Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ulan Bator: A City In Flux

Unending Steppes
The train rounds a hill and we catch our first glimpse of Ulan Bator from a slight vantage - a sprawling cluster of low buildings, a great deal of it tin and asbestos and rust. What we see is unremarkable, neither particularly disappointing nor exhilarating. The city lies there modestly and without pretension, like a great many cities that lack unique character or iconic structures do. Nevertheless, the sight lifts our spirits up considerably since, for many hours and miles all we have seen are panoramas of empty desert and steppes, jaw dropping for a long time until they have become something close to mundane.
By the time the train reaches the Ulan Bator railway station, it is past ten in the morning. The sun is already high up and it is warm and bright and will remain so for many hours. It is July and summer, and the days never end.

It is not often that one spends a week exploring a foreign land without it being central to one’s itinerary. But that is how it is with Ulan Bator on this trip; our expectation from it, at best, is that of a side attraction in a larger, grander scheme – the Trans-Manchurian rail trip from Beijing to Moscow. There is something wonderfully liberating with traveling to places without preconceptions; the disappointments are muted and the joys, unexpected and intense.
Before the trip, I have, of course, spent time reading on the internet about the city of Ulan Bator and Mongolia in general, to learn of the country beyond the embarrassingly little that we already know – the Gobi Desert and Genghis Khan. Ulan Bator, I learn, has moved - physically moved - a number of times since it came to be in the 1600s. For a long time, it remained a monastery on wheels and its accompanying ecosystem and moved to wherever the land was more fertile and the fauna abundant. The Ulan Bator of today, in its present location, was established in the late 1700s and remained there.
The impression I get, from reading, is of a city and a country that have remained, until recently, cocooned in age old customs and traditions and a way of life that is still sparse and self contained. Mongolia is half the size of India and still remains mostly uninhabited. It’s entire population is a fraction that of Mumbai and Ulan Bator, its capital and largest city, accounts for 1/3rd the entire country’s population, and yet, is about as populated as, say, Jabalpur, but only half as densely.

Blue Sky Tower and other impending constructions

I read of life on the unending slopes, of living inside portable tent-like structures called ‘ger’ - a nomadic existence, harsh and unforgiving and only occasionally romantic. I imagine men with hard weather-beaten faces on horses, tearing after their prey - sometimes animals and sometimes other men. Men with double barreled rifles and enormous knives and immovable moralities.
A country lost in time.
And yet, inevitably, in the past few years, I read of slowly stirring ambition. Of minerals and mining and exports and industry and forecasts of economic analysts. Of traffic congestion and pollution. Of social unrest and crime. Of a developing Ulan Bator skyline, tall glass buildings, sometimes casting shadows over and sometimes illuminating, ancient monasteries.

And so it is that when I reach Ulan Bator, I am still unsure what my expectations from it are. How much of it will still be austere old world charm and how much, fast cars and supermarkets?
We find a cab that agrees to take us to the hostel we have booked, near Sukhbaatar Square – the centre of town. The cabbie quotes us a rate that sounds absurdly high until we calculate it in Indian Rupees and decide there isn’t a point in quibbling. One of the great joys of traveling to Mongolia is that the Indian Rupee buys nearly 30 Mongolian tögrög (pronounced as Tugrik) and one is able to experience a sense of wealth a bit like what the Europeans and Americans must feel when they travel the world.
From the cab, in fact even before we get into it, we observe amusing contradictions – the signage on the railway station, in the shops and on advertising hoardings are a quirky mix of the Roman and Mongolian-Cyrillic alphabets - ‘Restaurant’ written in the Roman and then below it, the restaurant’s name in Mongolian-Cyrillic. Advertising hoardings with English punch-lines but unreadable product names.
The logic, names in the native script and the nature of the utility in English, is obvious and sensible for a city that is gearing up for international relevance.

