In other words, it's cold.
With the cold has come the flu. Swine flu has spread to well over a thousand people in Ulaanbaatar now and nine people have died "Mostly pregnant women," my friend Munkhtsetseg (notherrealname) told me last evening over tea, "Like, five or six months pregnant."
Still, the undeniable tragedy of expectent mothers dying aside, swine flu has claimed the lives of less than .1% of all who have been infected with it. Yet there has been a lock-down in Ulaanbaatar. It is as if ebola or the virus from "28 Days Later" has struck the city of Ulaanbaatar. All bars, discos, shops and other public gathering places (except pharmacies and hospitals) are required to shut their doors after 9 o'clock. Internet cafes and saunas are closed down entirely until further notice. Public schools are also closed. Private schools (like where I teach) are still operational but the Ministry of Education has forbidden any gathering of students after 5 o'clock. This rule is not really enforced however so my university has continued evening classes. Meanwhile, public school teachers are losing money as the idea of compensating educators for their involuntary vacations has been bandied about with no real answer. Teachers from closed private schools are not doing much better. Greg (nothisrealname), an expatriate science teacher from a private school in Ulaanbaatar that has been closed down due to the flu, said that the school's administration had promised full salaries at the end of the month. "Still," Greg continued as he, his wife, my friend Ulaanaa (notherrealname) and I ate crepes in his swanky penthouse apartment, "The parents aren't going to pay tuition for this month, obviously... and the money is bound to run out. The number of swine flu cases in the city keeps rising and rising. It hasn't peaked yet and until it does- and falls back down again to an acceptable level- the school is going to remain closed!"
So far, with the city (and thus the city economy as well I assume) in virus-induced hibernation only the DVD stores with their ample amounts of absolutely terrible, illegal copies of movies appear to be doing well. My favorite has been a fuzzy copy of a Korean disaster movie called "Haendae." It briefly showed at the Tengis here under the title "Tsunami" but I missed it... much as I love to watch Korean movies with Mongolian subtitles. The movie rips a few bits off from Rolland Emerich's "The Day After Tomorrow" but there are some good set pieces. My favorite is a little girl just barely getting rescued from being washed out of a penthouse apartment window after a half-mile high wave devestates the city of Busan. Another set piece involves a young couple trying desperately to climb a utility pole and get out of the river-like streets before the electrical wires fall and electricute everybody still in the water. They get out of the water just in time. Then the lines fall and everybody still in the water jerks spasmodically and dies. It's all very horrific and suspenseful except... well, the man and woman are climbing a METAL POLE to escape the electrified water! So, wouldn't they be dead anyway? Instead the hero and heroine look around, drenched and tearful yet alive as people die horribly around them ("Ammaaa...")... which goes to show that physics is no match for top billing.
Bad movies aside, the story continues to get weirder. One night, as I was drinking coffee, eating cheese and staring out of my kitchen window at the empty, cold street below, I received a phone call from my friend Chimgee (notherrealname... you know how it goes). Chimgee is an old friend from my Gobi Desert days. She still lives there in the provincial capital of Mandelgovi, which is about five hours outside of UB.
We exchanged a few pleasantries, talked about how cold it was becoming and how impossible it was to go outside.
"You should seriously come to Ulaanbaatar and hang out," I said, "The bars are all closed but we could drink beer at my place and watch bad movies and cook gourmet food or something."
"Nah, I can't," said Chimgee.
"Aw c'mon! It'll be fun."
"No," said Chimgee, "Nobody from the countryside is allowed into Ulaanbaatar now. The city is on lockdown."
"The swine flu, y'know?"
No, I didn't know. So the city was truly in lockdown now... no one in or out? Well, no one in at any rate. Maybe you could leave but you wouldn't be allowed back in if you did. What about international flights? Anyone allowed in and out of Mongolia now? All international flights had to go through UB after all.
I later talked to Munkhtsetseg about this and she was surprised. "I had no idea that people are now not allowed in from the countryside! But I suppose I can see why." Still, how the heck will people enforce the "nobody in or out!" policy? Roadblocks are only slightly more than decorative. With the majority of Mongolians owning all-terrain vehicles (well, not vehicles that have been designed to be all-terrain by any means but certainly vehicles that are used on all terrains regardless!) and the city of Ulaanbaatar encircled by many makeshift dirt tracks that serve as roads cars can go in and out of UB anytime they wish. As I may have mentioned before the city of UB is encircled by a labyrinthine ger district. There are too many nooks and crannies and backroads and winding narrow paths in the ger district. Any car can enter UB through this area. There are nowhere near enough policemen to guard all the tiny little entrances leading into the ger district from the countryside proper AND stand on their little podiums in the center of UB intersections going TWEET TWEET TWEET constantly whilst waving traffic through from different directions. No. Cutting off rest of Mongolia from UB is like carrying lime jello in a mesh bag. Stuff is gonna squeeze through.
For those of us who live in the city there is nothing much to do now except work and watch (and rewatch and rewatch) old DVDs at home while inking cartoons as the air solidifies silently outside, turning my window panes fiery cold so that I cannot touch them nor even stand closer than a foot from them without getting seared to the bone by the winter air. My life, mimicking thermodynamics, has shrunk with the cold. There are a few amusements to be had... like having my Conversational English student tell me with the idiotic logic innate in most teenage boys that he doesn't wear his coat while walking from one building to another at MIU because he would just have to take it off again after going back inside. Or hearing my co-worker Kim Jihwan's cell phone ring tone when he is out of the room sing "Jihwan, Jihwan, Jiiiiiiiiwhaaaaaan." Or hearing another co-worker snore softly and unselfconsciously at his desk Or seeing how very far along I'm getting with my graphic design and artwork because after work there is literally NOTHING to do except stay at home, watch movies and draw.
Basically, in a nutshell, life has become very boring in UB. Everything is frozen in carbonite. Outside there are very few street signs lit after dark. There are fewer people. There is nothing but darkness and cold and I feel very thankful that I am not homeless... like the poor people who shiver on the apartment stoops outside and SOMEHOW sleep through the night without dying. I have heat and light and movies like the jeweled splender that is "Ratatouille." Have you seen the sequence where Remi is racing across the kitchen floor and up over the counters in the kitchen at Gusteau's restaurant? The entire scene is a pearl of continuity, detail and artwork is at the top of its form.
Yes, life is good for me Indoors, that is.