Learning Ulaan Baatar
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Learning Ulaan Baatar
At 3.15 pm today Zorigt, Branch Office Director of the Mongolian Federation of Business and Professional Women, Gobi-Altai Branch, rang the central office on her mobile phone – her business has taken her longer than she expected, she and her son are just loading up the Toyota Hi-Lux Jeep with new supplies to take the 1000 km journey home to her business there, and we are now going to leave on Sunday morning. Is she sure? Yes, sure, everything is now ready. So why not leave tomorrow? Well, Saturdays and Tuesdays are bad luck for setting off on long journeys in Mongolia. Why not last week, in fact, or even the week before, as I had originally been told? Erm, not sure. Originally it was something to do with a basketball competition in Darkhan (a city 150 miles to the north of Ulaan Baatar) but then Zorigt went walkabout on business in the countryside somewhere roundabouts and re-surfaced in UB three days ago. But at least it means that I have time to at last write this update and hopefully even get it up on the site (Richard is stuck at school in the midst of his GCSEs, so if I do manage this alone from Mongolia it will be quite a feat!)
Physically Zorigt is one flavour of middle-aged Mongolian business or professional women: solid and matronly, with weathered skin and just a little concession to makeup: pastel pink lipstick, perhaps. Her sunglasses are large, with graded brown tinting. I am looking forward to getting to know her from Sunday onwards: it will be a two-day drive on Mongolian roads to cover the distance to Altai. After three days getting to know how business and professional women in that aimag (province) are served by my NGO, Bolortuya (‘Crystal Glitter’ – my counterpart and interpreter!) and I will travel on to a few other provincial capitals, hopping our way back to Ulaan Baatar over the course of two weeks. Well, you wouldn’t have thought that I would gather information for developing a new strategic plan sitting in an office, would you? Not when there is all of Mongolia to see, at any rate.
But let’s start with UB – as many of you know, this is not my first visit to Mongolia. Since October 2000 however, the number of cars on the road seems to have doubled and the ‘state department store’ has gone high-tech. It is very different living and working here than it was just visiting for a few days. I am as in China and Sydney living a fairly anti-social and unadventurous existence, this time between work, home and the interesting Catholic mission (haven’t got round to trying the not too savoury-looking swimming pool….). The other Youth Ambassadors are having a hard time pulling me out! But they are a really nice set of individuals so hopefully they have not all given up on me yet….. One reason for this behaviour though is my choice of accommodation. As I think I mentioned in previous news, I wanted to live with a Mongolian family, and my NGO organized for me to live with Horolsuren, one of the members of their managing council. (The others in my group are all living with each other, alone, or with other western development workers).
Horolsuren is a 61 year old folk singer of national (indeed international to those who know about these things) acclaim – yesterday afternoon I saw her photograph on the wall of the Theatre Museum. She has a powerful and rich voice with a wide range – and a great sense of humour. Best of all is her concern for my wellbeing, which adds another plank to my conviction that living with Mongolians was the right choice. Before moving in, I went to meet her and see what my accommodation would be like. She proudly showed me the narrow room that she and her husband had prepared for me: they repapered the walls, in gold flowers on one side, and with ‘English’ flowered Chintzish columns on the other side, so that I can feel at home. Above my desk is a print of Pushkin’s wife reading a letter, and above my bed is a reclining nude, her hand over her crotch (‘think of Madonna!’ Horolsuren cheerfully exclaimed). My narrow bed is covered with a cream and pink felted stretch – which at once reminded me of Kyrgyzstan: it was a gift from some Kazakhs, she told me. One of Horolsuren’s specialties is Kazakh folk songs, although she cannot speak their language.
