I had a train dinner: paprika chips, a pear, a cucumber, and a beer. The sunset was magnificent as we withdrew from Sükhbaatar through another massive green river valley. Mongolians on horseback and motorbike gathered herds toward yurts that parked like UFOs on the hillsides. Where Russians had overstuffed backyard gardens, Mongolian village houses had paddocks of half an acre or more, marked out with split-rail fences. Where old Russian train stations pumped crackling, martial music through the arrival-platform PAs, as we stepped off the train in Ulaanbaatar, disoriented in the early morning after days on the train, the speaker blasted Namjilyn Norovbanzad, the diva of Mongolian long song (urtiin duu).* The otherwordly vibrato cemented the hallucinatory feeling that we’d stepped out of this metal tube into somewhere quite foreign indeed.
“When one drives into a large city, even a capital city,” Gogol wrote, “one’s first impression is always of drabness, of grayness, and monotony: at first there are endless factories and mills all grimy and soot-covered. Only later will there appear the corners of six-story houses, stores, signboards, the broad vistas of avenues and squares with steeples, columns, towers, and statues, the glitter, the noise and roar of the big city, and all the other marvels that the mind and hand of man have created.” As the buzzcut grasslands cross-faded into the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, we passed the twin towers of a nuclear power plant, and a lot full of chipped concrete walls salvaged from demolished buildings, stacked against each other for reuse. I would prefer to say that the drabness and grayness faded too. But Ulaanbaatar is one of a type of Central Asian capital, like Bishkek and Dushanbe, with a short and uninspiring history, where nomads of centuries’ provenance were encouraged—forced—to settle in Soviet-built concrete housing projects. (Ulaanbaatar was a “moving capital” for its first 150 years, before permanently settling in its current location.) A people not culturally urban, settled in a city built by foreigners, pre-stocked with monumental (if not beautiful) statuary in an imported style, will not feel the same sense of ownership and pride of place as the residents of, say, Paris.
“People here still think like nomads,” said Jay, an expat of colorful background and opinion we met a few days later at our show. “When you’re moving four times a year,” he pointed out, you might well say, “ ‘OK, the grass is worn down [from grazing], we’ll move 120 kilometers.’ They leave their trash [on the steppe], no problem, some vegetables, some sheepskin. But if they move to the city [and act] the same—they put their trash out the front of the door and leave it. ‘It’s a public space, someone will take care of it!’ ”
To be fair, a lot of the city’s ugliness can be laid at the feet of the Communists, who conducted brutal persecutions of the Buddhist clergy (who also constituted the political authority) in the late 1930s. As a result, the beautiful old things in Ulaanbaatar are few, residing in the midst of dusty concrete housing blocks and construction sites. The Bogd Khan palace, the multi-pagoda home of the last religious (third in line in the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism behind the Dalai and Panchen Lamas) and political monarch of Mongolia, is overgrown with weeds. The few still active monasteries sit at the ends of rutted alleys.
The architecture that you notice is the Stalinist development around the central square, which features a slim equestrian statue of the nationalist liberation hero Sükhbaatar, dwarfed by government buildings on three sides and the state drama theater across the intersection on the fourth. But what you really can’t miss is the colossal seated statue of a corpulent and lizard-eyed Genghis Khan atop the steps of the Government Palace, flanked by smaller statues of two of his sons.
In 2008 there were antigovernment riots in this square to protest questionable elections, and five people died. I asked Jay if he’d been there.
“You can call them ‘riots’ if you like,” he said. “Three thousand students in the square for a day. I stopped and joined in, then I went to visit my friend in a restaurant on the sixth floor of the hotel on the corner. All the people that ‘died’ in the riots—they died later that night, after everyone went home. So!” He gave me a meaningful look that meant “killed in government custody.”
