Live From UB: Gee

Munkherdene, more commonly known by his stage name, ‘Gee’, is one of Mongolia’s more notorious rappers. His aggressive, vulgar lyrics and commanding presence have helped him make a name for himself. He’s known for rapping about corruption in the government, environmental degradation, the Ger District (where he grew up), and, most notably, his anti-Chinese stance. He’s been featured in articles about a changing Mongolia and is one of three central characters in the new documentary, ‘Mongolian Bling’. Love him or hate him, Gee is one of Mongolia’s most (in)famous rappers.

I first met the 28 year-old last November, when I was still getting acquainted with UB’s music scene. I had heard about Gee from Benj Binks, director of ‘Mongolian Bling’, and a few expats who warned me of the violent side Mongolia’s hip-hop scene. But I had yet to hear a track or see a picture when he caught me eye at a concert for pop singer Naran’s CD release.

 

Gee is a large man. He’s well over 6 feet tall and has the bulk 20120513_Gee_Edit-62to make one second guess engaging him in an argument. He wears baggy pants and oversized sweatshirts with screen-printed Mongolian symbols. There is an ever-present heavy chain around his neck, which holds the large talisman his shaman gave him. His head is shaved down to the skin. Tattoos adorn his hands, arms and even cheek. The tattoos on his right arm pay homage to some of his musical heroes (the Wu-Tang Clan and Tupac), while the tattoos on his hands show his Mongolian side. The proverb split between the two hands reads: ‘Aibal buu khii; Khiibal buu ai’ (translation: ‘If you are scared, don’t do it; If you did it, don’t be scared’).

He has the personality to back up such an imposing presence. There’s a boyish arrogance to him that comes of as cocky, yet he has a certain charisma that is sort of endearing. He walks with a swagger and is not shy to exploit his size. During an interview he told me he was the best Mongolian rapper with the most impressive crew, which includes UB’s best graffiti artist, best tattoo artist, and best beat makers. In fact, two members of his noteworthy crew sat silently sipping tea at a table nearby during our hour-long interview.

The second time I met Gee, he was performing for a televised music award ceremony. I sat with him, another rapper, and the members from folk rock band Jonon, during the 2 hour-long shoot. There were about ten acts (mostly pop bands who lip-synched to recordings of their recent hits) and two emcee’s who interviewed musicians in between acts. Throughout the show, Gee was almost happy to show his boredom by playing video games on his handheld device or loudly laughing at other performers. After Gee and Jonon played their song, Gee was given the top award (something like ‘Musician of the Year’), which he accepted with palatable disinterest.

This is not the way I would ever choose to act at a public event (especially a televised one). Yet, I couldn’t help but feel glad that I was sitting at Gee’s table. Despite his arrogance, or perhaps because of it, I found I was eager to be on his good side. It felt eerily similar to social interactions back in middle school – a period I spent seeking acceptance from people I didn’t actually like.

Gee started rapping in 1998, when he was just barely a teenager. He grew up in Ulaanbaatar’s sprawling Ger District (home to about 2/3 of the city’s population). As the son of a single mother in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, Gee says that he needed a way to express himself. He first started writing poetry. But, after acquiring a cassette tape of various rappers (Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and The Sugarhill Gang), he thought he’d try and merge his poetry with beats.

Gee released his first album, ‘Bolovsrolgui Seheetnii Tavigdahgui Iltgel’ (rough translation: ‘An Uneducated Nobleman’s Unreleased Presentation’) in 2005, but it was his appearance in a 2004 song and video called ‘Hood’, by well-known hip-hop group Vanquish, that started turning heads. ‘Hood’ showcases four rappers (and their crews) who each introduce themselves and rap in turn about their neighborhoods in UB. At the time, Gee was the only person rapping about the Ger District, and his pride in his neighborhood and gangsta style made him stand out among Mongolia’s rappers.

