Down and Out in Ulaanbaatar - Part 1

This is a true story.

 

The events depicted in this account took place in Mongolia in 2014.

 

At the request of my sources, their names have been changed or omitted.

 

Out of respect for my colleagues, the rest has been told exactly as I remember it.

 

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Welcome to Nadaamtown

 

The plane landed at midday in the middle of an empty runway. My father and I were ushered quickly through the terminal, out into the sweltering summer air.

 

“SAINBAINAUU!!!”

 

A petite twenty-something-year-old (our guide) pounced on us, the only white men to have left the building.

 

We returned her greeting in broken Mongolian as we hauled our luggage into the back of the canvas-topped Jeep. We drove through craggy hills and desolate plains, and soon enough the freshly-laid asphalt turned to dust and grit.

 

“So, first time Mongolia?” She asked in a thick accent, her large amber eyes peering out from under thick black bangs.

 

“For me yes.” Dad intoned, pointing a thick finger at me. “For him, second time.”

 

“Ahhhhh.” She nodded politely at the ageing viking, casting me a backwards glance and a smile. We rounded a bend, and the sandy hillside gave way to our first sight of Ulaanbaatar.

 

The first thing I noticed was the smell. The city stank of diesel and day old piss, the rutted dirt roads were seeped with it. The umbral towers of the inner city rose above the russet yurt-slums that sprawled in rings over hills and valleys, as far as the eye could see.

 

This city was a rotten apple, anyone could tell that at a glance. Soviet-era trucks and lorries sputtered along meandering lanes, lined with corrugated iron and plywood fencing. A vodka distillery protruded jaggedly from the dusty earth, and an employee in blue attacked a graffiti’d golden warhorse with a pressure washer.

 

“Such handsome boy! Your son?”

 

Dad let out a booming guffaw, and I responded before he had time to make a bad joke. “Yes, unfortunately.”

 

- - -

 

We found an alleyway right in the black heart of the city, where a dingy apartment awaited us. As soon as my bags hit the scarred wooden floor, my phone rang.

 

“Hello?”

 

“You’ve just arrived yeah?” The gruff voice responded, without waiting for my reply. “Good, get to the office now. Busy day today, you just missed Nadaam. You might as well start now, good experience. Don’t be late.”

 

He hung up, leaving me in shocked silence. I grabbed my bag and jacket.

 

“DAD! I’m going to the studio!” I shouted.

 

“Good luck! Remember, have fun and make sure you learn as much-” I’d slammed the door shut before he had time to finish.

 

The high street was a jagged circle of steel and glass, overlooking the Presidential Palace and the sprawl preceding it. The Mongol TV building was the second largest  on the high street, standing in the shadow of the Eagle TV tower. I strode through the glass double-doors into the sleek, marble lobby, and was immediately ushered into the studio.

 

I walked into a cacophonic maelstrom. Panicked camera operators dashed across the room, tripping over wires as they dove for cover from the floor manager’s guttural barrage of verbal gunfire. The anchors yodelled voice exercises from the safety of the couch, and a man in rustic garb stood in the centre of the room, cradling a baby goat.

 

He caught my eye, and his grin terrified me.

 

The floor manager spotted me, and aimed her bulbous finger in my direction. “WHITE BOY! GO WAIT ROOM!” She wobbled towards me, but I’d already bolted for (what I hoped was) the waiting room. The door slammed behind me, my head sank and I rested my hands on my knees. I let out a breath I didn’t realise I was holding in.

 

“You’re late.”

 

I looked up at a lithe young man in skin-tight pink jogging shorts and a tank top. He stood in the doorway of the control room, and his slanted steel eyes glinted at me under a thick black fringe.

 

I took a moment to catch my breath before responding. “I’m really sorry. I got a bit lost, our apartment is further from here than I thought.”

 

It took him all of two seconds to cut through my lie. “This is the second tallest building in the city, and you live ten minutes from here. Don’t fucking try that with me again, yeah?” He said, with a smug grin and a raised eyebrow. “Also, you have mustard on your shirt.”

