Wednesday, August 17, 2011

[SUKHBAATAR] I’m Usually the One Who Does the Staring

The train arrived at around 9:30 AM as was stated on the schedule. I immediately got my backpack and walked around. The weather is weird in Ulan Bator. The sunlight is so intense but there's that cool wind that keeps everything balanced. Still, I was sweating profusely and I could feel the back of my shirt already drenched with sweat. Thanks, backpack. My feet took me to a convenience store. I asked the young lady sweeping the sidewalk where Sukhbataar Square, the landmark indicated in the instructions to the guesthouse, was. Luckily, she answered in English and the answer was 10 kilometers. Shut up?

10 meters would have been too near and would have placed the guest house within my range of vision. 10 miles would mean absolutely more walking. So I just smiled, said, "Thank you.", and walked away. I found a tour operator's office and asked inside. The guy told me to ride bus number 20 in front of Ulaanbaatar Train Station. "Four or five stops and you are there.” he said. That sounds better than walking 10 kilometers. When I saw Air Market, the other landmark stated on the paper, I collected my stuff in a hurry and got off at the bus stop where I had my first glimpse of Sukhbaatar Square. My eyes widened, and like those green aliens in Toy Story, I let out an "Oooooohhh" out of amazement.

I felt like I owed myself some rest after the long journey. The truth is that I was able to sleep pretty well on the train. In fact, I slept too well. But "Lazy" is my middle name so despite arriving in UB before lunch, I still chose to waste the head-start. I stepped out of the guest house at five, ate their version of Beefsteak at Food Planet (which is really more like "Torta" to us), and roamed around Sukhbaatar Square by six. I was able to finish my tour of the city's northeast side, at least those shown on the map, in just three hours. Clearly, there wasn't much to see. Most of the time was spent taking photos and videos of buildings, both old and new. A short stop at Librairie Papillon was obligatory. You know bookstores and I. A lot of walking happened, which I often do. At least I got to have some exercise that I badly needed.

Camwhoring with Genghis Khan and friends was necessary. You don't see such display of greatness in a square that often. What will strike you as most notable about Sukhbaatar's Square is its size. The open space is so welcoming and you can enjoy watching a lot of people engaged in different activities, may they be social like sharing the latest gossip in Mongolian, intimate such as holding hands under Sukhbaatar's horse, sporty like rollerblading or biking, and plain nasty like spitting. Yes, Mongolians love to spit a lot just like the Chinese, although I don't think they really "love to", but rather, "have to". On this side of Asia, this seems to be a common trait dictated by the same traditions. Back on topic, if Sukhbaatar (the guy on the horse) has his own square, Genghis khan has the government palace. He sits majestically on his throne as the centerpiece of the building's façade. His friends guard the sides.

Sukhbaatar and Genghis belonged to different eras of Mongolia's colorful history so they obviously haven't had the chance to meet. At least now they share the same vicinity teeming with tourists and locals alike. There is plenty of time for a game of getting to know you. For tourists, however, snapping those photos are first priority and this might be quite difficult because of the intense heat of the sun. Finding the right angle is just so damn hard because of its blinding rays. Perhaps, you'd like to see the surrounding buildings first? You have no choice so just oblige. The buildings around the square are an odd mix of different architectural styles and varying ages, from the pastel colored State Academy Theater of Opera and Ballet to the ultramodern Sky Blue across Peace Avenue, you won't run out of buildings to pose in front of. The thing is, what you are going to realize in the long run is that you are just taking pictures and nothing else. If culture and history are what you really are interested in, UB has many museums scattered around its districts. On the other hand, if you want to experience living in a ger or enjoying Mongolia’s natural attractions, you have to get out of UB.

Terelj National Park, for example, is a two hour trip east of the city. Locals and tourists alike go there mostly on weekends. Due to lack of pre departure information and time, I chose to no longer go. But that does not mean that you don't have to. The bus going there is said to leave from Peace Avenue at 4 PM and come back the next day at 8 AM. This info is not verified. It's just stock knowledge from Gobi Tours Guest House's landlady. What they usually suggest is to spend around a week if you really want to maximize your Mongolian trip.