The day I moved in I was getting a cold. Over the following days Horolsuren would prepare a decongesting inhalation several times a day. She wants to keep me looking young (see my exciting news below) so has started regularly giving me facial massages and masks before bedtime. She gives me advice on exercises – especially seeing the too long hours I spend at my laptop (she thinks! She should have seen me in the olden days of GG!). She or her husband get up in the morning to make sure my bread is buttered at breakfast time, and I have only cooked dinner three times since I moved in! She also often encourages me to have a quick shot of vodka – it may not be necessary in Australia, but you need it here in Mongolia, she declares (though outside of my ‘Mongolian’ life I am not drinking). We had more than one quick shot a few weeks ago when she took me with her to a town in the nearby countryside where she had helped two men acquire some land for a basketball training camp (Mongolians love basketball). After hours of formalities in the one storey local government office (pit toilet around the back) we went with the men and most of the local government to the land itself, and using jeeps to shelter from the cold wind we had a little celebration with vodka, garlic sausage, gherkins, bread, and chocolates that Horolsuren was presented with, and she built a small ovo (pile of stones) and burnt some incense. It ended with a couple of songs, led by Horolsuren. She is the biggest celebrity from that region, and the woman in charge of the post has been her friend since they were both three and lived next door to each other. Again, I am struck as I was in October 2000, by the combination of presence and naturalness among those of high reputation.
I may not have made it to the swimming pool, but I am trying to walk a lot, just as I did in Beijing – Horolsuren’s apartment (which is absolutely standard communist issue) is some way south of the city centre in the middle of a large housing development, so it takes me at least half an hour of brisk walking to get to work in the morning, and I often walk home again too (it is light till after 9pm). It’s the only way I will be able to keep the Mongolian diet I am following from squeezing me out of all my clothes. The Mongolian cuisine is simple, based on mutton and lots of oil. But it is not as awful as that might sound or as others make out – lots of rice, pasta (and home made steamed noodles), potato, carrot, onion, cabbage, garlic and turnip too, and there are delicious fish! I am wary of the tendency towards the addition of flavourings such as MSG and strong soy sauce (from the Chinese) and ketchup, chilli sauce, some other Eastern European black liquid, curry powder, etc…. someone has told the Mongolians that their food is boring... and UB is full of restaurants, especially Korean, but there are some ok pizzas.
I should also mention that having decided to grow my hair out (after the shortest crop of my life in January) I now look like Paul McCartney circa 1964 but with grey patches, as I stride the streets of UB. Something of an embarrassment besides many Mongolians (including my counterpart) who dress to kill and touch up their make up about twenty times a day. But I persevere, taking comfort in the knowledge that luscious locks are just a few months away.
I am communicating with difficulty here (and it's not only because of my awful hair) – I’ve learnt to answer the phone at work (our one phone line is next to my desk) and say ‘wait a minute’ in Mongolian to whoever is calling – and occasionally to say ‘not here’ if I can hear the name of the person they want to speak to. Horolsuren is a marvellous communicator, repeating things patiently, breaking down sentences, and gesturing. In my office everyone wants to learn English, and two colleagues can speak a bit. I am making extremely slow progress with Mongolian, but console myself with the opinion that I am doing as well as anyone who has only been here a month. The thirteen ‘Youth Ambassadors’ had lessons during our ‘orientation’ followed by a week of classes – quite a painful experience for us and the teachers, I think. And I have of course forgotten the words that they tried to stuff in our poor heads during that somewhat surreal time. But I should be making more of an effort now, as I am surrounded by the language, and am slowly becoming able to decipher discrete words from the stream of whispers, splutters, slurps and guttural noises that is Mongolian. Maybe I will do a bit while on the road over the next two weeks.
And I should describe the weather, which is what many people think of when Mongolia is mentioned. It has snowed lightly for the last couple of days (it is May….) – ‘the spring sky is not to be trusted’ is a famous Mongolian saying. Since arriving a month ago the temperature has ranged (in the daytime) between about minus ten and plus twenty degrees centigrade, and we have had dry snow, wet snow, rain, clouds, and bright blue skies with piercing sunlight. It is supposed to get as high as forty in the summer time – yet it could be snowing again by the time I leave at the end of September.
Some of you have heard this already – from me by e-mail or perhaps on the SJC or Mayfield or RA program grapevines – I am engaged to be married! My fiancé is Mr Ibrahim Al-Hariri (sorry that is a blurred photo), of Epta’a in Syria. At the moment he is living in Kuwait. All I will say about him here is that a kinder and more sincere heart than his is not to be found. The rest you can discover for yourselves as you get to know him (which I hope for some of you in the UK will be before this year is out). At the moment we are enduring physical distance and limited communication (connections between Mongolia and Kuwait are not easy), but we plan to marry in Syria next year – perhaps July. Meanwhile my parents are setting out to meet Ibrahim and Khalid, one of his eight brothers, in the scorching heat of the Gulf in a couple of weeks’ time.
