Exotic Cities, Part Eighteen: Choibalsan, Mongolia
November 16, 2009
How could we do a world tour of exotic cities and neglect Mongolia? Impossible! My many Mongoloid readers would never forgive me. Mongolia is far too fascinating. And I have uranium investments there.
But we’re not going to Ulan Bator. It’s too crowded with tourists this time of year. Instead, we’re going to Choibalsan, the capital of Dornod province, in the eastern end of the country. It’s less well-known but still has a tourist trade. And the weather is nice right now — just a tad on the cool side, with one sunny day after another.
So I’m on this cute, little Saab 340 of Eznis Airways, coming from Ulan Bator. Across the aisle is a lady from New Zealand — Cherie Howie, a reporter for the Marlborough Express. She looks unhappy. What’s the problem? Well, it seems that some nasty person nominated her for New Zealand Media Twit of the Year. Her co-workers tried to reassure her that it was only a nomination; she hadn’t actually won yet. But her editor was not amused. He said she had to redeem herself. So he put a big world map on the wall, closed his eyes, and threw a dart at it. And wherever the dart hit, she had to go there and get a story. The dart hit Choibalsan, Mongolia.
“It’s not so bad,” I told her. “The dart could have hit the middle of the ocean. At least it hit a place with people. And I’m told that Choibalsan is very interesting. You’re sure to find a good story.”
When you get to the airport, there’s a minibus waiting to take you to the Swissotel Choibalsan (comfy, unpretentious, moderately-priced), whose General Manager is Bart Westerhout. “This is the best posting I’ve ever had,” says Bart. “I could have gone to Paris or Geneva, but I jumped at Choibalsan. The climate is invigorating, the people are upbeat, and the food is superb.” Bart has a vast knowledge of Mongolia and the Choibalsan region, and I learned some surprising things. “Genghis Khan hated this place. It’s the only place in Mongolia he couldn’t stand to be in. He felt there was something evil about it. And he may have been right. There is a legend that an evil spirit, which is referred to as ‘The Evil One,’ comes to Choibalsan every thirty-three years. Two-thousand-and-ten will be the thirty-third year. That ought to pack in the tourists!” What happened in 1977? “That was before my time. But local people say there was an outbreak of mass hysteria in the Buddhist monastery. The monks claimed The Evil One had appeared. They resorted to two days of non-stop chanting to drive it away. Several people and some animals disappeared. The government investigated and dismissed the whole thing as superstition and capitalist propaganda. Today, the older people still believe in The Evil One, but the young people don’t.” And does this Evil One have a name? “It has a name,” says Bart, “but you must never speak it aloud, or you will die. Before you leave, I’ll write it down on paper for you.” Wow! Now there’s a story for Cherie Howie!
Another surprising thing I learned was that, despite the early Mongols’ reputation as horsemen, modern Mongolians are afraid of horses! “They won’t even get on a pony,” says Bart. But outside of town there’s a zebra ranch! The government brought them to Mongolia as an experiment to see if they could adapt to the climate and also as a possible food animal. The zebras adapted, but no one wanted to eat them. So they serve only as a tourist attraction. You can ride them if they’re properly tranquilized. Another good story for Cherie Howie!
Choibalsan has an east side and a west side. The west side became seriously depopulated and fell into ruin when the Russians left, and the east side is where the action is. But…something really big is brewing on the depressed west side: a hockey arena is being built! And this story hasn’t hit the media in North America yet, but Bart is in the know, and he gave me the straight dope: Jim Balsillie, who is trying to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton, Ontario, is secretly creating a Mongolian Hockey League! For what it would cost him to buy the Coyotes, he could build a half dozen rinks, sign a lot of young players from the minor leagues, and create a complete league. “The Mongolians will love it,” says Bart. “It’s a novelty. It’s a sport. He’s made some good connections in the government. It’s going to happen.” There’s another good story for Cherie Howie!
Or so I thought. I met the reporter for lunch at the Verena Restaurant and told her about The Evil One, the zebras, and the hockey league. “No, no, no,” she said. “The readers of the Express don’t believe in superstition, they have no interest in zebras, and we don’t play hockey in New Zealand.” Okay, well, I tried to be helpful.
The Verena specializes in the local delicacy — sheep brains. Head Chef Elshad Abasov is a master of it. He gave me his recipe for Sheep Brain a la Choibalsan:
Remove outside skin and soak brain in cold water until blood has run out. Then put brain in pot with two quarts of water, four ounces of red wine vinegar, two onions (quartered), one carrot, one half head of red cabbage, two stalks of rhubarb, six okra, one tablespoon salt, one half teaspoon black pepper, one half teaspoon sage, one teaspoon chopped ginger, one half teaspoon chili powder, one tablespoon juniper berries, one sprig of dill, one sprig of rosemary, and two bay leaves. Bring to a boil and simmer for one-half hour. Remove brain, cut in half, and serve on bed of orzo and cottage cheese. Pour rest of the pot over the brain. Heston Blumenthal has added this dish to the new menu at the Little Chef restaurant chain (U.K.) with great success. (And you thought Brits had no taste, didn’t you?) Cherie Howie went to the ladies’ room to throw up, but I suspect it was a trick to stick me with the bill.
