green Movement, P.O. Box 38/117, Ulaan Baatar. Tel: +976-1-325 485.
Mongolian Association for the Conservation of Natural and Environment, P.O. Box 1160, Ulaan Baatar. Tel: +976-1-328 002, fax: 321 331. (Helped re-introduce endangered species of wild horses, the Takhi, to Mongolia, raised awareness and established national parks.)
Mongolian Gazelle Society, Institute of General and Experimental Biology, Academy of Sciences, Ulaan Baatar 51. Tel: +976-1-353 347, fax: 364 616.

I hope you can make it here some time, maybe before my parents leave (I leave mid-January). It’s definitely worth seeing.
So, what has been happening and how can it be summed up? Well, my father wanted me to express how he feels about living here in the Embassy- he likened us to ‘The Prisoners of Zenda’- that must be an old film, as he said maybe Bryn would know it and not many of us 20-somethings. When indoor life gets too claustrophobic, he resorts to watching the brightly-coloured painting on the ‘private’ living room wall, of the Orkhun Waterfall cascading down.

We also try to put together our Y2K preparation plan (what are you people doing about that, by the way?), in mutual consultation with the other expatriate communities. There was a USAID meeting which my father attended, and whenever we see any of the foreign acquaintances on a social event, we ask what they are doing about it. The UN staff have already prepared an evacuation plan, and an emergency building with cess-pit toilets (for the ex-Yorkers- remember the one in Jorvik Viking Centre? LOL) and food, fuels and water supplies. Actually, Mongolia is not a heavily computerized country, and whatever computer systems there are seem to have been set up very recently (i.e. newer, Y2K compliant software) by the UN and other international aid and consultancy teams, not many problems are expected, except one VERY SERIOUS one- a matter of life and death- UB’s coal for the central heating station comes from Russia, which is said not to have secured its systems, and the fuel might not be able to be transported to Mongolia. Then we will have ne heating in -20 degree weather. And the water pipes would freeze if no hot water would run through them, and then burst. Yippeee! Thankfully, on Sunday, some friends with whom we had lunch said the central heating station stacked up a few days’ extra coal. So no one seems to be in panic. If you don’t hear from anyone in these parts of the world, you can start praying!

This past week’s outings have included:
A piano recital, by piano students (see above) playing pieces by 20th c. Bulgarian composers, organized by the Bulgarian Embassy and the University of Art and Culture,

A very interesting ballet performace of Bizet’s Carmen at the Centre for Culture, to which we went with Aligirmaa and her husband Ganbold- Aligirmaa filled me in on all the UB society gossip (!), pointing out the old and famous artists who attended the premier, the foreign guests with unusual reputations, and the history of the Centre for Culture building (the Russian wife of a former Party Secretary, notorious for her toughness, had the place built in two months flat, during the 1980s). The performance was very special in one aspect: Bizet’s composition was adapted for strings by a Russian musician in the 1960’s, and then a famous Mongolian composer adapted it for Mongolian traditional instruments, among them the ‘horse-headed fiddle’. This is described as an innovation in the science of music. I can assure you that the resulting sounds, played by a wonderful ensemble of musicians all dressed in red dels and some of them sporting a huge gong-like percussion instrument, were very impressive. As to the dancers, they were quite good for students, and Carmen, not a student, was a real fireball, giving the spirit of the character very well, also with the choreography that had strange, clipped hand and arm movements which I suspected to be of Mongolian origin. One funny thing about the performance, though, was the sudden shouting duel between the lighting technicians on balconies on both sides of the stage, followed by the lowering of the curtain, which did so on time, actually, as the scene had ended- it felt like a dress rehearsal. But it was amusing.

Mrs and Miss Y’s shopping for some warm boots- turned out to buy knee-high, felt-lined boots, the kind many Mongolians sport. The icy pavements were as usual quite slippery, forcing me to do the ‘penguin walk’- looked ridiculous, but my mother left me far behind with her trot-like walk, turned out that she was too cold to move so slowly. So the cold won over the slipping. Thank God she didn’t fall, especially not while crossing the roads, where cars have the same traffic etiquette as Mediterranean countries (i.e. beware!) and can’t always stop even if they want to, because they slip, too. Taxis, by the way, were noticed by my mother to have appeared for the first time on the streets (let’s hope they aren’t like the Chinese ones in their temper!). After a few hours of such walking, and virtually no English-speaking sales clerks and some crowded stores, some frustration builds up. Even French plant-based cosmetics firm Yves Rocher (which, out of the blue, has a store in UB, while no Benetton, GAP, Levi’s or McDonald’s are in sight) had no one speaking English- maybe not even French- at their counter, which drove me nuts, to the anger of my mother, who said not to expect too much. Actually, an expat can enjoy some international company at a few foreigner-owned food places: like Millie’s, a Cuban-owned café which I shall tell you about shortly, Churchill’s, the place organizing a Millennium Ball, and Sacher’s, a German bakery where my mother buys delicious German bread are frequent meeting places, as well as other restaurants such as the Japanese, Korean, and a North Indian called Hazara with DEEElicious Indian food- learned to love it in England, thank you for that.

