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Mongolian Journal #4

The Summer Place:

The Peace and Tranquility of Country Life


(With a “preface,” you figure what follows is going to be classy, right?)

This summer in Mongolia I’ve experienced many happy times and met wonderful new friends. I don’t want to leave but I must move on, to see what is on the other side of that hill to the south or on the other end of the body of water before me. But at the same time I’ve experienced emotions that I cannot control: anger, anxiety, discomfort, alienation, confusion and fear. The story I’m going to tell in this journal is true, and I reveal a lot about myself that I don’t like. But maybe what’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with all of us. You get us out of our comfort zone and, rather than trying to understand what we experience, explore the differences in people, other cultures, we sometimes end up throwing rocks or making fun of stuff that seems distant from us. Alien.

I’m a smartass by nature. I’m a satirist and always have been. It is part of my genetic makeup, my temperament. And I cannot retailor myself: I'm who I am, no matter how it separates me from others. When you are born this way, you possess a feeling that you know better than others what is acceptable or what is fair and what is foul. Oyun and I took a long weekend trip to an old country resort, sort of like our Palm Springs but set in a place like Beebeetown, Iowa or King City, Nebraska. What promised to be a great get-away ended up being for me, at least, a week on the moon, all expenses paid, all rides and all entertainment on the house.

Leaving the City Behind

As a child Oyun always enjoyed her family’s summer “cottage” in the country. Her father was the trusted secret agent, a bodyguard of high-ranking Mongolian leaders (Oyun was always impressed that her father carried a gun in a shoulder holster like 007) and her mother was an actress, worked in plays (mostly Marxist parables) done on raised portable stages, which were easily dismantled and carted off on trucks to other small towns In the provinces.

So Oyun’s family wasn’t rich but they had a comfortable life. And summers in the country in a cabin in the woods was magic to this young girl.

A few weeks ago Oyun was talking about those days and how happy her life was back then and her summers at the cottage; and I told her stories about my father’s cabin in Minnesota and how much my daughters enjoyed being on the lake, fishing, swimming, playing cards, or just hanging out. It was magic for them too.

Oyun, in passing, told me about the Summer “Rest-Homes” or vacation retreats that the railroad operated in various parts of Mongolia; and we decided to see if we could get out of the city for a few days and enjoy the country. In the 1930’s in the US, the Union Pacific Railroad built a fancy ski resort called Sun Valley to attract passengers on the plush passenger cars the UP designed. Here in Mongolia, the railroad did the same thing and 30-40 years ago created a number of Spas where city folks could relax and be refreshed by the pristine air of the countryside.

So Oyun looked into it and we ended up booking a few days spent at Bayanbuural Station, about 300 miles to the west of the city. Not a town but a rail stop for guests at the Mongolian National Railroad’s Rest-Home and Health Sanitorium.

We had to be at the train station at 9AM so we took a taxi, well not a real taxi. In UB when you need a ride you stand on the street and hold out your arm (either one will do) and either a taxi stops or someone with a car who wants gas money and they will pick you up if you’re going their way. A guy traveling to the west end of UB picked us up and told us to the rather large and impressive but old National Railroad Station.

Note: (By the way, for investors out there, the government wants to sell off 51% of the road and since the railroad is the best way to get goods transported across the nation and for people to get around the country, it maybe’s a smart investment. You know, book tours, take tourists to Mongolia’s many wonders, book football excursions with bar car—Bud on tap. Trust me, Mongols live to party!)

We arrived at the train station in good time and bought our ticket. Much like many public service agencies the world over, the railroad ticket office was run for the convenience of the staff and not the customer. We were in a group of 100 or so people waiting to buy tickets but with only two windows open. The supervisory personnel were many, the harried ticket agents were few--two.

The Mongolian National Railroad’s Holiday Special pulled into the station at exactly 9:30 AM. We were in car #4 and the car attendants (yes plural) opened the door to our car and let down the steps and welcomed us aboard.

