Macarena in the Middle of Nowhere
Mongolia. Land of the nomad, the endless steppe and Chinggis Khan. Land of Falconers, blue sky and bitterly cold temperatures. Land of horses, camels and ancient caravan routes. Land of the Macarena.
Yeah, the Macarena.
It’s true, Mongolians know how to dance the Macarena. But the cultural barrier has breached more than booty shaking, Mongolians have also experienced pizza, Coca-Cola and Mars bars. Chinggis has gotten off his horse, and slid into the soft, leathery interior of his BMW 325I.
But Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital and only city of significant size, has gone beyond junk food and techno crap imported from China. Chinggis will have nothing but the best for his people. Ulaanbaatar has gone whole hog. This is a city with class.
Forget all those stories and rumors you have heard about Ulaanbaatar – gone are the days of horse drawn carts and ration tickets. Flashy cars and glossy new hotels are springing up all around. The barren shelves have been stocked, the cup has been filled, and Mongolians are drinking to the health of their nation.
To experience is to understand. Imagine yourself transformed to a city in the middle of nowhere. The nearest metropolis is Beijing, a mere 36-hour train ride away. One could easily spend a holiday in UB (as it is know by expats), hob-knobbing at a mind boggling array of upscale restaurants and hotels.
Of course it all depends on what you are in the mood for. Indian curry? French delicacies? Or how about a cut of New York prime rib. Wash it down with a glass of fine, imported wine.
Pay your bill and step outside. Yes, now you are back in Mongolia. Bone chilling temperatures freeze your cheeks and toes and fingers. You thought those gloves would be thick enough, didn’t you? Not to worry, more havens lie in wait.
It is time to hit the clubs.
Mongolia has gone dance mad. They haven’t quite figured out how to do it, but they love to try. They will dance anywhere; a bar, a restaurant, any time of the day. Step into Club Manhattan and you could be anywhere in the world. The ceiling is covered by a huge American flag, out of the wall comes the statue of liberty, the DJ is spinning all the latest and greatest.
The local crowd does its best to imitate its favorite MTV stars. Each one eyeing the other for any helpful pointers. Eventually, most give up and begin a fast-paced ballroom dance. The Russians taught Mongolians how to ballroom dance, and it has become too ingrained in their blood to give up. (The same goes for vodka.)
Stumble out of the Manhattan and head off to the The Hard Rock, the Mad Dog Saloon, Matisse, Top Ten, The Ridge or how about the UFO Club? All are loaded with Macarena/ballroom dancing young Mongolians.
Speaking of UFOs, here is a small bit of insight into local naiveté. When Manhattan first opened last October, they flipped on Mongolia’s first high-powered flood light; which curiously spun around in the night sky. The following morning, the nation’s daily newspaper reported on an alien space craft that had landed in downtown Ulaanbaatar.
The flashy new lifestyle has been the blessed gift of democracy, claim those who can afford it. Life was never so good back in the communist era, when the shadow of Lenin loomed large over this nation of herders. But as democracy sometimes works, there are the fortunate and the unfortunate.
Stray away from the city center and enter an entirely different world. Rusted out Lada’s with a cattle carcass strapped to the roof. Crumbling apartment blocks where a family of six somehow dwell in a one-room flat. Homeless children who rummage through trash bins by day and retire to the warm confines of the underground sewer by night. This is the rest of Mongolia. A nation stricken by poverty and an unemployment rate over 30 percent.
Beyond Ulaanbaatar’s downtown wealth are the ger districts where most of the city resides. These suburbs are filled with gers, the traditional Mongolian felt tent used by nomads. But these gers aren’t going anywhere. Once in the ger districts families become trapped by poverty. The countryside becomes further and further away.
Electricity has come to the ger districts, yet they still lack plumbing or sewage systems. Dead of winter runs to the toilet in -35 degree fahrenheit. While water is taken from a well to Tuul, a river downstream.
People in the ger districts don’t do the Macarena. Pastimes are chopping fire wood and collecting water. A typical family of six earns about 60,000 togrogs a month, about $85. This is just enough for rent, and a diet of rice, butter, meat and potatoes – it is no surprise that malnutrition is rampant.
Crime in the ger districts is a serious problem, with countless reports of killings over minimal objects like video games and food. But a greater problem than the crime is the government, which seems to allot little or no money to these ger districts.
Most of the nation’s funds are locked up in joint-ventures with foreign companies. The profits of which are making the residents of the “Macarena” district very rich. Mongolia’s politicians, who incidentally are also the nation’s top businessmen, have created an ambitious privatization scheme to seal off all the socialist properties. However, these high ranking officials are the only Mongolians who can afford to even enter the auction houses. The joint-ventures that they support are profitable for themselves and their overseas investors, yet do little to improve the economy of the nation.
Although the government claims to be making progress, many attempts are failing. Roads are crumbling and the plumbing remains in a horrific state. Yet Range Rovers and Jeep Cherokees cruise downtown streets. Like the people behind the wheel of the government, it’s not clear where they’re driving too.