My eldest sister Sarah and her fiancé Philip are beating us to it – their wedding will be in England in October this year. Their recent announcement has meant that I am changing my previous plans – and now need to hurry back to England from Australia (which is where I must return to from Mongolia at the end of September to fulfil the obligations of the ‘Australian Youth Ambassadors in Development’ programme that is funding me here) – so according to my latest plan I will make sure I am in the UK by the first weekend of October for Alex and Mark’s wedding too, or even the weekend before for Cloe and Mark’s….. but having established a reputation of travelling a long way to celebrate people’s nuptials (I hope others will do the same for me!), I am very sorry to miss the wedding celebrations of Lucinda (a friend from USA days) in Maryland next weekend, and Kay (my former room-mate in China) in August in Kuala Lumpur. Mongolia really is difficult to get in and out of!
I sweated and toiled and sent out forty customized letters with a synopsis and table of contents each from my still-unfinished book to UK publishers of various shapes and sizes just before leaving Sydney at the end of March. From ‘The Writer’s Handbook 2002’ these forty imprints all appeared to have some interest in travel, food, the countries traversed by the silk routes, women, or all of the above. In a month I have had replies from about half of them, which is a ratio that I am quite impressed with. I am even happier about the fact that I have had requests to read sample chapters from my manuscript from five of those! I am in the process of complying. Among the rejections, some have baldly stated ‘we don’t deal with people who don’t have agents’, and others have offered helpful tips. But I am not disheartened yet – especially given the state of the book itself (I feel like it is still within my ability to improve what is there...).
My parents are providing ever-unfailing assistance in opening replies from publishers, printing off reams of double-spaced text, letters and marketing outlines, and sending these out. And I have been further heartened by their and others’ positive reactions to some of the bits that I have allowed away from my guarded bosom: but as ‘the Writer’s Handbook’ says ‘in your letter to a publisher, don’t add comments to the effect that you have received positive feedback from family and friends – it could hardly be called objective’!!!! While work remains slow in Mongolia I have the opportunity to continue writing, but I don’t think it will be finished even by the time I have finished my project here, unfortunately...
To take me away from my manuscript immediately, I’ve got my adventure in the Mongolian countryside and provincial capitals starting on Sunday morning – I’ll be back in UB in the second half of the month. In mid-June I’ve got another work travel trip – this time to top tourist destination, the Khovsgol Lake in the north of Mongolia, where all the branch directors are getting together for their annual meeting. There I will be pulling out the Powerpoint slides for the first time in almost three years (yikes!!!!) as I have been chartered with researching and giving a presentation on opportunities for my NGO to have relationships with organizations overseas….let’s hope my speaking skills are not too rusty. Don’t worry, I won’t be wearing a suit if I can help it. Dad and Richard are coming to visit me in August and are bringing Asel, one of our Kyrgyz friends with them so I am looking forward to that too! Then by late September I am gone from here and back to the UK (via Sydney – not the most direct of routes!) for weddings galore for a month. At last, after that, Ibrahim and I will be able to spend more time together and start to plan our own wedding, and I will begin to get an idea of what our life in Kuwait will be like. Meanwhile the book will have to get published! Who knows? Maybe I’ll start another one……
Sorry there are no new photos with this latest news – next update, I hope (I have some lovely pictures from Sydney in February and March!). Rather difficult to arrange reprints, spreadsheets and scanning from here, as you might imagine! Having now invested in my own laptop a digital camera has become a feasible investment – so perhaps that will go on the wedding list.
By the way, here in Mongolia I can be contacted by telephone and by post! The postal address is Helen Flynn, PO Box 91, Ulaan Baatar 24, Mongolia. If you want to telephone, email me first and I will give you the number: as always, my email is Helen@flynn.net.
Stay in touch!
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