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Mongolia. Seriously. Escape From Mongolia.


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To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

The plan -- always there was a plan, rarely revealed and never realized -- was to fly back to Ulaan Bataar (the in crowd calls it UB, as you may recall) with the translator/guide so as to spend our last day taking in the various local attractions that had been deemed essential to our Mongolian experience.

The plan was modified, but this time it seemed I was to receive that rarest of rare things in Mongolia: an upgrade. Although I hadn't been a terrible complainer, I had at various times let the guide company's owner's wife know my general level of dissatisfaction with how several of the trip's events had gone down. It so happened that the husband of the guide company owner's wife, aka the guide company owner, had returned to town that day and his wife volunteered that he would personally accompany me to UB and escort us around town for the day so as to give us the most elaborate and expert possible tour and to, as restaurateur Danny Meyer teaches us is the key to customer satisfaction, "write a great last chapter."

I probably don't have to tell you that it didn't happen that way. I probably do have to tell you -- because the level of absurdity here is so highly counterintuitive that you'll never guess -- exactly what did happen: I wound up returning to UB with no guide whatsoever. That's right: first the translator/guide was dismissed based on the guide company owner's wife's representation that her husband would step in; and then the guide company owner himself decided that he was too exhausted on account of his recent tour with 14 Swedes (or were they Norwegians?) to accompany me. So I was simply to return to UB unescorted, whereupon J and I were to make our way around UB, visit the critical attractions, and enjoy the cosmopolitan and relatively fur-free UB restaurant scene.

The distances within Mongolia are not huge, but flying from place to place is hardly the same as hopping on the US Airways Shuttle from New York to Washington, DC. On my first unescorted flight within Mongolia, I was to learn just how different.

Aiyka, Jan, the translator/guide, and the good-natured driver all accompanied me to the airport to bid me farewell. I stayed outside the single-building airport terminal, with dust blowing every which way, doing the hokey pokey (I had taught them the hokey pokey in Eagle Hunter with Obese Eagle's ger) until the last possible minute. Hugs were exchanged all around and I disappeared behind the rusty and ominous sliding metal door. I was handed my boarding pass and I entered the coffin-like waiting room where the aforesaid 14 Norwegians (yes, I think they were Norwegians) were already waiting. We all sat there observing the comings and goings of the one or two official-seeming airline personnel. More people crowded into the tiny room. Soon there was a surge of activity as the sliding door to the dirt airstrip slid open. Just as quickly, the door was slammed closed.

But it was clear from this pre-activity that it wouldn't be long before boarding would commence, so everyone started jostling for a position close to the door. Despite the printed numbers on the tickets, Mongolian procedure for domestic flights follows the great Chingghis Khaan's tradition of survival-of-the-fittest: the first to push his or her way onto the airplane gets first choice of seat. That, I was informed on the way out by my translator/guide, is how it's done. But what about the number on my ticket? That doesn't mean something? No, it's just a number, apparently with no meaning. And I mean no meaning, not even a theoretical one. They just put the number there, as far as I can tell, because they feel they should put numbers on tickets and not because those numbers correspond to anything real or imagined.

The door again slid open. I was near the front of the line. We all pushed our way past the uniformed man checking boarding passes and speed-walked across the runway to the airplane. I had the New York City speed-walking advantage (which trumps even the Chinggis Khaan speed-walking advantage) so I was one of the first to reach the metal staircase that had been dragged in front of the decrepit propeller aircraft. Then, very dramatically and out of nowhere, a sizeable woman in the most horrible plum-colored suit pushed to the front of the crowd and literally threw her body across the access to the rickety metal staircase. Facing the crowd, she spread her arms out so that each hand held one of the thin metal railings. Her body obstructed most of the way and her clenched fists further ensured a complete lack of passage.

