Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Soundtrack for a White Moon

An old saying tells us that music soothes the savage beast.  It has a nicer ring to it than "music soothes the slightly off-balance ginger," but that happens to be true, too.  This is a story about a night Engrish, Time Lady, and I spent in Hell.  Not, sadly, the warm-fuzzy kind of Hell I lived in for three years under the devil of an ahjusshi whom I honestly found kind of sexy (and to whom you and I both know I'd probably sign my soul away again if I was given the chance).  No, this is a Hell we unknowingly walked ourselves into.

A week and a half ago the office Go-To Girl (who is amazing and without whom my Big, Fat, Mongolian Student Art Show probably wouldn't have happened) sent around an ad for a special Tsagaan Sar event organized by the Ambassador's Club at the Square Pub.  The Square Pub - in case I haven't told you - is one of those places where you pay for the view.  The food and drinks are alright, but overpriced.  However, every time we go there for live music, it knocks us out.  We saw Arga Bileg play there last Tsagaan Sar and fell in love.  So the fact that folk band Domog was playing hooked us.  I knew we'd seen them before - we went to a big Mongolian concert last spring, and they were among the many bands that played - but I couldn't remember them specifically, and both Engrish and I were eager to hear them again.  Time Lady wasn't so sure, but I talked her into giving it a chance, and by the end of the first set we were all in love (they throat sang "Time to Say Goodbye" later - I mean, c'mon, what's not to love???)

Which is a good thing, because the night seemed doomed to end badly (as in, me with blood on my hands) before it even got started.  I don't know if you've picked up on this from my assorted ramblings to date, but I'm not exactly the easiest person to get along with.  If you're not a total dumbass, or a megalomaniac, or completely incompetent, I can probably sit at a table with you for a couple of hours and get along.  And even if you are, if you have something else to offer, I might be able to manage.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in this world that I just can't stand, and quite a few of them work at my school.  I don't have the patience to put up with their bullshit, especially after the kind of action-packed six weeks we've just finished.  So when Time Lady said her friends - with whom I can deal on a good day - wanted to sit with us, I was just like, "Eah," and left school with Engrish.  We got to the pub around 6:30, and were seated at the best table in the house.  Which with 8 chairs was one of the small tables set up for the night.  So I texted Time Lady and said, "On second thought, you three go ahead and sit with us."

Seven o'clock came and went with us being the only ones there, and just before Time Lady's entourage got there, two of my favorite - that word should just absolutely drip with sarcasm - people walked in.  I didn't look at them, because I was hoping that the staff at Square Pub would take them somewhere else.  Wild Ass said it best when she told us she'd rather shoot herself than spend an evening with these guys, and here they were, being brought to sit right next to me.  The gag reflex I'd been trying to master since cleaning up vomit earlier in the day threatened to win out.  See, it's bad to be incompetent and megalomaniacal.  It's even worse to be butt ugly (maybe I'm being shallow, but a pretty face will cover a whole host of sins).  There is a small chance that I can forgive a person for being boring, ugly, and stupid, but don't you dare fuck with my favorite students.  So I spent the evening sending Engrish snide texts, not making eye contact, and speaking only when directly addressed.

Luckily Time Lady and company got there before it could get any worse.  When a third group of coworkers entered the pub, there was only one seat left at our table, so we were spared the addition of hokey jokes to the awkward conversations in between unbelievable sets of music.  Which is good, because Engrish might not have forgiven me for abandoning ship.  As it was I was out of my seat saying, "AW HELLS NO," before I could figure out that we only had one seat, and they were three people.

And this is good, because abandoning Engrish would have made me a terrible person.  I'm on shaky enough ground as it is.  One of my many nicknames for Engrish is "Dalai Lama," because she is a trooper - she deals extremely diplomatically with shitty situations and people (I'll let you figure out how I refer to myself, but here's a ain't Mother Teresa).  So while I was sending her snide texts and ignoring the scary eyes on my right, she was making conversation.  She's good people, and I'm sure there are people out there who say that because she puts up with me.  They're not wrong.