The railroad used as its logo two galloping horses, significant in so many ways. This is a culture evolved through the centuries with ‘old paint’ as its best friend. When Oyun divorced her husband (we’ll call him Grendel, the drunk and wife beater), the first item on the agenda for discussion concerning property settlement was his horses. Not parental visitation or money or who got the goats; but his horses. Oyun can now smile, “I think I was No. 5 on his list of priorities, right behind his hand-tooled saddle.”

Think of western Nebraska or Wyoming and how significant the horse is in the culture of these areas. and you will get the idea how the horse is seen here. And they love John Wayne movies here—and very funny when the Duke speaks in Mongolian, the voice of an actor who sounds like Woody Allen (“Listen here, pilgrim, life is tough, but it’s even tougher when you’re stupid.”)

The Trans-Mongolian Express is part of a huge network, connecting both the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Trans-China Rail Lines. The longest connected rail systems in the world. Oyun got us a private compartment built from European designs so for a few hours I was aboard the Bournmouth Express, heading south of London, with my trusty old companion Dr. John Watson making notes for his latest homage to my deductive powers in that frightful scandal in Bohemia.

The attendants aboard the train were quiet helpful and often inquired if we wanted tea or coffee or various fruits and candy for a small price.

In a few hours we arrived at Bayabbuural Station, and out of the cars flowed about a hundred or so guests. Station is what it is called but there is no station building, but a very old gazebo, and from the looks of it, built during the Stalin years--his teenage years.

Before leaving our private compartment and its very comfortable bench seats and pillows and warm blankets, I looked out the window at the grand resort that Oyun had been chatting up for days. Expecting something like the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, what I saw was a bile green multistory building off in the distance, accessed only by climbing about a thousand steps up the side of a hill. In Mongolia, anything of any interest, historical or cultural, nine times out of ten is on the top of a very steep hill. No wonder I’ve lost 20 pounds. Well, other causes, too.

As the hundred or so of us eager vacationers slouched and sloshed our way up the muddy gully (yes, it had started to rain) an equal number of former fun-seekers were taking our places at the gazebo awaiting the arrival of the next train back to UB.

The Rest-Home had a very attractive reception desk inside the front door, nice oak veneer and a cluster of those large round clocks that told us the time in Tokyo, London, Moscow, Rome. Very impressive, just like the hotels in the city, right? . But all hundred of us were herded past the large and efficient-looking registration desk and, like Mongolian goats, led into a hallway outside what appeared to be a former guest room turned office. Inside was a rather large woman with dyed red hair (well some of it was red), who was quite frazzled and not really sure what to do.

Now we had reservations but all our bluster didn’t seem ruffle Red’s feathers. “Go to the end of the line,” she said to us reservation holders and, at the same time blowing on her fingers, shaking them as if they were on fire.

Finally after two hours we made it up to Big Red’s desk and presented her with our official reservation certificate we got at the bank in UB, showing that we paid our guest fee. We made a special trip downtown UB by bus (when going anywhere in UB by bus making a “good” Act of Contrition” is always a wise prelude); and surviving that, we hoofed it to Oyun’s bank and transferred like 2 million tugriks to the Guest Resort’s account, which was something like 68$. Well, Red shook her head, her pink jowls flapping from side to side, her voice crackling that that was not at all ok.

We needed to see the accounting department first, to obtain an accounting certificate of costs because what we paid at the bank in UB was just a down-payment to hold our reservation. So we marched up the long hall like a good boy and girl and looked for a sign indicating an Accounting Department. In a room the size of a janitor’s cubby, we met a young woman, we’ll call her Sally. She was rather pretty and wore very large bright yellow heart-shaped glasses. Oyun said that they are quite “stylish” in Russia right now. (Oyun is such a Russkiiophile—she is all for Mongolia but if it has to do with fashion, music, film, art, she gets stars in her eyes when she thinks about what currently is hot and what’s not in Russia).

