Apartment blocks in Ulaanbaatar have ‘guard ladies’ who sit in special rooms under the stairs. They keep an eye on the comings and goings of people and spend most of their day watching scratchy television on ancient sets. It gets quite cold under the stairs, with snowy gales blowing in each time the external door opens.
One day, the daughter of the guard lady came up to see me. She knocked on my door, placed a handwritten note in my hands and looked up with expectant brown eyes.
Her reddened cheeks were framed by thick black braids that fell heavily to her waist. On her feet were the most impractical platform shoes I’d ever seen – elevating her by a good three inches and bringing the top of her head up to my chin. What fourteen year old girl could possibly resist them? Padded black ski pants encased her willowy legs and a puffy yellow jacket with fur collar completed the picture.
The note was written in red ink on a page from a school notebook. It asked for a loan of 1000 T – about USD $1 – until her mother’s weekly wages came through. The note addressed me as ‘sister’ which took me by surprise.
I lent her the money and was repaid a few days later. I had made two new friends.