Monday, December 06, 2004

It seems like the Manhole People of UIaan Baatar are still alive it not entirely well. According to the December 2 UB Post there are now 10,000 homeless people in Ulaan Baatar, many of them living the utility corridors which run underneath the city. Access to these warrens are by some 248 manholes, some but not all of which are been locked to keep people out. Supposedly 70 percent of the manhole people are women. A spokesman for the Manholers told the UB Post that “there are many respected people living underground who are honored painters, singers, engineers, and state-prize winning teachers. There are people who have not been able to adjust to changes in society.” Many collect bottles and other recyclables from the trash in order to survive. Others have special arrangements with bars and restaurants to go through their garbage. The first generation manholers, those who have been living underground since the fall of communism in 1990, concentrate on thievery, often robbing other manholers or making them pay protection money. Now the manholers are organizing and plan to petition the government for land on which to built their own above-ground town.

A few winters ago I wrote this about the manholers: “At the far side of the bridge [across the Tuul River] I am jolted back into the present. From a manhole by the side of the road three men are emerging. Each is dressed in filthy deels (traditional robes worn by both Mongolian men and women) whose original color is now indistinguishable. Their hands and faces are likewise black with grime. Each has a small grubby burlap bag containing his possessions. These are the so-called “tunnel people” who inhabit the labyrinth of utility ducts beneath the entire city. Most are people who have somehow fallen through the cracks of the new society which has evolved after the fall of communism, or are victims of the disastrous zeds, severe winter storms which have killed millions of head of livestock in the countryside over the past several years, leaving many herders destitute. It was estimated at one time that there are up to two thousand of these tunnel people, including many children, although now most have reportedly been flushed out by the authorities. They are most numerous in winter, when it is impossible to lead a homeless life on the surface. Most survive by begging and thievery. I once talked to a translator who had a client whose passport had been stolen. In a runabout way the translator heard that there was a man in the tunnels who acting as a kind of clearing house for stolen passports and credit cards. A street urchin agreed to take the translator to met this man. Visitors to the tunnels had to pay an entrance fee of a bottle of vodka or a carton of cigarettes or face dire consequences. The translator was led to this man’s liar deep in the catacombs beneath the city and finally managed to buy back the passport for one hundred dollars. The three men, having climbed out of the manhole, turn their attention to me as I walk by. There is nothing threatening in their demeanor. They simply stare at me with the surprisingly calm eyes of those who no longer harbor any hopes or illusions about anything.”

On other news fronts it appears that a child prodigy has appeared in one the city’s big black markets. This six year old boy named Galkuu can calculate any number up to one million, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing all in his head. Many merchants in the market claim he can fire out sums faster than they can do them on a calculator. His family was originally from the province of Dundgov and moved to Ulaan Baatar in 1998. Neither have been able to find work and they rely on the small fees merchants pay their little boy for being a two-legged, mobile calculator. The boy never even attended kindergarten but taught himself math. He loves his new job so much that he gets up early every morning and runs to the market. He has become such a celebrity that even the President of Mongolia, Bagabandi, has asked to meet him.
Saturday morning dawned clear and all looked well for Ulaan Baatar. The plane left right on time at 12:15 pm and arrived in Ulaan Baatar two hours and two minutes later, temperature a relatively balmy 16 degrees F.

Winging into Ulaan Baatar

Lots of snow on the mountains around town but none in the city itself.

Ulaan Baatar, formerly Urga, Ikh Khuree, etc., capital of Mongolia

The cab drivers at the airport are getting ever more audacious. The first one I talked to wanted $20 for the ride into town. I ended up paying 5000 togrogs ($4.50). Checked into my old haunt near the Chinese Embassy, the Zaluudchud Hotel, since I gave up my apartment when I left Ulaan Baatar back in September. Once in my room at about 3:30 pm I thought I would just lie down on the bed for a few moments and rest. I woke up at 3:00 am the next morning. I guess the change in 12 time zones finally caught up with me. I did not really feel it in Beijing. Sunrise at 8:26. Headed down to the Ulaan Baatar Hotel in a fierce snowstorm to get some money from the ATM and an eye-opener at Millie’s Espresso. Very few foreigners in evidence. Spend the afternoon looking for cheaper quarters . . .