 

I bit back my acid tongue, and conceded. “Sorry. I’m just a little tired and stressed at the moment.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Just sit in the fucking bay and keep quiet. I’ll check up on you every half hour. Make notes.”

 

He put out his cigarette, and waved me into the hazy room. The screens shone effervescent in the cramped, smoggy gloom. Ashtrays sat on empty chairs, and headphoned operators turned dials and flicked switches in between drags.

 

It felt like the Soviets had left me in a nuclear submarine.

 

I sat there in the dark for hours, intently watching the flashing video monitors and blinking audio mixer. The technicians would count down all together to cue in the anchors, almost like a gregorian chant. I even joined in at one point, much to their amusement.

 

A plethora of programmes aired in that time. A retrospective report on Nadaam, the national Mongolian sports festival, took precedence. I watched men, who looked more like hulking walls of meat, brutally wrestle one another for the title of zaan (elephant), arslan (lion), and avraga (titan). Children as young as five rode stocky warhorses across the grassy plains, and a fierce-looking woman shot three consecutive uuhais (equivalent of a bullseye) at 70 meters.

 

These people have a glorious past, and I was looking back in time at it.

 

There were interviews with athletes, politicians, historians, and business moguls. None of it was in English, but I made the best notes I could. Strangely, the man with the goat didn’t appear on air at all. I still wonder about that.

 

- - -

 

“Hey, boy. We’re done for the day, come out and meet the team.”

 

It was Slouching-Sweatpants-Hidden-Asshole, whom I hadn’t seen since he’d dropped me off at the Smoker’s Daycare eight hours ago. I got up, stretched, and followed him into the now-silent studio.

 

I greeted and shook hands with a flurry of people. Hrongol (female) and Batbayar (male) were the anchors, and they spoke enough english that I could comfortably communicate with them. They introduced me to a dozen other burly, but jovial Mongolians I can scarcely remember. They chatted incessantly to me in their mother tongue, joking and chuckling at my meagre attempts to reciprocate. I laughed along with as much as I could understand.

 

I could tell they were good people. A little headstrong and bullish, but not cruel. I felt somewhat accepted already.

 

Sweatpants led me outside, into the clear night air. He lit up a cigarette, and I shuffled my feet awkwardly. He took a drag, then turned his expectant gaze to me.

 

“You think you learned something today?”

 

I nodded. “Definitely. I saw the control room last year, but it was still being built, so it was cool to see it in action. I’m sad I missed Nadaam. Seemed like I could have gotten a lot out of that.”

 

He shrugged ambiguously, turning away to take another pull. He stopped and spun back around, brow furrowed.

 

“Shit I didn’t even introduce myself, did I?”

 

It was my turn to be smug. “Nope. I’ve been trying to guess. I asked a techie and he said you were Tenegkhün (asshole).”

 

His iron gaze turned white-cold, and I felt a flash of terror as my balls retracted into the pit of my stomach.

 

He grinned, barking out a laugh so harsh and loud it made me jump.

 

“Well, you have no brain but at least you have a spine. My name is Ihbarhasvad, just Ihbar for short. I’m Chief Editor.”

 

Wide-eyed and panicking, I took his outstretched hand. “I’m so sorry, that was really disrespectful of me. I didn’t realise who you were. I didn’t mean that.”

 

He waved me off. “Don’t ruin it man, it’s fine. You’ve gotta stand up for yourself here, otherwise you get no respect.”

 

He offered me a cigarette, which I declined.

 

“I’ll be honest, it’s a little hard to keep track of everything when I don’t speak the language.” I said, shaking off the last of my terror.“I don’t want to be a burden. I just want to learn as much as I can without getting in anyone’s way.”

 

Ihbar smirked. “You’re going to be a burden no matter what, but that’s fine. Once you’ve learnt how to deal with all of this,” he gestured vaguely to the building behind him, “we’ll throw you in the deep end. You’ll sink or swim, I don’t care, but you’ll have support. It’s all up to you.”

 

I thought for a moment before responding. “Better start paddling then.”

 

He grinned and slapped the back of my head. “Don’t fucking push it.”

He took another drag, the smoke rising into the star strewn sky. “We’ll make a journalist of you yet.”