Ulaanbaatar

Sometimes in Peace Corps, plans are derailed through no fault of anyone’s. Surprises show up, expectations don’t come true, 180-degree turns happen. To be able to withstand these surprises gracefully, we need a well-developed virtue of patience, along with a skill at yielding, letting go. The Peace Corps application process alone gives us practice in this desirable attribute and plenty of chances to develop the ability to let go. Once we’re in country, we have ample opportunities throughout training. That’s a good thing, too, because guess what? We’re going to need them again after training!

During the final week of training, an intense week, which began with learning which sites we were assigned to and culminated in our swearing in as Peace Corps Volunteers, I was counting down the days until I didn’t have to live out of a suitcase any more. At the end of the week, I was going home. I could unpack, I could set up my house just the way I wanted it. I had a week’s worth of laundry to do. I’d put my books on a shelf, my clothes in a closet/dresser arrangement of some sort. My toiletries could find a designated spot, rather than getting crabby with each other in a net bag. I’d buy the items I needed – cookers, silverware, dishes. And I could stay put for two years. I was so ready! ImageMy training group with language teachers just after receiving our assignments

Just as I was about to head to my room to gather my things and bring them down to the waiting car, I was told that I couldn’t go to my site just yet due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. I was being rerouted to UB for a while. I was told to be patient, and details would be worked out as soon as possible. Okay. I’ve rehearsed what to do when a situation in Peace Corps throws a curve ball. Don’t fight it. Take a deep breath and rearrange my thoughts. Let go of my original plan, and follow the new direction. Take that 180-degree turn gracefully. Not easy. I was even told, as if to comfort me, that there are jobs I can do in UB while I wait. Whoa! Can I organize my brain and my suitcases first? Maybe have a day to rest?ImageSwearing-in day with my travel buddies, Rose and Tom

Just for the record, let me say that, since my arrival here on May 31, I had strongly believed that UB is the ugliest city on the planet, and that I would prefer never to step foot onto its soil again. In my limited experience, it was loud, disorganized, chaotic, and difficult to walk around in without stumbling. And there are pickpockets, we were told.

I settled onto the bus next to a window, and watched the countryside roll by, half feeling that I was unprepared for this, given the disorder of my possessions, and half that I was on an exciting adventure. I decided to simply ride the wave and see what shore I washed up on.Image

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A few days later, I was living in a guest house and working at the American University of Mongolia. I was walking to work over trash and rubble, along pocked sidewalks that come and go, deafened by the cars honking as a routine, rather than occasionally, dodging aggressive drivers when I tried to cross the street to the green walk sign, and stepping in puddles that came up over my shoes. There were mobs of people everywhere walking in every direction except where I would expect them to walk, making sharing a sidewalk, when there was one, a little challenging to negotiate.ImageSome of my new friends at the American University of Mongolia

ImageThe sidewalk simply ended . . .

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A married couple in the M23 group that are “older volunteers” like me, and who live in UB, invited two of us to dinner shortly after our arrival. After two and a half months of mutton and noodles, we were treated to a delicious stir fry and a salad and nicer wine than I have found here yet. And the conversation was lively. We learned a lot about what they appreciate in UB, and we laughed at some situations they described. By the end of the evening, I felt prepared to seek what little gems I could find myself while I stayed here.

I could tell tales of how I stopped at a hotel for an Americano, or how I ate at a Cuban restaurant, a French bakery, and a Srilankan restaurant. Or how I found a sweet little German bakery with the best coffee so far, and that makes stollen at Christmas time. I could even tell you I found liver pate’! While I thoroughly enjoy these things, they are secondary. Just as frequently I have been the recipient of great kindness here, both from Americans and Mongolians.ImageGerman bakery, new in town

