Monday, July 30

So it's over. I'm home. The last ten days a rumble of countryside trips, horseriding, the casual sadism of a 33-hour Aeroflot delay. The complete photos are here, the second Times article is here, a third is hopefully to come. And a fourth, I don't know, I have my fingers crossed about the magic fourth.

Monday, July 16

First fruits

Here's my first article in The Times about Mongolia: how Mongolia won the war in Iraq.

Sunday, July 15

Disco Club 1

River Sounds is the place where the old people go. It’s a couple of hundred yards off Sukhbaatar Square and the band plays jazzy Russo-Mongolian violin numbers and lounge favourites. “Mongolians love music, they just love music for its own sake,” said a British mining expert who took me there. The singer in his tuxedo sang Volare and the crowd of paunches, Mongolian suits, Western chinos surged for the floor. An American with a belly and awful pointing dancefingers wallowed around two Mongolian women while someone else pointed out two Mongolian generals surrounded by twenty girls. At one point two Americans from a visiting air force band got up on stage and joined in with a harmonica and a trombone. The microphone came alive and the harmonica nearly blew the roof off.


The name Oyun is known across Mongolia, greeted with a nod, and it belongs to Sanjaasurengin Oyun, a Cambridge-educated geologist who was working for Rio Tinto in 1998 when her older brother, Zorig, Mongolia’s bright young transport minister who was considered a likely Democratic Prime Minister one day, was stabbed to death in his home in Ulaanbaatar in an unsolved political murder that bothers the country still. “I was thrown more or less into politics,” she said in her office at the end of a long day of debates and votes in the Hural, the national parliament. Did she wish she had stayed out of it? “Everyone has dilemmas about their life all the time,” she replied. Oyun has black hair, touched with grey, that stops above her shoulders. She is 42 and a beautiful woman. But she is tired. On the wall above her desk was the apparently voluntary-obligatory portrait of Chinggis Khan you see in nearly every office in Mongolia and on the conference table was thicket of documents from BHP Billiton, the mining company. Oyun told me about her work as the head of the standing committees on poverty-reduction and anti-corruption. As just one of two MPs in her Citizen’s Will party, Oyun is considered a valuable dealmaker between the Democratic Party, a rowdy, fragile coalition, and the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, the more orderly but still fractious successor to the Communist party. Her integrity makes her influential, but she is an outsider. “We’ve had 17 years of so-called transition that we are struggling to finish,” she said. “For the majority of people life is not much better than it was in Soviet times. People knew that transition would be difficult but it is time to get moving. We need to make some clear and right decisions.”

Oyun seemed impatient for change. She outspokenly supports massive administrative reform in Mongolia: shrinking the number of aimags from 21 to four, combining empty rural soums, condemning towns so small they are not going anywhere. She wants the big mining deals with foreign investors to go through. “It is bad to focus all your interests in mining but this is the only game in town,” she said. “First we should be getting into mining and then diversifying afterwards. You can be clever and theoretical about it but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be brave, instead of just dragging on and dragging on. We need to come up with a solution and get on with it.” Her words conveyed activity but her voice sounded like it made these arguments before and was not sure they were being listened to anymore. It was after seven o’clock by this point. It was her son’s birthday. It had been a long day. I said I couldn’t tell whether I was just tired, or she was just tired, or whether the frustration ran deeper. “We have had a lot of challenges and debates here,” she said. “And most of the decisions we were making were done more or less in the right way: reason prevailed. I thought that until a couple of years ago, that common sense prevailed. But it looks a little different now. Now politicians here have learned you can use power for your vested interests.” She talked about the need for more research facilities, think tanks, more evidence in parliamentary debates. I asked her again whether she was tired of it all. “I’m actually tired,” she said. “After nine years it’s been very interesting, but if I can compare my life as a geologist and my life as a politician I will say this: as a geologist I saw bright colours, but it was on narrow spectrum. Now as a politician I have seen the full spectrum, from the very dark to the very bright. Maybe I am getting tired from the dark.”

