“I’ll get one of my students to show you around”, this was a nice gesture but I’d just landed from a journey that I’d set off on a over 24 hours before, I just wanted to go to bed. I was in the car with my new boss who’d picked me up from Genghis Khan international airport.
The airport, like just about everything else in Mongolia, is named after the great guy who was instrumental in forging the world’s largest ever contiguous empire which covered most of Asia, parts of Russia and Europe. Mongolians still talk about this as if it were last week and to be honest you can’t really blame them, for everything that’s happened in between had put them under Chinese and Soviet rule and those are generally eras the Mongolians wish to forget. So forgetting the last several hundred years of forced rule you end up back at the Mongolian empire which was, of course, initiated by Genghis Khan. In an effort at regaining national pride his name is on everything from the international airport to condoms and sits firmly on top of the nation’s conscience.
As we pulled up outside the university a fairly tall and, to be honest, quite strong looking woman was waiting. I was introduced to Yuumi who was a student of my boss at the university; Yuumi was tasked with showing me around town, taking me food shopping and giving me her phone. I didn’t want any of these things. I still wanted to go to bed. I felt very awkward taking her phone but she and Gumbo were very insistent and she apparently had another one, until I got a SIM card it did make sense. So, I wearily grabbed my bags and we set off, I hoped wherever we were going would be towards my flat. It wasn’t.
Yuumi is a fast walker. She also has the idea that I’m not very good at crossing roads and so whenever it’s our time to cross she pinches my arm and pulls me even if I go to leave the pavement the same time she does. I must have looked like a toddler who was sulking and being dragged around town by a tired, angry mother. In shops she would insist on pushing the trolley as though Westerners were too poorly equipped with our soft muscles and over polite attitudes to successfully navigate around a Mongolian supermarket . She would suggest things I’d never seen before holding them up for a millisecond “like?” then, before I could answer, throw the strange item into the trolly. I began to laugh at this and it seemed we both found this situation funny, although probably for completely different reasons. After a whistle-stop tour of the city at -20C, a new SIM card for my phone and some food for the house it was now dark as we step outside the supermarket. We walk over wasteland between big old soviet housing blocks for 5 minutes to get back to my flat. We hardly say a word, both our faces tucked into scarves to try and protect against the biting cold.
This is when I start to realise that I don’t quite know the Mongolian social etiquette of this situation. Yuumi comes into the flat and starts unpacking the shopping bags as though we’d lived together for years! I don’t know how to get around her city as well as she does but I’m pretty sure unpacking a shopping bag is a fairly universal skill, the bag’s the same as the ones back home and there is nothing special about the cupboards or fridge and freezer where the things will obviously be put. I just kind of go with it; just another day, me and Yuumi putting our shopping away. With her limited English and me unable to speak any Mongolian this whole thing unravels with hardly a word between us. Yuumi gets a pot of water on (?) and gets out some frozen things that look like little pies, asks me how many – I don’t know. Is that all we’re having or is this just part of the meal, is she eating with me? She’s still wearing her coat. I have no idea, she quickly suggests an amount and of course I just agree. She puts the little pie things on to steam. What is happening? Is she staying for dinner? Is she staying the night? Am I supposed to marry her after this? I should offer her a cup of tea! I wasn’t sure quite how to behave and this is what English people do when they are slightly uncomfortable in their homes “erm..would you like a cup of tea?” She shakes her head and points at the stove and indicates, and sort of says, 30 minutes. I gesture to her again to see if she wants a drink, again she shakes her head. “No” she says, “I go now”. And with that the whirlwind that was Yuumi who had shown me around, got me a working phone, taken me shopping and put my dinner on just left as abruptly as seemed fitting for her personality. I turned the stove off and went to bed.