The first time I thought I was imagining but the second time a few days later when the gold plated BMW 5 series wagon sped by our battered blue Impreza, Oyun Baator, the cafe manager, said: "There goes the new Mongolia." Gold mine of the moment. Housing prices rise 25% or more a year, bringing on investors, scaring away ordinary Mongolians who can barely afford to rent. Who knows if today's election will change that. The corrupt ruling parties are stumbling all over each other with blandishment promises like shares for each and every citizen in the new literal gold mine the Chinese and Americans are in a bidding war over. Right now they are only getting 20,000 Tukrik each: $15.00. Ironically, that's just enough to have raised the price of meat--Mongolia's favorite food to the obsession point. Fifteen dollars is such a small fortune to the nomads, they see no reason to sell their animals.
The nomads in the gers are old Mongolia, literally. The young ones are all here in Ulan Baator, cashing in however they can, although they all find excuses to send their children or themselves back to grandma in the ger for weekends or summer holiday. Evidently this reminds them they're still Mongolian. UB is a vibrant youthful city full of young men and women fussing over their children when they're not with grandma in the ger. The little girls with their high cheekbones and thick black hair are especially eye-catching because they toddle nonchalantly about in bright, often gaudy outfits, spangly shoes and flashy tights, with elaborate hair bands that sometimes have bows bigger than their faces. Some of the small kids are bald because it's a tradition in this country to shave off a young girl's hair on her third birthday so she will grow up to have strong, thick, healthy hair. It happens to boys when they are four. I've only seen a handful of Mongolians in the traditional deel--and all of them were senior citizens. This is a hopping young city of ice cream stands, karaoke bars, short shorts with lacey black leggings and 4 inch high heels.
And impatience. The horn honking makes me remember old New York. Cars stop as they are supposed to for pedestrians in the marked crosswalks and all the cars behind them honk. It's already a game of chicken as it is since some cars, like say a gold plated BMW station wagon, don't feel at all obliged to stop for anybody. I've had better luck than the natives because nobody wants the hassle of dealing with the American Embassy but it's still heart stopping to cross a street here. The horseman's instinct to gallop is alive and thriving. Especially late at night when young Mongolian men drag race.
Mongolian men appear to be of two types: tall and wiry or short and squat with the physique of a potential Sumo wrestler. The women come in all shapes and sizes, but I confess I am particularly partial to all the Brunhildes sashaying unself-consciously down the street in tight pants and decolletté. Go Mongolian mamas! This is a city where stores don't just stock sizes for the anorexic. WEighing in as size 8-10 makes me seem about average.
Last night walking back to the cafe, Oyun Baator pointed to a passing Mercedes and said: "That's what I want, a big car like that. No more small car."
"What's wrong with a small car?" I protested. "Small cars here can be taxis and taxis can pick up beautiful women. Small cars are for small women, no?"
"But I like big women!" he said.
Yesterday the summer rains came. Great for the animals, everybody declared. Now they will have good grass to eat. But bad for the cafe. Mongolians, it seems, don't mind trekking to the outhouse when it's 40 below but they won't take to the streets in summer rain. Actually, as I learned yesterday, it's not easy to walk around here when it rains. The city has no storm drains, not one. And to make matters worse, all the buildings have huge gutters with downspouts pouring water onto the sidewalk, turning them into rivers as wide and deep as the Tuul. Sometimes, many times, there is no dry ground in sight. The curbs, sidewalks and sometimes the entire street becomes a lake. Dozens of stylish young women waded through in their cheap Chinese wellies so that the tight jeans stuck into them didn't even have a drop of water on them. Others in sandals or open toe shoes confronted the problem, looked around and seeing no hope shrugged and waded in. At certain points the water met the hamstrings.
Today nobody was on the streets. It was eerie. Everything is closed because Election Day is a national holiday here. It could also be the start of riots if things don't go the way some people want. Four years ago a mob burned the Communist Party building and several people were shot by the police. Nobody knows what's going to happen tomorrow but this afternoon in bright summer sunshine people emerged, arm in arm, hand in hand, under the shade of parasols or in tank tops. The corner gelato cart was doing a roaring business with treats for the children. Is it the calm before a storm?
I'm leaving for the airport at 4AM so here's hoping it's not
~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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