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Back Roads Beat

Crashing Corporate Christmas Parties in Mongolia

By Published: January 10, 2007
The drive is not attractive, circling the edge of a city that looks like a worn-out industrial mecca, with tall smokestacks spewing black clouds. Air pollution is frequently five times the acceptable limit, due mostly to intense coal burning but also to the abundance of vehicles that often are in poor shape.

But Ulaanbaatar has its showy side. At the city's center is the multi-block Sukhbaatar Square, surrounded by government and arts buildings with historic prestige and architecture. Among the square's monuments is the Zero Kilometer Marker, with locations in Mongolia often referred to in terms of how far they are from it.

About 500 yards from the marker was my chosen spot of indulgence. Frugal and adventurous travelers sleep in traditional fabric huts known as gers for a few dollars a day; I was in a palatial hotel with heat, TV and a small room with computers hooked to the Internet. Temperatures on those short days seldom rose above zero and I decided I wasn't exposing myself or my Powerbook to the elements. The best are about $60 a night, roughly a month's salary for the average Mongolian, but there's something to be said for splurging on a place that might cost $500 a night in many cities.

Food runs the same range, but here my tastes prefer simple to fancy. No, this isn't the land of Mongolian barbecue joints; Chinese is surprisingly dominant even if it borders that country (a lengthy feature in the newspaper observed this while searching for those most worthy). More interesting are hole-in-the-walls serving common fare like zuivan (a stew of mutton and homemade noodles) and buzz (steamed dumplings filled with meat). Those wanting more substantial and elaborate can always try boodog, where a whole goat is roasted from the inside by filling it with burning stones and tying off its neck (after removing the entrails through the throat). Mongolian vodka is said to be excellent—maybe due to the influence of neighboring Russian—and the popularity of salt tea (better than you might think) is common to many mountain dwellers of Central Asia.

For jazz fans (and coffee devotees) more interesting in nourishing the soul than the stomach, the Nayra Cafe offers what a Post reviewer calls the best recorded jazz in Mongolia, a rare location to get real espresso instead of the instant Nescafe served almost everywhere else and decent pastries, although sandwiches tend to skimp on fillings.

My late-night arrival left none of those options open, at least within the few blocks I was willing to walk in temperatures that almost immediately turned my ungloved hands numb. Fortunately for night owls, kiosks selling cigarettes, candy and ramen noodles are strewn liberally on street corners. In one of life's great have/have-not ironies, the hotel's tap water was so hot there was no need to heat it before making the noodles and some tea.

Half of Ulaanbaatar's population doesn't have running water, the rest have an average of three hours of hot water a day if the energy plant has enough coal. But every child receives a morin khuur, the country's traditional stringed folk instrument. It's this national emphasis on building up the spirit, if not the streets, that gives foreign players hope their efforts to bring jazz to the country will be successful.

"I performed on a variety of stages not up to the standards we impose or expect in our country," noted bassist John Hyde of Calgary's Northern Lights Quartet, which participated in the most recent Giant Steppes festival, in a blog by the band members. "This did not affect the performance of any of the artists I stood with. Each individual seems to carry a passion and spirit wholly devoted to the music."

A rough musical primer

Tourists might be long gone by December, but a fair focusing on them is the big event my first morning there.

Hosted at a nondescript building that passes for a convention center on the outskirts of town, the mystery is why locals are flocking to look at rows of tables with fliers about tourist camps, hotels and guiding companies whose customers are almost entirely foreigners. Turns out most only gave the exhibits a quick once-over; they were there to hear a day-long series of performances by different traditional Mongolian musicians, many of whom they seemed to know personally.

They crammed around a rough stage near the entryway and on school cafeteria-like benches eating something cheap and fried. On stage, sounds ranging from traditional throat singing known as khoomei to folk on morin khuurs to pounding instrumentals from ensembles mixing traditional and modern instruments were delivered at loud volumes. Many were accompanied by dancers—sometimes a couple, sometimes many—in traditional garb.

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