On Wednesday, January 7th, I flew to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, to continue my investigations into the life of Zanabazar. In wintertime there are only two Mongolian Airline flights a week to the capital, and by the time I got around to booking all the economy seats on the January 7th flight had been sold out. I had to fly business class, an extravagance for an hour and a half flight, but to linger in Beijing would have cost more. I have already taken the train between Ulaan Baatar and Beijing several times and have vowed never to do so again unless forced to by extraordinary circumstances. So I flew. The flight left at just before ten in the evening, with the business class seats sold out too.
Shortly after eleven o’clock the black hulk of Bogd Khan Uul, the big mountain which looms over the capital to the south, came into view and soon the lights of the capital appeared. At night from the air Ulaan Baatar looks like an insignificant little small cluster of lights huddled together against a vast expanse of darkness. In China such cities are a dime a dozen and no plane would ever think of stopping at one of them. Here this small city is the capital of a country the size of several big European countries put together. Mongolia is reportedly the least densely populated country on earth, with slightly less than least than 1.1 people per square kilometer, and for much of the flight over the Gobi Desert to the south it would appear to be totally uninhabited. Although only a little more than an hour away by air we are already worlds away from China with its over one billion people.
The plane touched down in Ulaan Baatar at 11:26, coincidentally just eleven minutes short of the first full moon of the year (Gregorian calendar). The temperature was minus 22 degrees F. Americans no longer need visas to visit Mongolia for up to ninety days and I was able to hurry through the immigration counter and out of the airport.
“What country?” the cab driver, a portly man in this fifties, asks on the way to town.
“Bush is trash,” he says.
I grunt non-committally. Normally I might be tempted to agree, but I avoid political discussions with cab drivers. We drive on in silent.
During the last few years I have stayed in Mongolia for up to several months at a time and during these longer stays I always rented an apartment. My plans are uncertain at the moment but don’t think I will staying a month this time so an apartment is out of the question. On short-term visits I usually stayed at the Zaluuchud Hotel on Little Ring Road, not far from the Chinese Embassy. This was one of those down-at-the-heels-type places left over from the communist era with short lumpy beds, tattered rugs, chairs with stuffing and springs sticking out, and a slightly suspicious array of young ladies treading through the halls at all hours. But it was cheap. Now I return to find that the hotel has experienced a serious face-lift. The lobby has a hardwood floor with attractive rugs and wall niches with spot-lit vases behind glass. The rooms, which turn out to be completely remodeled, repainted, and recarpeted, are three times as expensive, but it’s after midnight and it’s been a very long day so I check in. The phone has free local dialing so I am able to sign into the internet with a netcard for sale in the lobby. Checking my email I am disconcerted to learn that my friend Rahila, who I had first met in Urumqi in Xinjiang several years ago, was now in Beijing. She sent her cell phone number and wrote, “If ever you be Beijing, call soon away. I always be wait you.” A native speaker of Uighur, the language of the people of Xinjiang, and also fluent in China, her English is a bit shaky. Of course, I had been in Beijing just a couple of hours ago. From her email it’s apparent that she thinks I am in America. It would have been amusing to bump into her on Wangfujing Street.