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JULY 18, 2003 -> Ulaan Baatar

Though Mongolia's capital has existed in its present location for more than two hundred years, Ulaan Baatar's current manifestation is almost completely the work of the last (largely Russian) century. The Russians had built a functional, though unprepossessing city. But the Russians were gone, and the city had decayed rapidly from neglect and a lack of funds. At its heart, a mesh of wide, poorly paved streets separated tall, Soviet apartment blocks from grim government buildings. The roads buckled and heaved, and heavy rain turned the downtown streets into a grid of canals. The manhole and storm drain covers had long been stolen, making the unlit streets dangerous to walk at night (One evening, Nori fell down a mercifully shallow storm drain). A pall of coal smoke hung over the city, obfuscating the surrounding mountains, and frequent gusts sent asphyxiating clouds of dust down the wide avenues.

The Mongolians had inherited the city, but they did not appear to love it. Old men in dels and knee-high boots wandered the streets as if lost. Street kids, many of whom live below ground, thrust scabby hands towards foreigners, and leaped to vacated restaurant tables to snatch leftovers. Young women, whose grandparents had certainly been livestock farmers, shrieked as they crossed a flooded street, horrified to soil their high-heeled shoes. Ulaan Baatar's 'mall rats' flocked to the State Department Store, a cavernous multistory building that was clearly modeled after Moscow's GUM.

Neighborhoods of slapdash, dust-covered gers, surrounded and encroached upon the city's Russified heart. These 'ger suburbs' resembled an encampment of Mongol warriors that had laid siege to the city for so long that they had laid down roots and put up fences. They were urban nomads, an oxymoron that perfectly captured the uncomfortable limbo between the city and the countryside. When I saw these city gers, I smiled as I remembered the story of Kublai Khan, who built a resplendent palace in his Chinese imperial city of Da-Du, but chose instead to live in a cluster of gers that sat in a grassy plain adjacent to the palace.

Koreans ran the Internet cafes, the beauty salons and numerous restaurants. Rejecting both Chinese and Russian cultures - their former rulers - many urban Mongolians had adopted Korean notions of modernity. Women pruned their eyebrows to thin wisps, whitened their faces to ghostly masks and applied lustrous red-brown lipstick, masterfully emulating the painted ladies of Seoul. Posters for GS666, a popular Mongolian rap band (patterned after Korean, and American groups) were everywhere, its members adopting laughable 'gangsta' poses.

On the first evening back in Ulaan Baatar, the sun still blazing high in a smog-choked sky, we took a taxi to the National Academic Drama Theatre, just south of Sukhbaatar Square. Upstairs, thirty foreigners and a few Mongolians and gathered to watch a performance of traditional song and dance. The show ranged from 'khoomi,' or Mongolian throat-singing, to orchestral pieces played with traditional Mongolian instruments, to an amazing contortionist, and included a twangy, orientalized Mozart's "Rondo." Everyone (including us) had come for the throat-singing, but the rest of the performance surprised with its diversity and beauty.

The first throat-singing piece was a solo by one of the 'khuuchir' players. The khuuchir is a two-stringed violin with a carved horse head atop the instrument's long neck. The singer was tall and goofy, with a skinny face and slightly skewed nose. Ever since my father first mentioned throat-singing to me, I had been determined to see it in person. Khoomi only exists in Mongolia, the Tuva region of southern Russia and in pockets of Kazakhstan. I couldn't wait to experience this unique art, which my father had found impossible to explain.

His song began with an aggressive, deep growl; gravelly words like a George Thoroughgood song. If he had howled "Bad to the Bone" it would have been a perfect impression. All the while he kept a droning 'wah-wang' sound on the khuuchir. Then his mouth nearly closed and a startling trill of ultra-high pitched notes - like a thin sheet of metal flexing - seemed to spirit from the air above him. His face remained impassive as the vocal gymnastics continued. It was as if he had swallowed a number of small, exotic instruments, played at his bidding by some servile homunculus.

On another day, I took a long walk around Sukhbaatar Square. Named for Damdiny Sukhbaatar, who declared Mongolian independence from the Chinese in 1921, the square is large and grand in the Soviet style; a foretaste of unvisited Russian and eastern European capital cities. In the middle of the square, the mounted Sukhbaatar now charged across a plain of broken pavement and tiles. We had been told that the Mongolians had been rushing to finish refurbishments in time for Naadam, but they had not made it, and now a single grater pawed disconsolately at the rubble.

Numerous pseudo-classical buildings faced the square, most wearing fresh colors of bright-colored paint. The State Opera & Ballet Theatre - in salmon - had performances of the "Chinggis Khan Opera" and Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" later in the month. The stock exchange - in ferric red - looked closed. Several old government buildings - in yellow and pistachio - had been taken over by private enterprise, and sold shoes or low-quality paintings. Next to the grey - and still stately - Parliament building, the Palace of Culture looked like the deck of an abandoned container ship. Now half-empty, the Palace had become a graffiti-covered latrine. Only the ship's helm - a tall tower girdled with metal eaves like a Russified Buddhist temple - still appeared to fulfill its original purpose, and was occupied by numerous government ministries and, oddly, the DHL office.

 

Scott

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