A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Airport

Trip Start Jun 30, 2007
Trip End Jul 16, 2007

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Saturday, July 14, 2007
Farewell to Mongolia (or "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Airport")

Dear Readers:

Our final day in Mongolia arrives without a clear plan of what exactly we are going to do. A change of flight schedules has us stuck in Ulaan Baatar one day longer than originally planned, so we must make the most of it. We hoped to visit a local market, but learn that it is closed because of the Naadam festivities. I hate flying by the seat of our pants, but sometimes serendipity opens up wonderful opportunities.

We can keep our hotel rooms only until noon. I occupy the morning with packing and a personal visit to a nearby attraction that several tour members saw yesterday and raved about. It is the Monastery-Museum of Choijin Lama, also known as the Museum of Religion. It opened in 1908, and was the home of the state oracle and brother of the Bogd Khaan, Choijin Lama. It was closed in 1938, and probably would have been demolished except that it was converted to a museum in 1942 to demonstrate the "feudal" ways of the past.

I am one of the only tourists in the museum this morning. A man scurries through the grounds with me, unlocking each of the five temples for my personal inspection. I am quite surprised to find one chapel dedicated to statues showing mystic sexual union.

Our bags are loaded on the bus and we pull away from the hotel at 12:30pm. Our guide has contacted the manager of the National Opera House, and he agrees to take us on a backstage tour. It turns out to be one of those priceless events that could never really have been planned in advance.

Mr. Lkhagvasuren meets us at the back stage door, and takes us right onto the stage where the corps de ballet and orchestra are rehearsing for a performance of Giselle. The young men and women are in rehearsal attire and are completely focused on their work, paying us little heed. We tiptoe past as unobtrusively as possible and go offstage to the foyer.

We stand at the back of the auditorium and watch for a while, but there is nowhere to sit because all the seats have protective covering, so we continue a tour of the building with the manager. There is a gallery of current and former opera stars arrayed around the foyer walls. The second floor has a few models of sets from previous productions, and a display of opera costumes. The seats in the balcony are not covered, so we ask the manager if it would be ok for us to sit and watch the rehearsal for a while. He assents, and we spend at least a half hour enthralled by the scene below.

The orchestra is respectable, and tackles the lush romantic score of French ballet and opera composer Adolphe Adam with only a few blats and bleats out of tune. It seems to be a complete run-through, so there isn't a lot of starting and stopping. The ballet mistress rules with an iron fist, harshly yanking out of line "wilis" into proper pose and position. The lead male roles of Alberecht and Hilarion are played by drop-dead gorgeous Mongolian men, and the influence of the years of Russian rule in Mongolia is evident in the entire troup's professionalism and style.

We drag ourselves reluctantly from the theatre, move the bus to the front of the State Department Store and give everyone free time to wander on their own. A large group of us hungers for ice cream, so I treat to drinks and ice cream at the Mongolian Barbecue restaurant where we ate lunch on our way to Terelj National Park nearly a week ago.

We split up afterwards, meeting back at the bus at 3:45pm. Our intention is to be at the restaurant for our early farewell dinner at 4pm. We decide to swing by the US Embassy on the way to the restaurant. It is not positioned on a main thoroughfare, so our bus crawling along on the rough dirt service road in front of the Embassy certainly attracts the attention of the guards. My camera poking out the open door to take a photo, and another from the front seat, are the last straw.

No doubt concerned that we might be canvassing the place for an attack of some sort, the guards hustle over and demand to see our guide's papers, my identification and the man's in the front seat who also took a photograph. I present my Illinois drivers' license and a business card, and the man in the front seat produces his passport. There is a lot of talking back and forth between guards and guide, and I offer to delete the photograph I took. The guard watches me closely as I do so, and he does the same with the man in the front seat. They still seem unsatisfied, so I turn over a complete list of our passport data to the guard and he finally allows us to continue on our way. We worry that we are all going to find ourselves on "watch lists" for additional scruitiny at airports in the future. Mental note: No more photo stops at US Embassies!

Our dinner is on a terrace overlooking the Museum of Religion I visited earlier this morning. It isn't private, however, and I resign myself to having to present awards in the bus on the way to the airport. At one point, however, the terrace clears of all English-speaking patrons, so I decide to go forward in my "quiet" voice. Everyone also receives a map of Mongolia upon which our guide has drawn the route of our tour through the southern Gobi and central regions of the country. It really helps us to put our long journey into perspective.

Our flight's scheduled departure time is 8:25pm, and we arrive at the airport around 6:30pm, only to see that the flight is posted to leave at 9:30pm. The reason for the delay is posted as "bad weather in Ulaan Baatar." Meanwhile, it is sunny and bright outside. One of our group works for Air China, and he explains that because there is only one runway, planes cannot land if there are strong crosswinds (which seem to be present). Our plane hasn't even left Beijing yet.

The group members take everything in stride. We camp out in one waiting area. Some nap, some read, some chat, some look at photos on my computer and on our guide's computer. At 9:00pm we are allowed to check in for the flight, even though it has still not left Beijing. We relocate our camp to the bar near the gates. There is free wireless internet access, so we pass my computer around and those who want are able to check their emails. A few of us play cards. We take turns buying rounds of drinks. We are still sitting there at midnight, so since the date has changed this story must be continued on tomorrow's entry!

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