Mongolian Weekly News no. 5

Date: December 19, 1999

Dear Friends,
Ha ha! Thought I’d given up, eh?.. Alas, I am back to plug up your inboxes once again! hope all your weeks have been fine and full of good fortune. As it is the time of the year where everybody is wishing each other well as part of the season’s greetings, I hope the general rise of positive energy has been helping in this respect.

Speaking of the holiday season, I would firstly like to extend all my good wishes to everyone, may we all have an unforgettable and auspicious entry into the new ‘Era’ (year, decade, century, Millennium…). Or, as the monthly bulletin of my mother’s IWAM (International Women’s Association of Mongolia- the ones who had the raffle ball) puts it in invitation of the New Year’s tea party, “come and celebrate Christmas, Ramadan, New Year, or whatever you want”. This quite appropriate slogan managed to gather up a big crowd of genteel ladies into our embassy, which was the venue for the event. The British-owned café called Churchill’s, to house the Millennium Ball, is another venue where the international community members will soon bestow their honourable presence. Among them, there are some colourful characters which I either got introduced to at the tea party this past Friday- like the Australian lady Didi, who is running a ger camp for orphaned Mongolian infants; the young woman from the USA who is visiting for a few weeks before she returns, finishes her master degree on public health and then joins her husband at the Peace Corps here in May; those whom I am already getting to know better- like Gloria, the Peruvian lady married to an American gentleman from one of the UN bodies and who loves to dance under any condition (we make a fine pair), defying those who use their old age as an excuse to retire from the habit of dancing; a South Korean lady who complains that although she loves to socialize, her husband doesn’t really approve of this and keeps her from attending some social events; a British lady, Carrie, who is employed by the UN to solve all Y2K problems in UB (so it must be her who devised those cesspits for UN’s emergency shelter!); another young woman, Collette, who has a kid only 19 years younger than herself. You might rightly think that 19 is an OK age to have kids, and 18 a good age to marry, compared to 13-year-old girls being married off until recently in many countries including mine, and in some countries still today; but still, when you see a woman looking like an early-20-something who has a 15-year-old chid, and you associate yourself with her, it may seem striking, as you assume young women today do not as easily or quickly plunge into the nest-making routine as a generation ago. Or maybe I am just going on about nonsensical things. Anyway, this same line of thought occurred again, about two weeks ago, when my mother had a Ramadan tea for the Turkish women who were resident in UB, most of them teaching at the Turkish school in the city (there are a few Turkish-language schools in Mongolia, perhaps as a result of the opening-out policy of Turkey to the newly democratized Turkic-affiliated republics) or married to embassy staff. (To answer a previous question of Nondas, I heard of a figure of about 150 Turks in UB and environs.) All the ladies who came were married, most had small kids, and all looked about my age. It somehow makes me think how some people ‘start out in life’ sooner than others, taking on big responsibilities.

Before moving on, I’d like to reference the Australian child-caring lady to other similar initiatives. Similarly, a Mongolian man heads a Catholic orphanage, and he had brought all the youngsters in single file, an army of miniature-astronauts clad in their multi-layered winter outfits, into the Oz play performance. It was one of those Sights… Also, IWAM has conducted, as this month’s project, a sponsorship and support program of 50 children from the poor town of Nailakh (where the coal-mining industry closed down to the dismay of Nailakh’s economy) to attend kindergarten and have regular meals. (Save the Children has donated some livestock to the project, by the way). As to more personal efforts, an American woman, Eliot, who has been here for years and years, has adopted FOUR Mongolian infants and is now raising them happily with her husband. Steve and Katie (with both of whom I went to Karakurum together in MWC No. 2) has taken a similar step with his wife, and adopted a sweet little baby from here, to take back to the US. The primary reason he came on the Karakurum tour was to see and learn as much about his son’s homeland as possible before leaving, so as to be able to teach him about it later, and help him feel more acquainted when they return to visit some day in the future.