Sally, with the cool, yellow, heart-shaped specs, sat there with a bright and shiny computer at her desk (a Dell, by the way, for fans of that brand) and, again, we had to wait in line while she serviced those in front of us.

In an aside, I’d like to remark how impressed we all were that all the official Spa Personnel we met had in front of them bright and shiny computers. Yet every single certificate, receipt, login notation, health inspection report, and notes passed between desks were done by hand, in either pen or pencil. I asked Oyun why they didn’t use their computers. She shruged, “Don’t want to wear them out, I guess.”

Well, after pleasing Sally by forking over the remainder of our fees, we hustled back to Red’s office and presented her with a copy of an official document that proclaimed in green ink that we had paid our extra fees and now we were allowed to see the woman who handled the room keys, Inez We had to go down to a small room next to the “Ping-pong Conservatory” (one table in a locked room).

Now, you might think that all this needless running around we had to do was leftovers from the Russians who skedaddled the country 25 years earlier. But no, the Mongolians are not obsessively officious or bureaucratic. But they are a people who desperately need jobs, so the rest-home or hotel or spa or whatever you call this place, takes on as many people as they can so people have work. The pay isn’t much but they get free board and room and a small allowance. I guess if you look at it that way, I think I begin to understand, maybe a different take on things: (like one of those pictures in psychology books that if you look at the picture once, it seems to be a bunny, and look at it again later, and it’s not a bunny at all but a duck). But that was only one irritation that I got to scratch. Chiggers were everywhere.

Finally we got our key, after paying Inez 5000 tugriks, deposit. When we got to our room there were two single beds and a TV and small frig. Sheets folded on the beds (you make it yourself) and a cotton sack full of what felt and smelled like kitty litter. That was my pillow. On top of it all, were a few covers that smelled and looked as if they had been cleaned the year when Krushchev banged his shoe at the UN. (For the children who never read their history book—Krushchev was a former Russian leader who had a permanent hard-on against just about everyone).

In a matter of some delicacy, I had followed my mother’s sage advice for the traveller and chewed prunes judiciously for a few days and was receiving rather strong signals that some success was on the horizon, when I discovered that our bathroom (nice sink, shower, commode) was lacking towels, cups, glasses, those little soaps we like to take with us when we leave, and most important of all, no paper tissue, and I’m not talking about Kleenex. We looked all around the room for the closet where towels and other essentials were kept but, alas, no success. No essentials.

So I asked Oyun if she’d ask a maid if they’d come to our room and address the many sins of omission the cleaning staff had committed in failing to accommodate our room with the obligatory basic any hotel room would have worldwide. When she came back she reported: First, there is no maid service. Second, she was told politely in very nice Mongolian that the accouterments of an advanced society have as yet to find their way to Mongolia and therefore we must wait until 7pm, when Shirley-With-the-Key, opens up her shop down next to the dining room where she dispenses, for a price, good candy (some from the US), beer and harder stuff, tooth paste, dried coffee, Coke Zero, and of course single rolls of tissue. No towels, sorry—should have brought our own. Also soap and shampoo and conditioner. Along with underwear and sunglasses. Oyun also told me that the service person downstairs ended her sermon on proper traveling etiquette with a question: “Were are you people from, China?” Mongolians are not enemies of anyone but they have not had pleasant time, historically, being next-door neighbors to the Chinese. The Montolians see the Chinese. The Chinese, from the Mongolian percpective, could best be explained as the equivalent to Faulkner’s Snopes family. Uncultured, sneaky, gauche, and all-around bad news.

The Field of Play

So since the threat of storms on both the climatological as well as the personal level had temporary abated, we decided to take a walk around the grounds to get our bearings to take our minds off the fact that we were starving and had hours to wait until dinner—7PM sharp. If late, we sit at the kiddy table, I guess.

Guests at “Summerhill” were mostly retired folks, some married, but many unattached singles who had discovered this vacation spot to be a Mongolian equivalent of Match Dot Com. Younger people were among us too, often with children--kids always manage to find many diversions to occupy their time, if they are out of batteries. Too bad we adults lose that talent early on. Well, if you got batteries, some might find ways to enjoy themselves, I guess.

