RM chokes his way off the plane and through the airport formalities. It’s been pretty bad here since those wood-burning Ger lifestyles headed off the Steppe en masse to cluster at Ulaanbaatar, for comfort, consolidation, survival.
It isn’t his place to know of the terrible winters that forced tradition’s hand into embracing the city outskirts, leaving the icy killing fields of brutally decimated nomadic livestock. A projected four million dead sheep, cattle, goats with some herds set to lose up to 50% of their number before Spring calls a long overdue reprieve. A Dzud they call it, unfathomable to us,with Steppe families waking up to count the nights toll, now a grim routine. Skins are saved here and there, salvaged for sale as a minor claw-back on a wasted potential. The rest will be buried – minus the wolf and dogs share, when the ground – now stone, finally yields with the thaw.
Minus 39, minus 50, temperatures in Celsius that we cannot comprehend. Boiling water dispersed as snow before it hits the ground, breath turning to a flurry of ice crystals in casual conversation.
At least it’s a dry cold, as RM says, optimistically. Deceptive though, as each trek from the car scratches away another degree from his insulated comfort. By the end of the day its eating into his core. We are unfamiliar with this, here in damp England where even hardier dwellers of frozen climes complain about never feeling so cold in spite of the mercury level, modest by comparison to home.
He is safe though, chaperoned by drivers and kept under a protective eye by his hosts lest he wander off child-like into inadvertent danger. It’s all about knowing the ropes of course, they keep him welcomed, fed, paid and within safe parameters, whilst he, in his own way is here to return the same.
RM is a specialist consultant for a civil engineering firm, brought in to pin some prosaic reality onto his host’s enthusiastic pipe dreams. We’ll have one of those …one of these, that one, say the voices behind the money, standing wide-eyed in the architectural sweet-shop of the affluent West with its Argos catalogue of prestigious aspirations. Buildings as badges to say that you have arrived, after much trauma, to join in with the modern world.
Stumbling through modern errors too, as they come, with the latest towering status symbol glazed and leaning, gleaming, leaking and internally freezing. They’ve got it all wrong except the hollow exterior.
“It’s already ruined,” he says as I ask about the city’s late arrival, and in another breath: “but I really like it.” Two sides of the same paradox. The infrastructure cannot support the dream, with roads of choking traffic, bursting defeated by an influx undreamed of at their creation. “Somewhere growing very fast but not in a well planned or organised way,” is his assessment that sounds suspiciously like cancer.
Doomed from the offset to draw more water than the host city or region can provide, or concrete spaces or boxes for multitudes, but where the multitudes can not access with ease. Something will have to give – it does but more later. And by the starkest contrast: “45 minutes out of UB: it’s another world, beautiful!” he says.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 104) Dreams made concrete #2
[Photo by davidberkowitz]