A lot of such charitable deeds are going on here, which goes to show the country is in a difficult transition state and could use a lot of help. All the UN and World Bank staff present here is another indicator. Actually, these organizations are ever-present in most countries, but in UB, the way their headquarters buildings stand out on the main streets, and the way the large majority of expatriates are either diplomatic or UN/WB & co., you can tell aid is a priority issue on the national agenda. I don’t know if I am totally correct in saying this (actually, some of what I say is probably at risk of being incorrect, but hey what to do, how to know), but I saw a copy of a letter in the living room, from the US Embassy to the Ministry of Health, advising them to rethink their newly proposed legislation on birth control and the prevention of abortion to heed human rights issues. A noticeable number of UN/WB-type staff are posted after their term in Mongolia, to countries in Africa, which shows the type of specialization they have.
The true highlight of this week has been the international symposium of the Institute of Nomadic Civilizations, founded only a year ago and holding its second annual general meeting. As I had mentioned at the end of the last MWC, two professors from Turkey also attended, and we kind of ‘looked after’ them throughout their stay here. The first event of the week was a large more-or-less formal dinner Monday night, hosting the two professors, the Mongolian gentleman who is the head of the institute, a colleague of his, the coordinator lady, then a Frenchman, M. Le Grand and a Scots/Frenchwoman, Gale from UNESCO, then a member of our embassy staff, Mr. and Mrs. Ambassador, and the ‘fourth important female person’, remember?!..

The following day, the plenary session began, the official, morning part of which was closed to outsiders, thus myself attending the afternoon session at the Ministry of External Relations- a huuuge, cold-ish room where the delegates, mostly Mongolian plus a Finn, an American, two Turks, a few Chinese and quite a few Russians, presented papers sitting in a circular/ oval layout.
Wednesday came up with a surprise invitation to a session at Tumen Ekh (the centre of the Mongolian National Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance), which I arrived in utmost apathy and sleepy uncooperativeness- due to being sent as an emergency envoy by the Parents who had another program, a farewell cocktail to attend to, but as the so-called cultural performance revealed itself to be a very loosely structured evening of touring around an ethnographic exhibition hall (where I met a nice, cool and attractive young woman- called Inibish?- studying linguistics and knowledgeable enough to be my tour guide, and Turkish friends, GET THIS: she knew about Türkan Şoray, and told me about how she used to try and look like this grand dame of Turkish cinema by imitating her make-up and hairdo when she was younger! How did she know about TŞ? I guess there must have been a lucrative Turkish film trade business in the UB Black Market or something- LOL); mingling with the symposium people in a dinner-cocktail (alright, here is the food: very posh silver cutlery sets and napkins, etc. and food dishes consisting of PURPLE STAINED POTATOES, cold, shredded cabbage and pasta salad, aaaaand, VODKA! Served in small tequila-shot-glass-sized and egg-cup-shaped glasses. Did you know that the best vodka is not made in Russia any more, since the Csar’s times, but in good old Mongolia? And it is advised not to buy the Stolichnaya brand abroad, it is actually the worst export. Instead, Crystal Vodka is recommended. Also, in Russia, there are two types of vodka, the men’s vodka and the ladies’ vodka- not much need to explain that in detail, except that the ladies’ taste like cherries but still has enough brain-blowing power. In Mongolia, it’s straightforwardly unisex. This info was provided courtesy of Mr. Dimitri Vasiliyev, a very interesting character, a Göktürk and partly Tuva expert, who speaks Turkish ‘like water’ and who compiled the latest Orkhun Monuments publication [if you remember, documented by Radloff- actually, Russians have taken care of the ancient Turkic stone monuments in Central Asia, and quite a few of them excluding the big ones we visited are displayed in Russian museums.] I also understand that shamanistic Central Asian cultures had remarkable gender equality.) As to the original purpose of viewing a cultural performance, the traditionally-clad musicians with their traditional instruments like the morin huur, or horse-headed fiddle, only appeared in one corner of the room, five minutes at a time, for about four times, with ten-minute intervals, and you could just forget about hearing their songs from the rear end of the room, above the conversational murmurs. However, having secured a spot close to the front, I had the chance to enjoy them, and M. Le Grand taking their pictures with a magnifique photo apparatus, which it might be an insult to call a ‘camera’. I tried to agree with him to exchange copies of his pictures with those of my mother’s previously taken ones- since my own camera has long been disabled by the extreme cold in Karakurum- camera mechanisms stop working below certain temperatures- be warned. I hope he left his business card and address.