ImageDelicious dinner at my favorite Korean restaurant

As an older volunteer, I find dormitory living with twenty-somethings, lovely as they are, challenging. Sleep deprivation is probably my worst enemy at this stage of my life. I can’t simply slam a cup of coffee or two the next morning and be good to go, as I did when I was younger. My country director took an active role in finding me suitable housing, aided by one of our medical officers and the training manager. Then later, my married couple friends, who had been helping me sort things out, went on vacation for a week and offered me their apartment, complete with amenities. When I was feeling overwhelmed at the thought of moving my possessions, Kevin and Heath, both fellow PCVs who have been here a year, helped me get a taxi and did most of the moving themselves. John, an RPCV (returned Peace Corps Volunteer) who served in Thailand and who was staying in the guest house invited me to go to dinner one evening when I was alone. He had been working for the UN studying how meat moves in the markets here in Mongolia. We had lively dinner conversation. My list of the kindness of Americans goes on and on.ImageScruffy raven eking out an existence in UB

During my three months in this country, I have learned that Mongolians aren’t demonstrative in the same way as Americans are. If you visit them in their homes, they are very hospitable. But in daily interactions, you need to ask for what you want. They don’t try to guess your need, the way we do in America. To Americans, this can make Mongolians appear abrupt and uncaring. But I have been treated with great kindness by Mongolians in this city. My Mongolian language skill is very poor. At the shops, I have met some clerks who have patiently listened to me try to communicate, and when I succeed, their smiles are as big as mine. One time, I was struggling trying to open a plastic bag while holding my groceries, and in the midst of an apparently indifferent crowd, a Mongolian woman took the bag from me and opened it, then held it while I filled it with my groceries. This was a very unexpected event. When I looked at her face to thank her, I saw such kindness there! A taxi driver was very patient with me as I directed him along my walking route to where I wanted to go, when he certainly knew an easier way to get there. A teacher at the school where I have been working bought a food item I couldn’t find in the shops and brought it to me. The list of the kindness of Mongolians also goes on and on. With this sort of support during my daily excursions in the city, I felt I had more energy to explore.ImageYou can take people away from herding, but you can’t take the herder out of people.

Since the government has changed away from the socialists, the new direction and agenda of the powers that be, as well as of the people, shows up in various ways around the city. The Russians spelled the city Ulan-Bator. Needless to say this spelling is not in vogue now. The Mongolian spelling is Ulaanbaatar. Speaking about Chinggis Khan (NOT Genghis Khan) is no longer forbidden, and this historical figure has become the central hero and symbol of Mongolia to the majority of the people here. The face of the man who conquered lands into Europe 800 years ago is seen everywhere – on thermoses, wallets, wall hangings, cups, vodka bottles. Little boys are named Temujin, Chinggis’ given name. In 2005, the huge Lenin statue that stood in front of the Ulaanbaatar Hotel was taken down and hauled away, witnessed, but unopposed, by about 300 people. In 2006, a huge statue of a seated Chinggis Khan was put in Sukhbaatar Square. After Naadam this year, the name of the square was changed to Chinggis Khan Square. (We’ll see if that name change sticks.) There is talk that Choybalsan, in eastern Mongolia, may be renamed. Out with the old and in with the new. I wonder if they will ever rename Ulaanbaatar, which means Red Hero, a tribute to Sukhbaatar.ImageUlaanbaatar Hotel, from across Peace Avenue

Image Chinggis Khan statue behind my tour guides in June, Sukhbaatar Square

UB is a young city, and at 1.3 million, it is inhabited by nearly half of the population of the country. Not so long ago, a huge majority Mongolians were herders. This city has only very recently started growing fast, as herders sell off their stock, or lose them to a particularly harsh winter. In an effort to find work, they move their gers to the outskirts of the city, oblivious to the need for sanitation, as it was unnecessary in their former lives.ImageDifficult to see, but a UB ger district is in the distance.