Then began a process of genetic selection: Mongolians were segregated from non-Mongolians, and the Mongolians were allowed on the plane. Then she began allowing people on board the aircraft in no identifiable pattern. I started to push and grunt, trying to make my way past her imposing frame. No, she glared, it wasn't my turn yet. Based upon what, I wondered. Then she started yelling out various things in Kazakh. Despite the number of foreigners booked on the flight, and despite the fact that tourists pay approximately nine times as much money for the same crappy seat as locals, there was no effort made on the ground, or in the air, to try to communicate any information to those who clearly weren't from Mongolia. Hey, I was an anthropology major, I don't expect everyone to speak my language (ethnocentric I ain't) but I have been on airplanes all over the fucking world -- even crappier airplanes than this -- and I can tell you that this was probably the only commercial aircraft flying anywhere in the world that day where not a single member of the ground crew or flight crew was prepared to speak a word of English or any other remotely internationally relevant language.

I watched as people filed past me. All of the Swedes made it onto the plane. Don't worry, one of the Norwegians told me as she boarded the plane, you have a boarding pass, you'll surely get on. Gee, what utopian country do you come from?

Mind you, the plum-clad woman, still obstructing the staircase and admitting people with a total lack of any recognizable pattern (bribes didn't even seem to figure into it), wasn't in any sort of official uniform and wore no authenticating badge of any kind. She maintained the upper hand solely through attitude, bearing, and physical presence -- she literally blocked the path to the tin-can Russian plane and she looked (and was) really mean.

I started to push and jostle a bit harder. The mean plum lady pushed back. She pointed at the number on my ticket and shook her head. Not that she knew or cared what the number was and not that the number was anything more than a theoretical construct in the noncorporeal universe. Indeed I watched countless people with and without numbered boarding passes gain entry and ascend the rickety metal staircase. I wondered if I'd be stranded for two extra days in Olgii, miss my return flight out with J, and be stuck in UB with no onward seat back home. It was certainly starting to look that way.

Finally, I saw my opening -- an ever-so-brief lapse in the evil plum-clad lady's attention -- and I took it. She did not resist me: New York defeats Mongolia! As I mounted the shaking stairs I wondered if I would find an empty seat on this airplane. There seemed to be no possible way for the number of people who had already boarded the plane to actually fit inside. There were, after all, a finite number of seats. But when I stepped inside, I found, much to my surprise, that there were two beautiful empty seats at the rear of the plane -- with windows and away from the propellers.

The flight attendant blocked my path.

"Is anyone sitting here?" I politely asked.

She pointed toward the front of the plane, at what I don't know -- there were no empty seats in the front.

"Is anyone sitting here?" I asked a bit more firmly.

Again, she gestured toward the front of the plane. Clearly no one was sitting there and this was all part of some secret Mongolian club that I was not a part of. Well, too bad for the Mongolian club.

"Is anyone sitting here?" I repeated, even though this time around I wasn't really asking. I simply dropped my bags onto the seat and pushed on through, giving her a choice between moving or being stepped on.

I collapsed into the seat by the window. If the plane took off, it appeared that I might actually make it back to UB and J.

Moments after I was admitted to the plane, and only two passengers later, the door to the aircraft was locked shut. The plum-clad woman had disappeared and now an official, or at least a person in an official uniform, stood at the top of the staircase in the same stance as the evil plum woman. His hands were fisted on the railing too. People were clambering to get onto the plane. They all waved boarding passes at the official but he simply shook his head and gestured at the closed door. I watched out the window, extremely relieved that I had made it onto the plane.

More and more people pushed up the staircase. The official tried to look official and he stood his ground. His knuckles were white from grasping the rickety metal railing. A large man standing one step up on the staircase reached up and with his boarding pass in one hand, he reached out with the other and gave the official a shove. The official was unprepared for this and, being a uniformed official in a former Soviet country (sort of), he puffed up his chest and swatted back at the man -- as in, he slapped the guy.

Unfortunately for him, the man he had swatted was quite a significant Kazakh and had the appearance of having been in -- and started, and won -- many a barroom brawl. The prospective passenger delivered a right hook and then a left (I believe in boxing this is known as a combination). I guess he figured he wasn't getting on that plane anyway so he might as well beat the shit out of someone to make the trip to the airport worthwhile.