The last highlight of the evening was the honorary talks given by the officials of the institute, and the medals and books given out as presents to the contributing foreign guests. My father, being something like a chairman of the institute, was on the list of the latter, but him not being there, they handed the present to the Ambassador’s ambassador, i.e. little old me. Suddenly I found myself being applauded, and automatically did what one could only do- smile, nod and thank them for whatever must be thanked for (?), and also apologize for my father’s absence. A little shocking but still fun.

Apart from a cocktail at our place the following evening, which I ditched, and a more private dinner on Saturday, the last but not least feature of the symposium to tell would be Prof. İsenbike Togan herself. Her travel companion, the other Turkish professor, was also a very nice and civilized man, but Ms. Togan is a wonderful presence. She is one of the prominent lecturers in METU (university in Ankara, also my alma mater) History Department, specializing in Central Asian and gender history, among a few side specializations. The reason for her Central Asian interest is her father, Zeki Velidi Togan, who was the first scholar to write a collective history of the Turks and so a revered historian in our country, but who was firstly a member of the Russian Duma in 1916, a native of Bashkurdistan (the Bashkurts are an ethnic minority of Turkish origin within the borders of Russia) and a revolutionary attempting (unsuccessfully) to found the independent state of his people. He then fled the Bolsheviks for a time, traveling around Iran and India among other places, then took up residence and a career as historian in Turkey after the founding of the Republic in 1923, and later was imprisoned as a political pawn for a period. İsenbike is a scholar in her own right, but her family background and the touching, awe-inspiring family accounts she told us while staying over the last two days, were really something to listen to with 100% attention. So it is a lucky aspect of this diplomatic situation that one meets fascinating characters like her. She was also a funny lady, likening herself to an astronaut walking on the moon, with her five or six-layer clothing barely enabling her to move the snowy landscape of the ancient sites the delegates visited.

If you’ll excuse me, I will switch now to a more shorthand style:

Tuesday, following plenary sessions, went to a downtown art gallery, some impressive landscape and horse paintings. Mongolian art is on a sharp rise.

Friday, went with mother and İsenbike to a French restaurant, most probably Corsican, Café de France. Your usual suave French owner/ host waiting on you. Quite nice.

The eye got better, hope it doesn’t recur.

Gossip from earlier Carmen ballet, provided by Aligirmaa: an old and famous movie actress was there, her daughter is married to or in-law of the owner of Hotel Ulaan Baatar, the largest in town, and had her portrait painted as an ancient Mongolian princess. That painting is on our dining room wall, waiting to be properly framed.

More gossip, from the kitchen staff at our place: they have spotted the same blonde lady guest, for the four times that she came to our house, to apparently be wearing the same leather red shoes. Beware of dressing the same repetitively and being the topic of jokes of embassy personnel!

Translation of dissertation still going on, at a reasonably productive pace. Champion indoor pastime. Apart from nightly video sessions. Last embassy personnel to return from vacation via Moscow brought us a deeelightful selection of video releases; tonight we watched Disney animation ‘Mulan’. Historical inaccuracies and Americanized interpretation of customs stuck out more, now that we are actually living in the region. Still, super graphics.
Sorry, couldn’t discover any cultural heritage conservation groups here. The state seems to be the supreme overseer of this matter. But the Beijing office of UNESCO is also responsible for here. Remember D. Michelmore, who lectured to us in York? Wonder if HE is involved!

Basic Mongolian for less-than-beginners: Thank you: Bayirlaa. Hello: Sainbainuu (like in French, ‘ai’ pronounced here like a wide ‘e’ or an English flat ‘a’. This is easy for the Turcophones to remember easily, if one thinks of sain-bain-uu as ‘sen-ben-o’, or ‘you-me-it’! Haha!). Shop: Delguur (inevitably learned). Goodbye: Bayirtai. Zorig vs. zugir (Zorig is a recent political martyr, and zugir zugir [as in ‘sugar’] mens you’re welcome after thank you.)

Today, went to out-of-town leisure camp, with many gers, ice rink, basketball court, slides made of natural ice. One large ger was a restaurant, nicely warm and decorated. Nice sunny but cold day. So cold that my father wore two hats on top of each other! Mongolia is one of the countries of the world with the highest rate of sunny days per annum. That’s also why it is called the Land of Blue Skies. Almost zero humidity, thus no clouds. High facial moisturizer consumption!

Time to go. A bit abrupt, but oh well. Take care, yours, Ege