Things rarely go according to plan. Especially when you are getting started in a foreign country. Yesterday, we were going out to lunch with my department chair at a shabu-shabu restaurant in the BlueMon Center in Ulaanbaatar. The plan was to meet in front of the school and take a taxi. I had this idea that after lunch, Emma and I could go to the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs (a 15-minute walk away), and then go shopping for warmer jackets or coats, since the weather is starting to get cold. It was supposed to be a nice warm day, around 60 degrees, with plenty of sunshine. The perfect day for walking around downtown.
We met my department chair, Eunsun, and started the process of hailing a taxi, which involves standing on the curb with your arm stuck out at an angle towards the ground (not up, like in New York). Then you tell the driver your destination, and they decide if they want to go there or not. It can be really hard to get a taxi to go to Emma’s school from our place, which is why I use a more expensive call service called Help Taxi for her (the drivers also speak English). Well, this time, no one wanted to go to the BlueMon Center. Eunsun got the idea to just get in a taxi and not give them a choice, but the guy sat there telling us he didn’t want to go there (in Mongolian) and clearly indicating we needed to go to the other side of the street to catch someone going the other way. (There’s a traffic circle at the end of our street so it’s easy to turn around; he just didn’t want to go in that direction.) We crossed the street, and the second taxi driver we hailed told us to hop in. It turned out the traffic towards downtown was already horrible, which might explain why the other drivers didn’t want to go there.
We eventually got to the restaurant and had a delicious meal. They had fried rice and tofu rolls with cucumber for Emma, and we had the mushroom soup with vegetables, which was delicious. Other options on the menu were horse meat and bull penis (called Bull Pizzle on the menu), but it was a place where I could be vegetarian easily. Each person had their own pot, which would make it easy for vegetarians and non-vegetarians to eat there together, too. Then we went to the Tom N Toms café downstairs for desert (Emma had red velvet cake and we had green tea), and I happened to mention that we were going to do some coat shopping afterwards. We also started talking about some of the things we hadn’t been able to find yet in UB – mainly tofu and sketchbooks. The Korean superstore e-mart came up, and suddenly Eunsun was making plans for us to go to the State Department Store to get coats and cashmere, and then go to e-mart for the other stuff. She was not keen on the idea of walking, so we ended up taking a taxi to the State Department Store (see my post on the pizza with no sauce for a description of this place).
First, we went to the second floor, which is where the cashmere is. We’d had an interesting discussion about cashmere at the café—how Mongolia produces about 90% of cashmere in the world, but that it’s destroying the environment here because goats eat everything, even the roots, so they are turning pasture land to desert. This had not predisposed me to buy cashmere, and I have a hard time shopping under the best of circumstances, but I really can’t do it when there is someone else along. Still, I bought a couple of pairs of cashmere socks for me and Emma and had a chance to look around a bit for stuff we might need later. Then we went to a central area downstairs that had been school supplies the first time we came a few weeks ago but was now devoted to boots and some parkas and jackets. I tried on a couple of down jackets and started to feel like I might be doomed. They were men’s XL, and while they fit my shoulders (a problem with women’s jackets sometimes), they did NOT fit my hips. Emma, in the meanwhile, shopped for boots and found a good waterproof pair rated to -32 degrees, which should be good enough for here. So, at least her feet will be warm and dry!
Then we caught another taxi to e-mart. E-mart was quite an experience. I have a rule never to go to places like Target or Costco on a Saturday afternoon. E-mart has been added to the list. It was crowded, and also a bit overwhelming after the much smaller shops we’ve been going to – even the Nomin Hypermart down the street can’t compare. Consumerism seems to be alive and well in Ulaanbaatar (I will write a post on this at some point, once I have a better sense of what’s going on). This e-mart had opened in 2016, and it was very successful, so they will be opening two other stores soon. I want to go back and explore, because there was a lot there we didn’t stop to look at, including a food court and a drone section (they even had a robotic dinosaur Emma got one year for Christmas). But for now, we were following Eunsun.
First we went upstairs, and Eunsun took us straight to the sketchbooks. After some looking Emma found some in a size she liked. We got five, because she fills them pretty fast. Then we went back downstairs to the food section. I’m pretty sure they had everything. There was a deli counter, but the tofu there was sold out, so we went for the packaged stuff (which is what I’m used to in the US, anyway, so that was OK). I picked out two kinds, both imported from Korea so a bit more expensive, but similar to US prices. Then Eunsun took us to the soy milk, which only comes in small drink boxes, so I bought a few for us to try.
After that we just followed Eunsun around the store. She went to look at coffee and tea, and I started my usual search for chamomile tea for Emma. It’s her favorite tea, but I hadn’t been able to find it here. There was a counter that sold loose tea as well, and I looked at that, but no chamomile. I was just telling Emma that this was the first country I’d lived in where I couldn’t find chamomile tea, when I looked up across to the boxed tea again, and the magic word “Kamille” leapt out at me from the top shelf. I think I might have squealed or something. It was even Bio (organic), from Hamburg. We got two boxes. So now we know where to go for sketchbooks, tofu, soymilk, and chamomile tea, as well as a few hundred thousand other items.
Then we caught a taxi home, which proved a lot easier than catching our first taxi. We went up this four-lane overpass that had murals of Mongolian countryside scenes along one side—horses and riders and gers (yurts) and the like, with a mural of Ulaanbaatar at the end. Then we turned the corner and sat in traffic for a really long time because of a traffic light. It reminded me of rare times in San Diego when a light would turn green, then turn red, then green again, and red again, and you would just sit there watching without moving because there were so many cars the traffic could just not flow. Usually there would be an accident or something else that would explain it, eventually. Here, every traffic light is like this every day. But eventually we made it onto Peace Avenue (the main drag through town), dropped Eunsun off at her apartment, and then rode in relatively light traffic the rest of the way to our place.
When we got home, we were both wiped out. Sitting in taxis is exhausting. And I had had the added stress of being frustrated about our change in plans. The thing was, I had really, really been looking forward to walking around downtown and seeing more of the city. I experience new places by walking them, and because of work, my time to explore so far has been limited. So the whole time we were sitting in taxis, sitting forever at traffic lights (not just that one I described, but several others along the way), I was looking around, envying all the people who were out walking on this gorgeous, sunny day. There was an outdoor market in front of the Parliament building we could have checked out if we hadn’t been in a taxi. There was another park with some interesting statues that would have been fun to look at. I had to swallow my own impatience, remind myself that Eunsun was taking her Saturday afternoon to help us find things that I had said we wanted, and that there will be other days for exploring before the weather gets too cold and the air quality too bad to spend much time outdoors.
So a lot of living in another country, being a foreigner and being a guest, is learning to focus on the good. I joked to Emma that I would never complain about San Diego traffic again (her reply: “That’s a lie!” which is true, it is). I have a thoughtful department chair who invites not just me but also my daughter out to lunch on a Saturday afternoon, and then shows us places to go for the things that we need. (She has learned from her own experience—when she came here from Korea two years ago, life was more challenging than it is now; she has told me a few stories!) And now I know where to go to get sketchbooks, tofu, soymilk, and chamomile tea all under one roof, which will definitely be useful. And Emma needs food that is familiar and that she actually likes, so seeking that out really matters. She loved the soymilk, but the first kind of tofu I cooked tasted “strange,” so she only ate one piece (with her usual slathering of ketchup). Hopefully the other kind I bought tastes good to her.