The warmth of a family meal holds winter’s cold at bay

The “ger district” looks over the city of Ulaanbaatar. These felt tents, a symbol of the city’s housing shortage, are home to Mongolians who have traveled to the capital in search of work. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

The “ger district” looks over the city of Ulaanbaatar. These felt tents, a symbol of the city’s housing shortage, are home to Mongolians who have traveled to the capital in search of work.

Editor’s note: Lucas Beard is a Durango High School graduate who is traveling in and writing about Mongolia for a year as a Fulbright Scholar.

Concerned about my daily Ramen noodle intake, professor Bat-Tur, a teacher of Korean Politics at the National University of Mongolia, invited me to his apartment for dinner with the promise of a home cooked meal.

Bat-Tur is a petit, thoughtful man, who speaks precise English, cautiously correcting his verb conjugations halfway through sentences. Mongolian names have special, often literal, significance, and Bat-Tur means “strong government.” Given to him by parents who were unsure if he would survive, his name relates to being born prematurely during the socialist period. The family believed the name “strong government” would impart much needed strength to the baby.

Over dinner, this esteemed professor at Mongolia’s most prestigious university shocked me with the detail that he had to work three jobs to afford his modest one bedroom apartment in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city.

The pressures of three jobs have affected his health, but Bat-Tur seemed happy to provide for his family. The demand for housing from rural-urban migration has pushed the rental prices to astronomical levels. Even compared with Durango’s inflated real-estate market, Ulaanbaatar’s housing seems expensive.

In the last 20 years, Mongolia’s traditional pastoral marketplace has transitioned to a more urban economy. Combined with some recent winter cold snaps decimating animal populations, the new capitalist economy has pushed thousands of herders into Ulaanbaatar, straining an already-overloaded city.

Lacking a complete kitchen, Bat-Tur’s wife, Chuka, cooked a traditional Mongolian dinner on a hot plate plugged into a wall socket. The couple has two young daughters who eventually came out from hiding behind their mother’s skirt to perform Beyoncé singles. The two girls attend an American-style elementary school and speak excellent English. They assured me that while they like school, they prefer Beyoncé. Despite not being able to afford any of the pop star’s albums, they diligently work to memorize her songs whenever they are played on the radio.

When I left dinner, Chuka thrust a large bag of meat pastries into my hands, admonishing me for my eating habits. The girls gave an encore performance as they scored my departure with a rendition of “Independent Women.”

On the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, the ger felt tents have sprouted from the ground like weeds. Haphazardly growing from the hills surrounding the city, the gers are a ubiquitous reminder of the country’s housing shortage.

As I walked through the “ger district,” children and puppies streamed from the fenced compounds, barking and yelling cheerfully at the foreign head of blonde hair in their midst. Embarrassed, I responded in broken Mongolian, making the children chortle and the dogs growl.

A ger tent is basically thick wool felt pulled taught over a woven wooden frame. With a hole in the top for smoke and a thin plastic floor, gers strike me as remarkably exposed houses for the windy winter months on the steppe.

Since arriving, I have constantly been told in whispered warnings that “winter will come soon, prepare yourself.” In Mongolia, the specter of winter affects all other seasons. Its constant threat hangs menacingly over the Indian summer. Because of Central Asia’s air patterns, Mongolia is often colder than Siberia. Winter can force the capital’s temperature to plummet lower than 40 below zero. October in Ulaanbaatar is a transitional period when the days like summer are bookended with the cold of winter.

The cold already had set into my hands when I searched through Ulaanbaatar’s outdoor music stalls. I blow on my fingers, between flipping through CD racks, but it doesn’t seem to help. Professor Bat-Tur has invited me back for dinner, and I feel humbled by his generosity.

Dinner is at 6 p.m. and I have to hurry. Just as the light was failing, I found what I was looking for: a soot-covered copy of Beyoncé’s “Dangerously in Love.” Pocketing the album, I meander to Bat-Tur’s one-bedroom apartment. eager for more music and homemade cuisine.

lucasbeard@gmail.com

Sukhbaatar Square opens up in front of Mongolia’s parliament building. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

Sukhbaatar Square opens up in front of Mongolia’s parliament building.

Autumn’s colors light up Terelj National Park outside of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

Autumn’s colors light up Terelj National Park outside of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar.

Cleaners buff the floor in front of a statue of Genghis Khan at the Mongolian Parliament. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

Cleaners buff the floor in front of a statue of Genghis Khan at the Mongolian Parliament.