By this time you must have realized that this Spa, vacation hotspot, summer getaway, retreat for the distressed was as lively as a Mosoleum on a Saturday night. So we walked a lot. And talked more than we did back at the apartment. Computers, TV, bus travel, museums, and the many hills to climb to see important Mongolian cultural treasures. We met an old lady out front who I suppose is an apt metaphor for my entire experience at Camp Hari-Kari.

Other guests spend the twilight hours of their life letting that bowl of gruel from dinner get comfy during some quiet conversation, as they watch that evening sun go down.

The old girl from a distance looks fairly attractive but up close you can see the age lines and faded spots on her skin. She may have caught the eye of many thirty or forty years ago, but today she is a relic, attempting to keep up c only through the lies and Photoshopped pictures published in slick magazines and newspapers--the National Railroad Company, her pimp.

The staff at Bayanbuural Station lives in yurts and small cottages along the paths where visitors may walk when not busy at ping-pong or chess or shuffle-board (oh, I’m sorry, the shuffle board equipment was locked up after what the “Staff” described as “that terrible incident last month that sent two guests to the hospital in UB). Now what could you imagine happened during a simple shuffle board match that could put two retirees in the hospital. They take their chess and ping-pong quite seriously up here so who knows what horrendous blood-bath took place among such gentle people?

We passed many yurts on our promenade through the grounds of the rest-home.

A couple of the more modern yurts (pronounced “grr” by the locals) like this one is sometimes rented out for the summer for urbanites with deep pockets and a lust for solitude and absolute seclusion like you'd find inside a perfect vacuum bell. Keep in mind that anywhere outside of UlaanBaatar 20 miles (or 193 kilometers I think) is the boondocks. When you get out of the city there is ½ a person (maybe it’s ¼ person) per square mile in the rest of the entire nation of Mongolia. Now some of the staff live in regular yurts like this one with the Dish TV outside.

I got to talk to the father holding his son while the boy was having his afternoon howl. Seemed the the satellite was down and the kid was haveing a meltdown--no Tom & Jerry this afternoon.

Dad works as cook for our summer spa and gets a few hours off to spell his wife who works at the games desk (there are only three—chess, pool, and ping-pong, so she can’t be too busy).

Many of the maids and others on the lower tier have tiny cabins.

This one belongs to the young woman who brings Milk Tea to our table morning, noon, tea time and night. She also manages the gurney on which she delivers our food. One evening we walked by and she was cleaning her front windows and she waved, which was more friendliness than any of the other staff showed us. Most saw us as the “upper crust” of Mongolian society. Todd’s son, the butcher’s boy, risen to le haut monde! Just thinking of it, promotes in me me the urge to ring for my driver or throttle the gardner.

The Health Spa

One evening we ended up on the north edge of the station and we spotted this building which looked to me like an old wooden railroad freight car. It was painted a bilious blue and we saw a guy poking his head out with a pail in his hand.

This evening on our walk we were accompanied by Munkhzul (Mung-zool), a poor waif who recently had graduated from the university in art; and this was her first venture away from home and, I came to learn, from a mother who controlled her life like a puppet master. Oyun had met Munkhzul earlier that day when she had taken a walk down to the river and chanced to meet up with the young artist. As Oyun waded in the river, Munkhzul sat on the grass sketching the meandering stream as it slowly made its way for hundreds of miles through the central valley on its way to UlaanBaatar and then east . The two women had struck up an instant friendship and the young woman was often with us during our stay at the rest-home.

