Saturday, July 30, 2016

Assertive Caution Required

Billboard in UB. Simple and True. 
I arrived in Mongolia over a year ago. Yes--I've been living abroad now, as an expat, for more than 365 days. I counted down so many months, weeks, and days to arrive.....and in the blink of an eye, the first year is already in the rearview mirror. But I remember those first few walks and explorations of my new city. In particular, I remember heading out to walk to the Central Post Office (because I hadn't yet learned my own little PO was a block away from our apartment) and fb messaging with Enji to let him know what I was doing. His response was, "Oh AND WATCH OUT FOR ROBBERS!" 

That did not inspire confidence as I stepped out onto the sidewalk! It's true that UB has a high incidence of pickpocketing/thievery, so his warning was with merit. I rarely left/leave the apartment without hearing a warning from Enji or Zorig. Watch out for thieves. Watch out for mashins (cars). Watch out on the bus. Watch out when crossing the street. Be careful!! 

First beer back in the city after our Africa trip.

I confess these warnings made me paranoid in the beginning. I wanted to be smart, but I also wanted to feel safe in my new land. I toggled between fear and comfort. Nowadays, I'm mostly comfortable. I cut through city blocks and don't always stick to main thoroughfares (they are WAY more congested). Each time I venture out....I try to explore a new route or walk into a new store. I keep my wits about me....knowing where my phone is, keeping my purse strapped across my body, never carrying too much cash, and always carrying myself with presence (it's surprising how much this last point makes a difference). 

Transportation in the city of Ulaanbaatar requires a a fine balance of assertiveness and caution. Whether you are driving a car or walking by foot, one must be always vigilant. When I depart our apartment, Zorig either says, "be careful," or "watch out for the mashins." Mashin is the Mongolian word for car/vehicle. While there are traffic lights, directional signs, and plenty of traffic police out to direct traffic, driving here is yet wild, in my opinion. As my father commented about his observations of UB traffic--"just watch how they tie themselves up in knots." And that they do. But they will also untie themselves. Here you have to be forceful in your movements. In places where there aren't traffic lights, one has to bully themselves through the lanes of oncoming traffic. If you wait for an opening, it may never come. You push the nose of your vehicle out there and edge across the lanes. Oncoming traffic will pause and one, two or four vehicles will skim across, and traffic resumes. 

Honking is a secondary traffic language. Everyone honks. People in their own cars, taxis, even bus drivers have a hand nearly always on the horn, ready to let you know what they expect. Strangely though, I've yet to observe "road rage." People bully their movements, they honk to tell others to stay in their lane or to get out of the way, and then they move on. I've never seen a middle-finger flip, or lips speedily spitting out curse words. People honk, push their way through, and then continue on. It's simply a part of their way of transportation culture. 

As a pedestrian, one also has to be CAREFUL--always aware of vehicle movements--but also, ASSERTIVE. When the pedestrian light says doesn't mean the traffic stops. Oftentimes, there are still 3-6 vehicles that are moving through what became a red light. You have to eye them--let them know that YOU have the right-of-way and that they need to WAIT. Thankfully, you often have a small collective of others around you, making the assertion more clear. Even just one more person makes a big difference. If it's just you, do not be surprised if they honk at you! 

Bus drivers here have skills. Mad skills! They change lanes with incredible speed and accuracy. I have found myself frustrated to see them get out into the outer lane only a hundred yards before the next stop. But I'll be darned if it isn't faster and then they slice their way back into the far lane just in time to pull into the stop and open their doors. 

A good taxi driver has similar abilities. He reads the speed of lanes, one eye on the rearview mirror and the other ahead, he zips in and out of lanes with grace. You would fail here as a taxi driver if you were not assertive, or dare I say, aggressive. 

In the the year I've been here, I've been in two taxis that were in mild accidents. The first one hardly qualified. We were going at a snails pace over the Peace Bridge and my taxi driver bumped the car in front of him going 3 or 5 mph. If that! He got complacent and wasn't paying attention. The rule here is if you are in an accident, you do NOT move. You don't even move to the side of the roadway. You WAIT until police and insurance agents arrive. In the meantime, all other traffic makes their way around the accident. Trapped on that bridge, I knew we were going nowhere. I paid what the meter said and walked the rest of the way to my Mongolian language lesson. The second accident I was in was a little more significant. Enji and I were being brought back to UB after our big summer kick-off party in Gunt at the end of June. Erka is a taxi driver we often work with--she knows us and knows our domiciles. She was hit by a car (it backed into her) that was turning around in the MIDDLE of a busy four-lane street. Forget about "No Uturn" signs, people here turn around anywhere they choose--whether it makes sense, or not. Whether it's safe, or not. Want to turn around? Just do it! (They take Nike's slogan to a whole different level.)

Now, I do hear from people that have lived her for a number of years that traffic is improving. That drivers seem to follow signs, signals, and laws way more frequently than they used to. But still....coming from the West, you will be shocked and perhaps a little scared the first few times you ride or walk in UB. You've been warned. 

1 comment:

  1. Love reading your impressions! Keep it up, please.