When I asked Gee what he likes to rap about in an interview last November, he said that he wants to deliver a message to Mongolia’s youth by focusing on what the community is missing and the malfunction of the government. He says he’s not interested in rapping about “money, women or weed”, but instead says, “Mongol hip-hop should be wise and should tell the people what is right to do.”

But not all of Gee’s songs have a greater message. In our interview, he expressed frustration over the fact that Mongolia’s hip-hop fans mostly like songs about conflicts between rappers. He told me he’s not interested in using his music to fight for superiority with other Mongolian rappers because he’s already the best. Yet, one of Gee’s big hits (86,000 plus views on YouTube), ‘Mongol Rapper’, is 3 minutes and 57 seconds of Gee asserting his rapping superiority over another Mongolian rapper, Tsetse.

Gee is outspoken to say the least. He identifies as an individual performer, not part of a larger artistic community, and has a, ‘I do what I want’ mentality. While talking about coming from the Ger District, he said, ‘Everyone is the same, no more no less’. In another meeting, he asked me what part of the U.S. I was from. When I told him Minnesota he looked at me and said that he ‘hated that place’. He explained that during a layover in the Minneapolis – St. Paul airport he felt that people were treating him poorly because he’s Asian. I said that it might have had more to do with his tattoos and shaved head. Then he said, ‘I hate racism. I’m not racist toward anybody… except the Chinese. I hate the Chinese.’

Gee’s most controversial song is titled ‘Hujaa’, a racial slur referring to Chinese people. It appeared on his most recent album which was a collaborative effort with Jonon called ‘Mongolz’. In it, Gee raps about Mongolian superiority and its future dominance over China. If the lyrics weren’t shocking enough, the corresponding music video certainly will draw your attention. Gee stands in a meat freezer with sheep carcasses dangling from meat hooks all around. He wears a white apron splattered with blood and looks straight into the camera wielding an ax as he sings. It’s creepy, which I’m pretty sure is what he was going for.

The song, understandably, turns the foreigners living in Ulaanbaatar and their Mongolian friends off. It reflects and promotes a rising xenophobic nationalism that is having very real effects on some of UB’s foreign population. For years, Chinese and interracial couples have enjoyed a heightened risk of random assault, but now it seems that all foreigners are being targeted. Not a month has gone by since my arrival in UB when I haven’t heard of a foreigner – sometimes a friend – being randomly assaulted because he or she was not Mongolian.

20120513_Gee_Edit-62But for many Mongolians, ‘Hujaa’ resonates. The past decade has been a time of rapid change and development, which only seems to be increasing in speed. The Economist Intelligence Unit projects that Mongolia will have the second-fastest growing economy of 2012 after Libya. But there is still a question as to whether Mongolia’s development will be beneficial for the majority of the populace or only a select few at the top. The nationalists and many of Gee’s fans feel it is the latter and point to foreign involvement (particularly in the mining sector) as the cause. There’s a prominent belief that foreign interests, especially Chinese, are taking Mongolia’s mineral wealth, destroying the environment, and doing little to invest in Mongolia’s future. In addition to the current political-economy, history plays an important role. Many are quick to point to thousands of years of warfare with and occupation by the Chinese. But what might have left a more lasting impression was the aggressive Soviet-led anti-Chinese propaganda campaign of the 1960s and 1970s as the USSR used Mongolia as a buffer state. As is the case with nationalism and racism in any country, it is most likely a combination of all factors.

20120513_Gee_Edit-50This might all help explain why, at a recent club opening in Erdenet, the young crowd was calling for Gee to rap his most controversial song. Gee performed five songs that night, and ‘Hujaa’ was by far the most popular. It was also the only one people sang along to. After the show, a reporter I was traveling with asked a pair of 21 year-old fans why they like that song. They explained that it is about being proud of Mongolia, but mentioned nothing about the Chinese.

Although the anti-Chinese message is the overpowering one from ‘Mongolz’, Gee and Jonon have more to say about their pride in Mongolia. The song ‘Minii Nutgiig Nadad Uldee’ (rough translation: ‘Leave my Country to Me’) which features veteran Mongolian hip-hop artist Bayaraa, talks about environmental degradation and calls on the government to preserve the land.

