I still remember when I had last visited the gobi during a drought. The gobi I knew had scrubby plants and rocks and occasional shallow lakes that dried up into large damp patches during the summer. Spring rains would allow a fine green fuzz to appear on the landscape ... though that was becoming unfortunately rare just before the drought arrived in full force. Herds of goats and sometimes camels could always be seen grazing. Despite the fact that the region was enormously underpopulated there always seemed to be a ger or a horseman somewhere on the horizon. The ger would tend to be solitary, of course, but you could always spot one when driving through the otherwise empty landscape.
The summer drought had changed that. As I drove through the gobi in 2007 with two Peace Corps workers in their "Land Rover" the outside looked like the Sahara. Outside was yellow sand, blazing in the hot sun that shone down from the hard blue sky. There was nothing but sand, no green, no movement of animals, no lonely onion shape of a ger on the horizon. The gers had gone, the herders, the animals too and there was nothing but lifeless sand and sun. I knew that only the air-conditioned "Land Rover" was keeping me seperated from a well-baked death. I thought about documentaries I had seen about the Sahara desert and spent the entire ride worrying about the gas tank.... hoping there would be enough to take me to Gurvansaikhan.
And now, in 2009, the drought has returned and returned in force. Gurvansaikhan was drying up. Other villages were being drained, both of water and of people as they moved up to the still-green north. "How strange," I told my Gurvansaikhan friends as we all met in UB for beer, "It's been raining every other day in UB." And indeed, UB does not need any more rain. The streets are already full of puddles. The river running under Peace Avenue has richly green banks and is comparitively swollen. Mongolia is a dry, cold country. Droughts are common. Floods, on the other hand....
Yesterday I went to a university to sign a year-long contract for teaching conversational English. This university is located on a slight slope, about twenty-five degrees downward from Peace Avenue. Peace Avenue itself goes downhill from the higher ground of central Ulaanbaatar. The university is on the outskirts of UB. If you walk past its comparitively modern facilities, weave through the rather worn apartment blocks beyond and reach the bottom of the hill you will find yourself at the border of the eastern part of UB's vast ger district.
The ger district is described to foreignors as being a "slum" district. "Slum," in my opinion, is an overly-pejorative word to use to describe the ger district. The UB ger district is simply a poorer, more countryside portion of UB that surrounds the central city. It consists of gers, of course.... round, white tents in yards ("haashaas") that are partitioned by rough wooden fences. There are also many houses and numerous small food stores. Every few blocks there is a central well where water is hauled back to the haashaa.... because very few of the dwellings here have running water. The grocery stores have very small selections and are usually located in rough brick dwellings... very different from the slick superstores of central UB. The houses and stores are criss-crossed by rough dirt roads with green, sweet-smelling sage growing off to the side of the tire tracks. There are no paved roads in the ger district.
I had some time before my appointment when I reached the university, so I wandered down the hill towards the ger district. It started to rain so I ducked into a food store. The store was little bigger than a closet and dimly lit. The only food appeared to be chocolate, cookies, vodka and a few sausages in a freezer. An eight-year old girl stood behind the counter. Her mother lay on the floor, curled up in a blanket but still talking to girl. I couldn't tell if the woman was sick or simply tired. Outside the rain continued to pour. The road turned to mud, the weeds seemed to be even greener and the smell of sweet sage and wet earth mixed together wonderfully. I began to think nostalgically of living in the Mongolian countryside. So what if you couldn't get a decent latte there?
I watched a woman in high heels smoke a cigarette under the overhang of the small store, then duck inside to do shopping or maybe merely chat with the little girl. A man in plastic sandals ran inside the store, rolled his pant legs up to his skinny knees and ran out again to quickly urinate by the ditch on the other side of the road. The time rolled nearer to my appointment and the rain did not stop. I quickly ran back up the hill, away from the countryside and back to the city. There, wet and muddy, I presented my self to my future employers. "So sorry, I forgot to bring an umbrella."
"Why on earth did you forget your umbrella?"
"Well, it wasn't raining when I got here."
