I’m in Ulaanbaatar and I can’t stop smiling. For some reason when I was in Guatemala I had the crazy idea of coming here, and ever since I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I can’t believe I’m here. I love it.
Mongolians (at least here in the capital) dress very fashionably. Their chic outfits are a funny contrast to the drab concrete buildings and dusty streets. Also, they dress like Minnesotans do in April: like, “It’s supposed to be warm, right? So I’m gonna wear my sundress and cute sandals, dangit.” No matter what the mercury says, summer is an attitude. (Note: on sunny days, it actually is really warm.)
The city’s avenues are laid out in the luxuriously expansive way of human settlements that are surrounded by vast unpopulated space, sort of like a scaled-up version of a town in the American West.
The air here feels so crisp and light. Like the air on a fall day on Lake Superior. Maybe it’s the altitude, or the fact that I’m not wading through humidity like in Indonesia. I know that it’s far more polluted here than it will be when I make it out to the countryside, but my lungs are still delighting.
Nights in UB are bleak. I don’t like being startled by drunk men lurching out of stillness from the bars. But my cheeks glow from the nighttime chill and the stars are breathtaking.
English-Russian-Mongolian wrestling dictionary, anyone?
A couple months ago I read a travel blog about Mongolia; the author had traveled extensively in Central America and Africa, but advised his readers that public transit in Mongolia is by far the most grueling and uncomfortable ride that he’s experienced. Of course I took that as a challenge rather than a warning, so tomorrow I leave for Murun, a 20 to 27 hour bus ride away, in Khovsgol aimag in the north. There’s a cooperative there that I hope I’ll be able to find and communicate with.
If not, I’ve decided not to stress about it. During my first few days here I spent a significant amount of time stressing out about my contacts not working out and knowing neither the language nor Cyrillic script and not being sure about how to find/choose the “right” craftswomen to hang out with and about having some of my fantasyland preconceived notions shattered. So much energy spent stressing! I spent plenty of energy enjoying myself, too, but still. I have had an incredible 11 months. I am in a country of enormous natural beauty, and I want to go explore the countryside. I miss wilderness and camping and feeling tested by the outdoors! I’ll do my best to find craftswomen out there, but if it doesn’t go as planned, I am determined to have an amazing time nonetheless. My new mantra (I’m really into mantras) is “Every hour is adventure hour.”**
The shattering-of-preconceived-notions has actually been really interesting. Here are a couple significant things I’ve learned:
- About 1/3 of Mongolia’s population lives here in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. This is a huge increase over the course of a few years; a couple especially harsh winters devastated livestock populations and forced many people who lived as nomads for hundreds of years into urban areas, seeking jobs and opportunities. Unfortunately, Ulaanbaatar doesn’t have enough jobs, housing, or services to accommodate these former herders, which leads to ger districts around the city’s periphery where crime is high and opportunities are scarce (ger is the Mongolian word for yurt.)
- Consequently, most women’s craft groups are formed in urban areas to provide employment for the masses of people who have left their herding livelihoods in the countryside. (Unfortunately, urban Mongolia is not really where I hoped to spend most of my time.)
- Most felt crafts here have been developed over the last 20 years with the help of Scandinavian NGOs. Very few of the felt souvenirs are traditional. Foreign NGOs even introduced new breeds of sheep which give wool that’s better suited to felting…but the sheep can’t live outside in Mongolian winters.
——Ahhhh… So the glory and the trouble of the Watson year is that one two-hour meeting can turn all your plans upside down. A few hours after writing most of this post, I met an awesome felt artist and am now calling into question a lot of the things I decided on over the last couple days of stressin. I think I’m going to attempt to cram every conflicting thing I want to do (which is about five distinct goals) into less than four weeks. I just bought a tent. I’m excited.
Happy Independence Day, friends.
**Maybe somewhere in the Mongolian steppes I’ll even find a tray of DC cookies. Or the key to the bell tower door. Who knows.