American scary ghost holiday

November 25, 2007

From Halloween. Here’s a photo of the Choibalsan foreigners (courtesy of Cassandra)

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Chris — pirate; Cassandra — zombie; Julie — tree; Jasmine — a person struck by lightning; me — a wizard; Yann — the “Frenchman as himself.”

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Choibalsan has trash cans?

November 25, 2007

Supposedly, the fall of communism dealt a bad blow to Choibalsan’s standard of living. “Choibalsan is a poor city with the highest unemployment rate in Mongolia,” says the Lonely Planet. Since I have a nice job, I wonder how much I see of the real Choibalsan. I’m neither a ger dweller nor an underpaid hallway scrubber.

 But the Mongolian government is also busting its butt to build up Choibalsan. The government wants to keep people in the eastern and western corridors of the country — far away from the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

 Every year thousands of migrants stream into Ulaanbaatar. Unfortunately, UB can’t handle the stress. Crime in the ger districts abounds. Young people beg or pickpocket. Some say that one winter in UB damages your lungs as much as smoking for six years.

So, Choibalsan gets a good amount of attention. It’s the biggest city in Mongolia’s east. Here, the state has built a huge hospital (500 jobs) and an electric plant that employs another couple hundred. Choibalsan has a university, at least two colleges, a shiny library, a funky-ass history museum, and the Dornod Aimag archives. We have college internet centers donated by Japan and Korea. I’m typing on computers donated by the the goverment of India(!) And e very few years, it seems, the government builds new schools.

Finally: We have trash cans. This is intense. None of my friends has noticed public garbage cans anywhere else in the country. You’d be more likely to see a mango tree than a trash can in Mongolia. Or so I thought. Here in Choibalsan, each downtown street has a cute receptacle shaped like a mushroom or soccerball.

Stupid broken camera! Photos will come…

Choibalsan has eggplants?

November 25, 2007

Some time back I made myself an omelet. It featured zucchini, Edamer cheese and locally grown tomatoes. My omelet fell apart several times in the pan. But it was delicious. The omelet made me think of Choibalsan as a whole… not pretty, kind of crumbling, but full of yummy things.

Sometimes my sitemate Cassandra and I marvel at our ample cupboards and comfy apartments. We wonder if we ever joined the Peace Corps. At the moment, many of our friends are trying to cook themselves pickles in their gers. Meanwhile, we revel in Choibalsan’s culinary delights.

Perhaps I wouldn’t consider my meals so extravagant if I hadn’t lived in the countryside for two months. But let me tell you what I ate on a typical fall day:

  • Breakfast: oatmeal, apples, sourdough bread with black-currant jam

  • Lunch: Chicken lentil basil soup with cheese (homemade)

  • Dinner: The teachers take me out to one of Choibalsan’s decent Chinese places. We have soy roasted short ribs with bell pepper; chili garlic cucumber carrot salad; and doughy mantou dumplings.

  • Dessert: Kiwi ice cream; sweet rolls with Russian chocolate cream cheese

Where do all my yummy goodies come from? Well, Choibalsan lies in Mongolia’s northeast corner. The China-Russia railroad runs through the town, so fresh food bundles its way into the city. But they say the border will close for winter.

Lentils: haven’t seen ya for a while. Eggplants: baikhgui.

Gouda cheese, why hast thou deserted me?

Naizuudaa (my friends), do you remember how I used to try to make you all dance? And it was really really embarrassing? Do you know that my sister Lizzy calls my style of dancing “butt seizures”?

Well, I’ve found the right place to live. I can make Mongolian 12-year-olds do very silly Latin dances….and they love it!

The school’s talent show happened last month. So I choreographed a butt-seizure dance for my friend’s 7th graders.

We did a pairs dance — merengue. The kids used Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente,” which we translated as “Namaig zoolon uns.” (Kiss me softly). Lots of hip shaking. Lots of crazy turns. Some scandalous come-hither moves. We practiced it for two nights. Then the kids got on stage and swayed to the music. You cannot believe how cute Mongolian kids are. Especially the boys. Their favorite hairstyle is the Mullet, followed by rat-tails, and then sideburns. The boys spike their hair into little ponytails and then smother glitter all over themselves. The girls wear two things: tiny shreds of sequins, and frizzy red hairbows that are bigger than their own heads.

Unfortunately, my camera broke so I couldn’t take pictures.

You could never get American kids to do anything like this.

The talent show judges gave “Namaig zoolon uns” a 4 out of 5. : )

When the Soviets came to Mongolia, they established universal literacy and killed thirty thousand lamas. They built railroads and demolished monasteries. They introduced nutritious root vegetables like turnips; they also made sure that strong vodka replaced mild airag as the country’s favorite drink.

While many Mongolians detest the Chinese, folks feel ambivalent about the Russians. In 1921, after kicking out the Manchus, Mongolia proclaimed itself a communist country. Soon Mongolia fell under the sway of the Soviet Union.

When I ask about communist times, Mongolians tend to list the good things about the Russians first. They mention the bad parts almost as an afterthought. Our host sisters still sing us this ditty: “Boroo, boroo, orooroi, orosni mamo ireerei.” (Rain rain please fall, Russian children please come.) 

Russians built Mongolia’s second-largest city, Darkhan. Darkhan means “Blacksmith” in Mongolian. The Economist debates whether Darkhan is a good or bad legacy, describing it sourly as “grim and industrial.”  Here are a few glances at Darkhan. (from training this summer)

Socialist realism at the supermarket

This is the big Nomin supermarket — its front entrance still bears this gaudy Socialist Realist sculpture.

The guy on the left (next to the horses) looks Mongolian, and the dude on the right bears Russian features. It gets better if you go inside. A five-foot-high bust of Lenin adorns one wall. Lenin faces a similar bust of Mongolia’s own revolutionary hero, Damdiny Sukhbaatar.

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New kids on the apartment block
Darkhan has many 1960’s Soviet apartments, but this one might be my favorite.

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Although I didn’t get a photo of the other building I really like, which is scrawled:  “Pablic Enima ? “