After over an hour of contract negotiations I left the building with handshakes all around and stepped outside... only to see the rain had not yet stopped. It was going full-force, so I resolved to flag down the first taxi I could find and drive home for some hot coffee. This was not to occur, for as soon as I made my way to the road I saw that the street had disappeared. The turn-off to the street into the university parking lot had disappeared. Where Peace Avenue and the university parking lot had once been was a raging, milk-chocolate torrent.There was not a hint of transluscence in the water. Only the powerful flow and splash of the rivers showed them to be liquid. The cars on Peace Avenue were parked or wading slowly like stupid metal hippos in the brown river. The water went past their hubcaps.
I retreated back to the university. Outside a few teenage Korean boys were looking at the rain and laughing amongst themselves. One dashed out to retreave a pretty, stick-thin Korean girl under his umbrella. A middle-aged Mongolian man dashed past them and jogged up the steps leading to the university's vestibule. Two more Mongolian women, grumbling loudly as they teetered across the flooded concrete in their high heels, walked into the school. It's easy to differentiate between Koreans and Mongolians in UB... or so it seems to me. There is an utter down-to-earth straightforwardness in the way Mongolians walk, even when they are in high heels. Koreans, men and women alike, seem to stride like they were born on the catwalk.
Inside the Korean teenagers proceeded to flirt with a thin, shy Mongolian girl. "hot, how do you say 'hot?'" one of them asked her in English.
"'Haluun,'" she said quietly.
"'Hkhhaluun,'" the boys repeated, giggling as they tried to imitate the gutteral Mongolian "H" sound, "Khkhkhkhaluun... bi khhhaluun."
"Haluun" in Mongolian, by the way, refers to "hot" in terms of temperature. It does not mean "sexy." When the Mongolian girl gigglingly corrected the boys on that point they decided to employ a more correct term. "Bi goy!" one said, pointing at himself.
Restless and wanting to go home I looked outside. The rain had stopped. Gingerly I picked my way across the grassy front lawn of the university. The ground was soaked through but because dirt is more absorbant than concrete I did not have to wade through any rivers. The university's low three-foot brick curb and wrought iron fence that surrounded the building acted as a dike against the river of Peace Avenue. The university was spared from flooding despite the occasional waterfalls that would splash over the top of the brick curb onto the lawn every time a car slowly rolled/floated down Peace Avenue. On the road a man in a white T-shirt and tiny grey shorts had popped the hood of his literally flooded car to check the engine. I suddenly realized that his "shorts" were actually his underwear... the man had removed his trousers before wading into the knee-deep rapids to check the engine. There was something very endearing about his unselfconscious pragmatism. No Korean would dream of removing his trousers in public no matter what the emergency. American men.... it would depend on how drunk they were.
As I stood on top of the brick curb, pondering how I could manage to cross the three-foot rushing torrent that currently seperated university property from the rest of UB, I noticed how all the running water was rushing downhill... towards the ger district. Gers are not built for floods. This water would quickly soak through the wool walls and turn the carpets, vinyl and cotton futons inside into foul-smelling mush. Wet camel wool has a very strong smell. When it rained in Gurvansaikhan, my ger would stink. Fortunately the rarity of rainstorms and the total lack of humidity in the desert would allow the wool to dry quickly without the growth of fungus. I hoped the grass and dirt roads in the ger district would absorb most of the water and spare the gers.
The rain had stopped for a while and the rivers of Peace Avenue and the University parking lot were beginning to lose their power. The dim shapes of sidewalk curves were beginning to be seen rising from the current. I contemplated crossing the river. It was still calf-deep but by now my sandals and socks were a lost cause. Two police cars had parked at the top of the hill on Peace Avenue and were blocking traffic, forbidding all cars to proceed further into the worst of the flood. One harried officer was shouting through his loudspeaker. "No further, no further." Very well. I plunged into the river and crossed. Reaching the sidewalk I walked up the hill and started the long hike into the center of UB.
It's amazing how much a gradient can affect your life. 100 yards away from the University the scenery was a regular city scene after a regular rain. The streets were wet but solid with occasional puddles. Cars zipped along in their usual way. I thought about the river I had left behind and hoped that they would somehow bypass the ger district and flow their way to Gurvansaikhan.