There is no particular architectural style we can discern, the buildings are haphazard, multi coloured and of wildly varying sizes. For much of the way, we travel through what appears to be the main avenue of the city, and supermarkets and restaurants and fashion stores and tattoo parlours dot both sides of the street. The women are dressed in modern attire and have legs to die for.
The monasteries, wherever they are, are well hidden.
And then there’re the vehicles and the streets. The roads and signs are built for left hand drive, but most vehicles we see, including our cab, have the steering wheel to the right. There are, of course, cars with the steering on the left as well, but throughout our time in Ulan Bator, we continue to see as many cars of one type as the other, and it is impossible to say on streets without dividers, which way one is expected to drive. It also makes for heart-stopping experiences throughout; imagine yourself in a car with a steering wheel on the right side overtaking a car from the left on a street without a divider or on s two-lane highway, with the oncoming traffic hurtling towards you. It is like overtaking from the wrong side in India with the added challenge of traffic from the other side coming straight at you.
When we have the chance, we ask some locals about this and they explain to us how, in recent times, with increasing affluence, a growing number of cars are imported from Japan, instead of from China or Russia, and since Japan is unlikely to customize its vehicles for quantities as low as what Mongolia requires, the Japanese cars come as is, with the steering wheels on the right.
One of the stray bits of information I have come across from reading of the country is that injuries and casualties from collisions and road accidents in Ulan Bator have gone up substantially over the past decade.
Now I know.
Our hostel room, crammed with several two-storey beds, has a small balcony that opens out on to the street and offers a partial view of the Sukhbaatar square. There is room for two people on the balcony at a time – the rest of it is occupied by clotheslines and empty beer bottles – and early in the mornings and late in the evenings when the room is full, there are forever two people on it, smoking, while several others wait expectantly for them to finish. During the day, however, when everybody is out in the city, one can lean on the parapet and watch the world go by, undisturbed. In addition to the Sukhbaatar square, the balcony also offers an uninterrupted view of the Blue Sky Tower, one of Ulan Bator’s famous new high rises. It does tower over Ulan Bator’s skyline at the moment, but in truth isn’t particularly high, and with its odd shape, resembles a shorter, better fed, Burj Al Arab. The brilliant blue of a cloudless sky, uninterrupted by the presence of other tall buildings, reflects off its glass exterior, but I suspect, as the city grows and other intimidating structures grow around it, the tower’s resplendence will wear off in more ways than one.
By happy chance, we find out that our presence coincides with Mongolia’s national festival of Naadam - a week of obscure sports competitions (wrestling, horse-racing and archery) and general revelry. Competitors from across Mongolia turn up for the event. Most of the action takes place inside the National Sports Stadium, a large circular ground with spectator stands around it, very much like a cricket stadium. We are not sure how tickets to the event are to be procured but a helpful lady at the hostel assures us that, once there, entry into the stadium will not be a problem.
Naadam: The Stadium
We walk to the stadium, which is only a few kilometers away, and on the way, we see lines of makeshift stalls and bicycles on which meat is being barbequed and sold. We ask if it is horse meat – one of our primary motivations during the trip is to try as many varieties of meat as we find – and are told that it is the meat from Mongolian wild asses. It is thick and chewy and, with a smattering of salt, pepper and lemon, tastes delicious. Later in the evening, we will eventually also find horse meat and ox tongue at a restaurant, and taste both, but by the end of it, the street side wild ass meat will remain my pick.
When we reach the stadium, like the good lady from the hostel foretold, a number of men crowd around us, asking if we’d like to buy tickets. They obviously quote rates well above those mentioned on the tickets and explain to us that the seats they have to sell have the best views, but we desist and locate the official ticket counter instead. Tickets to the most expensive stands are indeed sold out, we are informed. We consult amongst ourselves and decide that we are unlikely to be able to make sense of the games and their rules anyway and the importance of a better view will likely be lost on us. We buy tickets to the cheapest available stand.
Wrestling at Naadam
We reach after the Archery event is already completed and the wrestling competition is underway. Several rounds occur simultaneously, all over the ground – sets of two wrestlers, enormous but not too flabby, dressed in sumo-like attire and a fully clothed referee overseeing the action. The objective, from what we can see, is to force the opponent down on the ground. The rounds last for very little time, less than a minute; how long can two similar sized people go at each other without one of them losing balance? After a wrestler defeats his opponent, he does a ritual dance, a small lap around his fallen opponent, arms raised, with large lumbering steps in slow motion and ends it with a pat on the loser’s backside. It is a unique sight, grown men such as these prancing around like this and I wonder if some of them turn up in formal attire at the Blue Sky Tower on weekdays.
Sukhbaatar Square: The Black Statue in the centre is Genghis Khan
The Sukhbaatar square is a large open space, tiled and predominantly white, surrounded by busy streets on three sides and the Saaral Ordon (Government Palace) on the fourth. Throughout the day, it remains crowded with tourists, the elderly and the noise of traffic. Right at the centre is a statue of a man on a horse, pointing at something in the distance. On the side of the Saaral Ordon, under an archway with huge columns, is another statue, that of a portly man on a throne, staring benevolently at the world. Genghis Khan.
I recall a conversation with a friend, while we wandered around the Prince of Wales museum in Mumbai, some months ago. After we had walked past a line of statues and busts of important figures in our history, my friend remarked how, sculptors in our part of the world, almost always chose to sculpt their subjects, kings and Gods, in imperfect shapes, pot bellies, sagging cheeks and an overall lack of muscularity, an approach markedly different from their counterparts in Europe, where every sculpture looked like it had just stepped out of the gym. We wondered why that is. With Kings, one could perhaps make a case for them preferring realistic reproductions to the Europeans’ preference for ideal bodies, but what about Gods?
The other statue, the man on a horse, we learn is of one Damdin Sukhbaatar, after whom the square is clearly named, although, at the time, we have no idea who he is. I assume that he must belong in the same era or thereabouts as Genghis Khan, during Mongolia’s glory days, but later learn that he was in fact at the forefront of Mongolia’s struggle for independence as recently as the early 1900s. Wikipedia tells me he is considered the Father of Mongolia’s revolution, clearly their most important figure in the modern era, and yet, incredibly, I have never heard of him until then.
It must be so with innumerable figures in history, their statures immense and secure for all posterity in their own countries and yet completely ignored elsewhere. And there must be countless others, whose names even their own people no longer remember.
How does one know what will travel through history and how far? What will be important or relevant for generations hundreds of years later? Art, I suppose, travels through time better than wars and conquests and revolutions and social change, for a work of art retains its form forever while society and the lay of the land remain in perennial flux. Any notion that an empire once established, a country that becomes relevant for a time, will remain forever so, is laughable. And yet, in the shaping of human history, who is to say which is more important – creating great art or leading a revolution?