Now young people in Mongolia, even after graduating from the university, often lack world experience and even lag behind teens in other cultures in emotional maturity. Munkhzul was 22 but emotionally like 13. She had many worries and significant issues, involving both her mother as well as a guy she had been with for three years who, one day, said goodbye, farewell, and it's been good to know you, and the next thing the young woman heard was that he had married and even had had baby, all within a six month span of time. The poor girl wondered if a baby could survive being so premature. Oyun carefully and with much tenderness revealed to the dear girl that the guy she'd been sheding so many tears over the past year, was probably, in the Mongolian equivalent of. "a two-timing bastard." So Mother Oyun provided gentle and understanding companionship while we were entombed in The Dark Tower.

Munkhzul informed us that she had visited the “health center” associated with our rest-home, where many come to seek help with ailments from migraine headaches to tummy troubles. The spa specializes in various concoctions brewed out of, you guessed it, horse milk. It seems that horse milk is to Mongolians what Phillips' Milk of Magnesia was for my mother. If I scraped my knee, showed signs of a cold, didn’t eat my oatmeal, got kneed in the groin at football practice—shzaam! out came the blue bottle, the big one that came with a handle, and she’d have two or three large spoonfulls of that white glop down my throat before you could say Kellogg’s 100% Bran Flakes.

Munkhzul had learned from advertising that a visit to the health spa at Bayanbuural would perk her right up, get her back on the right track. Bayanbuural Station Health Spa, much like spas in the US, such as, Hot Springs and Sulfur Springs, for years offered miracle cures for all sort of ailments simply through soaking in mineral waters. The health center was in a barn further down the hill where they keep the milkers; and the guy with the bucket emerging from the blue railcar/cabin, was heading down, to the hospital we thought, to milk old Nellie and the girls.

Faulty Towers, the Inside Story

This is the scene we four times a day at mealtime, and 4pm for tea (which was a lie becaue it was just milk, warm milk and tasted nothing like tea. The Mongolian Zepher in a nice gold frame and below it was a chess set missing about half of the white and black armies, stolen by seemingly innocent old people who will grab anything that isn't nailed down for souviners. An apt icon for our summer hideaway and health clinic.

I offer the following image in hopes that it might suggest the kind of action you would expect to see anywhere on the grounds of this crypt.

Here are the General (a real General--retired--of the Mongolian army-on your left) and Chunky duking it out for the 57th time since they arrived here with us on the train from UlaanBaatar. All the did was play chess. I do't think they ever peed once while they were guests at Camp Slit-My-Throat.

Since we couldn’t play with the shuffle board stuff no more, that left us with one ping-pong table to share with 200 other guests and a pool table with no cue ball and four striped balls and six plan and cues like bow-legged cowboys. And the staff pointed out clearly in the handy Information Guide we received when we got here that we guests had full access to the many paths around the grounds for healthful perambulation, recreation, and fresh air. So what more would you want?

On the chess front, it did get kind of dicey one day with a major throw-down between a woman, Blanche (former high school principal) and our buddy Chunky (mining engineer and all around chess snob—but a good guy—his English lexicon extended from “Hello,” Goodbye,” to “Fuck the Donkey” and he never knew what any of it meant.

Every time we'd see him, he’d recite his litany of useless phrases and I'd reply, "Bayrllaa” which meant “Thank you,” but that final syllable where you have to flutter your tongue and sort of slurp at the same time put my tongue in such paroxysms that it was in a sling for days.

This dogfight between Blanch and Chunky took over an hour; and Blanch was the underdog, with an audience of mostly men giving Chunky tidbits of advice before he moved any of his pieces. Oyun was Blanche's only ally, but finally won the day and the male lookers-on attributed the win to pure luck and that was all there was to it. In addition, if Chucky hadn’t been up to all hours dancing with all the girls, he’d have been sharp and wiped her off the board slick as snail's spit.

The best part of our trip west was being around the kids who came attached to parents or grandparents. The kids saved me from flinging myself into the river (which wouldn't have worked anyway beause it was the Mongolian answer to the Platte River, a mile wide and an inche deep.

Mark Twain, when he encountered the Platte on his ride west, described the Platte in detail in his great book Roughing It "Well, it would make one hell of a river if you just turned it on its side." I especially enjoyed watching the kids entertain themselves. While adults are often standoffish, kids jungle up with ease and are off to make their own good times.