We found a hostel—it was yurts on the roof with en suite toilets— and went out for Indian food. After a month of cabbage salad, black bread, and beer, UB seemed dizzyingly cosmopolitan, with Thai and Indian restaurants, Irish pubs, red wine even. There was a particularly strong association with Korea: Korean beauty salons, 99-cent stores stocked with Korean goods, Korean restaurants, even a Seoul Street. Ethnically and linguistically related, Korea and Mongolia are increasingly exchanging trade and labor (including North Koreans, both official guest workers and refugees). Korea is where Mongolians go to work: thirty thousand Mongolians live in Korea, the biggest Mongolian expat community in the world. They don’t go to Russia, said Erden, the desk clerk at the hostel. “I have heard Russians are very rude. For example, you can be robbed, and no one will help you. I have heard this many times.” Tourists in Mongolia are Germans, French, and increasingly Israelis. The Chinese come “as workers—they are very hardworking in construction,” Erden added.
The big business is in mining, which makes up 20 percent of GDP and 80 percent of exports, driving growth that had been pushing 10 percent before the worldwide economic collapse in 2008. Ulaanbaatar still has the feel of a boomtown about it, which isn’t dispelled by the rumors of money laundered through the hundreds of backpacker-bait pubs. The current president is the fourth of the postcommunist era. His predecessor was jailed for corruption. (“Well,” said Erden, “we are a young democracy.”) The streets of the capital are full of 4x4s and SUVs, another contrast from a Russia that ran on rag-and-bone Ladas from the 1980s and used-car imports from Japan. One cabbie drove a Prius. These people are doing pretty well, I thought.
On our second day, it rained, and I realized what the 4x4s were for. The dirt roads became muddy waterfalls and the paved roads became pools. A bank stacked sandbags around their front door, and pedestrians used them as a bridge. The SUVs were up to their wheel wells in water on the main streets, and I was up to my knees. Boomtowns can still be the Wild West when it comes to drainage infrastructure.
It was pretty clear we were going to have to get out of town if we wanted to see any objective beauty. We asked Erden for suggestions, and he offered himself as a guide for an overnight trip to the village of Terelj and the adjoining national park. He was marshmallow soft, with a limp and a lame hand, his pinkie and ring fingers indented and curled. He taught English during the school year and worked at the guesthouse over the summers. He was educated by Mormons, who made a deal with the government to come into primary schools and teach English. They were forbidden to proselytize in school, but after hours was fair game, and they duly set up after-school clubs for the particularly enthusiastic English learners.
“I did go to the Sunday sacraments when I was in fourth grade,” Erden told us. “I think most Mongolians think Buddhism is the best in their hearts. There are more shamans again these days, but I think they are doing it just for the money. Like, so someone can come to them with their problems and they can say, ‘I will fix it, if you give me one million togrog.’ I think that is not really good…. When I have problems, I go and talk to the monk, and I give a donation to the monastery. But I’m not going to the temple regularly. I guess that isn’t being a good Buddhist.”
The Mongolian language is a gentle, sloshing, and guttural gurgle, like the cooing of mourning doves, and when Mongolians speak English it sounds soft and almost tender. They seemed generally aware of the difficulty of their language for foreigners. I thought I’d identified an essential goodwill among the Mongolians (at least compared to the brusque Russians) when I realized I’d never had so many people in a foreign country help me with my pronunciation.
Erden was keen to show us the Hotel Mongolia, a five-year-old luxury resort on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, and we stopped and admired the swollen Tuul River on the way. After the rains, it was up and over the banks, muddy and forceful. The roads to the monastery we had planned to visit on the third day of our trip were washed out.
“It is unusual,” said Erden. “It is more, bigger rains this year.”
The roads outside the city were barely that, more rough trails that branch and contract as drivers blaze new trails around potholes and washouts, then return to the main track. Erden, Maria, and I were in a van with an elderly driver with a grin but no English, bouncing and shaking up a path that you’d consider a rough go even for hiking. The van strained up a low mountain and through a forest of pines feathered with blue Buddhist prayer ribbons. We stopped at the crest of the ridge and got out, into a cloud of small flies. Here was a four-foot conical pile of rocks, topped with sticks bound like a tepee and garlanded with threadbare blue silk that is meant to symbolize the sky: an ovoo. We were to add a rock each and walk around it, counterclockwise, for good luck.
