Friday, February 03, 2012

Beset by the mob...

So I went back and forth about whether I should do this post. The goal of this blog has always been to present the silly funny and ironic ways that people across the world share a common humanity. In other words, good press to counteract the endless stories of horror that we usually see from the media. But I finally decided that it would be patronizing to whitewash the story. Bad things do happen here too. Good people are the victims of bad circumstances.

Which brings me to my day yesterday. I had heard that morning that there would be protests in downtown Bamako that day and "traffic and commercial disruptions" were possible. But I didn't think anything of it. There were a few burning tires around town as I went to my afternoon meeting and I heard marching and chanting in the street but again, nothing that unusual. Around 3 pm my colleague and I set off back to the hotel to work on the Internet. I asked our Malian colleagues if the protests were over. They told us, yes, the people have gone. We left the agricultural ministry, stopped at a boutique to buy water and snacks. All was quiet, though there were still a fairly large number of riot police and a few smoldering tires in the streets.

I should maybe pause here to explain a bit about what the original protests were about. Mali has had ongoing security issues in the north of the country for a number of years. The Touareg people has been waging a battle for a somewhat elusive goal - ranging between more development assistance to full independence. The story gets more complicated there as the desert is currently home to smugglers, thieves, al-Qaeda groups, recently unemployed Libyan mercenaries... What all of these groups have in common is that they are better trained and more heavily armed than the Malian soldiers sent up there to defend against them. There have been numerous attacks on soldiers in recent days - with many being killed - and the protesters wanted the government to do something more to protect the soldiers and civilians in the North.

At least that is where it started. Unbeknownst to us, by late afternoon the legitimate protesters had ceded the streets to the mobs. Most of the city was fine, but as we got closer to the hotel, it became apparent that this area had been hit quite hard. Every panel of glass that could have been broken was. People were on the streets but more cautiously.

Then we came around the corner next to the hotel and ran into the mob. Maybe 50 or so young men armed with bats and bricks. And here is where the true bad luck started. The taxi driver panicked. He recognized that having foreigner cargo was really bad. He stopped and started telling us to get out. To save his own ass and his taxi I guess. I was screaming at him Allez! Allez! Allez! GO! By then it was too late. Had he gunned the engine, or made a U-turn or anything but what he did- we would have probably been fine. As it stands though, the mob swarmed the taxi - first smashing out the back window and raining glass on my colleague in the back seat. Men then pulled open the doors and dragged us into the street. They separated us and began hitting us and trying to take our computer bags. A glancing blow to the head with a brick was enough to decide that the World Bank would give me another lap top. I let go but they continued to drag me along the sidewalk. I could hear my colleague screaming behind me but couldn't do anything. Then I heard two sharp cracks. The crowd holding on to me loosened its grip and started to run down the street. Tear gas canisters landed one after another around us. Generally three trucks loaded of amped up African riot police would not be my cup of tea - but at the time I was quite happy to see these particular amped up riot police. They loaded us into their vehicles and drove us to the commissariat - clearing the street in front of us with tear gas.

As it turns out- we were both mainly okay. My colleague had managed to keep her computer but she took a bit more of a beating because of it. I have just cuts and scraps from being dragged, and the general aches and pains resulting from mob violence. After being pretty rattled yesterday, I am back today to worrying mainly about what I am going to do in the next two weeks without a computer!

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

If Genghis Khan, so khan I!

“Don’t worry – it is going to warm up next week.”

My head immediately perked up. We were at dinner with a mutual friend in a German themed beer garden with the -51F night lurking right behind the window of my right shoulder.  Warmer?  Thank god.  The cold was killing me.  You cannot imagine how cold it is in Ulaanbaatar in January.  I promise.  I have been nigh in the North Pole and a week ago I couldn’t have imagined it was possible to live in this weather.  You step outside at night and your nose feels funny – because the moist membranes that line it freeze almost instantly.  The window in my hotel room is frozen shut – on the inside – because the glass on the window is so cold that steam from the shower freezes instantly builds into an inch thicket layer of ice.  I go to work every day – in a heated building – wearing ski thermals and deep cold hiking socks under my turtleneck sweater under my suit.  And I spend all day drinking hot water (avoiding caffeine is really inconvenient here) to try to keep off the chill.  So the promise of warmer weather was deeply thrilling. 

“Really,” I ask tenatively, “how warm?”

“I don’t know – maybe 20s.”

For joy!  The 20s!  Whereas in DC I would take a taxi home from the corner when it was that cold – here it would be bikini time.

“Yes,” he continues, “maybe even up to 15.”

“Oh.  You mean minus.”

So in addition to being god-awful cold in January – Mongolia is a different place – big country with a relatively small population squashed in between two massive superpowers.  Known for cashmere, nomads, and Ghengis Khan (which I learned is actually spelled Chinngis – and literally everything here is named after him – airport, main roads, beer, vodka…). 

And though I will admit that I didn’t see as much of the country as I might have given the fact that I refused to leave my ultra heated hotel room for the first… um… week, I have a couple of observations from my time here.

(1)  They are really into ice sculpture.  It works just like concrete but longer lasting given the climate.

(2) There is no such thing as clean coal in Mongolia (or really anywhere else for that matter but you have to give credit to true marketing genius).  The city is rapidly expanding in population (downside risk of having a huge nomadic population is that they can migrate to the city likety-split).  The new arrivals live in traditional tents on the outskirts – which are heated by coal stoves.  Thousands of massively inefficient Chinese coal stoves running on full blast.  The resulting haze lead to what I believe to be my most memorable experience with – which gave the forecast as “-25F with Smoke.” 

(3) Mongolians like horses – equally as transport, companions, and the main course.  It’s not bad, tastes more or less like venison. 

(4) Mongolians also like vodka.  And beer.  These wondertwins combined forces on my last night for a memorable (or not) dinner with colleagues that ended with me sleeping in my bathtub. 

(5) UB city doesn’t have much in the way of sightseeing.  Given I didn’t go outside much but Sunday I sucked it up (desperate to do anything *besides* working) and decided to do a half-day walking tour.  This lasted literally less than five minutes before I hired a taxi.  First stop was Zaisan – which is the requisite Soviet friendship monument standing on a hill outside town.  In addition to some lovely murals depicting happy workers, cosmonauts, and vanquished Nazis, there is a nice panorama of the smoke below.  While there I met two other tourists who had climbed to the top.  At first I was really impressed by the Japanese guy – who despite his age had braved the endless ice covered steps.  Then I got close enough to talk to him – and saw that he was about my age.  His mustache and goatee were completely iced over to a perfect snow white.  Then I hit the Winter Palace – which was frigid – and in serious need of restoration in places – but contained some cool Buddhist tapestry art.  My third stop was the Ganden Temple Monastery – complete with requisite giant golden Buddha – which was bumpin’ on a Sunday.  And then… well.  My walking tour originally had six stops.  After three I decided, even with the car, screw it, I hadn’t been able to feel my toes for hours and my camera had frozen – I was going cashmere shopping. 

And that pretty much sums it up.  I would like to go back at some point (like July) and see a bit of the countryside.  The only other cool thing I have to report is on the way in to UB I flew through Beijing.  We were landing at night near the Chinese New Year – and below us hundreds of houses were shooting off fireworks.  It was really spectacular.  And now I am on a plane again – flying the ever-popular Ulaanbaatar to Bamako route (by way of Beijing, Addis Ababa, and Lome).  It’s a good thing that none of my toes froze off – it is going to be open-toed shoes weather in a few hours.