Saturday, August 12, 2017

Somewhere between China and Russia...

It took us a long time to get there, and we were pretty beat when we arrived, but Mongolia turned out to be a great place to visit and play music.
Ulaanbaatar (UB) is a big city, combining new shiny buildings, Soviet-style monoliths and rubbly wrecks. It is a hot, dry and dusty place in the summertime; that was certainly the case for us.
The language, as it is both spoken and printed, was the most difficult for me to comprehend out of the three touring destinations. It made ordering vegetarian food quite a challenge. As much as I tried to enjoy Mongolian cuisine, I settled for pizza and chips as often as not.
We got to UB at the end of the local election process and the beginning of the Naadam Festival. Due to a government decree, there was no alcohol officially available for sale for the first three days of our visit so much ingenuity was required and utilised by those who were thirsty.
The place we stayed looked foreboding on arrival; very uncompromising from the outside. But the people who ran it were friendly and helpful, and the rooms were comfortable. Breakfast was of the continental variety, and included fried egg and a kind of sausage that can only be described as "soylent pink".
Outside, probably due to the election, festival, and three days of public holidays, the roads and footpaths were only sparsely populated. Quite a contrast from Vietnam!

With almost a dozen tour gigs under our belt it is fair to say that the band was hitting its straps, both technically and in terms of putting on a show. But there were still the odd challenges requiring attention. Chasing venues for payment, sound-checking through the language barrier, getting owners/managers to deliver on their commitments; all part of the fun. In addition, touring without amps and drums means that every gig is something of a journey into the unknown. You never know what a venue will provide,  despite you having sent them your stage rider months previously and/or spoken with them regarding requirements. Guitars were played directly through mixing desks on more than one occasion. At least the drum kits were in place; more than I can say for many of our UK shows in 2016. We played seven shows over the nine nights we were in Mongolia, only resting on the first and last evenings.

One of the highlights of the entire tour was the visit to the Lotus Children's Centre, about an hour out of UB, on the edge of the hills. It's an orphanage run by some very hard-working and dedicated folks, and filled with some of the nicest, happiest and most mischievous kids you will ever meet. We played a set of songs for them, and then they gave us dinner followed by a sunset show put on by the children.

On my days off, I visited temples and monasteries; I was amazed at the magnitude of the Buddhist presence in UB; easily rivalling that of the other places we'd been. Some of the statues were breathtaking. The monks seemed happy enough to chat as they went about their daily business. It's been a fairly recent resurgence; most monasteries and lamas were destructively and violently suppressed during the Soviet-era.
If Sharky Bar was the peak show of the Vietnam/Cambodia section, then the last gig of the tour, outdoors at the UB Jazz Club, must rank as the best of the Mongolian appearances. The big crowd seemed completely immersed in our performance. As were we. They danced, clapped and sang along all night. Wonderful; a great way to end things.

As we went through security on our way to the plane, a guard made me take the Buddhas I'd bought in Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia out of my bag. She inspected them, asked me a few questions about receipts, where I'd purchased and the like, and then let me wrap them up again. Did she think I was smuggling treasures out of the country? Who knows...