Here they are looking through one kid's collection of trading cards of Mongolian wrestlers.

Most were outside playing games—Hide and Seek seems to be imprinted on our genes, ubiquitous in all cultures. Kids didn’t seem to mind much that there were very few places to hide, sort of like trying to conceal oneself in an Iowa soybean field in April. But, what the hell, when you're a kid, who cares, it’s fun, anyhow.

Dancing in the Dark

Our visit to the Funhouse would not be complete without a few words and some images about the Grande Promenade held each night from 9-midnight.

After we paid our entrance fee to Bernice, we entered the dance hall on the second floor, a large room with parquet floor, bandstand where the “officials” sat, and chairs surrounding the rectangular dance floor. Since Oyun and I did not know how to dance the kind of dances the music called for, we sat and watched while the fox-trot crowd showed off their slick and polished moves.

Dancing in the dark is not just a song title but it describes the lighting conditions on the floor. And I had a camera with high sensitivity to low light but only up to a point. I shot 300 images that night and only about thirty were were usable--most were out of focus or totally blurred. What follows is a gallery of images of both the normal couples who just liked the music, had knocked back a shot or two of vodka (maybe more), and enjoyed the feel of someone soft and squeezie in their arms.


I met this guy and his girlfriend before the dance began. Oyun had gone to high school with him in UlaanBaatar, small world, though easy in Mongolia. Nice guy, chef at a fancy hotel down by the national capital building.

Of course, in the chairs surrounding the floor, like a junior high dance, were perky and eager hopefuls waiting to be asked to dance. By a quick scan of the crowd, I'd say that women outnumbered men 2 to 1. Of course Chunky and the General were absent; they had men's work to do: battles to be fought, wars to win.

And some dancers just liked to take a breather once in awhile and snuggle a bit. With the kids watching TV or aleep, mom and dad could have a little time to themselves. Nice.

The Mogolians are people who touch and hug and kiss and, unlike the Chinese, are a culture that is ok with public displays of affection. Maybe it’s the density of the Chinese population contrasted to the vast lonely spaces that have always separated the traditional nomadic people from each other.

The music for many of the dances was what Oyun called “socialist style,” dances that the Russians taught the Mongolians so they would dance all together, like synchronized swimming, both of which are not entertaining to watch. The couples in the last image above (he's got his eyes closed) are dancing what is called, I think, a schottische. One of the few useful and fun things the nuns at St. Pat’s in MV taught us was folkdancing, and one of those dances looked very much like the kind of dancing done by the couples in the last two pictures of dancers above. It is an Eastern European style, especially popular in Poland, part of old Bohemia.

Some of the dancing was also Polka. But the old South Omaha Poles would not recognize the polka dancing we saw. When I was in college I often spent my weekends taking wedding pictures at places like Polish Home in South Omaha (now the Hispanic Museum), the polkas I saw were a slaughter-house. And the dance was accompanied by loud shouting, lots of yipping, couples twirling, moving quickly around the floor--and no holds barred.

The polka the Mongols danced was like a ballet, fairly controlled and choreographed. Damn Russians. Polka is all about whirrling and twirrling. It's not a waltz.

The Dance Off

What everyone seemed to be awaiting was the big dance-off by the couples who came to show off their skills. Dancing, like cooking, I believe, is to be enjoyed, not judged. Have you seen those TV programs where would-be chefs are pitted against each other and then their concoxtions are judged by a panel of know-it-alls. Dancing is recrecation and is fun to do. Food is to be eaten and enjoyed, not rated.Its chow, not a painting. I would not be surprised to see in the future, probably on the Fox Channel, among its fall lineup, The Screw-Off, yes couples young and old alike will, right there before our out judges, show you, the home audience, bedroom action of an unparalleled nature. Contestants will be judged by presentation, style, creativity, and, of course, bonus points will be awarded for knowledge and application of any of the 451 positions displayed in the bible: The Karma Sutra.