All that said, the music actually made everything worth it.  After two sets by Domog we were blown away by a band we'd never even heard of - Mongolia's first ukelele band, TigerFish.  They were so great that after making cinnamon swirl pancakes for my nearest and dearest I went out and bought a copy of both bands' albums, to which I am listening to it as I type this.  That last post, about where to shop for souvenirs in Mongolia?  I went to HiFi for this music.  You should too.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Mongol Gifts

Tsagaan Sar is coming soon - in fact I am counting the days.  Not because I am looking forward to eating lots and lots of buuz (steamed mutton dumplings), but because I am getting the heck out of town and visiting Bronte in Greece.  Lots of other people are looking forward to a local celebration, though.  Before you know it, every store will be flooded with displays of sweets (and I might actually be able to find my favorite Russian chocolates) and those fried bready-things that go along with the festivities.  There will be lots of gift sets, and Mongolian traditional clothes, deel, for sale, as well.  To meet this need, some marketing genius three years ago decided they should offer a national product expo, with everything at wholesale prices, and it's been happening every year ever since.

This year, Engrish, Blondie, and I decided we would go.  It's being held at the Misheel Expo these days, and Blondie wanted some new furniture, so this worked out well.  The Enkhaa Express picked us up around 2 and we headed out via the airport road.  I was stoked to check out all the Mongolian products.  Since I began planning the event that may prove once and for all that I am completely insane (henceforth to be called "Spring Break Shenanigans With Twelve Hormonal Teenagers" or SBSWTHT), I've been more than usually interested in local crafts.  This year's fundraising has not gone as smoothly as I would have liked, but if I ever try this again (ha) I want to be prepared.

But here's the thing:  pretty much everybody in UB was there.  Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but this was the first - and hopefully last - time I've felt like I was in China without leaving Mongolia.  You could not casually browse anything.  You had to mean business.  You had to be ready to stand your ground.  There was pushing. And shoving.  I had one hand on my purse at all time, because this would be prime pickpocket territory.  And disappointingly, there was nothing to really interest or inspire me.  There were a lot of gorgeous deel and boots, but a sturdy woman like me can't just walk up and buy much of any clothing in Asia, and I already had a pearl headdress.  So it did not take me very long to say, "Forget this!" and move as quickly and politely as I could to the end to wait for my two friends.

IF you are in Mongolia and you want some great souvenirs to take home, this is not the place to go.  Sorry.  You will not see Mongolia at its best (a fact I decided even before we passed a huge snarl of cars trying to get in/out as we were leaving).  You might save yourself a couple of bucks, but let's face it - if you are traveling in Mongolia, you can probably afford to spend a little more money.  Do yourself a favor and try:
1. The souvenir center on the top floor of the State Department Store:
They have everything.  I'm not exaggerating this time.  Bow and arrows, shagai (sheep anklebones used for fortune telling and games), clothing (traditional AND t-shirts), embroidery, quilts, furs, felting, shoes, paintings...  They have more than the Mongol Gifts expo and there are fewer people.  And while you're in SDS, you can stop on the second floor to check out their selection of cashmere, although I've decided it's not my favorite place for cashmere (keep reading).
"I saw the sign" - in the middle on the left side of the picture
2. Mary and Martha:
If you like your souvenirs to come with warm fuzzy feelings, this is the place to go.  Mary and Martha is a fair-trade organization, and deals directly with artisans and good organizations that do things like get women out of prostitution.  They have a LOT of Kazakh embroidery, some of it antique, my favorite felt slippers, AND they're very helpful.  It's a little hard to find them, because you'll have to turn north off Peace Ave about a block before the State Department Store, but there's a nice big sign to help you, and it's well worth leaving the beaten path.
3. Tsagaan-Alt Wool Shop:
This place has hats, scarves, slippers, toys, wall-hangings...just about everything you could want made out of wool - all very high-quality and with tons of selection.  It's less than a block down Beatles Street from the State Department Store, on the right hand side.
4. Gobi Cashmere:
Remember what I said about not being able to buy readymade clothing?  Gobi actually carries larger sizes - I bought a cashmere deel there this fall, and although I'm still trying to figure out what to wear with it, the fact that they have things I like in my actual size gets them tons of points.  Mongolian cashmere is awesome and you should definitely buy some.  Gobi has lots of locations, but there are two right in the middle of UB - one block south of the post office, and less than a block west of there on Seoul Street.

5. Hi-Fi Records:
You owe it to yourself to bring home some Mongolian music.  If you don't care much for traditional straight-up khoomi (throat singing) or morin khuur (horse-head fiddle), try some fusion.  There are a lot of great groups, but my favorites are Altan Urag's take on rock and Arga Bileg's jazz.  There is a branch of Hi-Fi in the SDS and one a little east and opposite on Peace Ave.

BTW, sorry about the long hiatus.  Two words: art show.  Maybe I'll write about it one of these days.