Not far from the Verena is the Choibalsan Music Hall. The Mongolian heavy metal rock band Hurd was in town, so I went. I have no idea what their songs are about, but they were loud, and they threw pieces of raw meat at the audience. Hurd will becoming to Canada in April of 2010 for a tour of the Atlantic provinces, and Rita MacNeil will be opening for them.
The Dornod Midget Ballet Company, based in Choibalsan, puts on a distinctly Mongolian version of Swan Lake. You can see them at the Choibalsan Little Theatre, located on the bank of the Kherlen River, next to the mental hospital.
There’s good shopping in Choibalsan, especially if you’re into guns, leather, and liquor. The biggest surprise, however, is fashion. The tremendously popular avant garde designer Helmut Lang has opened a big boutique and is setting the fashion world abuzz with what he calls the “Mongolian Psycho” look. His proteges, Michael and Nicole Colovos, have been managing the label since 2005, but Lang has returned to manage the Choibalsan outlet personally because of his Mongolian roots.
Lots of little shops sell quaint novelties, including busts of Elvis and Genghis Khan, but most of these stores are run by Chinese, oddly enough.
You can rent a Jeep and go visit the Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness, a unique mini-ecosystem an hour’s drive north of town (bad dirt road, so drive slowly). Here you will find the Mongolian leatherneck turtle in abundance. Visitors can rent guns and shoot them. The shells of the leatherneck turtle are fashioned by local artisans to make party hats and protective athletic gear. (Where’s Cherie Howie? This is a story!)
At Bart Westerhout’s suggestion, I went five miles west of town to view the Moukalaba-Doudou Industrial Park, where all plants and animals have been exterminated to allow for coal mining, oil and gas drilling, and the manufacturing of toxic chemicals. The multi-colored plumes of smoke are breathtaking at sunset, and any birds flying through them fall dead to the ground.
Beside the park runs the Waka Canal, which carries untreated sewage from Choibalsan. New grooms are invited to test their fortitude by diving into the canal to retrieve money scattered by their friends as part of a traditional Mongolian marriage custom. It’s a scene straight out of The Magic Christian.
Elsewhere, the Mongolian Institute of Aluminum Siding offers the visitor a stunning display of artistic and industrial metalworks. Tuesdays are “pay what you like.”
The steppes of Mongolia are mostly devoid of trees, but a rare exception is the forest of okoume trees south of Choibalsan. The wood is used to make furniture for movie stars in Beverly Hills, and the fruit is used to make weight-loss products advertised in The National Enquirer.
Earthquakes happen occasionally in this part of Mongolia. When the earth splits open, giant prehistoric bugs emerge to devour people and livestock. But such events do not cloud the spirits of the normally optimistic Mongolians, who are used to adversity. Indeed, Choibalsan’s official motto is “Gii chii pizda,” which means “The future has to be better.”
Back at the Swissotel, I asked Bart Westerhout if Choibalsan had a sister city, and he said no. We agreed it should have one. So he invited the city’s Mayor, Shukhratjon Aikoraev (“Call me Shooky”) to come over for a drink. Shooky doesn’t have any real governing authority. He’s sort of a figurehead, who spends most of his time in a smoke-filled gambling den, but this was the sort of thing he could do within his limited power. Sister city? Great idea! And I knew just the place — Bismarck, North Dakota. Same climate, same geography, same spirit. Mayor John Warford (“The fighting orthodontist of North Dakota”) was thrilled with the idea. Bismarck didn’t have a real sister city (we won’t count Mandan), and with the mayoral election coming up in 2010, what a gift it would be to the community! John Warford deserves to be reelected, and I urge all Bismarckers to vote for him.
Cherie Howie happened to meet us in the bar, and I had a ton of story ideas for her: the rock band Hurd, the midget ballet, the Helmut Lang boutique, Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness, the industrial park, grooms diving into sewage for money, the Institute of Aluminum Siding, the okoume tree forest, the earthquakes, giant bugs, and, best of all, Choibalsan’s new sister city! But it was no, no, no, no, no. Not for the readers of the Marlborough Express. “Then what the heck are you going to write about?” I asked.
“Cats,” she said.
“Yes. House cats. How people here love their cats. Our readers love cat stories.”
Now that’s journalism!
Before I left Choibalsan, Bart Westerhout slipped a folded piece of paper into my hand. “You wanted to know the name of The Evil One — the name that must never be spoken aloud. Promise me…you won’t even look at it until you’re on the plane back to UB.” So I promised.
Climbing into the cool autumn air, with the exotic city of Choibalsan fading from view, and Cherie Howie with her laptop out, putting the finishing touches on her cat article, I nervously unfolded the paper that Bart Westerhout had given to me and read the name of The Evil One. And please…don’t ever say this name aloud:
Recommended vaccinations: Dyggve Melchior Clausen Syndrome, sacrococcygeal teratoma, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org