The High-Flying Life of an International Journalist/Adventure Traveler
Or, the sweet smell of raw sewage, and other pleasures of the road
The early morning Mongolian sun is rising beyond the helter-skelter towers that have popped up like butt-ugly mushrooms against the skies here in Ulaan Bataar, the capital. At barely 6:30 am, the traffic is just a few minutes before insanity. Anyone who has traveled here can speak to that piece of UB life, but I digress for now.
My Outdoor Research pants, newly washed in the bathroom sink and dried with all the towels I could find in the bathroom (please don’t wash your clothing in our sinks) are drying in the morning air. My problem is that I am leaving very early tomorrow morning, long after the local laundress will be done with them and all my Icebreaker socks, so sink it is. In this waning summer, the dry air will take care of business swiftly, for which I am most grateful.
There’s no hot water in this hotel room. Or, let’s just say that what does come out out is so tepid that it’s little more than a sun-warmed stream, which in all frankness I’d prefer.
Because at least out in the countryside, the air is so fresh and clean you think you’re on a different planet. And you get this:
Because when my guide Naka brought me here last night — a move we had to make because the Lotus Guesthouse room where I’d already settled was situated right above an extremely busy street corner and families with screaming babies lived upstairs- the first thing that greeted me was the unmistakable smell of raw sewage.
I just wanted a quiet place to sleep before heading back out on the road tomorrow. So I traded screaming for sewage.
It’s no secret that UB has an infrastructure problem. On the outside, the city seems to be all modern hustle and bustle. On the inside, it is beset with the kinds of rapid-growth issues that all fast-growing cities in the world suffer. They cannot possibly keep up with the growth, and what serves right now is simply awful, especially if you walk into a relatively expensive hotel room expecting something different. As in: no sewage smell, hot water, potable water ( you are strongly warned not to drink the water, and by the way, the water system shuts down unpredictably in summer for repairs, we’re sorry, but that’s the way it is…)and a shower drain that actually drains.
Twice since I’ve been here I took the time to wash my hair, which falls all the way down my back. The resulting flood ended up in the hallway, to my chagrin, as the water simply refused to drain. I ended up getting on my knees and using the dull end of my toothbrush to clean out great massive wads of hair, likely from every tourist on the planet, that had likely been there for many years.
Luxurious all right.
There is a sink and kitchen just to my left. You’d think that would be a good thing, since I also have a fridge- convenient, right? The sink is a prime offender in the sewage smell department, being a long, seven-story tube which allows whatever happens to be in the basement to waft upwards. And, as it were, right into my room. Last night I dumped the very nicely fragranced shampoo into that sink, which quelled the odor somewhat, then slept with a brand new bar of Nivea on my pillow.
Some years ago I was staying at a very nice Hilton for business in Atlanta or some southern city. That bathroom also had a problem with reek. When I called down there was great consternation, and an immediate apology, and I was not only moved forthwith but compensated for the night.
Here, it’s just the way it is.
Sewage smells are normal here. Out in the bush, which is barely outside the city limits (which are constantly moving outwards at speed) drop toilets are the norm. Not only are the older ones damned dangerous (imagine balancing precariously on very old wood, wood that has held the collective weight of millions of pissers and shitters) but also over a massive hole in the ground full of same, into which you feel strongly that you are about to take a tumble. Yesterday my crew and I stopped at a roadside spot en route back to UB and I did my best not to howl with laughter as I tried to relieve myself standing on ancient plywood over a hole so huge the Mongolian wind actually blew my unmentionables back up in my general direction.
I could do an entire series of articles on long drop toilets but I suspect it wouldn’t get much play. Still, they’d be funny.
You learn to have a sense of humor.
In the rare instances (twice so far) that I’ve been supplied with a functioning hair dryer, I have used it to dry a lot more than my hair. They are also pretty effective at warming you up in buildings that have no heat, which is kind of everywhere.
There are other dangers, too. Last night, when I headed out to the Circle K downstairs from the Lotus (before the screaming babies sent me screaming) I was using the banister to get downstairs. The stairs are painted a garish orange (just in case you didn’t realize you were on stairs) and so was the banister. As I ran my hand down as I walked, something tore the holy shit out of my hand. Suddenly there was blood everywhere. I walked back up, and sure enough, the banister had a long, raw line of wood that was pointed upwards. You should see the cut on my hand. It’s impressive. No way you could have seen that raw edge of painted wood in the thin, grey light of the stairwell.
You might be one of those folks who gets pissed at the Feds for intruding in your business, but this is one of those perfect examples of where OSHA plays a key role. I have been in so many guesthouse stairwells where the lights didn’t work and you can’t see where you’re putting your feet. The stair wells are strewn with trash. That’s a serious accident waiting to happen. As a traveler, this isn’t what you signed up for: a midnight trip to the local ER because you did an ass- over teakettle trying to manhandle your luggage up four flights of steps in a guesthouse with no elevator.
I’m not terribly sure what folks imagine I “get” to do while I’m out on the road like this. Most assuredly, there are memorable moments.
By the same token, you get a total sheep dip in how the rest of the world is struggling mightily to catch up to standards you and I take for granted, and if anything, pretend to chafe at. Because in truth, at some level you’re damned grateful that someone is holding builders to a standard. Or else, our buildings, just as those I have seen all over Central Asia, would have entire screws pointing their nasty sharp ends through the pressboard in bathroom stalls, ready to tear the hell out of you or your clothing or both. Hooks installed upside down (probably the result of a bit too much vodka). Toilet doors that simply cannot close (or fall off completely, or don’t exist at all) , so that you are left to pull your pants up and down with one hand while holding onto the door handle. Entire doors or windows that fall off the hinges into your hands. Glass doors on shelves that drop terrifyingly on top of you when you’re stupid enough to open one to put away your things.
All this said, there is no way in hell I’d hie over to the Holiday Inn (right down the street, and I am on their points program) or a Hilton, like far too many other tourists.
Because I’m not a tourist. I’m a traveler. The stories are where the sewage is, as it were.
Meanwhile, I am going to take my Steripen water purifier, make some hot tea, then use the kettle to heat up the water, put it in the unclogged bathroom sink which I will stop with a pair of wool undies, and take a bath standing up. Because the shower sure doesn’t work.
Because if you’re willing, you might also get to have this along the way:
Because in the end, it’s bloody well worth it.