Disco Club 2

“When I go to River Sounds I feel old,” complained a Mongolian businesswoman in her thirties. “But when I go to Metropolis I feel old as well.” Metropolis is just a little further out of town, by the Sky Department Store and I went with a group of young Mongolians on a Saturday night. We got there early, about ten thirty, and some toughs were doing wheelspins in the carpark. Inside it was white and curvy, like spaceships used to be. We took a booth and waited for it to fill up. Vampish Mongolian women with long legs, pouffed hair and little clothes started arriving. So did westerners, so did bloated Mongolian men in shorts and basketball tops. “You like this place?” Said one to me at the bar. “Lot of fine women.” And the music was house, crowdpleasing mostly, ABBA gone strong, that kind of thing, but every now and then it would lapse into that duv-duv-di-di-di-duv-duv-duv that makes me afraid that my brain might just fuck it and leave right there. One thing River Sounds and Metropolis have in common, though, is strobe. Mongolians love to strobe. Get the thing on and leave it, make some shapes, wonder if the world is made of stills. When the ordinary disco lights resume, everyone seems so clumsy and pink and real.

Friday, July 13

The great empty

The wide plain, the total sky, the sound of the wind: sometimes you feel as if you could move forever, other times you feel overwhelmed, that you can’t take a step. The first time I stood in the bareness needing to pee, I couldn’t. It was as if the act had taken on some kind of planetary importance. But then, in the jeep, there was no earthly reason not to carry on driving into the night and the next night. Perhaps that’s what Chinggis and the Golden Hordes thought: there’s no point stopping now.

Ninja 1: The vet

“My dream was to be a vet, and that is what I was,” said the man who sat by a rectangular hole on the hillside. “But now you see that I dig in the ground to find gold for my food.” His name was Batnasan and we had come across him as we picked our way among the hundreds of hand-dug shafts, some only a few feet deep, otherwise worryingly black and vertical, in Bayan Ovoo, one of the soums in Bayankhongor. Batnasan’s hole was one of the worrying ones, but he sat beside it calmly: he wasn’t going down it again today. He was smoking a cigarette instead, enjoying every suck between lips that opened, now and again, to reveal the missing teeth behind. Batnasan was 50. He qualified as a vet for Ulziit soum, the next door district, in 1981. He used to do his rounds on his motorbike or horse, depending on the case, until the veterinary service was privatized and all the animals died in the dzuds. “When I was a vet it was a very wonderful time for me. I was working for the government,” he said. “Two or three times a year I would check each herd, give them vaccinations and drugs. It was a happy time for me. This was my profession.” He removed from the ash from his cigarette with his thumb. “To be a good vet you need to have very good skills of hearing. Animals cannot say what it is their mind: ‘I am hurt in the heart, my liver, my lung. I am hurt here.’ Vets must have very good hearing, good sight, good checking. It should be very quiet, very gentle, when they communicate with the animals.” Batnasan had been a ninja miner for two years now and would earn about 7,000 tugriks that day. “Every night when I am in bed, I think this should stop. Then every morning I go down 15 metres into a hole and think today or tomorrow I could die.” He did not think a mining would help Mongolia. “Do not believe this,” said Batnasan. “Some day soon this will all be finished.”

The great empty 2

Ulaanbaatar is a Soviet city of cranes, backpackers (see below), nothing-looking shops that turn out to be quite nice supermarkets. Although the winters are ferocious, a freezing welter of pollution, while I was there the city was balmy, pleasant, with no hint of the enormity that surrounds it. Until one night. Then, when I was leaving the guesthouse, there was a portent of what lay beyond the hills, above our heads. Thunder moved constantly in the air and large, isolated drops of rain fell here and there. To the north and the south, above Sukhbaatar Square, dark clouds lay like stones under a stream, but they were falling down. Only to the west was the sky still ripped open with blue but it did not look healthy, while the east was the awful yellow of a sandstorm. For a few minutes, it felt like the colours of the rainbow were going to collide. And at that moment, a twill of sirens, and a crowd was running towards where police cars were mounting onto the square. Within seconds hundreds of Mongolians were there, hastily being pushed back by police in their white shirts, tiny, filthy boys dodging everybody. It was the return of the nine Nadaam standards – replicas of the horse-hair banners carried into battle by Chinggis Khan – which were being carried back to the parliament building. Nine horsemen in the loopy red and blue of the Mongolian honour guard were trotting across the square with a back-up of maybe two dozen more, and behind them came the crowd, jostling, crashing into children, under this topsy-turvy sky. And here’s the thing: they were picking up the horseshit that was tumbling down and they were keeping it. Fact.