When he’s not giving interviews to foreign reporters or traveling around Mongolia performing at club openings, Gee is looking toward his next project. He told me that he wants to focus more on gangsta rap, but not 100%.

‘I do whatever I want,’ he says.

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Video: Ulaanbaatar Time Lapse

I’ve been trying my hand at time lapse photography since I arrived in Mongolia. I took a big hiatus during the winter since I wasn’t very interested in standing still for 40 minutes in -30 degree C temperatures (nor was my camera, for that matter). But, since it’s been warming up, I have been trying to get back into it.

I have a hit list of sites around Ulaanbaatar that I want to capture including, but not limited to, the Chinggis face on the mountain south of town, more people walking around during the day in Sukhbaatar Square and near the State Department Store, the Lenin Statue, the Sukhbaatar Statue, traffic at night from various vantage points, the big Mongolian flag near the stadium, Gandan Monastery at various times of day, and the Circus at sunset.

If you have any suggestions, please feel free to share!

Here is a collection of the shots I’ve amassed so far:

Video: NisNis Fest 2012

Two weeks ago, Mongolian grunge band Nisvanis held their 16th Anniversary concert. They invited ten bands to perform at the showcase, ranging from metal to rock to indie to folk rock.

I recorded four of the bands at the show: Nisvanis, Mohanik, North Ducks, and Altan Urag.

Nisvanis:

Although they usually play plugged in and amped up, Nisvanis opened the show with an acoustic set. It was nice to hear some of the tunes I’ve heard before in a different way. It actually helped me appreciate the band more as musicians and songwriters.

Altan Urag:

Altan Urag is a staple of the Mongolian music scene. They’re the first Mongolian band to be signed with a major American record label (BMI) and they regularly tour abroad. They’re seen twice a week at one of the larger restaurants in town – but, like other bands who perform in bars/restaurants regularly, they have to play the same songs every time. It was refreshing to hear something a little different at NisNis Fest. It was also fun to see their fans banging their heads and dancing to Altan Urag’s version of traditional Mongolian music.

North Ducks:

North Ducks are fairly new to the UB music scene. They represent a younger generation of artists, weened on alternative rock and influenced by indie bands.

Mohanik:

Last, but not least, Mohanik has been around for a few years now. The five members, who are friends from grade school, are now putting together their second album – which they say is more of a concept. They’re returning their gaze toward Mongolia and writing songs inspired by nature, but in a way that is very rock and roll.

A Chicago Indie Band’s Visit to Mongolia

Last February Chicago-based orch-pop band Canasta made the long journey from the Windy City to the windy steppe. They came to Mongolia as part of the U.S. State Department’s Arts Envoy Program. Over the course of their week-long stay, the six-member band played two shows in Ulaanbaatar and traveled to Tsestserlig where they performed for and worked with students at a school for the visually impaired.

I caught their performance for C1TV’s live music show, ‘Big Break’, and was taken aback to hear a true American indie rock band after having been in Ulaanbaatar for 4 months. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to catch up with them at the end of their trip. But violinist and singer Elizabeth Lindau was kind enough to answer some of my questions via e-mail after their safe return to Chicago.

Read the interview below.

Two members of Canasta set-up at the school for the visually impaired
(Photo Courtesy Canasta)

What prompted you to apply for the State Deptartment program?

Elizabeth Lindau: Well – I love to travel, especially to exotic/unusual/remote locales.  So when I found out that the State Department brings performers overseas to showcase US artists and art forms, I set out to see if I could convince them to choose my band, Canasta. Usually they select groups that are more traditional–blues, jazz, bluegrass–whereas we’re an indie rock band. But indie rock is definitely a vibrant American art form these days.

Did you choose Mongolia or did the State Department choose for you?

