Editors' Choice

Mongolian Rhapsody

by Leah Kohlenberg

Matisse was the name of the smoky bar cum bordello in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital city, where we found ourselves at 3 a.m. my first night in the country. Named after the famous artist, I was told by the owner, as he gestured at the cheap oil paintings festooning the walls. We'd come through the doors of a deserted looking building, foyer smelling faintly of urine, before tumbling down a set of stairs to find ourselves—as if we'd suddenly given the secret knock at a moonlighter's juke joint—in a disco. A Monday night, there wasn't much business so the prostitutes danced together in bored giggly clenches.

Jim, a U.S. economic advisor bent on demonstrating Mongolia's flourishing free market by bringing us here, was earnestly trying to explain why strip clubs should be counted as part of "economic development." I watched his lips move, but after several rounds of drinks, I was suffused in a happy, beery haze and had long stopped taking notes.

We've got more pressing concerns, anyway. On my right, a 6'4" Mongolian wrestler, his hand on my knee, bargained drunkenly with Jim for a date with me the next evening. The wrestler and I had been dancing for the past half-hour, or rather he'd picked me up out of my chair and lightly dropped me on the floor, intoning "Dance, miss."

On my left sat a Mongolian hooker who refused to admit she was a hooker, calling herself a "film student." I'd been buying her beer since 8 p.m., hoping she would comment on a story I was writing about a prostitution as part of the new Mongolian economy, but she wouldn't cooperate. Instead, she'd been steadfastly flirting with me, batting her eyelashes, saying things like "I've been paid $20 to pose naked," then pursing her mouth into a surprised "Oh" as if what she had to say shocked even herself.

Her hand was on my other knee.


How on earth did a nice Jewish girl hungry to climb the corporate ladder wind up in Mongolia, once the seat of the world's largest empire, bigger than the kingdoms of Julius Caesar or Napoleon, but in this century an obscure, mysterious corner of the former Soviet Union?

The fact is, it was a blind date that lured me to the country I grew to love with a much more monastic fervor. It wasn't even my idea. I owe it all the Curtis.

Curtis was an inveterate wanderer I met on an online travel list-serv when I first decided to quit my reporting job in the U.S. and head to Asia. We hit it off on several fronts. He had already been through most of the countries I wanted to visit and gave me plenty of good advice. We were both liberal, intellectual, and believed in socialized medicine. He was sweet, funny, and very witty over e-mail. Though he lived in Canada, a mere three-hour drive from my Seattle apartment, we didn't have time to meet up before my trip. At least, that's what I told myself. The idea of seeing him in person, just as I was poised to launch my own great adventure, rattled me.

Instead, I sent him postcards from the trail I blazed through the Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where he safely remained a fantasy man. Drifting through the palm-tree-lined white sand beaches and bustling markets of Asia was fun at first, but after six months, the vagabond life grew stale. I wanted to get to know a foreign land more deeply, so I stayed in Asia and got a job.

It was Hong Kong that first beckoned, coiled metallic and serpentine around harsh and rocky hills. A speck on China's southern peninsula, Hong Kong was due the following year, July of 1997, to be bounced from British to Chinese hands. A nervous, ambivalent excitement buzzed through the soon-to-be-former British colony. I landed a dream job as a reporter/researcher for Time Magazine, made some friends, dated on and off, but kept in touch with Curtis.

One day, I figured, we'd meet in a blaze of glory. When both of us were ready, and the setting was right. Isn't that how fate works?


"Why don't we meet in Mongolia?"

A year after I'd arrived in Hong Kong, Curtis's suggestion was a breath of fresh air. We'd been e-mailing more frequently of late: he, from the graduate school lab in Victoria, British Columbia, where he was studying fuel cell engineering, I from my desk on the reflective-glass-encased 34th floor in one of Hong Kong's ubiquitous skyscrapers.

Working for Time wasn't as impressive as it sounded. My duties, initially, consisted of fact-checking stories other people wrote. Two or three reporters would send files from the field, the writer in the office would produce a draft, and two editors would review it. It was the researcher's job to marry all those viewpoints and ensure the facts remained intact.

With six years of journalism experience under my belt, I was champing at the bit to produce my own stories. But I couldn't turn around without encroaching on some more experienced, multi-lingual reporter's turf. My flight from America's cubicle hell had landed me smack in the middle of Hong Kong's coldly efficient concrete jungle and Time Magazine's ego-laden hierarchy. I was already bored and frustrated, but where do you go to escape your escape?

"Why don't we set the world's record for longest distance traveled to meet on a blind date," Curtis wrote. "And meet in Mongolia? There is a full solar eclipse there in late February. We could check it out. Maybe you could write about it."

Mongolia's epic history was the perfect backdrop for romance and high adventure. Nothing could have sounded better at that moment.


"Are you Leah?"

The slender, good-looking guy with long raven-black hair was standing behind me at the Beijing airport luggage carousel. I'd taken a little more care with my appearance than usual, applying eyeliner with a shaky hand in the United Airlines jet bathroom an hour before we landed on the tarmac. I turned, attempting vainly to smooth the travel wrinkles already bunching up my favorite red sweater.

"Hi, Curtis," I said. We hugged, stood back to assess. I, a writer, was immediately struck by the limit of words, which can't begin to describe how a person is in their own skin. I realized, as we flashed sweetly tense smiles, how little we knew each other.


Curtis and I boarded a Mongolian International Air Transport flight. Tall, almond-eyed stewardesses served us tongue sandwiches and a small bottle of vodka for breakfast. We flew for about two hours over a vast brown and white empty land. Ulaanbaatar appeared suddenly, nestled between high hills: a cluster of gray, concrete chock-a-block buildings, white-topped round tents, an eerie hour-glass-shaped power plant.

When we landed at the international airport, sheep grazed at the tip of the runway.


Eight hours after we'd arrived in Mongolia, we fled the bar, giggling, just after the hooker put her tongue in my ear. I'd never felt so intensely alive, and in an oddly variegated way, appreciated. Even though Curtis had gone home early that night. We might have traveled the longest distance ever for a blind date, but after years of build-up it still ended as most blind dates do—with a fizzle, not a bang. The physical chemistry just wasn't there.

I understood then that it was the country wooing me, not the man. When the reporting trip was over and it came time to return to Hong Kong, I delayed my flight for two days claiming non-existent mechanical difficulties—ironically, probably the only time in Mongolia there weren't any. It's no surprise that I returned 18 months later to teach journalism to Mongolian reporters and stay a year.

But as I picked my way out of the so-called "parking lot" that first night, deftly avoiding a severed cow head and several gaping open manholes, I wasn't bothered by thoughts of climbing ladders or future plans. In that moment, I let go of time.

I turned my eyes to the starry sky, watched the puff-cotton clouds of frozen breath hover. Then I turned around and kissed Jim.

Leah Kohlenberg is a senior editor with BlueEar.com: Global Writing Worth Reading and founding editor of Blue Ear Travel. She worked for two years as a reporter/writer for Time magazine in Hong Kong, helping cover the handover to China. She also created, wrote and edited a weekly Asian travel section for Time that debuted in 1998. Travel Watch is still going, though she left six months after its launch to take a Knight Fellowship in Mongolia, where she trained local reporters in American journalism techniques. She now bases herself in Seattle, where she teaches elementary school students journalism to support her writing habit. She has written for Salon, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and the Far Eastern Economic Review, has co-edited a book, "Dispatches from a Wounded World," published by BlueEar.com and is writing a travel book of her Mongolian experience.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For an archive of these stories go to the Editors' Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Editors' Choice, Leah Kohlenberg

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