Back at the dance: Oyun had invited dear naïve, shy, dumped, and uncoordinated Munkhzul to sit with us that evening and we had done a little match-making on the side and talked the young medical student sitting at our dining table to come to the dance to meet Munkhzul and maybe both of them could get to know each other. But Robert Burns was right and “the best laid plans” do often end up in the shitter; and the young med student was just too shy to ask our girlfriend to dance. He was a senior in medical school and had never been on a date or been to a school dance. Our medical student was traveling with his aunt and she told us the next day how difficult it was for him to even show up at all


The Dance-off people were given numbers and instrutions by the expert dance committee (composed of dance teachers from UB). From the get-go it was clear that the front runners were 1. a Chinese couple, 2. a guy in a white tux and saddle shoes dancing with a lady in green, and 3. two women, call them the Dancing Queens, who were simply terrific and had obviously danced together before tonight.

The Fongs from Hong Kong

The Showoffs

And the Dancing Girls

After the first go-round, the judges narrowed the field down to the three the crowd liked best: the Chinese couple, the two women, and the guy in the tux with the lady in green. The amateurs took their seats to watch the pros.

The Chinese couple were fun to watch. They were having fun and their movements seemed effortless. They danced because they liked it, like dancing together, close.

No words--just watch.

The dancers had to show the crowd that they were proficient in a number of dance styles, fox-trot, tango, the Mongolian “little girl dance” (I won’t explain)--their portfolio as it were of dance routines.

The Dancing Girls were not shy as they hoofed it around the floor with panache.

Although older and larger than the other dancers, the dancing duo never missed a step, anticipated each other, and pleased the audience who clapped and whistled as they breezed by.

And the fancy dancers (Mr. Tux and and lady in green) well, they just were showboating way too much for my simple down-home Iowa taste. People who do something well, like acting, dancing, singing should never, in my estimation, give an audience the feeling that they are “performing,” for instance. The Showboats were very conscious of the audience and were jut trying too hard. They were proficient but bookish, if you know what I mean. This was Dancing 101. Mechanical and uninspired.

The couples were into a waltz this number.

What a gentleman! A move like this is sure to get a rise out of the crowd.

After the judges left for a conference, the crowd could hardly contain itself until the final results were announced. In third place, the Showboats, and their prize, (no, I’m not making this up) dance lessons from the two judges. Ok, in second place, the Dancing Queens, definitely a crowd favorite. And In first place, and I don’t think this was a surprise to anyone (except maybe the Showboats) were the Fongs from Hong Kong.

The Fongs, born and raised in China, doing the Tango properly, was, as likely as seeing George W. at a Nebraskans for Peace rally. The time I have spent teaching in China has taught me that the Chinese are loving people, very family oriented and affectionate, but NOT IN PUBLIC. And for the Fongs to pull off a rather risque version of this rather erotic dance was just amazing. Maybe they'd gotten into some horse-milk.

The next day we left Hooterville (no, children, not that kind of “hooter”) and headed back to busy, noisy, polluted, drunks-sleeping-on-the-street, smelly but loveable UlaanBaatar. And I never felt happier. After all that rest and quiet, Milk Tea, walks that went nowhere, college dorm food, and horsemilk laxitives, I was really acheing for some healthy stress and anxiety and frustration, like everyday life.

Karen, my fabulous daughter, asked me in one of her recent notes, if I was ready to come home. I was stuck for an answer. Yes, I miss my family and friends so much that, yes, I look forward to leaving soon; but on the other hand, I would have no problem staying for a much longer time since the people have made me feel so comfortable and I’m accepted and not treated like a foreigner.

Yet I often feel like one, but that is my own problem. I’ve never felt as if I belonged where I was. Always an outsider. Maybe that’s why I’m always looking through a lens of a camerarather than in front of it. I seem to be fated, much like Prufrock; but where he measured out his life in coffee spoons; I, on the other hand, capture moments of personal experiences in intervals of 1/250 of a second.