EL:  Well, through a circuitous route, I got the name of the person in UB who puts together the applications to have performers come over. I pestered her for, oh, about a year and a half, until she put together an application for us.

What did you know about Mongolia before you came?

Elizabeth Lindau poses in front of camels
(Photo Courtesy Canasta)

EL:  Mostly the stuff that most Americans might know: Genghis (Chinggis) Khan… yurts… the Gobi desert.

Did anything surprise you about UB or Mongolia while you were here?

EL:  Well, when you visit Mongolia in February it’s hard to not comment on the cold.  We had a hard time figuring out how to prepare for it. Some people told us “Oh, it’s not as bad as you think” and others were a bit more serious. We ended up borrowing a lot of cold weather gear from friends and family. And we all obtained nice Sorel boots, which were totally necessary. During the van ride around the countryside, we had a lot of debates about what our coldest moment was. Megan and I swear it was when we got out of the van to take pictures of yaks. Other people voted for our midnight arrival at the airport.

Another thing that we noticed is that people just seemed really tough. Like, strong and resilient. I can’t speak for the others, but I felt pretty wimpy in comparison.

You had a chance to travel around the countryside in central Mongolia, what were your initial impressions?

EL:  Wow – that’s a big question.  First of all – I’m SO glad we got to see the countryside. UB is interesting and has its charms, but the countryside was really astounding. A decade or so I spent a season working in Antarctica, and I kept saying to the band, “You don’t need to go to Antarctica, this looks and feels so similar.” The vast distances with nothing, no trees or buildings, dark rocks covered with a light layer of snow… it evoked the Antarctic landscape for me. And, not to dwell on the cold, but it was a lot colder in Mongolia than it was when I was in Antarctica.

Canasta band members had some bonding time during the long drives in the van
(Photo Courtesy Canasta)

It was one of your bandmates’ first trips abroad – what was it like for him to experience Mongolia?

Brian Palmieri:  Mongolia, for me, felt surprisingly familiar. It could have something to do with having grown up in Alabama and experiencing, small town, rural living. I tend to identify as more of a “city boy”, but I can appreciate what it’s like living in an area that’s culturally homogenous. It was really fascinating being in Ulaanbaatar and seeing both the similarities and stark contrasts to Western culture and being in the rural areas where life seems to be much simpler, revolving around raising children, producing food, and maintaining a home. Living in Chicago, you get used to the faster pace of life and with the city being so densely populated, the people around you tend to blend into the scenery. Everyone here seems to have their own special agenda or set of priorities, whether it’s being an actor, or a chef, or a musician, or a businessperson. In Mongolia, at least in the rural areas, it seemed like there was an appreciation for things like the arts, crafts, and sport, but the Mongolians seem to approach these things from a traditional, cultural position rather than as a means of self-actualization or self-expression as they often do in America. I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I got.

As a musician, it excites me to use my craft as a means of communication, so with this trip being my first time abroad, I was really interested to see how Canasta’s music would be received in such a foreign place. While the reactions among the middle-aged and older Mongolians were mixed, the youth really seemed to enjoy our music. With the oft off-beat clapping, random bursts of applause, and countless requests for band photos during our rural shows, I experienced the closest thing I’ll ever feel to being a rock-star. Something tells me, we’d have a slightly different reaction in, I don’t know, France.”
You worked with a school for the visually impaired, what was that experience like for you and what did you do?

EL: The visit was certainly one of the highlights of our trip. We performed for the kids and answered a bunch of questions. We brought along shakers from the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, and gave them out to help encourage the kids to participate. At the end of the visit, one of the students got up to sing a song for us. He was pretty shy at first and didn’t sing right away, but after some clapping and encouragement, he launched into the school’s anthem. His voice was so clear and strong, and eventually all the students joined in. It was really moving.

What were the takeaways from this trip – anything that sticks out now that you’ve been home for a couple weeks?

EL:  I need to start a business importing sea-buckthorn juice. We all liked it; I think it will be the next acai berry.

