My spacious one bedroom flat in the sixth micro-district of Ulaanbaatar was near the Mongol TV tower and a quick 30 minute walk to ‘downtown’ in autumn. Come winter this increased exponentially as snow, black ice and sub-zero temperatures worked together to thwart me. So far my encounters with black ice had been manageable, occasionally skidding a few feet across busy roads but not yet landing plump on my arse. I felt considerably better when I saw Mongolians just as out of control as me – usually small children or shuffling, bent-backed senior citizens.
The apartment was within spitting distance of the ger districts. Spitting in the literal sense. I nearly choked the first time I saw a well dressed business lady put her finger to the side of her nose and execute the ‘bush hanky’. She skillfully avoided getting any on her clothes, something I never managed to master. Urinating in public was a common sight too, but usually by drunks and small children, not business women.
Window-panes and crockery were regularly rattled by the passage of heavily over-laden, Russian trucks carting loads of building materials, or gers, complete with family perched precariously in the back. Other times, farming tractors hurtled past and occasionally herders moved their cattle along the suburban roads in search of edible weeds and grasses.
The Soviet-style flat had 10 inch concrete walls, kitsch gold striped wallpaper and groovy plastic chandeliers. Located on the first floor of a nine story apartment block its sunny, south facing aspect was topped with high ceilings and paint that peeled off and occasionally fell in my dinner. One night the light bulb in my kitchen exploded splattering glass all over the place. If it weren’t for the plastic fake crystal chandelier arresting its flight, the pieces would have flown much further. Somehow none of it hit me.
I was intrigued by the windows with their inner and outer layers, both opening inwards. In Australia I was used to windows that opened outwards. Surely if a window opens outwards the worst that could happen is that its blown closed. If it opened inwards and a big blizzard came along wouldn’t it blow in and my flat fill with snow? I pondered it a while. I guessed that opening the inner window outwards when the outer window was closed would be difficult. But couldn’t the inner window open inwards and the outer one open outwards? I vowed to keep my windows closed in all blizzards, just in case.
With all the dust of of the nearby ger suburbs blowing around, the windows were perpetually coated with an icky white film that darkened the room and made it hazy. I took to them one day with the cheapest, nastiest vodka I could find at the supermarket. Not for drinking mind you. Cleaning windows with scrunched up newspaper and vodka works a treat, plus its just cheaper than fancy cleaning products. So there I was on a Sunday morning with sparkling windows and a flat that smelled of cheap vodka when I heard a knock. It was my landlord coming to gather some things. I’m sure he wondered why I was getting into the strong stuff so early.