(The book I got at Barnes & Noble on Ten Steps on Becoming a Famous Author stated very clearly that if you have a Prologue you must have an Epilogue.)

The Pearl

But on our last day of our stay, after lunch, Oyun and I had taken a walk to a small gazebo north of the hotel where we watched children play with four black puppies, all the same size and most certainly from the same litter. On the bench near us was an old woman who we had seen many times walking alone, often with an umbrella, Mongolian style, to mute the power of the sun to darken the skin.

After a short conversation with her, we headed back to Wuthering Heights for dinner. Since one family had left for UB and our table had a couple of empty chairs, we invited the elderly woman we met outside to dine with us. Which sent Glenda, the Rector of Seating, into a panic. But she cooled down after I explained, through Oyun's translation, that the old lady was my long lost mother, who had been kidnapped by rogue bands of Chinese. That seemed to settle her down. Two things I had learned about living in Mongolia: 1. If you are an American, you can say anything and they will believe you. 2. Anything nasty you can say about the Chinese (except, of course, the lovely Fongs from Hong Kong--that's not really China, don't you know!) the lovely Mongolians will believe you.

After our meal we spent an hour or so chatting, getting to know each other. The woman, Batsukh, had spent most of her life in the Gobi Desert, one of the great deserts of the world, covering much of southern Mongolia as well as northern China. Her life there was spent raising camels with her family and she had many interesting stories to tell about her life in the sands and spiny mountains of the south. She related a story which is more folktale, Oyun tells me, than reality. But to Batsukh, living among desert nomads, where most knowledge is conveyed orally; and where books are as rare as a cold diet Pepsi, she lived in a world where reality and fantasy were pretty much all one thing.

She told us a story, Oyun translated, that was famous among the people of the Gobi. It is a story about a mother camel who wouldn’t feed her new calf milk. The calf was weak and needed her mother’s milk to survive. The herder grew distressed and feared for the life of the helpless, feeble new-born, so the herdsman hired a shamin who came and beat different drums and rang bells and emptied his little bag of healing rituals, but alas, this did no good. And the calf grew weaker by the hour.

Then the camel herder hired a highly respected local musician who played the Morin Khuur (Morin Core) or Horse Fiddle (like you would a cello, base on the floor with three strings and a horse hair bow. Place where you tighten the strings is carved in the shape of a horse's head.

The musician was so wonderful and passionate and played such a sad song that the mother camel started to cry and it was then that she allowed her calf to have her milk. The power of music was like magic and the young calf grew stronger and the herder no longer was sad but was hopeful again and happy.

The story is significant in a number of ways. Certainly, it highlights the importance of camels to the daily life of Gobi nomads and secondly, it is a parable about music, an artform this culture places on a higher, almost spiritual plain. I think I’ve learned that to be a musician here is akin to having a spiritual calling, like a gift for healing. Think of how music in our own lives often touches us more than most art forms, emotionally. Batsukh's story a wise one, embodying a truth as old as the desert, as old as these people of the Steppes of Mongolia. Folktales are mythic in that they embody both the truths as well as the mysteries of a culture, tales or stories which are part of a society's history as well as its the essential fabric of its beliefs and values.

The old lady now lives in UlaanBaatar and wanted to spend a week in the country, away from the noisy and smelly city, wanted to be back to the quiet of the desert, so she joined us at the mausoleum in the country, where the dead still walk and play chess all day, eat, and go to bed at 7pm, sort of like Longview Nursing Home in Missouri Valley, minus the smell of Lysol and piss.

When we left for UlaanBaatar on the train, the best memory of all was our meeting Batsukh and her wonderful story of the musician who made the camel cry. Meeting her and listening to her recite the ancient tale made our days in the heart of Mongolia memorable and lovely. Like that beautiful desert woman, Batsukh. Meeting her was a pearl of great price.

Miss your all, my family and friends, Phil.

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