Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Photos from the train

Monday, September 25, 2006


I just returned from a week in Beijing, visiting a friend, with the excuse of having to leave the country to switch from a tourist visa to a work visa.

I had forgotten already, after two and a half months in Mongolia, what real cities looked like. I had gotten used to 8-story buildings and two main streets. With its 13 million people, and pre-Olympic buildup, Beijing was initially overwhelming. Luckily, the friend who I stayed with speaks Chinese, and, every morning, would write out in Chinese the places I wanted to go on little sheets of paper that I would hand to taxi drivers and bus attendants.

I took the train there and back, my first experience on the Trans-Siberian. I'm biased because I love trains, but it's a beautiful ride. You pass quickly out of UB and then you are on open terrain, passing by a few power plants and coal mines and a scattering of gers until you reach the Gobi Desert. Then you are surrounded by short grass and small sand dunes. This lasts for hours, until you hit China, which is amazingly more populated, immediately. You pass several sections of the Great Wall, and one station passes through the wall. It's easy, when flying, to believe that all of China looks like Beijing, and all of Mongolia looks like UB. Of course, this isn't true at all, and train trips are a reminder of this. China by train appears mainly like fields of corn and dying sunflowers where few people have cars and everyone has a bicycle. It's a beautiful country.

Yesterday, when I pulled into the train station in UB, it was rainy and dreary and cold. I met up with friends and we spent over an hour trying to find somewhere that looked appealing for dinner. Still, I was glad to be back.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

AMCs and HHH

A traveler through Mongolia coined the term AMC, and, in his absence, those of us who live here have usurped it and claimed it as our own. AMC stands for Adorable Mongolian Child. The term is something of a misnomer, as it suggests that there are Mongolian children who are not adorable. This is false. All Mongolian children are adorable.

Last week, someone at my office asked if I would be interested in teaching at her sister's kindergarten (kindergarten being the catch-all phrase that Mongolians use to mean nursery school). I said I would love to, and yesterday, during lunch, she and I went over to this kindergarten. While it was my lunchtime, it was their naptime, and in each room I peeked into, I saw at least 10 AMCs sleeping happily on their little plastic cots.

I will be teaching English three times a week to 2-3 year-olds, and then to 4-5 year-olds. Needless to say, I have never taught English to people of any age before, although I did teach my brother how to add, and I did TA a class on Women Writers of Japan in college. Luckily, a friend of mine teaches first grade here, and so she is going to give me her workbooks, and I am going to create a one month lesson plan, by Friday. For, can I say again, 2-3 year-old AMCs.

Today, after work, I am going with a group of fellow Americans to HHH, otherwise known as Hash House Harriers. HHH is one of those things that is well known to people who live abroad, and entirely unknown by everyone else. According to wikipedia, it's "a more social version of Hare and Hounds, where one joins a pack of hounds (runners) to chase down the trail set by a hare or hares (other runners), then gather together for a bit of social activity known as the On In or Down Down with refreshment, humorous camaraderie, song and sometimes a feast." Here, apparently, we drive about a half hour outside of UB, do a walk-around, eat a sandwich, and have a beer.

One of my friends participated two weeks ago, and she said it was her and a lot of middle-aged women who are here with their bankrolling husbands. It appears then, that HHH may be all Mongolia has to offer for ladies who lunch.

My friend visiting from Beijing was shocked that somewhere as off-road as Mongolia could have its own chapter of HHH, but, as wikipedia tells it, Antartica has two chapters, and even Guam has their own. Apparently, there are also interhash activities where chapters of HHH meet up to compete. I could see a Mongolia-Russia-China HHH competition being particularly fierce.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


I woke up this morning to the sound of rain. When I opened my eyes, however, I saw not rain, but snow. It's September 7th, and winter has begun in Ulaanbaatur, Mongolia.

Also, I finally added more pictures to my flickr account. You can check out images from when the weather was still warm.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Does Mongolia have a large wealth disparity?

Mongolia has a huge disparity of wealth, and not just between foreigners and Mongolians. Unlike other countries, however, below the super rich, there is a gradual decline in capital between classes, as opposed to a huge jump. The super rich here in Mongolia tend to work in the mining industries or in banking. Their ranks often include foreigners from China, Canada and the US. These people drive around in Hummers, Lexus SUVs and Range Rovers. They have drivers.

Beneath them, however, wealth is less apparent. Here in Mongolia you can buy clothes from brands like Abercrombie and Fitch or Miss Sixty or Sevens Jeans for a fraction of what you would pay in the US, because it’s all made in China. Often, the clothes will already have their US price tags on them. And, as I’ve said before, a lot of people will spend a lot of their incomes on clothes, making attire a difficult reference point as far as wealth goes.

A lot of the restaurants here too will have graduated pricing. At the one I go to most often with people at work, Crown Restaurant, you can buy a soup and a salad, or a soup and another small dish for less than $2, which is what we usually do. Main courses start at around $3 or $4 and are aimed at a different clientele, but one that will sit side-by-side with us. Then there are other restaurants, such as Millie’s, that are priced in such a way that no one but the wealthy can eat there.

The supermarkets are more separatist. Wealthier people will shop at the State Department Store, or stores like Good Price, that offer Western goods. Middle class people who live in central UB will shop at Dalai Eej, a more local supermarket that still stocks brands like Crest. The further you get from the center of town, the cheaper goods in the supermarkets are. Poorer people will shop at outdoor markets like the one next to the train station where all the goods from China come in. Here there are large shipping crates that operate as wholesale stores, with one filled with potatoes and the next with onions. Outside, women will sell kilos of rice that they take from large 50 kilo bags.

Then there is housing. The well-paid Americans live in places like the Star Apartments, which are rentals. Many of the wealthy Mongolians are choosing to live in places like Japan Town, which are the newly-built gated communities. These houses are often located just across Peace Bridge on the other side of the river. They are totally anomalous McMansions with turrets and big windows that look out on other McMansions. They are packed incredibly tightly, and have no land whatsoever. They start at $250,000.

A lot of people, myself included, live in the Soviet apartment buildings that take up much of central UB. They are huge monstrosities that tend to be longer than they are tall, so they look like 20-story apartment buildings resting on their sides. Government officials that aren’t corrupt will live here, as will NGO workers and store owners.

As you get further out of the center of town, just past the Ring Road that circles the city, the shanty towns begin. The structures here are small make-shift houses with small dirt lawns. Some of them appear to have plumbing, others do not. These go on for a long time. They are tacked alongside windy roads, none of which are paved. Teachers at the universities may live in them, or large families just in from the countryside.

Beyond the shanty towns are the ger towns. These are where the truly poor live. Like in the shanty towns, the gers are placed on small lots next to thousands of other small lots. There is no indoor plumbing. Mangy dogs wander the streets and it’s not a safe area to walk around in at night, even for Mongolians.

Past the ger towns, the city disappears, instantaneously becoming countryside. Here, particularly upriver, wealthier Mongolians build their summer homes, or their regular houses, where they can have land and river views or mountain habitats.

Oh, and for those of you keeping track: it's snowed already in parts of Mongolia and it hit zero celsius here in Ulaanbaatur on Saturday night.

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