Now the uniformed airline official was definitely angry. He slapped at the large man and knocked the large man's eyeglasses askew -- one arm dislodged from behind the ear perch and up onto his head. This, in turn, made the prospective passenger angrier and, after he righted his glasses, he really started to punch. Then he got it in his head that he was going to throw the official down the stairs. He started yanking and pushing the official, who at this point was grasping one of the railings with both hands and all of his might, back bent over the railing, anger and frustration coloring his face.

This provided much entertainment for several more seconds until, eventually, a few good Samaritans intervened and attempted to separate the two men. This wasn't so easy, however. As they were pulling the big Kazakh off the little official, the big Kazakh reached out a giant paw and got in one last mighty shove, sending the official guy over the railing. Two passengers grabbed the official's lapels as he started his descent, such that he was suspended nearly in midair and partly upended over the side of the railing. They were, clumsily, able to haul him back over the railing to safety.

So that was fun.

The big Kazakh no-longer-prospective passenger was escorted down to the dirt runway by those who had intervened, and the uniformed airline official, now in the upright position and again king of the mountain (or at least the staircase), straightened his uniform, opened the aircraft door, pointed to one last man in the crowd, and ushered him onto the plane. (Perhaps his ordeal had caused him to be a bit more generous?)

Then the official guy boarded the plane and began to rearrange the Mongolian passengers. One man had to hold his seven-year-old daughter in his lap for the duration of our four-hour flight (plus a stopover in yennevelt to refuel) so that the recently admitted man could have a seat. Two young women were instructed to squeeze into one seat together so that another man could have a seat. But no one seemed to be standing in the aisles. Now I understood why they limited luggage to 10 kilos per person: so they could make up the extra weight by squeezing on extra passengers who, regardless of what they pay for tickets, certainly pay more than luggage. I silently prayed that the airplane would actually take off and fly. It seemed distinctly possibly that it wouldn't.

Up, up and away. We bumped along the dirt runway, gaining speed, and the airplane slowly gained altitude. It looked as though the plane would, for the time being, get into the air. I just hoped it would stay there until we were actually ready to come down.

Eventually, I took a gamble and made my way to the bathroom. Big mistake, really, a big, big mistake. Not only was the bathroom by far the most terrifying I had ever seen on any airplane, train, or even bus (and I've been on buses in Africa, Central America, etc.), but also I caught a view past the bathroom into the depths of the aircraft and came to the unsettling realization of how they managed to squeeze all the passengers onto the plane: there were passengers in the cargo hold. At least I got my seat back, however.

Then we started descending into what appeared to be nowhere. I knew we couldn't have arrived at UB already. We had taken off an hour late and the flight was supposed to be almost four hours -- plus there was a one-hour time change. Of course there was no explanation, at least not in English. Everyone clambered off the plane but most left their bags behind. When almost everyone was off the plane, I guessed that this was some sort of stop. Hopefully not an emergency stop.

I asked one of the Norwegians and she told me that her group had been able to piece together that it was a fuel stop. This was all news to me: on the way out (a flight that coincidentally covered the exact same distance) there had been no stop for fuel. And oh, she added, you made it onto the plane! I told her that I almost hadn't and asked what the Norwegian consensus on the big fight had been. It turned out, though, that she had been on the other side of the plane and hadn't seen anything. So after I told her the whole story she insisted that I follow her over to a group of a few other Norwegians and tell them the story. So well received was the story that she then she asked me to tell it again, to yet another cluster of Norwegians. By the third time around I was getting really good at it. I added details about the bathroom and cargo-hold situation. I was a big hit with the Norwegians.

At long last, in the distance, I saw the lights of UB. It was no Vegas, but for me it was a homecoming. In a short while I'd be re-united with J. We'd have the whole next day to catch up and explore on our own. I'd be able to gorge myself on the buffet breakfast the following morning: Eggs! Vegetables! Cheese! Jam! Not to mention a rotating selection of different covered chafing dishes with delicacies yet to be revealed -- all without very much fur, hair or dirt at all. Oh, home at last, home at last.

I rushed out of the baggage claim area, found the young man who was there to return me to J and to our hotel, and settled into the back seat of the taxi he had secured for us. I struggled to make polite conversation until he dropped me off at the hotel. I was happy for the escort and delighted that without any further delay (there seemed to have been enough already for one day) I would soon be arriving back to J.