I took this for a fake tourist ritual, but a truck of locals drove up and did the same. The back of their pickup was full of sheep, and as they drove away, the truck hit a bump and one of the sheep flew over the side. The animal ran frantically in the mud, dragged by a rope around its neck that was still tied to the back of the truck. Our driver scrambled into the van and honked at the departing truck. They stopped, tossed the sheep in the back, and took off again.
We arrived at a small compound in Terelj, a village of fenced-in yurts at the soggy bottomland of the river, on the border of the national park. The host installed us in a comfortable yurt with a woodstove and served dumplings and coffee. Erden said, “We will have horse riding at three thirty”—in about an hour—and promptly fell asleep for two hours.
At a loss, we sat around and read for a while. Finally we roused Erden. He seemed so disoriented that we left on a walk by ourselves, got caught in a downpour, turned back, and spent most of the next twenty-four hours in the yurt.
Nomads still make up some 40 percent of the population. They travel one or two hundred kilometers four times a year, following grazing land for the herds—mostly sheep and short, Mohawk-maned horses. The yurts (or gers ; “yurt” is the Russian term) sit inside fenced compounds with the animals and contain appliances powered by solar batteries. Herders feed the animals by hand in the winters, when the grass is snowed under. Children are sent to town centers for school, to live in dormitories or with relatives, and rejoin their families to tend the lambs in the summer.
Erden seemed content to sit in the house drinking tea for two days. We asked if he could recommend a hike, and he gestured at the hills in every direction as if to say, “Just start walking.”** It was clear both that he was no outdoorsman and that he considered his job done once he’d gotten us to the village. (He had organized a horseback junket, but instead of a long ride over the plains, it turned out to be a sullen young boy walking us, atop two sad horses, down the lane.)
Frustrated, we took off on our own again. The land in the river valley was flood-soaked and bounced like a soggy trampoline as we jumped from hillock to hillock, doing our best impression of the local goats. If we misjudged a landing, we might be sucked into a squelchy end. Kennan described this moss steppe as “a great, soft, quaking cushion of wet moss . . . as soon as the pressure [of the foot] is removed it rises again . . . and no trace is left of the step. Walking over it is precisely like walking over an enormous wet sponge.”
We climbed one of the bare hills and looked down at the town. A kid in a Celtics jersey picked up a sheep by the scruff of its neck and the wool of its rump, swung it around like an Olympic hammer thrower, and tossed it about five feet. He ran over to where the sheep had landed, kicked it in its side, slapped it upside the head, then wandered off, bored of casual violence for now. Two other children played basketball with a dirty soccer ball on a patch of bare ground. Two two-by-fours bore a piece of plywood as a backboard—no hoop.
Erden finally roused himself for a bracing bout of tea-drinking with the proprietress of the yurt. After a few hours of this, Maria and I had enough and set off again, down the muddy path toward what passed for a town center. We hadn’t gotten a quarter mile before we heard someone calling and looked back at Erden limping toward us and waving his good arm.
“I will come with you,” he panted.
“Really,” Maria said, “You don’t have to.”
“No, I must.”
Our hike into the national forest became a stroll to the store. I bought a liter of beer to make our yurt night shorter. It began to rain.
Erden took a deep breath as if to say something, then stopped. I looked over at him.
“Tell me,” he said bashfully, “how do you make a relationship work, for a long time?”
He was recently separated from his wife and their young son. He had moved out of their apartment and was sleeping on a couch.
“I think it’s about communication,” said Maria.
He sighed. “It is very difficult.”
* The genre is called “long song” because of the melismatic extension of the syllables, not because of its duration.
** The idea of “hiking” as a purposeful leisure activity along pre-blazed routes is, admittedly, a concept specific to cultures both rich in leisure time and divorced from regular contact with nature. The Slovak word for “hiker” is the same as the one for “tourist,” the poetic conclusion being that only a tourist would walk so far without a specific material purpose.
Franz Nicolay is a New York musician who has played with myriad acts including the Hold Steady, Against Me!, and the Dresden Dolls and was a founding member of the composer/performer collective Anti-Social music. Dying Scene recently named him #1 of “Punk’s 10 Best Accordion Players.” He teaches at Bard College. The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar (The New Press) is his first book.
From The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar by Franz Nicolay. Copyright © 2016 by Franz Nicolay.