How does this tour compare to other tours you’ve done in the U.S.?

The Mongolian landscape reminded one Canasta member of her time in Antarctica
(Photo Courtesy Canasta)

EL:  In some aspects – totally different, in the obvious ways (language, culture, etc.). However, other stuff was similar to what we experience touring here. When we’re playing in the US, we’re often sleeping on floors of people we barely know, or pulling up at a venue where we have no idea what the sound situation will be like. So the feeling of “who knows what it will be like when we pull into town” was familiar.

Did the trip help you bond as a band any differently than touring in the U.S. might?

EL:  In the US we don’t have our own van, so we end up traveling with two cars. There’s six of us, so we split up three and three. Sometimes it can be convenient – like if we’re staying in different places or one car needs to leave early. But we never really get to do a lot of band bonding, since we’re never all together at the same time. Having our own giant van and driver in Mongolia was an awesome treat.

Is this an experience you would want to repeat in another country?

I’d definitely be up for it!

Will there be any songs coming out of this trip?

EL:  We took a quick video of these incredible musicians who performed for us. We were really humbled at how talented they were, and how they were able to just pick up their instruments and play, without any setup, or amps, or gear. We’re inspired by that simplicity and are hoping to include some aspect of that in the future.

Listen to an interview Canasta did with Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ, when they returned.

What Herders Do Best

Last February, I spent a day with some herders just 2 hours outside of Ulaanbaatar. I was accompanying a friend of mine and her aunt as they went to buy two fresh sheep for the upcoming Tsagaan Sar celebration.

We arrived at the first family’s ger (home) around 10:00 am. They served us milk tea and some freshly made buuz. Then the husband and wife and their young son hopped in my friend’s small Toyota and we headed off to another herder family’s home about 10 km away. We were lucky to be on a paved road for about half of the way, but relied on the little hatchback to do her best as we off-roaded it over the snowy terrain to the second ger.

Amgalan's son runs to Amgalan and Batbayar as they examine a sheep

Upon arrival, we were again greeted and served milk tea, a standard sign of Mongolian hospitality. With the horses gone off to get water, we had to drive the Toyota through the snow to where the sheep were grazing – another several kilometers away.

I’ve never seen the herding process before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Perhaps it might be different if the men were on horseback, but I was surprised at just how time intensive and exhausting it was to round up so many sheep. I was also surprised to see the method of catching the sheep: basically spotting the one you want, running into the herd, and tackling it. It’s quite entertaining to observe.

Over the course of the next hour, the two herders caught four or five sheep. They would compare their legs and tails to judge which one would be the best for eating at such a high holiday. They were very concerned with finding the two best sheep, which, to be honest, all looked the same to me.

After they chose the two winners, they tied them up, and lobbed them into the trunk of my friend’s hatchback, and we returned to the ger.

Watch a Video of the Herding Process:

The next 4 hours were spent killing, skinning, and cleaning the sheep – not for the faint of heart.

Batbayar skins one of the sheep

The traditional Mongolian method for killing sheep might be surprising. They cut the sheep’s belly lengthwise, stick their hand into the chest cavity and stop the heart by pinching the aorta. It takes no more than 5 minutes and the sheep don’t make a sound.

A woman sorts through the organs of a sheep as she cleans them

After, the two herders each skinned one sheep – ripping the skin from the fat and muscle. The pair made the skinning process look rather easy – using the fat to grease their hands and separating the skin from the muscle. The young boy climbed all over his father as he was exerting himself, but he didn’t seem to mind much. After about 15 minutes, the sheep were fully skinned. They would sell the pelts and feet later.

Once the sheep were skinned, the women took over. They spent the next several hours methodically cleaning the innards inside the ger. Each wife was in charge of one sheep’s o

rgans. First they cleaned the small and large intestines, squeezing out feces and running water through them until they were clear. Then they mixed blood with onion and garlic, which they poured into the intestines. This would later be cooked to make a tasty sausage-like treat.