I knocked on the door to our room -- the very same one that I had left a week ago. J opened the door to me and we both smiled. When I saw her face, relief washed over me. Now I could relax.

That's essentially the end of the Mongolian adventure. However, I did spend almost a week in Beijing afterwards and would like to share some comments and photos with you (sorry there were no photos this time around, but as you can imagine circumstances did not permit any). So please stay tuned for Part VIII.

To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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A friend of mine just returned from Mongolia a few days ago. She chipped her tooth on a piece of mutton bone. Apparently the meat was almost as tough as the shrapnel of bone fragments that the gristly lumps were strewn with.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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I probably don't have to tell you that it didn't happen that way.

I got to that line and I started giggling like a little schoolgirl. :laugh:

An absolute gem of a story!

I look forward to hearing more about the fur-less meals consumed upon your return to "civilization".

 

“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

 

Tim Oliver

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I waited until the last installment to add my thanks...but here it is now.

That was just awesome, loved every bit and am hoping that we get to see some of Nepal, too.

Excellent recounting of events and absolutely beautiful pix.

I can tell you that whenever I think of Mongolia your pictures are what I will recall and see in my mind's eye.

This is just great...really great....and congratulations on navigating it all successfully.

Thank you.

...I thought I had an appetite for destruction but all I wanted was a club sandwich.

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NYC is probably the only place in the world outside of Mongolia where you could pull off wearing one of those hats.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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NYC meets Mongolia. Be interesting to hear the story from the other side. Mongolia meets NYC?  :cool:

That would make an interesting story - sort of an 'Eagle Hunter Dundee.' We could try to make one up, but doubt it would surpass Ellen's real adventures.

--mh

--mark

Everybody has Problems, but Chemists have Solutions.

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Thank you everyone. I have really enjoyed writing these pieces and your comments kept me going from one to the next. I'm sorry I won't have much opportunity to engage in Mongolia-related banter this month because there's only internet access in a few places where I'll be in Nepal. But I left Fat Guy with the last little entry on Beijing as well as those photos and some other materials that he can post here and there. Thanks again to all who have shared the adventure!

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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That story is amazing, in the fullest sense of the word, and not in a good way. I don't think I'll be going to Mongolia in the foreseeable future.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Guess there is a reason why Mongolia does not get a lot of tourists. Yet if you want to visit the parts of the world where there are not tourists such as Mongolia and Trenton you know there will be these kinds of misadventures to cope with. I applaud the eye for the absurd combined with frank commentary yet what shines through it the enjoyment of being part of something special even though uncomfortable and inconvenient. Hope that makes a little sense.

Edited by wally1 (log)
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There is a book somewhere in here. Sort of like Jan Morris roughing it.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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NYC is probably the only place in the world outside of Mongolia where you could pull off wearing one of those hats.

If you mean the Eagle Hunter's hat, I think it would be the envy of everyone here in Maine - or any other cold climate. It's beautiful.

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I realize it will be awhile until I get an answer, but what did J do to keep busy (once she recovered) in UB the week you were gone?

"Some people see a sheet of seaweed and want to be wrapped in it. I want to see it around a piece of fish."-- William Grimes

"People are bastard-coated bastards, with bastard filling." - Dr. Cox on Scrubs

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Well, after part V, I said it was too bad J missed "the good part," by which I meant the gorgeous countryside, the hospitality, the closeness and camaraderie with the Kazakhs, the little boys riding horses, etc. All that stuff seems beautifully idyllic to me, probably because I've never had to eat fur stew.

But I was wrong. The good part was the fight. :biggrin:

Thanks for the stories and glad you made it out alive.

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Hi, all. Steven told me that someone was wondering what "J" was doing in UB while Ellen went to Western Mongolia, so Here I Am, in the flesh, at his urging, to tell you.

Day 1: Ellen left, I locked the door to keep out rampaging Mongolian hordes (Ghenghis was famous for once pouring molten silver in an enemy's eyes), and slept for 8 hours. Woke occassionally to cough my lungs up. Roused myself for one hour at night and watched on TV a vampire movie beamed in from Singapore dubbed into Russian, or perhaps it was the other way around. Went back to sleep.

