Yesterday, a rainy Saturday in Ulaanbaatar, Emma and I took the bus downtown to buy her some of the final things she needed for her class trip next week. From Monday to Friday, she and the rest of 7B will be hiking around Khustain Nuruu, home of the Mongolian wild horses (also know as Przewalski’s horses). We mainly needed good waterproof hiking boots, so we went to the State Department Store, a shopping center established in 1921 in the center of Ulaanbaatar’s downtown. It’s a seven-story building that has everything from food to books to high-end hiking and camping gear. I thought it would be a good destination to explore on a rainy day, and we might also be able to find something that had proved elusive during our first week in Ulaanbaatar: a can opener. I usually take a basic kitchen kit with me when I move overseas – a good pocket knife, a set of camping utensils (in this case, two), a light cutting board, a knife (this time, my favorite Kyocera ceramic knife), and a can opener. But this time I forgot the can opener (I’m out of practice; it’s been 15 years), and we hadn’t been able to find one yet in the stores near MIU. I knew the State Department Store wasn’t bargain shopping, but since Emma had discovered her favorite pasta sauce in the universe at the local supermarket, and it comes in a can, I wasn’t leaving downtown Ulaanbaatar without one. It had taken me the better part of 20 minutes (with breaks) to open one can of sauce with her Hawaii Volcanoes souvenir pocket knife (my Swiss Army knife hasn’t emerged from my luggage yet), and I never wanted to do that again.
We got the hiking boots first – a good pair of goretex Merrells that will hopefully fit her for a while. Then we rode the escalators up to the book store on the 6th floor to look for a paperback or two in English for her to also take on the trip, since she wouldn’t be able to recharge her kindle. We found one small section of English books: a paleo cookbook, a book on management, someone’s memoire on campaigning with Sarah Palin, some sort of feel-good self-help book (I forget which), and the like. None of them seemed likely material for down time on a seventh-grade camping trip. After some more looking, we found a shelf of Signet Classics, and Emma picked up Frankenstein, Tarzan of the Apes, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We figured there would be more times when having a paperback book would come in handy, and these would last a while. (I had been kind of strict about the book packing after she’d packed several hardcovers for our recent trip to Switzerland; we both only brought our kindles, except for a small selection of books on Mongolia and Mongolian, as well as the textbooks I needed for fall semester, which were heavy enough. I figured her school would have a library.)
Then it was noon, and we were getting peckish. The 6th floor also had a coffee shop, so we decided to have a drink and a bite to eat before exploring our way back down to the Pizza Hut (yes) we’d seen on the ground floor. Emma looked at the case of food and said she’d like the cheese danish, and a grape Fanta. On closer inspection, the “cheese danish” turned out to have pineapple on it, so I asked her to take a closer look and decide if she still wanted it, and she said no. Emma has a somewhat narrow palate, and if things are slightly different from what she is expecting or used to, she often won’t eat them. I will usually get something for her to try anyway, but I’d have to eat it if she rejected it, and it didn’t look appealing to me. So, I had a cappuccino, and she had her grape Fanta, and we set off to explore the rest of the store. And look for a can opener.
The next floor down had televisions, laptops, and other electronics, as well as a selection of musical instruments. I had thought it would be fun to have a TV, if only to watch the Mongolian music videos we’d been seeing in the taxis (yes, the taxis have televisions, in the front seat so the driver can watch). But apparently you need at least 10 people to get television service in a building, and the MIU dorm has no service because, as I was told, the faculty don’t watch television. Interesting, because our department has a course on TV production. (I also like access to TV because it gives me material for classes, but I will have to just see what I can find online and in taxis. At least we save some money.)
The next floor down, we hit paydirt: the kitchen and housewares floor. There was a small aisle of Oxo Grip utensils, just like at Target, but the can opener cost over $20, so we decided to move on. Everything seemed to be organized by brand, and we found a nice Italian can opener for under $10, which had the added bonus of being red (Emma’s favorite color). I’m sure I could have found a basic stainless steel one somewhere for a lot less, but Emma was starting to fade quickly. We decided to head for the ground floor and check out the Pizza Hut I’d seen when we came in.
Well, that was disappointing. There were only meat pizzas available. We also looked at a couple of other food stands and a coffee shop nearby and only saw meat. One of the food stands had some other things that I couldn’t really identify (and couldn’t read the Mongolian signs), but none of them looked appealing to Emma. We decided to get emergency rations from the supermarket and then head home. We found some biscuits and little bread squares that were acceptable to Emma (at this point, she was crashing badly and I really just wanted to get some food in her), and also a bag of corn flakes – an added bonus, since we hadn’t been able to find breakfast cereals at our local supermarket. Emma had a couple of biscuits, and we set off in the rain to find the nearest bus stop to head home.
A block or so east of the State Department Store, we came across the Round Table Pizza I had seen when we got off the bus earlier that morning. We decided to try it, in the hopes that they would have a cheese pizza. And they did! We excitedly ordered one, and then found a booth by the window to wait for what a placard on the table assured us would be “Your Last Honest Pizza.” When it came, we realized that it was slightly different from the one in the picture we’d seen when we ordered. It was totally white – white crust and white cheese, and no sauce. They had taken “cheese pizza” literally. While Emma has a friend at home who would love this, Emma herself usually orders her cheese pizza with extra sauce, if given the option. We were so hungry at that point that it didn’t matter, and the cheese was quite good (there was a bit of ricotta or some other kind of cheese in there, too), but we decided if we were ever in that neighborhood again, we’d need to remember to order a cheese-and-sauce pizza.
This is one of the things I love about overseas travel – things are never the same as at home, and never what you expect. I usually try to eat what is normally available where I am, but with Emma that will be difficult, until we find the things that she likes to eat. At home, I’ve been cooking a lot of pasta or rice and beans (or, one night, rice and pasta sauce). Fortunately, two of her favorite vegetables, cucumbers and bell peppers, are available year-round because they are grown here hydroponically. But eating out will be a bit tricky until we know what to look for. Even where vegetarian options are available, they won’t always be the same as what she is used to. One of my hopes is that she’ll become a bit more flexible about food. We have the added challenge that a lot of the local cuisine is meat-heavy, though I’ve heard about some vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Ulaanbaatar that make veggie versions of Mongolian favorites, and not all Mongolian dishes contain meat. There are also loads of Korean restaurants and other international cuisines. We just have to be patient and look around, and in the meanwhile I will try to cook familiar foods at home. Her school has a veggie lunch option, at least (though Friday the veggie burgers were gone by the time she made it to the food line, so she had a bun and French fries for lunch, and she’s not a fan of French fries). The real challenge will come when we travel within Mongolia, and go out to the countryside. We’ll just have to see what happens then.