After all the organs and intestines were properly cleaned, they stuffed them into the sheep’s stomach. They stretchy tissue served as an extremely efficient sack.

Coming from the United States, where the commercial slaughtering process is less than ideal, it was refreshing to observe how intimate the herders are with their livestock. Not part of the animal was wasted – nothing is taken for granted.

Batbayar tells me about his life as a herder in Central Mongolia

After all was said and done, I sat down with Batbayar, the older and more experienced of the two herders. He was extremely proud of his profession, saying that there was nothing difficult about it at all. ‘With the fresh air in the countryside, herding is a really nice lifestyle,’ he told me.

Batbayar comes from a long line of herders out west in Zavkhan Province. He moved to this region just outside of Ulaanbaatar with his family and 400 goats and sheep just 5 years ago.

Batbayar told me that his family was quite busy recently, selling and preparing sheep for out-of-town customers almost everyday ahead of Tsagaan Sar.

He said his daily life is simple: wake up, take the herds out to pasture, look after them as they graze, and bring them home in the evening. There are additional chores like tending to the cows and cleaning out the pens. But, for the most part it’s the same everyday. “We never change our work, we just have one job,” he explained.

MORE PHOTOS

Mongolian children often learn to ride horses when they are as young as 3 or 4 years old

The two herders spent over an hour picking, catching and scrutinizing the sheep

Zaya holds down a sheep while the herders search for a second one

Batbayar examines one of his sheep

Amgalan leaves the ger to slaughter the sheep

Amgalan kills a sheep the traditional Mongolian way - by pinching the aorta

Amgalan's son climbs on him as he skins a sheep

The herders will sell the ankle bones of the sheep for pieces in a popular game similar to jacks or dice.

After the sheep are skinned, the women clean the innards inside the ger

Woman clean sheep intestines together

Blood is mixed with onion and later boiled inside the intestine

Zaya pours blood mixed with onion into an intestine

Women sit near the door to their ger cleaning sheep innards

Once all of the intestines have been cleaned, they are stuffed into the stomach, which also operates as a sack

Three days later the cooked sheep was featured on a table along with other food for Tsagaan Sar

NisNis Fest 2012

Last night was one of my favorite concerts thus far in Ulaanbaatar. It was the 16th annual NisNis Festival – a concert commemorating the anniversary of local grunge band Nisvanis.

Ten bands were featured alongside Nisvanis and they switched from two stages, to keep the show moving along. Most of the bands played 3-5 songs, while Nisvanis played both an acoustic and electric set. Bands represented several genres: rock, grunge, metal, folk rock, and indie rock. One band, Jokers Wild, even played Pink Floyd.

It can be hard to find a concert similar to what I’m used to back in the States here in Ulaanbaatar. The market just isn’t as big here, and so real rock shows are few and far between. But, last night’s show was an energizing display of all that the Ulaanbaatar scene has to offer, and all in one venue.

The crowd was mostly young, what you would expect at any rock concert. And although it was mostly Mongolian fans, there were a handful of foreigners who came to check out the scene as well.

Highlights included North Ducks’ rocking cover of a traditional Mongolian song. The whole crowd sang along to their reinterpretation – but, alas, I didn’t know the words. I also really enjoyed seeing Altan Urag (a band I’ve seen quite a bit at their regular restaurant gig) in a more raucous environment. Among the new bands I saw was, Solongo, which is one of only a few Mongolian groups with a female lead singer.

All in all it was a fabulous night. I spent much of the show running around filming a few of the bands and the crowd. I’ll have some of that footage up once I’ve had a chance to edit.

In the meantime, check out the videos below of some of the bands that played last night.

More Photos:

Photos: Beijing Graffiti

I have been steadily collecting photos of graffiti around Ulaanbaatar. Mostly I’ll just snap a shot on my iPhone while walking around. I have yet to devote some serious time to walking around the city and taking pictures, but it will happen soon.

While in Beijing, I decided to collect some images of Chinese graffiti. Here’s some of what I found.

