Saturday night, Fourth of July, and we were on our way to mid-town, UlaanBaatar (pronounced by the locals “Lam Baa Tur.” We had hailed a taxi to head down town. Our evening, along with thousands of UlaanBattar residents, to attend one of the big events of the summer, advertised as: BEST OF CLASSICS.
Licensed taxi’s here are plentiful but you can get a better deal if you take a local’s car if the driver has room and will ask for less money. Petro here is double what it is in the US, so you don’t want to ride around in an empty car.
Since the concert was advertised beginning at 8:00 pm, we planned on a small 4th celebration by having dinner at a small inexpensive café near SuhBaatar Square, a massive concrete quadrangle, much like Central Park in New York City, but nary a tree here, only pigeons. I’ve been on the watch for other birds of any denomination other but pigeons, like an avian mafia, seem to own this city. Since birds need trees to build nests and to hide in, and from which to poop on people in and since trees in the city are as scarce as pork chops at a Jewish funeral, most of our feathered friends must live out the rural part of this country, that is, the other 99.5% of the land.
The main drag in UlaanBaatar is called PEACE AVENUE. And on a Saturday night, it was bumper to bumper. Vehicularly speaking, there is no middle ground here: old Ford Falcons and Chevy Novas bumping fenders with Land Rovers, Lexuses, Mercedes, and SUV’s from everywhere but the US. As the people from the concert would corroborate, there is no middle ground in this urban population. You either got money or you drink vodka, sleep in a doorway, and hang out with other guys like you on the streets. I often wonder: where are all the homeless women? I see countless groups of boys, especially late at night, but I never a woman of any age.
SuhBaatar Square is the center of the official governmental offices of this country. Also the two most valuable buildings to the Mongolian people are conspicuously present right next to Government House, The very PINK Opera House and next to it, the National Theater. Tonight we were heading to the huge 100 acre slab that is SuhBaatar Square where the National Symphony will put on a concert and the National Ballet Ensemble and the Opera Troupe will entertain the thousands packing the Square.
The Square is enjoyed by thousands of resident each day. It is a place where all new brides and grooms visit after getting married so the bride can place a bouquet of fresh flowers at the base of the giant statue of Chinggis Khaan, at the entrance of the Mongolian capital building.
South of the Square is a huge building that dominates the sky-line. Oyun was not sure what the building was. She said it might be the new Women's Hospital they build down here somewhere. Oyun is not a downtown girl, so this could be just an office building. Who knows? Whatever it is, the edifice has, since its inception, been the subject of much tongue-wagging, not just from an architectural perspective.
I do know that after Mongolian Independence in 1992 the new democracy encouraged development of many sorts and this building is viewed for most Mongolians, as a false start. No, their scorn is not about aesthetics. The building has been a 20 year old reminder of a huge scandal. Seems that the wife of the first President of this new democracy, a woman who personally supervised the building of this landmark in downtown UB. skimmed off a sizeable chunk of change for herself and the hubby.
So this giant edifice is a daily reminder to all Mongolians, a lesson we Americans have become accustomed to long ago, that the skills used to get elected are almost diametrically opposed to those needed who deserve to hold elected office.
So BIG BLUE, south of SQ is an everypresent warning that democracy is no deterrent to corruption. Mongolians learned this lesson we at home know all too well. To paraphrase Simon Johnson in The Atlantic: We in the United States may think we have the world’s most advanced economy, technology, and military, but we also have its most advanced oligarchy.
SUMMER IN UB
On a warm morning, May 28th, I Skyped Oyun to let her know about my flight plans from Omaha, to Chicago, to Bejiing, and into UB. She was huddled in a blanket and a parka and scarf. It was snowing and very cold. End of May and our pool at the apartment complex opened that Sunday and it was 90 out.
Summer in UlaanBaatar is very short. Snow in May is quite common and toward the end of August residents get out their Long Johns and have them handy for September. Spring is celebrated on May 3. Then on May 4th, summer begins. Same with Fall. August 27th, all the trees in UB drop their leaves, everyone drinks lots of horse milk vodka, and next morning--it's winter.
So when summer comes to UlaanBaatar, it is embraced with the passion of long lost lovers. It is celebrated as we would our birthday, a wedding, or Christmas all in one.
The concert on SuhBaatar Square was attended by thousands. Advertised as a free open-air concert, somehow that meant that only a few thousand privileged guests (with tickets) could sit inside the fences in white plastic chairs and the rest of us riff-raff were outside the pale and got sore feet.
Oyun and I and a couple of thousand urbanites and some country folks stood for two hours waiting for the white chairs to fill up with VIP butts and the symphony to get the show on the road. Originally scheduled to begin at 8:00 pm, the concert didn’t get rolling until 9:30.
Oyun told me that every night of summer is enjoyed like a big ice cream cone melting fast: "We try to enjoy every day of summer: Each precious moment is experienced to its fullest."