A Latin night on Saturday at Millie’s Café: The Latin expats organized this food-and-dance event, which was a much-needed HEAT-generating affair! One was surprised to see Mongolians there who spoke perfect Spanish (being married to Cubans and Peruvians) and an old eccentric Spanish man who was an expert at throat-singing and invited us to his performance the coming week!..  When the dancing started, one was amazed at how those Latin men dance- my God! So graceful and so fast, you couldn’t keep up. If you were lucky and unlucky enough to be pulled by the hand to dance with one of them, you both became dizzy with the speed and the whole energy of the thing, and got embarrassed in failing to execute those tricky twists and turns of their Rumbas and Swings! It was really good to experience something like that where you least expected it. One guesses that the Cubans’ presence in UB is linked to both countries’ communist ties, but I couldn’t interpret all the other Latin Americans- anyway- bless them for being there!

A visit to Gandan Temple, the largest and most important Buddhist temple in Mongolia. Gandan and a few other temples were left by the Socialist regime as showcases, but many hundreds of others exist no more in the city. The principal building of the complex was one reconstructed (re-opened in 1997) after Socialist Mongolians had demolished the original building to donate its copper to the Soviet army for weapon construction. The building houses a 25-meter tall Buddha statue, and 1,000 other miniature ones cased in glass cupboards going all the way up to the ceiling around the three walls of the hall. Buddhists come and pay their respects to the Big Buddha by kneeling and praying and then circle clockwise around the hall to leave money or just pray to the Little Buddhas. They also turn some cylindrical devices by pushing them clockwise around their axis. This symbolizes the eternal cycle of life in Buddhism. One must always do these, and also walk around sacred giant bells, in a clockwise direction, and always either 3, 6 or 9 times. The multiples of the sacred number 3. I also did these with our driver Altan-ochir, who is a Buddhist like 80% of Mongolians, and I hope it was alright to do them although I am not a Buddhist. The idea of reincarnation is a pleasant one, I don’t know what you think about this…

In another building, we entered just after the end of a monks’ meeting, where linear rows of seats with matching little tables on which to place holy scripts were lined up slightly out of line, indicating people had just been there. A few monks were still praying, chanting in strange sounds, which I would guess to have some kinship to throat-singing and clapping rhythmically. There were burnt candles and food items and money offered in front of some further Buddha statues. After a couple of monks looked at me scrutinizingly, I realized one had to take their hat off, and asked Altan why he hadn’t told me. He seems to think tourists can do what they want. Same attitude as Batkhu. I’d rather conform to local customs which are effortless, than to offend locals… Anyway, the whole ambience was great, and the small boys in training running around with their purple-orange robes were a very uplifting sight.

A Sunday lunch with an Italian lady heading UNICEF and a French lady (my sister’s summer internship boss) and a Japanese gentleman from UNDP, at the UNICEF lady’s home, which was in a block of flats leased out by the Presidency to foreign officials, and located in the Presidential residential grounds- a huge park where horses run wild and cattle disturb the garbage boxes in their naughty quest for snacks. The poor Italian lady suffers from too cold a house, opposite of ours, and I realize we’re actually very lucky.

This week, the Institute of Nomadic Civilizations is holding an international symposium here. We have some guests from Turkey, among them Prof. İsenbike Togan and another professor who will most likely be elected the new term leader for the Institute. A dinner is being given in their honour tonight, to which I got included. According to another one of those protocol procedures, the seating places me in the middle of the long side of the table, as the ‘fourth important female’- i.e. the least important person there- poor me!! This seating arrangement is supposed to be a regular question asked to examinees for embassy personnel. I’ll also try to sit in on a couple of the symposium sessions, it might be very interesting. If all the protocol can be coped with…

Anyway, that’s all folks, have a nice week, keep your news coming, which keep us sane over here. Yours, Ege

P.S. I just heard from my father that one of the professors who arrived today had her luggage opened and valuable stolen at the Moscow airport. Terrible. That’s why it is advised not to take the UB-Moscow-Istanbul flights in transit, but to take two separate flights and stay the night over in town, so as not to give the airport mafia time alone with your belongings.