Beijing_Lanterns

Photos: The Colors of Beijing

Walking around Beijing a couple weeks ago, I was struck by the city’s pallet. Red is a common color in China. It’s a lucky and joyful color. It’s the color of the flag, lanterns, doors, the all-important-stamps, Chinese New Year, the communist government, and the envelopes used to exchange monetary gifts.

But the red is only made brighter by its companion hue: grey.

Red and Grey. Those are the colors of Beijing.

After realizing this, I decided to collect as many photos highlighting the color combo as I could while walking around. It was an absurdly easy task.

Here are some of the images I captured on an average stroll through Beijing.

It’s All About Perspective

One of the things that I love most about traveling is the shift in perspective one gets when he visits a new place. I find that I am able to see my home town and country in a new light as I compare it to other places. It is easier to notice the things I take for granted in my everyday life as well as the things I do without.

Over the past five months, I’ve noticed my perspective of Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia slowly change. When I first arrived, I was surprised to see the state of the streets and sidewalks: potholes abound, uncovered manholes, debris everywhere, gaping holes in the pavement, etc. I felt like I had to wear my hiking boots just to walk around the city. Driving in the countryside inevitably means the road will be nothing more than some worn tracks in the ground. Buildings at first appeared rundown from the outside (even though the interiors were quite well kept), making it difficult for me to find places. Food variety seemed limited as did shopping for clothes or household goods.

But as time marched on and I became more comfortable in my new habitat, I began to see things differently. After making a few trips to the countryside, I began to see Ulaanbaatar as a modern metropolis. I mean, there is a Louis Vuitton (as every article written about Mongolia in the past two years states) after all. If that’s not a sign of the modern city, then I don’t know what is. I began to realize that there was nothing that I wanted that I couldn’t find in UB. I began commenting on how nice a road (despite its potholes) was and how well-kept the exteriors of certain buildings were. I was impressed that I could eat almost anything I wanted in UB: Korean, Pizza, Generic Western, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Turkish, and French are all available.

A 'pretty nice' road in Khovsgol Province

Typical apartment building entrance in UB

The main drag in UB

And so, when I flew out of Ulaanbaatar on my way to Beijing a few weeks ago and caught an aerial glimpse of the city and its sprawling ger district I thought to myself, “Wow, UB’s actually really big.”

Then I landed in Beijing.

It was hard to get a sense for the city from the air because of the smog. But, the fact that you can see the smog a solid 30 minutes before landing at the Beijing International Airport is a good indication of just how big that city is.

I lived in Nanjing, China for a year (2006-2007) visiting Beijing a few times, and so China itself is familiar. The language and various cultural differences aren’t so surprising. But when I emerged from the subway in the center of the city, I was astonished.

Shiny. Huge. Fancy. McDonalds. Loud. Clean. Warm. Organized. Vibrant. Fragrant. KFC. Wide Roads. Highways. Limitless Skyscrapers. Street Cleaners. These are the things that stood out.

I might as well have been in Manhattan (if Manhattan were better kept).

I spent the next three days wandering around China’s behemoth capit0l, avoiding the tourist attractions I’d already seen once. I was perfectly content to explore my way around the city, eating and window shopping along the way.

On my second day in Beijing, I stumbled upon an indoor food market. Ulaanbaatar has plenty of markets, and so the scene isn’t so unusual for me. What really left me with a gaping expression was the variety and amount of food for sale. Every nut you can imagine. Vegetables I forgot existed. Vegetables I don’t even know the English name of. Fish I’ve never even thought to try before. Hundreds of teas. Grubs. Fresh fruit.

In a word: stunning.

