Mongolians on Bananas (or, from old skool to kicking it in the modern era)

By Neil Pederson

We, Amy and me, have finally made it to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (UB) to start the 2011 field season. It was a long journey getting here. We went through China because I have a conference to attend after fieldwork in Xi’an, China. This made the purchasing of tickets easier and would give us time to work on the plane and in transit.

China is not the preferred path to get into Mongolia. That would be South Korea. This trip underscored that point. We flew Air China, which is a fine airline. But, with no outlets for power to run our laptops and no individual TV screens, this old-skool plane would test us by taking us back in time. We got some work done, slept a bit, saw a low-resolution Asian karate/kung-fu flick and slept. Continental or Korea Air are much better.

a 3D pan of the insides of an old-skool jet

The good thing about flying through China is that, for me, the airport is a marvel. It is huge, airy and just beautiful to stare at over Thai food while enduring jet buzz following a 12 hr trip. However, the wait ended up being much less comfortable – we pretty much spent too many hrs on the floor of the airport; there was no place to crash. China needs to rectify this! It is a lovely airport, though.

This year’s trip started in a way that last yr’s trip ended, but, in reality, how all trips to Mongolia should begin: meeting the panhandler of all panhandlers in Mongolia.

I met this man on my first trip in 1998. In fact, Brendan Buckley and I crossed paths with him about 4-5 times that summer. He didn’t speak much English and always wore a suit jacket. He puts postcards or some trinkets into your hands and pulls out a slip of paper saying that his ger has burned down, he has lost some of his family and he could use some money.

I met him on my last day in Mongolia in 2010 [pic below]. I was so happy and surprised to see him – I hadn’t seen him in a few yrs until that day. I smiled while he talked and said, “I know you! I’ve met you before. I’m happy to see you are doing well.”

He said, “You know me?”

I said, “Yes. I’ve met you several times over the years.”

With that he quickly turned and walked away. So, it was with great surprise to see him yesterday. He looked good and his English is now much better. He had on a suit jacket, a better one than 13 yrs ago, in fact. I tried to get a picture of his face, but he held up his hands in protest and said, “no pictures. But, RMB or Singaporean money I’ll take.” We laughed, put the postcards back in his hand and he left. Baatar, our host, said he has never seen him drunk or acting poorly. So, there is a good, responsible person behind this act. Obviously, if his face was exposed, he’d have no act.

the panhandler of all panhandlers in Mongolia scurrying away

Anyhow, after we left the airport and made it to downtown UB at midday, we were running on fumes. Neither of us had slept much and we were a bit delirious. We checked into our rooms in the Puma and I finally got a shower.

morning view over downtown UB from the Puma hotel

The water didn’t heat up much, so I woke up again. I also woke because we met up with our great Mongolian colleague, Baatarbileg Nachin.

Baatar singing at the 2006 fieldweek in Mongolia

It is always great to re-visit a long-time friend; I first met Baatar in 1998 when he was a PhD student and I was a tech. Seeing him, hearing the Mongolian language and the beautiful faces of Mongolians woke me up and postponed my nap. I took to the streets to visit old haunts and take in the city. I was excited to be in town again.

I went to the State Department Store, which was this colossal & drab Communist-era store in 1998 and now a modern, clean, bright and diverse store. I stopped at the fruit stand next to the department store to pick up some bananas; I stopped there every 2-3 days for 1.5 months last summer. I think the proprietor recognized me. She smiled warmly and broadly, which, as you ought to know, is not Mongolian. I then popped into Cafe Amsterdam for a warm drink. It is about 15-20 degrees F cooler this week compared to our trip last year. It forebodes of snow this field season.

It was a rush to see the faces and streets of Mongolia. One of the running themes on this blog is how Mongolians are blending the old and the new. While the rate of construction likely hasn’t slowed much, downtown UB appears fairly stable since 2006, there are still changes afoot. Not too many obvious things have changed. The changes in this part of the city now seems to be more of the infrastructure – sidewalks, re-facing buildings, etc. But, the most amazing thing to me is to see the amount of bananas for sale on UB’s streets. Last yr was the first year I was able to get bananas here – good, fresh bananas like back in the US. In a short walk I saw 4-5 stalls selling bananas and several Mongolians eating bananas while they walked. From a 1998 context, this is a rather jarring image.

Yet at the same time, not all that much has changed. Apparently there is a bumper crop of Siberian pine cones this yr. Siberian pine produce pine nuts like those you find in fine US markets. However, pine nuts in Mongolia are not a food one would only consider from upscale markets – it is a regular food. They are not produced regularly every year. But, during bumper-crop years, they are everywhere. I started noticing the bracts on the sidewalk and saw a young boy run by with a Siberian  pine cone in his hand. The cones are beautiful (we’ll post a pic soon). An upscale Mongolian woman was nibbling pine nuts in Cafe Amsterdam with her latte.  And, here we are again – an afternoon snack of millennial-old and modern-day foods in downtown UB.

Lastly, the people on the flight in were interesting and not completely ‘typical’ for most flights I’ve taken over the last decade into Mongolia. There were Mongolians and tourists. But, there were many men that seemed to be into security or something similar. We happened to sit next to a western man supervising mines in western Mongolia. It was an enlightening, though sadly enlightening conversation. Mongolia is being over-run by mining interests. Perhaps nothing can represent this better than what we saw on the streets of UB last night: an H2 Hummer with Kentucky license plates:

KY hummer

 The Gold Rush is On!

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