The Square in the Morning
I return to the Square again early the next morning, around seven, and find it silent and desolate. A few stray pigeons hop about and an old couple occupies one bench. There isn’t a vehicle on the street, not a single on. The rays of the sun fall glorious and golden on the face of Sukhbaatar and his horse and on the buildings beyond, which the previous evening, had remained hidden behind their own garish neon signs.
I walk a block and then a little beyond it, until I reach the end of the city. It ends abruptly and without fuss; a street leads to the very end, buildings still on both sides, and then turns away, and beyond it lies the vast Mongolian landscape and nothingness.

Pretty Monasteries
A little later, after everybody else is up and we have had a dull breakfast in a fast food joint, we explore some of the city’s monasteries. They are tucked away in various corners, away from the main thoroughfares, and still retain something of their air of isolation, peace and tranquility. It is a gorgeous day, the sky bluer than ever, and the stark colour tones of these monasteries stand proudly against this backdrop. The prayer wheels are bright and golden and we see our faces reflected on them.

Prayer Wheel
At the square, on the way back to the hostel, we find much fanfare. There is a long procession of men and women in outrageous costumes and they dance and make merry and pose for pictures with tourists without asking for money. It is a ritual procession, we learn; an integral part of Naadam. It is quite a sight.
We have booked a ‘ger’ camp someway away from the city for the night; chosen from several such camps strewn at intervals from Ulan Bator for many miles, because it is the farthest we can find. It is on the banks of a
Naadam: Ritual Processions
river - the Kherlan River I later find – and, by late afternoon, we are on our way to it.
We leave the city behind in a matter of minutes and for the next hundred kilometers, apart from a few stalls that sell fermented horse milk (delicious) and men with enormous eagles on their arms which they rent out to anyone wanting a picture clicked with it, encounter no habitation. The terrain remains uniformly green; in the distance we sometimes detect herds of sheep and wild ass. The highway is narrow but sufficient, since there is hardly any traffic on it. I suppose, if Mongolia succeeds in transforming itself into an industrious, prosperous nation, they will have to do something about the width of these highways in the future.
We take several breaks along the way, walk on the grass and have our pictures clicked from low angles - reclining on the highway, with the road continuing on behind us and then disappearing over a hill.
The location of the camp and the scenery is everything we’d imagined and more. The waters of the river are a deep, wonderful blue and there are stretches of tall yellow grass on the banks. The green rolling steppes stretch out for as far as we can see in every direction. I imagine characters in a Terrence Mallick film moving slowly and nonchalantly in this landscape, with outstretched arms and enigmatic expressions, to a Wagner and the sun’s flare on the camera lens.
It is a place for the recluse writer to spend months in and produce a masterpiece from. We have one day and busy ourselves with taking pictures.

