The bad news is nothing much that I recommended was done after I left, the good news is I know exactly where I am starting from and don't have to "undo" anything. But the lack of momentum is discouraging. At least I already know most of the players and much of the bureaucratic process so I hit the ground running and have not slowed down since. But enough about work.
"What has changed" I was asked. "Not much" is the simple answer. Traffic has gotten worse and it is faster to walk than drive during the day. The buildings under construction two years ago are mostly still under construction or abandoned due to the recession. Life on the street seems mostly the same. But then again nothing is simple here even if it appears so on the surface.
After a meeting someone asked me to describe Ulaanbaatar (UB for short) in three words. The best I could do was: "Urban Wild West". Part of it is the sight of people on the street dressed in traditional Mongolian garb walking alongside guys in suits dodging a BMW or Lexus. The other is the contrast between freshly paved Enkhtaiwan (Peace) Avenue and the broken sidewalks and open manholes. The traffic exhibits the anything goes mentality here. A Nomadic culture that is fiercely independent yet family oriented and graciously accepting of strangers, they can be both gentle and fearsome. A most interesting paradox. The worst of Mongolia emerges after midnight when many are very drunk and you can get beat up over nothing at all. Alcoholism is a major problem here and Vodka prevalent everywhere from big stores to roadside kiosks. Actually you can see drunks lying on the street at 10am but they are not much of a threat.
The traffic has gotten fierce and 20+ cars will continue through after the light turns red. The daily adventure is to snake your way between stopped or slowed cars & busses to get across the street. The crosswalk is just another piece of roadway and no safety zone so it is pedestrians beware. Arriving at work without becoming a hood ornament on a Mongolian car is a badge of honor.
Still Mongolia has its charm. Many of the Expats I meet are former Peace Corp (PC) volunteers who found they seem to have gotten Mongolia in their blood and keep drifting back. Then there is the Australian Youth Ambassadors (AYA) version of Peace Corp not to mention the Princeton in Asia (PIA) which now places lots of non Princeton graduates. Lots of NGOs to work for if you have previous Mongolia experience. Mongolia grows on you especially if you have been to the countryside.
The other night I was to go to dinner with Ed. I suggested a North Korean restaurant I had heard about but never found. The day of dinner Ed contacted me an said the three PIA guys who worked with his daughter in Hangzhou had shown up so they came along to dinner. I arrived in the right neighborhood and found Matt there who was the one person who knew where it was tucked away. After a brew at a local hotel, Matt led us into the bowels of the Mongolian Cultural Center where a lone red sign meant we had actually arrived. There were six of us and we were seated in the back at a long table. We ordered a variety of dishes and shared. Somehow Ed started referring to the Hangzhou team as PIA spies. You know PIA .... CIA, whatever. Shortly thereafter the North Koreans seated at the table nearest us got up and pull a floor screen over to block our view of their table. The food was scrumptious, I plan to go back. But they did lock to door after us as we left.
I often go to Mercury Market, an indoor farmer's market like affair to shop. It has a wide selection, all with small independent vendors, a few imported items like a pint of snickers ice cream for US$8.50 but fresh spinach and lettuce for 60 cents a bunch. Get my fresh fruits & veggies here In the back section are the people with meat and chicken laid out on a counter, refrigeration?, you must be kidding. You point to what you want and they hack it off and wrap it up.
On Sunday I was walking back from Mercury market near Sukhbaatar square and heard the unmistakable roar of motorcycles. It grew louder and louder until a stream of big bikes snaked their way onto the square and over to the stage, which was set up for a band, where they lined up side by side and parked. I counted 49 motorcycles and 2 quads. Most were in black leather jackets with serious expressions on their faces. So remember to expect the unexpected.
By and large the expats here are a nice group (there are always exceptions) and easy to meet. Probably 80% of the expats I met last time are now gone, so the stress is always in forming new friendships, knowing that they may be gone in a year or two. The friendship doesn't necessarily end but the face to face connection which is so important does not last. A much different mindset on relationships is in play here.
Yes it is always "an adventure"