Coming to meet us at Ulaan Bataar train station, tour guide Odka sported a full face of intricately applied make-up. Carefully etched eyebrows and faux fur framed a wide, friendly face.
As she smiled and ushered us into a small minibus, we were unsure whether to follow. Without an introduction we trustingly loaded our bags and begun to weave our way through Ulaan Bataar’s notorious traffic.
“I am Odka, like ‘vodka’, without the V” she began. She welcomed us to her city, before providing a detailed itinerary of all our potential activities for the coming days. Her English flowed fluently with a thick accent and a gentle lisp, while Her enthusiasm for her country was endless and, subsequently, infectious. Every so often her tangent would be broken sharply by what was occurring around us: “Oh yeah, so in Mongolia we no care which side of car we drive. Some left some right as you see” she responded to our expressions as the eclectic mix of cars and SUVs collected around us (I use ‘around’ because absolutely no one was coming anywhere close to forming a straight line of traffic) As our journey through the city continued, so did Odka’s bubbly monologue, giving us wonderful information on absolutely everything, from warnings to history lessons and back again.
Odka was one of five children that had grown up in the city with her mother, who originally had sixteen siblings. Her mother had been adopted as a child and so Odka only knew some of her many uncles and aunts. She recounted that the majority of them weren’t city people and still lived the traditional nomadic lifestyle in the vast and tough countryside. It seemed clear to me though, that Odka had wholeheartedly embraced the western influence brought about in her country by the mining boom. At dinner she emerged wearing the latest trends, a new red coat with a big gold buckle, and ornate earrings. At twenty-seven she was still single and enjoying her studies and part time job as a honcho. She was very well educated and could speak both Russian and English proficiently. By Mongolian standards however, she was a late bloomer. Most friends her age were already married and tallying their third child.
As I was to learn during our time in Mongolia, the government will do anything it can to promote reproduction and population increase. ‘Mothers of Mongolia’ is a publication that makes celebrities of ladies doing their duty. Women receive either a ‘Medal One’ for nurturing eight or more children, or an admirable ‘Medal Two’ for those lagging behind with a mere four children per household. Bringing up as many children as possible to be successful contributors to a fast growing urban society seems to be the number one priority. Odka told us with an air of worldly wisdom “Some friends say I should start practicing, but not that easy!”
I learnt that Odka had recently enjoyed some time with an American boyfriend, who was so enamored that she had been offered a one-way ticket to America: “I say no way. No way I give up my life here for a man!” Luckily, Odka has her head screwed on, as the man recently seems to have taken up with a Paris Hilton look alike back in the USA, and to quote Odka: “Ah he likes party, he likes blond hair blue eyes, but she not like real woman. She probably not kind” I advised that she was best of without him. But would she ever consider marrying a man of another culture? “Any man from any place is OK, but must be good man” A sensible notion, I nodded in agreement.
The quality I admired most about Odka was her ability to talk to absolutely anyone on any subject. She took us to visit a nomadic family who’s worldly possessions encircled us as we sat sipping salt-milk tea, dried kurd biscuits and home made cheese in their Ger.
Our city girl engaged with these country folk as if they were her own family, sharing a joke and playing with their tiny little girl. Odka translated our questions and again I was amazed at the stark contrast between ancient tradition and modern influence. Even in this Ger, the family enjoyed the benefits of electricity, mobile phones and even WI-FI.
The wisened face of the old grandma sitting opposite me cracked into a wrinkled smile as I asked what her favourite television program was: “American Idol!” Odka translated. After that response, our conversation quickly veered from the family’s daily routine with their animals, to the finer details of Lady Gaga’s latest outfit.
I’m not naïve enough to think that every Mongol is as warm and friendly as Odka (it’s impossible to judge a nation on one encounter) however her personality was certainly echoed in all the people that I met during my short time there. From the retired farmer who took us horse riding, to the tiny lady that stoked our fires throughout the cold nights in our Ger camp.
As we stood on the platform ready to board our onward train across the border into Siberia, Odka’s breath blew white mist into the freezing air as she punched her fists strongly into her pockets to keep warm. Still smiling through her pristine make up, she hugged us, and wished us a safe onward journey. Although it was a final goodbye, Odka has reminded me of some invaluable life lessons: Always smile as it keeps you young, never judge a book by its cover, and lastly, have enthusiasm for everything in life. You will end up enjoying it more.
That was Odka, like ‘Vodka’, but without the ‘V’.
*As featured at http://www.vodkatrain.com/blog/