Bags of nuts and seeds for sale in a Beijing market

After three days in Beijing, I headed back to the airport and boarded a plane for Brisbane, Australia to meet up with some friends down under. The detour through Beijing made the transition from UB to a place so similar to home easier. It also reminded me of just how big this planet of ours is. It’s a little unbelievable for me to imagine that right now there’s a herder in Mongolia protecting his sheep from the spring winds, a student riding her bicycle through the busy streets of Beijing, and a surfer catching some waves on the coast of Australia.  It can feel overwhelming to realize just how many of us there are. But it can also be reassuring. We’re all just living our lives, trying to get by in our own way. There’s something comforting about that.

When I flew back from Brisbane via Guangzhou then via Beijing, I met a lovely young Russian man. He’s also itinerant: lived in Israel for years and now in Australia. He told me about an experiment he had recently read about. A group was asked to choose 2 ice cream flavors out of 4 and then rate their satisfaction with their choice. Then a group was asked to pick 2 flavors out of 21 and rate their satisfaction. Members of the first group were almost always more satisfied with their choice.

I’m back in Ulaanbaatar, which feels like home. And, while it sure would be nice to be able to buy hummus at the supermarket or find fresh radishes, I think I am a member of the first group. It’s easier to be content with fewer choices. It’s easier to not want what you don’t even know you can have.

MORE PHOTOS:

Retirees playing mahjong in a park

Some Chinglish purses for sale

Camel Festival in the Gobi Desert

For the past ten years, camel herders have been meeting annually in the sleepy town of Sainshand to celebrate their animal of choice. The Temenee Nadaam (Camel Festival) is held in provinces around southern Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, where camel herding is most popular. The festival began about a decade ago in an effort to bolster support for the unique Mongolian Bactrian camel (two humps, not one), and the camel herding lifestyle.

Herders from across the province brought their livestock to Sainshand to compete in a variety of games. There were over 100 camels present, and about 400 people.

Camels surrounded the festival area, most of them tied up, but there were always a few who managed to get loose

Festival Activities:

  • Parade
  • Camel Race
  • Fashion Show for Beautiful Couples: Husband-Wife couples dressed up in matching traditional costumes and decked out their camels for this one
  • Camel Reign Braiding Race: One line of men whittled a piece of wood for the piece that goes through the nose, while a row of women braided camel hair into rope
  • Relay Race: My favorite event, involved Husband-Wife teams. The men first rode the camels around a series of posts, then dismounted, the women took the reins and led the camels through a field of dried dung, which they had to collect and put in their baskets, then the men remounted, rode the camels to an area where they had to throw three darts, and finally raced back to the starting line. Endless fun.
  • Camel Polo Tournament: this is exactly what it sounds like.

Camels lined up outside of the Sainshand arena

The main event was the Camel Polo Tournament. Each sum (county) entered a team in the competition to represent them. Thesums also each set up a ger with their flag out front for their festival participants. Anyone was welcome to come in and warm up with some hot milk tea or soup. While we sat in one particular ger, the county’s government official presented each polo team member with special medals, acknowledging their participation. It seemed like a big deal.

Overall, the festival was a real joy. It was a bit cold (but then again, it is in Mongolia). I was able to try camel for the first (and hopefully only) time in my life. And everyone there was truly excited to be participating. It was an event that many people look forward to for months to come.

Now, without further adieu, camel polo:

PHOTOS:

Sainshand is near a coal coking mine, making it one of southern Mongolia's industrial hotspots

A group of festival-goers pose near the stadium

A newly invented game of camel polo was the main attraction

Two young boys wrestle outside their county's ger

A polo player after finishing a match

Players wave their polo mallets in the air amidst a match

One of about twenty gers erected by the attending county representatives

Participants in the 'Beautiful Couples' fashion competition

Camels on Parade

A band played as camels paraded through the streets of Sainshand

A polo player races his camel through the streets during the parade

The beginning of my favorite event: the camel relay

A competitor throws a dart during the camel relay

A women collects strategically placed dung as part of the relay

These baskets are traditionally used by herders to collect dung, which they use as fuel

A crowd watches the relay competition

Women race to see who can braid a camel hair rope the fastest

Polo players in the central stadium

Players hit each others' mallets after each polo match