This was the time to see and be seen by everyone. Although UlaanBaatar has its share of poverty and homelessness, Saturday night, July 4th, was the advent of Mongolian urban chic. Kicky and Chi-Chi sashayed the concrete for a few hours, young women lolling in small clusters dressed in their finest, many clasping their iPhone, the accouterments de a la mode.
I kept my eye on the one young woman who seemed to be looking for someone in particular. She would move from one group of young people and then another. Finally two young men approached obliquely and she lit up and scurried toward the duo; and the guys stood around looking disinterested and the attractive young woman was persistent and even tried to hold one guy's hand, but he looked off into the crowd as if the young woman were invisible.
Mr. "I'm-so-cool-I-don't want-to-look-interested" so I'll just fold my arms and clean my glasses while this person next to me fawns over me and my buddy. Oyun reports that Mongolian men been messed up by what she calls the Chinggis Khaan complex. Homage to their national hero has crippled whole generations of good guys whose main goal is to look stoic, tres macho, and totally unwilling to express their feelings, especially to a woman.
The Square was a hubbub of activity. Parents strolled with their little ones in strollers, girls in their summer dresses, everyone seemed as if they had pressing business, people to meet, important destinations.
Modern Mongolian women are very different from their mothers, what Oyun calls her generation, "Socialist Women (like "Voman") Oyun considers herself more traditional but her daughter Urantull and her husband Khuslee (Hoose Le--with short e) are creative graphic designers, Khuslee having his own studio where he creates commercials and focuses on his main interest, creating games for Android and iPhones. Both husband and wife are very creative and very successful in a very strained economy. Since Urantull is very modern and a strong advocate for women's rights, she and her mother don't always see eye to eye. Its not philosophy that is at the center of the tension between them; it is a tension I understand very well in my own relationship with my own children. Oyun is very outspoken at her workplace and often gets really pissed with some of the Good Old Boys who are the administrators at her school; so she is no Blushing Betty. Oyun has her ideas and Urantull assumes that her mother is not of the same millennium as she. They share the same opinions but their language is different. They express themselves in different ways. Oyun, babysitting one day, wrapped her grandson, Tushik, in the old fashioned swaddling blanket; Urantull, laughing at her mother's traditional ways, scolded her and told her mother to just lay the boy in his crib and lay the blanket over her son.
Modern Mongolian women are all about style. Dress shops and cosmetics are found many of the stores we visit. Mothers teach their daughters about style and how to look good.
The huge Square was slowly filling up: men, woman, children moving every which way. Not only were the young and middle-aged sporting summer finery, but the older crowd made their statements too:
Many older women wore more traditional costumes, like the Deill or dressed in clothing that celebrated the brilliant colors that characterize their heritage. Grandmas donned their best and hoofed it down to the Square to hear all the great classics: Marches, waltzes, arias, everything but John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Nada.
Ok, Skip this Part if You Just Want to Look at Pictures
Yes, the concert in the Square was on July 4th. When living in another country--I've lived in China on two different occasions, Japan for a few weeks, and now a full summer in Mongolia--I have realized that America or Americans are not all that important in a place like this. At times I think we are like those imprisoned children we read about, locked in their room or a basement and after many years they are discovered and they have no comprehension of the world outside the box or basement or room they have lived their lives in. I feel small here in UlanBaatar, unimportant. I'm learning how to see through lenses not made in the USA. Oh, we are told, what you hear "over there" is just propaganda. What about our own "journalists" and new outlets. When's the last time you listened to a journalist? Learned about an important event in the
city that didn't take more than 30-45 seconds. Last night we watched a news program that focused on the 1937 invasion of China by the Japanese. They interviewed solders on both sides, most were doddering old guys and they told their stories about that time in their lives. Then they interviewed "officials" on both sides and since both countries are trading partners, the Chinese would like for the current government in Japan to apologize for this event years ago. The show was on the Chinese news channel and was done with great professionalism and was something that I could relate to. Great journalism, got the Japanese side and we got the Chinese position. In the Bejiing studio they had two reporters one Chinese and the other from Tokyo and they hashed out the issue. Prime time, prime TV. Maybe some of our pretty studs and glamor queens (news readers) from US TV should visit some international TV companies and see how news can be both informative as well as entertaining. Ok, I forgot, our news is the truth and theirs is pasturized. That's what the nuns told us about the Immaculate Conception, too.
Ok, It's Safe to Read on:
Being a photographer I have always been fascinated by the photographic act: when and why we take pictures of ourselves and how do we use them. Often the photograph is of less importance than the personal act of trying to preserve a moment in time, 1/250th of a second of time that means so much to us. Of our children. A birthday. A holiday. Graduation. A marriage.
I'm forever taking photographs of my children and grandchildren. Why do we do this? Not a simple question. Time is precious, especially summer time to Oyun and her Mongolian neighbors. The act of photographing is an instinct to preserve time, I think, to memorialize special moments in our lives and to "stop" life for a fraction of a second from spinning away from us. And, like those ancient beings who lived in caves long before we had Pop Tarts or Howie Mandell, they felt a need to draw their world, to impregnate those walls with symbols that told their story, froze for a eons, life in their time, kept fresh moments that was the world to them.