Fucking hate backpackers.

Thursday, July 12

Pictures Pictures

Been bashing away at my articles in an office in Ulan Bator while the rest of Mongolia gets drunk, listens to the same pop records and eats horhog -- bloody delicious peppery barbecue. No complaining though. Nearly finished. And I threw a few pictures on Flickr.

Saturday, July 7

Peace and Calm

Enkh Nomun means peace and calm and I am told it is as good as any hotel in Bayanhongor, a tough, scratchy provincial capital 550km to the west of Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital. It is a red and blue four-storey house, one of the tallest buildings around, and looks out, upright, with bay windows, over about an acre of gravel and broken up stones that make up most of the surface of the town. Open the front door and a water pipe, four inches of the ground, threatens to trip you up even if you’re not drunk, which a lot of people are at the Enkh Nomun. My room is number 10, on the third floor, up the uneven staircase, and in a mad, unfathomable way, it is a suite. A kind of pimp’s purgatory. Room one, by the door, is empty except for two brown polyester armchairs slammed against the far wall, a broken coatstand and a dark stain in the middle of the floor. The main room is enormous: a double bed made up in pink and orange with a plastic coated headboard, studded with metal bits, and a chest of drawers that flips open upwards, like a desk, but broken, when you pull at the drawers. There is a bedside lamp with a 3-foot lead but the nearest and only socket in the place is about 18 feet away by the bay window whose floor is covered in flies and whole structure speaks of a flimsiness that makes me afraid to go near it. The bathroom is like a Mafiosi abattoir, the place where it ends. It has one of those set-ups where a shower head is attached to the tap like a hose and just hangs, nonchalantly, on a wall of tiles. You see it and you know the time will come when you abandon your pants in the next room, step over the raised lintel onto the cold, strangely moving tiles, and, naked as a prisoner, soap clutched in your free hand, you turn the tap and unloose a watery burst of hell and slipping that may just end with your mouth bloodied, knee banged, teeth missing into the brown maw of the exposed workings of a toilet built with only moderately good intentions in the days when Communism still seemed like it was going somewhere. In fact, the shower could barely dampen me, so it was humiliation I felt, not pain. “Fucking shower,” I said, daring it to break into life. Nothing.

Russian Jeep

I sit in the front with Tulga, the driver, whose name means oven. When I am out of the car, with Erdenbileg, interviewing, Tulga sleeps, throwing his seat and its white cover back. When we return he jerks upright and, if the sun is shining, puts on a pair of narrow sunglasses that look part medical, part Robocop, and starts the jeep with a mysterious, low down grope that shudders it into gear. Out in the open, tumbling along on the mismash of paths that are scrawled across the grasslands or bashed through the riverbeds, Tulga drives like an organist, upright, hands a flutter between wheel and gears. Everything is avoided – puddles, stones, two-foot dips – as if the boxy, light blue Russian jeep is made of balsa-wood, not steel. When conversation subsides and I start to drift, gripping a black handle on the dashboard lightly, Tulga turns on the sound system. Most of the time it is loud Russian house music, euphoric women singing sub-English anthems – “I’ve got something in my purse, you always think the worst, I only want to flirt… Shake your ass, shake your ass” – and the rest of the time it is Mongolian jokes or old songs. At these, Erdenbileg, who has an even, fine voice, joins in from the back seat, explaining between the verses – “It is about a river,” “It is about a woman, a lovely woman, a love song!” – and sometimes even Tulga’s lips start to move as the mountains roll by his window. I told him I would send him some new music from London. When we said goodbye, he gave me a chess set.