Day 2: Sleep, interrupted by fits of coughing. Started coughing up blood, and freaked out. (See Ellen's earlier references to the Thomas Mann novel.) Wondered what the hell I was doing alone in a hotel in the middle of Central Asia where not a soul knew where I was except for one person who was currently unreachable in the outback of Western Mongolia. Read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas between naps.

Day 3. Woke feeling slightly less intensely ill, and left the lovely hotel Bayan Gol for the first time, in pursuit of my replacement traveler's checks. By the time I'd procured them from the mysterious agent/assistant/representative of American Express (not to be confused with Am Ex as I'd been informed, rather harshly, I might add) I was shaky and sweating and went back to the hotel and bed. Read The Travels of Marco Polo, and realized that most Mongolians live exactly the same way now as they did in the 1300's. (It really is an amazing place--I'm actually dying to go back!)

Day 4. Still sick, but suffering intense bouts of a truly life-threatening illness, cabin fever, I ventured out for real. While visiting the Mongolian National Art Museum, I encountered that nice doctor who had given me antibiotics and sheepishly inquired about the coughing up of blood. He looked at me over his reading glasses and asked how soon I could get back to the west, recommending I be tested for TB asap. Went back to hotel feeling like Tuberculoid Mary and ate some strangely delicious Thai Tom Yum Gum (sp?) soup in the "Casablanca" hotel restaurant. Then retired to my room where I read Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. (horrific moutaineering disaster ordeal story that made it clear I was a ridiculous wimp for being bedridden with just TB.)

Day 5. Felt better so I got off my deathbed and went to the Mongolian National History Museum. Very cool. Ran down my pathetic battery in a couple hours and went back to bed, shaking and sweating again, with The Bay of Souls by Robert Stone. At sunset (not until 9 PM in UB in August) I was so overcome by desperation at not being with the Kazakhs and the eagle hunter and seeing the Turkik Stones and etc, I began taking photos off the balcony of the hotel, as if trying to make myself feel this view was actually a "sight", and one I hadn't been looking at all day ever day for a week. I'd upload one of my photos here for amusement's sake but I don't know how.

Day 6 Spent most of the day preparing for Ellen's return by making expeditions through downtown UB to buy her treats such as "apple strudel" which she loves (but I got the wrong thing, which is why it's in quotes) and etc. And then (cue up "Peaches and Herb") we were reunited and it felt so good.

I would officially like to thank Ellen for saving my life twice on this trip by walking through the Gobi desert for help when we were stuck in the flood and finding the doctor who had antibiotics. I'd also like to chime in with resounding praise on her terrific storytelling ability, except to chastise her for leaving out the part where we saw a UFO on our first night in Mongolia.

I'd also like address one more comment to Ellen, which is that this is no way our most remote and rough trip we're ever taking because neither of us cried so I don't think we really pushed ourselves. (Well, I maybe cried just a little when the US embassy hung up on me after telling me that there are no western doctors in mongolia, even though Lonely Planet had told me DON'T go to the Mongolian ones because the are into bloodletting as a treatment.)

P.S. I don't have TB, very slightly disappointing only because it would have made for a somewhat better story, I think.

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J, I like the story the way it turned out.

Welcome to eGullet.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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except to chastise her for leaving out the part where we saw a UFO on our first night in Mongolia.

There's no fucking way we're waiting a month to hear this story. Do tell.

And thanks for posting; we hope to see a lot more of you. Consider yourself re-urged.

(e-mail me a photo and I'll post it for you)

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Guess what?  The Times has a Mongolian travelblog too.

(Scroll down for the relevant link.)

No Eagle Hunter though.  *pout*  :blink:  :shock:  No pictures of big, fat, lazy eagles tethered to rocks either.  :blink:

Soba

There was a teaser for this article on the front page of the Travel section, so I was hoping for more of Ellen's beautiful writing. Alas, it was not to be. And the article wasn't nearly as good.

"Some people see a sheet of seaweed and want to be wrapped in it. I want to see it around a piece of fish."-- William Grimes

"People are bastard-coated bastards, with bastard filling." - Dr. Cox on Scrubs

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