27 Oct, 2009
Mongolia: Part Two
Posted by: Scott In: The Rally
After I returned to Ulaanbaatar from the Gobi Desert I spent most of the days hagning out with new friends while the nights were spent conversing at the local watering holes. I had the chance to attend a house party, see traditional Mongolian Theater, visit the somewhat laughable Mongolian Museum of Natural History, and, most impressively, order bottle service at the bar every night ($20 for a very drinkable bottle of Genghis Khan vodka!). The city was growing on me and I was having a great time and meeting lots of cool people, but my journey was steadily coming to an end.
Wednesday was a day of recovery for me after the journey to the Gobi. It was punctuated by an excellent dinner with Brigitte, Joachim, and some of the others from the marathon trip at Taj Mahal Indian restaurant. On Thursday I went with another Rotary member, Margaret, a New Zealander who donates much of her time to Prison Fellowship International, to visit one of the local prisons outside of the city. We drove with the prison director about thirty minutes outside of Ulaanbaatar to an area marked ‘No Trespassing’. I helped Margaret and her two volunteers transport supplies into their makeshift office on the third floor before setting off with her to do the weekly ‘meet and greet’ routine with all of the fifty or so prisoners interred there. Many of them seemed very nice and were eager to shake my hand and hear about the rally–some even wanted to practice their English with me! It was after meeting the first few convicts that I learned of the fact that each and every person there was doing a 25-30 year sentence for murder. That kind of weirded me out–not because I felt in danger or anything, but because I would have never though nine out of ten of them were murderers just by meeting and talking with them. Definitely not the stereotypical murderer inmate one may think of when watching American television, that’s for sure. Many of the men there were busy building gers (yurts) and other Mongolian objects out of small folded interlocking triangles of paper. They were paid a small amount of money for each one made (one could easily take two days of work), and they were sold in town to tourists as souvenirs. Upon overhearing the story of my rally woes one of the guards went to a nearby cell and returned with a gift for me–a ger cart one of the inmates had crafted. “This is to replace the car you lost during the journey,” he said as he signed an inscription on the back and handed it over to me.
After we had said hello to all of the inmates we went back to the office and had personal talks with two of the men interred there. The first one had been there for three years and was charged with killing his wife and son. He told a heart wrenching story of how he had threatened to divorce his cheating wife one night and awoke to find that she overdosed on some type of strange Chinese medicine. He took his wife’s body in his car over to pick up his son from the inlaw’s house and when the child heard what had happened and saw his mother’s body he started weeping uncontrollably and wasn’t able to breathe, which caused him to pass out and die himself. It wasn’t long before people got suspicious of his wife’s whereabouts and the police went to look for him. When they found him burying the two dead bodies his fate was sealed. Well, that and the lead prosecutor was his wife’s brother. The story may have been true or may not have been true. All I know is that this large, middle-aged man was weeping the entire time he was relaying the saga to us, and it is not unheard of in Mongolia for people to be sent to jail for crimes they did not commit. Sometimes it’s as simple as bribing the right people and you can rid yourself of an thorn in your side for good. The second man didn’t relay much of his own story, just that he wanted to move levels because an obviously unstable man from his village was in the cell next to him and taunted him endlessly every day and night. He metnioned that he used to be friends with the guy back when they lived near each other but at some point it seemed like his mind had snapped and now he was very unstable. During the interviews Margaret and the others asked the inmates if they needed anything in particular, if they had been in contact with their families at all, and tried to get an overall sense of how the person was doing. The prisoners are only allowed three hours every six months with their families and/or friends, and they never even have a view of the outside world the entire time of their incarceration, so one can see how that could take quite the mental toll on anybody. Right before we called the guard in to collect the second prisoner Margaret took him over to the window. He hadn’t seen the outside world in years–you could tell he appreciated the chance.