Peace and Calm 2

At night the Enkh Nomun comes alive with crowds in the corridors that don’t seem to do much. One night I came back and a young man, eyes dead, face unclean, was lounging right next to my door. I looked at him, he might have looked at my shoulder. I opened the door and thought for a moment he might follow me into my suite but he did not move, just stayed there. There was only one light switch in the two rooms, screwed in at a bizarre, 30 degree angle, by the main door. It even turned on the bathroom light, two rooms away. I don’t know. When it was time to sleep I made my way back to the door, turned out the lights and then began a wavering, hands-out stagger back to the bed. Then I noticed that the internal wall of the suite was making a strange noise, a kind of sucking cardboard sound as it shifted back and forth with the drafts coming through the room. I got up again and tried to open it. It stuck for a moment and I felt the whole partition shift at my touch. Then it came loose. In bed, I listened to a guitar and Mongolian singing rising through the many holes in the hotel. I fell asleep. When I woke up again a man was chanting, unstopping. I thought it might have been an epic poem. There was the drawl of jeeps on stones in the background. The barking of dogs.

The Swimming Teacher

It was around six o’clock and there was a dark furl of cloud hanging over the brown-hilled horizon. The car swept right then left and then we were pulling up on small stones in front an empty, red and white-striped guardpost with the barrier down. Up on the slope half a dozen gers, seeming to dirty in the gloom, stood separately from a tumble of small, workman-like buildings that looked like train carriages. There was a bulldozer. The wind was blowing now and Tulga closed the air vent and the roof on the jeep. A couple of hundred yards away, two figures were walking from the buildings down towards us. Through the windscreen there was nothing but an endless valley and evening coming. We got out to greet them, cigarettes at the ready, as they came past the barrier. One was a huge man, doughy and fat, eyes bunched and wearing blue pyjama bottoms that flipflapped non-stop in the gusts that came flying up the long incline. He turned to walk away almost as soon as he and the smaller man, wearing blue dark glasses and combat fatigues, reached us. They had made a silent, combined decision that we were no threat. The big man took a cigarette and headed back into the silent gold mine. The smaller man had a Russian pistol on his hip, the holster unbuttoned. He said his name was Batar and that he was the main guard at Tsaagan Tsagir, a joint Mongolian-Chinese mine that had been shut down a year ago because it had been caught using mercury and cyanide to gather the gold. Some goats downstream had died. Now there were ten guards who did one-month stints at the site, protecting the mine and the equipment, but he stayed here all the time. He had been there a year and did not know whether there were plans to re-open it. “The directors don’t tell us anything,” he said. As we talked, we stepped around the jeep, looking for shelter from the turning wind and the dust that flew to your throat from a heap of white, ground-out remains from the mine. Tsaagan Tsagir means white rock. How did he pass the time? He smiled and said he was used to it. He walked around, read newspapers. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s a job.” And then he said that before he was a guard with a cap and a gun, he had been a physical education teacher. He stepped back, into the wind, into the rising dust and mimed backstroke for a few seconds, laughing. “Swimming teacher,” he said. “Maybe when this is over I will be a swimming teacher again.”

Russian Jeep 2

When we said goodbye to the Altan Group, a co-operative of herders who have given up their animals to make a permanent farm, Uranchimeg, the 15-year-old daughter of Tungalag, the women who leads the group, disappeared into the family ger and came out with a bag. She had to go back to school in Bayanhongor, the aimag capital 45km away, would we give her a lift? In the car, Erdenbileg said that Urna was learning English. I asked her what she wanted to be. “I want to lawyer,” she said. “Become a lawyer. I want to live in UB and study America.” What about working on the farm, with her family? “I don’t like countryside. It’s very boring. And I don’t like farm working, it is very hard. I talk to my friends in the café and they want the same thing as me.” Who will stay in the countryside if her and all her friends go to the city? “I don’t know,” said Urna, taken aback by the question. “Maybe some children?”