Friday, 18 July 2008

11a - Out and about in Ulaanbaatar

Quite a city… they say it’s crowded and I suppose it is but where I come from its not.

You see it’s a big country with a small population. So by Mongolian standards it’s crowded. By London standards this is a breeze. Really. But it is dusty – I’ll give the guidebook that.

I’ve been in the country for 36 hours and done a lot of wandering around. Befriending the occasional traveller but mainly hitting the language barrier at full speed when encountering Mongolians. Sigh.

Still it’s the kind of place you wish you had 10 eyes in. just to take in the multitude of different sights and sounds. One interesting (and annoying) bit is getting served on plates loosely wrapped in cling-film. Is that done for some benefit of the plate or the customer or a desire not to do any washing? Who knows but it’s definitely unnecessary in my eyes.

So far I have been out both nights I’ve been here, you know getting the feel for the place and all that. I’ve also managed to find the uber-trendy cocktail lounges. And encountered the same hostess in the same outfit at both. Shame about that language barrier. All I can do so far is mutter something akin to ‘thank you’. So in the first one The Crystal Lounge, while nursing a Black Russian alone in a low chair I observed a young Mongol complete with Fohawk leave his booth, come to the bar to grab a straw for a compatriot. He dropped it on the floor. Then picked it up, replaced it back among the others, took a different one and returned to his table. Not having much else to do but watch and think about this I imagined he may have thought “I can’t give this to one of my friends now, its been on the floor and I’m sure they saw me drop it, but if I just throw it away unused then this might be the straw that breaks the planet’s back. But what you don’t know won’t kill you so I’ll just put it back and no-one will be the wise, the next dude will just use it no problem.”

Obviously he could’ve thought a load of other things but more than likely was not thinking at all merely acting on what his current level of social conditioning/learning had led him to do (and in whatever state of intoxication he may have been operating at who knows).
But the back-story for me has to be in his social awareness. He believes the group of friends would not want a straw from the floor but won’t think harshly of him for putting it back. Or he didn’t believe in the 5-second rule for him using the straw if it was for him. That said the 5-second rule doesn’t apply in trendy cocktail lounges anyway as everyone knows their floors are much dirtier than normal bars.

What really struck me about all of this was the impenetrability of his thinking to me. I had to imagine what he thought without any chance of really finding out.
You see, as I can’t even say hello yet in Mongolian there was no danger of me asking: “Excuse me, when you picked that straw up were you concerned for yourself, your friends, what they thought of you or trying to spare the planet another 3 cubic cm of plastic?”

Mind you I’m unlikely to really have risked that kind of “calibration question” in most circumstances anyway. Which is also why I try not to talk to anyone 12 hours into an expedition from 7 hours behind on almost zero sleep. That’s not really true either… actually that’s exactly what I do try to do. But it’s a good thing I’m incommunicable.

That’s what this kind of travel is like – coming to one’s own conclusions and examining what I would do in the same place. And Christ I really hope that in a similar situation I do not pause to consciously consider it! Around that moment I also considered that I had better not have another Black Russian cocktail either. It had mixed far too well with my jetlag.

So here’s another revealing incident. Foreign toilets. This one had an inner toilet room and an outer basin and mirror room. All western normality except I can’t find the light for the inner department. At all. So I convince myself there is none or it’s broken. I manage. Go back to my Black Russian. Incident above happens. Finish and go to leave. Go back to toilet to find the light is on… try to find its switch, fail again. Laugh at myself. Reminds me a bit of the things one accepts while travelling and excuses one makes for altering one’s social conditioning. All good. Except strip fluoro lighting is never acceptable.

Now all this communicating with others is good and adventurous but one also has to be very careful and always understand that a good exit strategy will help in “Survival from the Thickest” e.g. I met 2 Italian newly weds who’d Trans-Siberian expressed their way to Mongolia starting from Cracow. They tried to show me ALL of their photographs of that journey - yes very nice – Polish you say? Beautiful? Yes I see, and that’s you with all those bottles of wine? Ha-ha, very good, oh Auschwitz and Birkenau… yes… lovely… I mean hideous of course, (sigh)… for your honeymoon you say? Man that encounter sent me heading for the hills straight away.

Other than that I’ve some time spent testing my “photograph monks without them knowing” skills – not very good yet. I’m struggling with attachment issues to the $5 they ask for the pleasure. Though I understand they are not photo opportunities and need a way to fund their mobile phone and ipod purchases too - just like the rest of us. I’m managing my expectations about this. And if I sound jaded its just because I’m trying to be funny and still jetlagged, up late at night worrying about who I’m going to rent my apartment to next year. That is how much I am NOT living in the moment right now. I’m sure tomorrow will be different to this late night.

Met a bunch of folk trying to get themselves organised for an eclipse trip over to the west… a Russian, some Brits and an American. Nice people. But I’m glad I am on an organised tour for this one… just easier and I’m ok with that for once. Having thrown some money at the problems of unreliable cars and 3-hour flights rather than 4-day drives! And met a British/Japanese couple who've also been to all the eclipses i've been to so far... party people. Nice.

Not many other eclipse-heads around so far. There was a major eclipse close to the capital back in 1997, which was clouded out so I think the Mongolians have just given up on the event. Back then they expected 6000 visitors and only got 1000, tour operators lost money etc, so they don’t see it as a big tourist attraction either, … and perhaps it is not…

Anyway – tomorrow I am abandoning civilization for a whole 3 nights as I head out into the wild to see what finds me out there.

Then I am back to meet up with the eternal David Haupt – he’s going to be in for a rough time as I drag him around Ulaanbaatar while He’s jetlagged and I am not!

Right now see also this stuff about Horizons.

Oh and this about Black Moons

The snaps included here are 2 entries into the sneaky monk shots but they’re not gonna win anything – I’m just showing you I‘m trying! Note the pigeons clustering in the shade…

A man-in-the-box artwork reminding one to think about getting out of the box

A shamanic temple sign but no sign of the shamans – just some VERY drunk, very toothless types. And yes I know a shaman could look like anything but these were probably just temple guards… we’ll see… I do hope to encounter some of this business...

My offering for silly foreign sign...

And best of all a VERY cool dinosaur(s) fossil of a protocerotops battling a velociraptor. Apparently they were covered by a sand-dune midfight.

I have a bit of a pattern with writing these things... I want to communicate and really enjoy doing so. However I leave it to the last minute usually. Just like a school project. It generally means that they're a little rushed. So it goes. I'm noting that in my own life - i'm generally a little rushed... and its also often with self-imposed deadlines... awareness... disconnection... dialogue... recycle to a positive alternative...

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