On Friday I gave a presentation on my journey to the Rotary Club of BayanZurkh 100 at the Chinggis Club Restaurant & Brewery, which had been founded by my hostess, Brigitte, some five years earlier. It was a small club, but it had been instrumental in many important humanitarian efforts all around Mongolia, including our efforts to help build and outfit a kindergarten in a very remote, rural part of the country. This was followed up with a private tour of one of the Italian member’s cheese making and research facilities–he is trying to develop his own variety of mozzarella cheese in the capital. That night I got back together with Brigitte to attend the weekly Steppe Inn event at the British Embassy. There we had drinks and conversation with notable personalities from the area and abroad for a few hours before heading off to the Grand Khaan for a few drinks with some friends.
That night it began to snow. On Saturday is was a blizzard most of the day. My friend Ann, who had volunteered at the children’s hospital in Ulaanbaatar for the last four months or so, had her flight back to London cancelled due to inclement weather, so we decided to meet up and hang out until she could fly out. We visited the Mongolian Museum of Natural History. We had heard that there were some great exhibitions of dinosaur bones that had been dug up where I had just done the marathon, in the Flaming Cliffs area of Bayanzag, South Gobi. The truth is that the museum features a rather ramshackle collection of various dinosaur bones along with a bunch of (mostly laughably poorly) stuffed animals of the region. The exception was the small Tyrannosaurus skeleton and the two giant bone arms in the same room. Of course, it only costs about a dollar to get in, so I’m sure if you are ever in the area it’s worth a visit on a rainy day. However, if you do ever visit be aware that it doesn’t really pay off to buy the photography permit for the museum–just about anything that you’d want to photograph (e.g. the dinosaur bones) is off limits to all photography.
It was snowing so hard by this point that you had to look down when walking so that the giant snowflakes wouldn’t blind your vision–this after it had been around 75 degrees fahrenheit the day before! We grabbed some drinks to warm up and proceeded back to the hotel that the airline had put her and the other guests in for the meantime–I snuck in with the others and was able to score a free lunch compliments of MIAT Airlines. That evening I met up with Eve (a Brit that had just come over to teach English for a few months) and some others and attended a showing of Mongolian traditional performances, with throat singing, dancing, instrumental performance, contortionist, opera, and orchestral acts. It was a nice bit of variety and was easily worth the 15,000 tugrik entry fee ($10) for the 90 minute show. That night I joined back up with Ann and Karl (an Australian working for an NGO in the city) and headed to a house party in the ex-pat block of the city. The taxi dropped us off in the wrong place and we ended up walking for fifteen minutes in the snow to get to our final destination. We had a few drinks, met some more interesting people, and retired for the night well into the morning.
I spent the last day in Mongolia packing up my things and went out to treat my hostess to dinner at The Veranda restaurant in the evening. By chance I saw Katia, an Italian I had met the night before at the Mongolian Opera House, sitting by herself at another table. Turns out she was waiting for some other people I knew to come and have dinner togather, but both of them were unable to make it. I invited her over to dine with us and the four of us had a very nice meal (we were later joined by Eve).
It had stopped snowing by this time, so it looked like my flight might actually make it out on time the next morning. I took a final visit over to the Grand Khaan bar to have some parting drinks with Eve before finally making it home after midnight. We had a scare when paying the bill as we thought we didn’t have enough cash on us to cover it–turns out we had just enough between us. I still hasn’t packed yet but was too tired to bother with it. I figured that I’d just set my alarm early so that I’d be able to take a shower and pack before Brigitte’s driver came to pick me up at 5:30AM. I fell asleep and groggily awoke some hours later. It was still dark outside and my stomach wasn’t feeling so great. I sat in bed for a while hoping my stomach would calm down before I took a look at my phone to see what time it was. Crap!!! In classic blunder fashion I accidentally set my alarm for 4:30PM–it was 5:15AM right now. I bolted up and started to get my things together. No time for a shower of course–I could already hear the driver pulling up outside. Twenty minutes later I said goodbye to Brigitte, rushed outside, and got on my way to the airport.
Pictures have been posted in the gallery.