Ulaanbaatar is not a quiet city. It is loud. It is impatient. The clamor of development and collapse gnash relentlessly at your senses. Car horns bray the displeasure of their drivers. You are confronted by the din of construction, the acrid smell of newly layed asphalt, and the reflection of post-socialism in the glossy new buildings around Sukhbaatar Square.
The Luis Vuitton storefront seems unperturbed by its neighbor, the pink and white State Opera & Ballet Theater, in all its Soviet era grandeur.
The capital city gives the impression of being remodeled, of being “in-progress,” and seems to be crumbling nearly as quickly as it is being built. There should be a sign that says, “Under construction, we apologize for the dust.” I quickly learn, though, that Ulaanbaatar is not an apologetic city.
When it rains, the streets flood, alleys become muddy streams, sidewalks must be gingerly negotiated. When it’s dry and there is nothing to keep it pinned down, dust rises up, like a ghost of a nomadic past, choking the air and obscuring the sun. At the end of the day, I can scrape the grit of the city from my forehead and see the grime underneath my fingernail.
I met up with B and his friend Emma yesterday. We nearly missed each other because we hadn’t talked about how to recognize one another after arranging to meet in front of the State Theater. After enough glances had been exchanged to rule out coincidence, B walked over and asked, “Are you Ashely?” Offering a handshake, I told him that I was indeed. B was dressed casually, wearing cargo shorts and a white t-shirt with the NY Yankees logo emblazoned on the front. His friend Emma was wearing a short, patterned blue dress, and impertinent black heels. We joined another friend of theirs at a subterranean haunt called the Broadway Bar and Grill on Peace Avenue.
They were all surprised that I was heading out to Altan Bulag, a small village where, they warned, there probably wasn’t running water, electricity (there was some uncertainty about this declaration), or bathrooms (only outhouses). “Why would you go there?” They inquired, a bit perplexed. “Well,” Emma reassured me, “the town will be cleaner than what you experienced in China.” Somewhat unfounded, turned out, but I wasn’t about to challenge her certainty. “And they will take care of you in the village, they’re much nicer than people in UB,” she said. This, I discovered, was absolutely true.
The trio was curious about my impressions of UB, and prudently avoiding my initial thoughts, I told them that I was blown away by the fashion, which was the truth. Women in particular were dressed to impress. High hemlines, higher heels, and an attitude made up of defiance, confidence, and nonchalance made an instant runway out of the sidewalks, bus stops, and grocery stores.
“What do you think about the traffic?” They inquired. At this I laughed, replying that it was unlike anything I’d experienced. Crossing streets here was even more harrowing than in Beijing – it was like human-sized Frogger. “Yeah, the cars won’t stop for you, even if it’s your green light,” one student said. I agreed, adding, “And they’ll even honk at you as if you were the one at fault!” At which everyone laughed, knowing I wasn’t exaggerating.
I mentioned my consternation at the feeling of being looked at constantly. B’s friend, the guy who was studying in Fairbanks, Alaska, said, “Don’t worry, that’s just how it is, that’s just how people are here.” I recounted an earlier incident when I was walking past a bus stop. An older man caught sight of M and I walking together, and with some obvious hostility, stared at hissed at me (or us) as we passed him. “Ahh…” the students said knowingly, “they think you are Mongolian!” I’d heard from M about a general sentiment that people who are perceived to be bi-racial couples (that is a Mongolian woman with a non-Mongolian man) are not looked upon kindly. Assumed to be a Mongolian woman, even just walking alongside an obvious foreigner was enough to elicit more looks than usual.