The camp is spread over a large area and contains several ‘ger’ huts and is cordoned off by knee-high wooden fences, like ranches in Sergio Leone films. There is a shooting range even - bows and arrows and a buffalo skin for a target. We try our hand at it for a while, fail miserably, and spend the remaining sunshine walking and rolling on the grass and staring into space. The sunset when it comes, is golden.

We stay awake through the night; inside the tent, a fire burns and we sit around it and drink rum. We step outside, every now and then, and take a look around the landscape, now moon-lit and ethereal, and sigh deeply before returning to the tent again.

By the time it is morning and we are done with breakfast and with the hopeless wondering about why we cannot stay back for a few more days, it is time to return to Ulan Bator.
We reach Ulan Bator with many hours of sunlight left. There are a few other places we have planned to see – a museum here, another monastery there - but when we get to the city, our heart is no longer in it. There is already an overwhelming sense of melancholy; we will leave the next day, we know, and never return.

And even if, someday, we do, who knows what Ulan Bator and Mongolia will have turned into.

Memories & Istanbul

Not at First Sight
My first vivid recollection of the Bosphorus is, strangely, not of the first time I saw it. I know, of course, when I did see it the first time – on the bus from the airport to our hostel in Sultanahmet – and it must have been as majestic and as resplendent as ever. But try as I may, I cannot recover this image. It is, perhaps, lost in the labyrinths of my memories forever. There is a story in here somewhere, of a man lost in a maze of his own memories in a quest to find a particular image – a story that a Borges might have fancied.
It is the view from the rooftop café of the hostel that I do recollect. A warm sunny July afternoon. The red chequered table cloth. The beer (Efes). The quaint white-gray houses that lead up to the waters. The vast muddle of buildings on the far side, indistinguishable from one another. The occasional dome and minarets of a mosque. Sea gulls. Everything in shades of gray. In Elif Şafak’s delightful novel “The Flea Palace”, a character muses about how her memories, of every city she’s been to are, defined by a particular colour. Except Istanbul. Istanbul, she says, is devoid of a colour. In that moment, taking in the city as it spreads around me, I understand what she means and yet, disagree with her.
For right through the middle of the muted shades, flows the legendary Bosphorus. It is just as I have imagined for all the years since I first knew it existed. Its famous waters sparkle in the afternoon sun – turquoise and white and turquoise again – a gentle shimmery haze hangs over the many boats and yachts and sea vessels that bob over it. If this cannot define the colour of a city, nothing can.

What other Colour does one need?
I traveled to Turkey for 10 days with two friends in July 2011. Now, almost a year later, reading about the turmoil the country is in at the moment, my mind, invariably, takes me back to those 10 days and it occurs to me that I must document them as best as I can, before more images slip away into that unforgiving labyrinth like the first view of the Bosphorus has. As I write, I realize that I recollect a great many scattered images in glorious detail while large chunks in between have gone missing. I suppose it is comforting to presume that the brain intuitively retains only the best and the most important bits, but really, can one be certain?

I remember, for example, a mundane breakfast in one of the many by-lanes that thread their way through İstiklal Avenue. It isn’t our first day in Istanbul. We are in a café; the tables set outside on the street. We eat what we have eaten pretty much throughout the trip – simit (ring-shaped bread with sesame seeds) with cheese and tea (çay in Turkish; pronounced chaai).  There are two old men sitting on chairs set out for them next to us. They share a newspaper and a cup of tea. There is no table laid out for them. They are regulars. The street is quiet and peaceful at this hour. I remember sounds – the swishes of brooms, the unseen scooters on another street and the sirens of ferries. Why do I remember all this?

