At Cafe Nayra a very tall friendly guy from the U.K. sat across from me all afternoon. He said he was friends with the owner, and that they were coming out Friday with friends and I was welcome to join. The man, R, had been in Kathmadu when he heard about a Buddhist monk who owned a charity in Mongolia. The Charity, called the Mongolian word for caring, helped out mainly single mother households of six or seven children. They brought the children to the kindergarten so the mother could have time to build up a skill. They would then buy the mother’s wares for three months at a fixed price, and then after that based on quality. There was also a vegetable operation, since many of the children go hungry. The poverty line is seventeen dollars of income a month.
You can tell you haven’t been here long, R said to me when I arrived at the café on time. For the next two hours six or so more people arrived. Two were expat men who worked at a bank and a corporate management firm. They had been in the Peace Corps together in Mongolia in 2001. Conversation turned to air pollution and hummers. Plenty of both in Ulaanbaatar. Where does that money come from? I wondered.
Mining, was the response. Any developing country with natural resources has this to some degree. A lot of it’s also foreign aid that’s not going where it’s supposed to go.
My mother is on my case to claim my money from the government from my son, but there is so much beurocracy to get it. I would rather have it than some Mongolian official pocket it! Says A, a weaponfully intelligent mother in her thirties. Back when the Asia Foundation was doing different things in Mongolia in the late 90s, a lot of democratzation work, A worked as a junior programming officer in the civil society branch of tat work. I have one son, she tells me. He is beautiful. Toddlerhood is my favorite stage. He is so much fun. (Oyuna told me once that 1 year old babies in Mongolia already know how to dress themselves.) The father of my son and I are not married, and the baby was not planned. Living together with children but not marriage is common here, right? I ask. She says, You get 500000 togrogs if you register to marry. It is a gift from the government to “promote family”—to buy votes. But maybe we should get married just for that!
I don’t like our president, says one of the Mongolians. He is trying to get rid of parliament—right now we have 74 members, and 25 are communist and their chairs are red, only one of them is yellow, and democrats are blue. He is trying to make our countries go like central Asian countries so he can stay in power longer.
Outside was a cold autumn spitting rain. We piled in two cars, R in the front on account of his long limbs, first to a club called Level, where a man in a suit opened the door for us, and then on to a place called Strings when we found Level was packed. It was on the western side of the city, and after a bit a live band took the stage. Their accents sounded American but it turned out they were Filipino. Filipino cover bands always play here, I am told. No one in the group knows why or how they got to be living in Mongolia.
They played everything from La Bamba to the latest from the Black Eyed Peas. Mongolians, as is one of m favorite things about them, danced like mad in big circles of companions. The guys really get down too, in big enthusiastic swoops of the arm.
One woman gets our attention by swaying back and forth with heavily lidded eyes. She dances even when no one else is dancing. She lies down on the lap of a man at her table. He is dispassionate; he neither shrugs her off nor touches her. If she has friends they have really abandoned her. No, she came here alone. They put her at the table with those guys when our group came. The band is playing On Fire. She screams and launches onto the stage. The band is good natured. She’s on fire! They say.
Literally 20 times a security guard will lead her away when she gets close to the stage, and she shrugs him off and goes right back. Again and again. It continues. The band is now playing Hey Jude. Two guards escort her from the room entirely and she races back. You can take her, and make it better, the singer croons.
You can’t tell which ones are hookers, said one guy to another. I had been completely in the dark. There are hookers at these places? Yeah, I think it’s easier to tell if you’re dancing and you’re a guy. Now Mongolian strip clubs—they’re full on naked, hot Mongolian women, on your lap. It’s a good fuckin strip club. I like taking women, too, because they get all up on the women just the same.
Good men in Mongolia are few and far between, to be honest, he says to me as we watch A dance after she has gotten back from putting hot cups on her son’s back for his cough. It’s the women who are running the show, 65% of the workforce. They’re the ones showing up to work on time and they’re the ones who are reliable.
I love watching tall people dance. Their limbs just have nowhere to go.