Two girlfriends wish to remember this summer: the heat of the sun, the color, and the music, the evening when they came together to enjoy a lovely summer in the city. Maybe they will look at this image when it's 20 below and snow is piling up and they will be warmed by the memory of this time in their lives.
Of course I also pay homage to photographers who carry a camera and struggle to find moments, keepsakes, when we stop the world for a moment from moving on.
She must have floundered some to make her photographs since she had only one hand free; the other, supporting a crutch, helping her hobble along on her injured foot.
Good Country People
Urbanites here in UB see country people as marked in terms of their weathered skin, most being herders and feeders of cattle, horses, camels, sheep, and goats. Yet farm folks, here as well as in the US, have risen over the years both socially as well and economically. So today, although they may have rosy cheeks and darker skin, the rural population represents a much stronger and more sophisticated population today than in the past.
Many farmers have come to the city to find work, as fewer herders are needed to tend the huge herds of market animals. Aided by ATV's as well as dirt bikes, herders are now able to cover more territory with larger herds and fewer hands. So many herder families, leaving a way of life their people have followed for centuries, have headed to the city to find their fortune. So it seems that here, as in the US, rural production has increased but at the expense of lowering the numbers of jobs available. So many see the city as the land of milk and honey, but when farm families get to the city they find huge unemployment for unskilled workers. Not much call for shepherds in the city.
The Girl in Orange
While we were strolling around the enormous quad, waiting for the show to start, a young girl in orange shoes, shorts, handbag, iPhone cover, and bow in her hair stood near me. She looked into my eyes and at my camera. No reaction Never smiled, with the bearing of a manikin in a dress shop.
I was completely flummoxed and asked Oyun about the girl. She said that her style was not all that common but a kind of Mongolian "urban cute." The sort of look that 9th and 10th grade students adopted. I guess I'd use the term "Kewpie Doll." I do like this image a lot. If you look closely, you will spy a trifecta of iPhones.
Before the Mongolian symphony struck up their first selection, a moving piece from The Phantom of the Opera, The Girl in Orange made her last pass and then moved off into the dusk: The only float in her own parade.
Mind if I Touch Your Hand?
(Skip This Stuff if You Don't Want to Learn Nothing--It's Sort of Littary)
I was surprised at the large number of children at this high-falutin cultural event. A girl of 7 or 8 wiggled her way between me and an older guy and put her feet into the bottom rail of our lovely fence which we clung to for support after three long hours. The young girl, with her foot on the bottom support was now taller than I. Now she could see the audience and the giant TV monitors. Her hand was actually flat against my crossed arms and she used me to balance herself so she could get an eyeful of the event.
On the bus, people often use my body as support as we are jostled around as the bus jolts up and down and sideways as the driver tries to avoid pothole in a street, as they say in the movies, that time forgot.
From my experience out on the streets and at public events, people are extremely friendly and curious and open. An old man on the bus the other day showed me his small pocket album of photographs of him when he travelled to Hong Kong a few years ago. He held my hand as he pointed out what he called "the Mormon boys," and how good they were to him on his trip to a convention with Elder Schneider. Highly educated, tolerant, and multi-culturally sophisticated as I am, I experienced a 10 on the Richter Scale of being really, really uncomfortable letting an old man hold my hand. D.H. Lawrence in his poem, "The Snake" describes a scene where the speaker in the poem is sitting alone on a quiet beach and he spies a snake moving toward him. He watches this reptile, sees its multicolored skin, acknowledges its value in the food chain, understands that all life is sacred, but at the last moment he hurls a large piece of flotsam at the "beast" and the snake high-tails it back from whence it came (don't you love words you'd find in a Jane Austin book). After the snake disappeared the narrator chides himself for doing such a rotten thing. It was just instinct. Or was it? Toward the end the narrator confessed, " I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education." Why did I wince when the old man took my hand? Instinct? No, I think not. My culture, my "human education" taught me to pull back, to feel repelled by attempts to touch my person, my space, my Self.
Kids at a Concert?
Kids were still in abundance even after we waited over an hour for the conductor to bring down his baton: "And a-one and a-two. . . " With her phone in hand Mom guided her daughter through the throng. Probably looking for a place to stand other than behind a 6'2" American and rather tall Mongolian teacher.
What could be better on a warm summer evening than to blowing bubbles while your parents chat with others in the crowd.
Next week we are visiting the family farm south of UB, living in a yurt (pronounced gur, like mad dog), maybe try a camel or two, eat horse milk yogurt, and head out into the Steppes and watch goats eat grass. Don't laugh, goats produce the hair that millions of sweater wearers love to buy called Cashmere. A huge commodity in this country.
If I don't fall off the camel or get trampled by a mad goat, I'll send news back to my family and good friends from my life in UB, Mongolia.