İstiklal Avenue, incidentally, is right in the eye of the storm that Turkey faces today. It is where the fiercest protests have been. It is where the voices against Erdoğan are the loudest. From having spent several hours there, it is not hard to understand why this must be the place. It is in İstiklal that Istanbul is at its most modern, most liberated - or most ‘western’ if you like.

İstiklal Avenue
I remember the first evening of revelry in İstiklal. We have spent the day visiting the main tourist attractions of Istanbul – The Topkapı Palace, The Blue Mosque, The Aya Sofya, The Basilica Cistern. They are all overwhelming structures, each of them; it is impossible to not be overawed by their grandeur. But like most tourist attractions anywhere in the world, they have long become limited to that identity. They teem with foreign visitors and profiteers and the discordant sounds of several languages spoken all around at once. All of this cannot take away from the splendor of the architecture and the building themselves, but it robs them to a great extent of the unique sense of place and feeling they could evoke in the centuries gone by. As an outsider, the feeling one is left with inside The Aya Sofya or The Blue Mosque is exactly the same as if one were in the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The Blue Mosque

And so it is that we head to İstiklal for the evening, having been simultaneously awed and underwhelmed by what we have seen during the day, with high hopes of an exuberant evening. My cousin, who is incidentally in the city for some months as a visiting faculty at the local university (Man, how I hate him!), has assured us that there isn’t a better place to be in after the sun goes down.
He meets us at the Sultanahmet end of the Galata bridge near the Grand Bazaar. We walk on the bridge over to the other side as the sun sets, the inimitable Istanbul skyline behind us. On both sides of the bridge, we see hundreds of men – tourists and locals, rich and poor – fishing. Their fishing rods are placed on the parapet, the lines plunging to the water below. Next to each man lies a basket or a vessel to hold the day’s catch. It is a unique sight.

Fishing on the bridge

The bridge deposits us into Karaköy (Galata district; for the football minded, this is where Galatasaray belongs) from where the Tünel – a two coach shuttle train inside an underground tunnel – takes us to İstiklal.
An astonishing range of colours and lights and smells greet us. There are neon lights of every conceivable colour; the shops on either side, the quarters over them, the spaces between them – they are all covered in these lights. The street itself stretches out ahead of us and although it is only a few kilometers before it opens on to Taksem Square, just then it makes us believe that it never ends. All around us there are food stalls and restaurants and cafés and pubs and turku bars (dimly lit spaces with live Turkish music). Somewhere in the middle of all these, there are the unavoidable McDonald’s and Subway; we are grateful to find that they are both nearly empty.


On the street, there are hundreds of thousands of people, walking. They scarcely pay any heed when the famous antique tram passes through, perilously close. They step aside at the last moment to allow the tram to pass and it is only in those instants that the tram lines on the street are visible. There aren’t many people on the tram; people are happier looking in from the outside than the other way round.
We start with a turku bar. Inside, a lady and her troupe sings for the customers. Her voice is boisterous and interspersed with exaggerated quivers and the main accompanying instrument is the bağlama (or saz – a Turkish version of the guitar with seven strings), both of which are in line with what we have seen in Fatih Akin’s enchanting film on Istanbul and its music - ‘Crossing The Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul) and we are, therefore, absolutely thrilled and speak of Sezen Aksu in barely constrained voices. We drink Raki – Turkey’s own aniseed flavoured drink – from tall glass flutes. My cousin explains to us the ritual that goes with drinking Raki – two flutes, one filled with raki and the other with cold water, a sip from one and then the other, and enormous plates filled with fruits and sometimes some form of meze. They have built rehydration into the ritual, he tells us. If one were to adhere religiously to it, no amount of binge drinking would lead to terrible mornings after.

Turku Bar

Soon, people on other tables get up and start dancing and swinging and singing along. Much drunken merriment ensues.
We leave the joint near midnight. The street, it appears, is even more crowded than when we left it. We eat Dolma Kebaps (one of the great joys of traveling in Turkey are the innumerable words that one recognizes from Hindi) at a busy, cramped restaurant; they are delicious. There’s also Ayran, which is basically buttermilk, and Baklava. The Baklava is so heavy it could easily pass for the main dish.
We head for our hostel in the small hours. At no point, during all of this, have the lights dimmed or the crowds thinned.

