Tiger the rescued street dog and I spent a lot of time walking in the ger suburbs behind my apartment in the Micro district near the Mongolian TV station.
In many places the roads were carved out between the fences like dry river beds, a good four feet below the the fences. They were dusty with ash, dumped from ger stoves, to make the snow easier to walk on in winter. But as the snow evaporated and the spring winds started up, blinding eddies of dust and ash whirled around the streets.
As we walked along, local dogs barked at us from their yards in warning and welcome, some lunging out at us before they were jerked back by the end of their chains.
The fences and gates fascinated me. Many were painted sky blue and decorated with eightfold knot designs known as the Mongolian ‘ulzii’, symbolising infinite love and the interdependence of all things and one of the eight auspicious symbols from Tibetan Buddhism. These and other geometric patterns were found adorning everything from apartment buildings and fences, to buildings and cars and ger interiors, in bright blues, reds and greens with yellow and white highlights.
Many fences were made from reclaimed metals – the roofs of old train carriages, bonnets from cars or trucks, wrought iron bedheads, inner springs from mattresses. And old gas cylinders were stuck in the ground as bollards, looking like bombs that had landed but never exploded. And the trusty old water heaters from apartments, that look like expired truck radiators? They were used as very effective door mats for scrapping snow off your boots.
Winter stretched on and my adopted street-dog Tiger continued to grow. Ears sprouted from the top of her head like the bug-eyes of a giant black frog, their yawning depths swivelling about continuously tracking sounds. I wondered what kind of beast she was turning into. Perhaps her diet was to blame. A lack of dog biscuits at the market had prompted me to buy cat ones. I mentioned this to a friend and she burst into laughter. Her cat had been eating dog biscuits.
As Tiger grew our walks became longer and increasingly more adventuresome, allowing us to discover new places and wonders. Between the towering apartment blocks were spaces set aside as common areas with scatterings of archaic play equipment. Some districts had painted their equipment in gay and garish colours, but not my district. Or at least not that year. Despite a light dusting of snow lending an ethereal, almost other worldly air, the cold steel play equipment lurked maliciously, dormant in its sterile, grey concrete domain. Its finger-severing potential seethed between the buildings and across the common spaces like a venomous fog.
Patrolling these zones were grim faced sentinels. Siberian brown bears, polar bears, white seals, lions and tigers that stood forlornly in the snow, the colour peeling from their bodies. Tiger initially kept her distance. I walked up to one and patted it. It didn’t stir. Tiger moved forward, tentatively sniffing the paint-chipped crotch of a nearby bear. Nothing happened. She stepped back and cocked her head to one side before approaching the lion. Again, no reaction. “Well,” she barked, a triumphant gleam in her eye, “who’s the king of the jungle now, eh?!”
Our walks meandered about, weaving between old shipping containers. Some stood to attention in orderly rows, maintaining a watchful eye over the common areas, rancorous metal see-saws cowering in the centre as they silently plotted their escape. Others lent together, drunkenly supporting one another, frozen urine and smashed vodka bottles littering the snow at their feet. Units of them paraded in front and behind the towering apartment blocks, like busy ants on a frozen picnic rug, marching resolutely through drifts of unwanted playing cards, animal bones, dog faeces and hastily discarded underpants.
On icy morning dragons awoke within their depths, noxious clouds of exhaust steam billowing from the metal caves. Drivers ignorant or oblivious to the dangers of asphyxiation lingered in the lairs, doors partially closed while they warmed the engines of their beasts. Some containers were garden sheds, havens for ladders, leftover paints and spare building materials. Others served as giant metal cupboards, home to years of assorted junk and clutter. Shops and street stalls treated them as storerooms, stockpiling fruit, biscuits and vodka.
Once Tiger and I came across three dead goats lying in the snow at the entrance to one. Frozen stiff, their knobbly brown legs stuck up in the air like wonky candles on a birthday cake. Two men wrestled them inside. It seemed the containers could be huge freezers too.