Walking around, I noticed that the locals have been staring at me for, like, forever. This isn't an exaggeration. At Zamyn Uud I understood this behavior well enough because I seemed to be the only foreigner prancing around the train station but here in UB you also get to see some tourists but as you might have figured, most of them are Caucasians. What do I mean by “staring”? Simple, their eyes are glued on me. In my short stay of three days I’ve received a lot of attention here ranging from glances of curiosity similar to what I experienced in Beijing days after (Local notices me, thinks: “Oh look! There’s a brown foreigner!” and goes on with his life) to glares of pure perplexity (Local notices me, stares for a minute and lingers on even after passing by). Some of them in their cars would even look sideways for a while before focusing on the street. It’s weird and what you feel ranges from amusement to annoyance.

Why do they stare like that, then? I have two theories. Theory A: I look like a malnourished velociraptor growing a moustache. Theory B: Not a lot of Southeast Asians have been to this side of the continent. I’d like to believe Theory A, but then that would dismiss them as a nation of shallow people obsessed with their own concept of beauty, so let’s just try Theory B.

According to the tourism magazine that the landlady gave me (there’s a UB map inside), there are only around 5,000 foreigners in their city. I bet that most of them are Caucasians. In short, white. Caucasians are everywhere in Asia, may they be the typical tourists with large backpacks or the executives in long sleeves, so they seem commonplace. So I figured that if you are a Mongolian living in UB, you'll most likely be used to seeing human beings with just two templates for physical appearance: the fellow Mongolian and the Caucasian. Brown Southeast Asian? I think not. Maybe on TV? While their government seems to be doing a lot to promote tourism, it will always be a fact that Mongolia’s remote location will be a hindrance. To go here by plane is expensive; by train, time consuming. I would say that the typical Mongolian will probably not be able to go out of their country for various reasons, very much like a tourist from Southeast Asia would choose to just go somewhere cheaper and closer to home. Hence, the curiosity. What am I trying to say?

If ever you find yourself in Mongolia and get the same treatment, don’t be shocked and just try to understand them from their own perspective. What I’ve observed after living with them for a few days in their city is that they are very much like Filipinos. They love to chat and they love to laugh. They are a happy people. They just seem to be wary of me because I look alien to them, both literally and figuratively. To add to the problem, I don’t speak their language and they don’t speak English that much, but this has not prevented some of them to try to communicate with me using their own language, probably thinking that I would finally understand them after some constant repetition. This makes me believe that they really are a friendly bunch. It’s the language barrier that is the real culprit here.

Mongolian has a notorious reputation for being hard to learn. They use a traditional script written downwards. You will see a lot of this on names of establishments and road signs in Zamyn Uud and Erenhot but surprisingly, not so much in UB where it seems to be used more for aesthetic purposes. This traditional script has bowed down to Cyrillic, the same alphabet used by many Slavic languages of which the most popular is Russian. I know how to read Cyrillic. The thing is that, it is an alphabet.

It would be similar to you knowing how to read something in Spanish because Filipino is written using the same Roman alphabet, but that does not mean that you will understand it very much like you wouldn’t Hawaiian or Afrikaans. You can probably try to read them but you wouldn’t know what they really mean. So, is knowledge of Cyrillic indispensable in UB? I’d say so. Your map will more likely show the street names using the Roman alphabet but the actual road sign (if you find any) will be in Cyrillic. Example? Sukhbaatar will be written in your map as Suhbaatar, Sukhbaatar, or Sükhbatar, depending on the convention of transliteration used. In the actual place, however, it'll be written like this: Сүхбаатар, which you’ll probably try to read as “Kayxbaatap”. So tell me, is your map that useful to you now?

I’m sorry if I bored you with some language geek verbal diarrhea. I’m just stating what I experienced so you can plan ahead if you want to go to UB as well and maybe try to learn some Cyrllic (it's not that hard, promise). Anyway, I skipped a mall or two but I was able to cover the whole northeast section of the city in three hours. If you love shopping you’ll probably need more time but if you just want to snap a photo in front of a landmark and take videos of the interesting places to see, half a day would most likely suffice, for Suhbaatar. Spare around a hundred US dollars if you want to buy a cashmere product that would come in handy in cold weather conditions. Mongolia is really famous for those cashmere coats.

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