In Mongolia the young women are much more sensible... able to look absolutely elegant in jeans and furry boots while maintaining their core temperatures at safe levels. The foreignors in Mongolia err even more on the side of pragmatism when it comes to keeping warm. Adrienne, a good friend of mine and a current Peace Corps Volunteer, would wear a large, brown fur coat whenever she and her husband stepped outside for errands. She looked, for all the world, like a large brown groundhog and we would all tease her and call her "marmot." She would laugh because, in reality, we were all freezing cold in our coats that were temperature-rated for Virginia winters and nippy weather in Seoul while she was quite toasty. Forty minutes of wandering in downtown Ulaanbaatar would find Adrienne liesurely perusing outdoor fruitstands and candy peddlers while the rest of us would crowd together in the doorways of heated restaurants.
One night the three of us, Adrienne, her husband Brendan and myself, were huddling in the underpass that burrowed down below Peace Avenue. It was only slightly warmer than the outdoors but it was out of reach of the winter winds. Peddlars had also taken avantage of the warmer atmosphere of the underpass by opening stands across one side of the passageway. As Adrienne and I huddled and chatted a young man ran down the steps from the outside street and ran towards us. Of course it was impossible not to run towards us since between the peddlars and the huddlers it was extremely narrow going. Still, the young man drew attention because he ran at a speed that suggested not that he was in a hurry but that he was being chased. There was no sense of panic in his movements, however. He looked utterly confident, his face serene as he ran rapidly down the passageway. Whatever he was running from, he knew he would get away. As he weaved between Adrienne and myself he politely said "Ooshlaarai" ("Excuse me,") and ran to the end. Hesitating for a fifth of a second, the young man did not run up the steps leading to the other side of the street. Instead he ducked into a bright orange peddlar's stand that had been zipped closed for the night. Adrienne and Brendan did not see this however.
"How polite," Adrienne said, "'Ooshlaarai'... just like that."
"Yeah, a polite thief," Brendan said.
"You think he was a thief?"
Brendan didn't need to prove his point. A policeman, bundled up in his wool-lined Soviet overcoat, came down the steps and jogged towards us from the direction where the young man had come. He looked resigned and wasn't running that fast. It was obvious that the policeman had already given up the chase. He brushed passed us without a word, ran to the edge of the passageway and ran up the steps leading to the other side of the street.
"Hey, the thief got away," I said.
"Did he?" Adrienne asked.
"Yeah, he did."
I wonder why I didn't point out the thief to the policeman, since I knew that the thief was squatting by the peddlar's stand while the policeman was running up the steps. Some people might think that it was out of a sense of cultural removal, that I- like most foreignors- considered all scenes of life that were passing in Mongolia to be merely plays for my interest. They were not scenes where I myself should play a part because frankly I was not Mongolian. But that wasn't it... not really.
Actually I didn't really know why I kept my mouth shut. I may have kept my mouth shut because it happened too fast. I may have kept my mouth shut because I knew nothing about the situation. The thief, like Jean Valjean, may have been merely stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. But I think I kept my mouth shut because the policeman did not say "Ooshlaarai" as he bumped past me in the passageway.
Haha, no, I'm joking. I kept my mouth shut because I was cold and tired and just wanted to get back to the guesthouse and have hot tea.