This is a city in the midst of rapid change, without some of the infrastructure in place that would help it move forward more smoothly. There is no city planning, so buildings are thrown up helter-skelter. I find myself wishing we had some Peace Corps Volunteers who were engineers, architects, and urban planners. A common sight all over UB is a crane on top of, or next to, an unfinished scaffolded building. If there is enough money to start building, the work begins. But it stops when the money runs out, leaving the cranes like big dinosaur skeletons on the cityscape as they await further financing. I hear that the closer to the center of the city the site is, the more likely the project will be completed quickly.ImageImage

UB seems to be trying to play a role on the world stage, and to become another international city. From what I have heard, UB has enjoyed cultural resurgence with lots of museums, galleries, theatre performances, and clubs bringing out the best in traditional Mongolian culture, though I haven’t had a chance yet to explore these things. There are so many activites and projects of every imaginable sort going on here. At the same time, the influence of western culture is obvious everywhere I look. American movies, music videos, brand names, and food corporations abound. Businesses from around the globe are setting up shop here. Americans who live here have told me that the city has changed increasingly fast in the past two years. There is a huge influx of businesses catering to expats and foreigners, while expanding the experiences of the Mongolians whose country they have come to. Mongolia is on a threshold. The energy of this city is very high, very noisy, and very yang.ImageExtension cord running across a major sidewalk

Yet in the midst of the noise and bustle, women link arms and walk slowly along the broken sidewalks, enjoying their day off. Little girls in pretty organdy dresses step over puddles and trash in the sunshine, soaking in the last few days of a short season of warmth. Housewives carry plastic bags full of groceries as they negotiate manholes and rubble to get home. Young men walk around in groups, laughing and talking passionately in this language full of consonants.  Friends sit on the steps of apartment buildings talking, enjoying the last of the daylight. This is a city full of human beings busy creating their lives at this unique time in their country’s history. I love witnessing them as I drink my Americano.Image

But I miss the sunsets, the starry skies, the endless vistas, and the birds. I miss walking in lanes through the livestock, looking up through my binoculars. I miss quiet. I miss what I have loved about Mongolia in my first two and a half months in the country. But now I have a bigger picture of Mongolia than than I did before. I’m finding that this is a country full of many kinds of people doing many different things in ways that are uniquely Mongolian, whether it’s in a village or in the city. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn this personally. I am starting to like UB in spite of myself. I’ll be glad when my site is ready for me and I can finally settle in to my house, into my village on the edge of a city. Then when it’s time to come back to UB for In-Service Training in December, I won’t dread it. In fact, I’ll look forward to it. ImageAnkle-deep puddles and road construction near the Wrestling Stadium

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I miss the livestock.

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9 thoughts on “Ulaanbaatar

  1. I hear you, Kathleen! I know that my posts during my period of weathering “circumstances out of anyone’s control” were not nearly as fair and equanimous as yours here. You are a wise soul. Patience, acceptance and hope. It is the mantra we chant, isn’t it? I had no idea
    the amount of Russian influence on Ulaanbaatar – looking at your pictures, the architectural style reminds me so much of Chișinău. And your descriptions of walking through mud and standing water are spot on. It can be somewhat disconcerting to reconcile our images of Peace Corps service with the reality that finds us, especially when confronted with so much of the western influence we thought we’d leave behind. It is heartening to hear that you have the discernment to find the treasures amidst the rubble and chaff. And enjoy the variety of cuisine while you have the chance!

  2. Hi Klath! So glad to see this, and so glad you’re finding jewels among the rubble! I was worried when your assignment was postponed, but I’m so glad you’ve found value in what is there! I think of you every day!

  3. Darling girl! Life still goes on in boring old Eugene, OR., but I’ve enjoyed so much your first few reports. Keep ’em coming. I’m beginning to have more problems with my memory, but I’m going to try to stay here in the house as long as I can. You’ll have to do my traveling for me. Keep ’em coming. And keep up your spirits. Best, Barb

    • Barb, I’ll definitely do your traveling for you! And I’ll post pictures of where we went!! So glad you’re following my blog! Good for you for staying in your house as long as possible – it’s a very comfortable house.

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