I remember a particular conversation with a young local who spoke half-decent English. We meet him on a ferry ride to the eastern shore of Istanbul. He is studying film at a school in Izmir, we learn, and immediately hound him for the names of Turkish filmmakers. We mention Nuri Bilge Ceylan (he is thrilled that we know of him and teaches us to pronounce the name properly) and Fatih Akin. Fatih Akin is German, he states quietly. He recommends other names that we hear for the first time – Dervis Zaim and Zeki Demirkubuz. In the last year, I have seen films by both men; they are brilliant.

I do not remember a great deal of detail of the hours we spent in Kadikoy, except a half hour we spent in a cafe. It is on a little known street, where we spend a half hour sipping tea.

The place is a cluster of tables with green velvety tablecloth and on most tables, old men sit and play cards. Their attention scarcely strays from the cards they have been dealt and even when they pick one and flick it carelessly on to the table, their eyes are glued unwaveringly to the ones that remain in their possession. Their teacups are never empty. A large man refills them every few minutes; nobody on the table notices him do so.

There is a particular moment there that has stayed with me -- a man about to throw a card on the table and the large man serving tea standing between him and the window behind just so a shadow covers the player but not his card (a seven of spades, I think, though I am unsure if my memory can be that precise).

We take the ferry back near sundown, and this time, the domes and minarets and everything else form silhouettes against a gradually darkening orange sky. The waters of the Bosphorus are no longer turquoise; they too reflect the sky's orange. Some of our best pictures of Istanbul are from then.

Is it then that our memories are slave to the pictures we take? I wonder while I write. Is it then that the fact that I remember so much of certain passages and nearly nothing of others is merely a product of the pictures I have or have not taken?

I haven't a single photograph of the Bosphorus when I first passed by it. But I remember so much else that is not captured in pictures, that can perhaps not be captured in pictures.

I remember searching desperately for ways to grasp the concept of Huzun, as I have imagined it, from reading Orhan Pamuk's fascinating memoir on Istanbul. Pamuk describes 'Huzun' as it applies to the residents of Istanbul -- as individuals and as a people. 'Huzun', he explains, is a Turkish word, without a precise English equivalent; it defines a state of mind in which one experiences a melancholy that comes from a mixture of great spiritual loss and hope. Istanbul evokes it, according to Pamuk, through the awareness of its glorious past and the realisation that the city's greatest era is, perhaps, left behind forever; a forlorn pride that the people of Istanbul experience throughout their lives.

Although I have spent hours in the neighbourhoods Pamuk actually describes -- Cukurcuma, Cihangir, etc -- it is, in fact, in Kadikoy that I recall sensing this feeling most palpably -- perhaps because the old, short buildings, red-gray and decrepit, the damp streets, the old people gathered in cafes such as the one I just described and a general sense of artsy decay remind me of Kolkata -- a city that I believe will understand and embrace Huzun as much as Istanbul does.

It is a great city, Istanbul -- to me, the greatest city I have seen yet. The sights are breathtaking. The people are warm and friendly. The women are gorgeous. The food is sumptuous. And the memories of it still left to me are incomplete and haphazard but filled with indelible images and cheerful vagueness.

And there's the Bosphorus.

Backstreet's Back, Alright!

Its been a long long time since anything's happened on this blog apart from posts being removed. I had started to think I might give up blogging altogether, and I am still not convinced I won't, but for now, I've decided I might as well keep it going, shamelessly posting links to other websites where my name has appeared.

It also allows me to let some of my previous posts slide down the page, where not many will see them. It is inevitable, I suppose, that one's own creative output cannot age gracefully. That everything one has written in the past, when revisited years later, appears frequently embarrassing and sometimes cringe-worthy. And that one shouldn't be too hard on oneself in such matters. The same, perhaps, goes for one's choices in films and music (refer title of this post) and yahoo chat ids.

But really, some of what has appeared on this blog earlier, is very nearly utter bullshit.

A couple of years from now, I might start finding the articles I've written today to be as embarrassing, but we'll see what to do about that when I get there.

So here're 6 travel articles I wrote for Rediff over the past few months. The latest of these is a month old, so presumably, Rediff won't mind duplicate versions floating around the internet.

Rediff Links: