Common sense in Mongolia: An evolving definition

25 February 2012 at 23:51 8 comments

Jon Hiebert | KF 17 | Mongolia

When looking for an apartment in a new city, common sense would guide you to look online, contact a realtor or network through ex-pats and friends that work and live in the area already. But common sense seems to be very relative here in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia…

“I’ll take you for a walk to some areas where you might want to live,” says Ron, a new friend of mine who wants to help us hunt for apartments.

“Sure,” I reply, thinking it would be good to get an idea of what places looked like and what they are near.

At this point, I had been in Ulaanbaatar for just 30 hours and was living in a guesthouse downtown. I had met an American Fulbright researcher, Hannah, and we were thinking of finding an apartment together.

Mongolian Parliament. No wonder this is called the “Land of the Eternal Blue Skies.”

So, Ron took Hannah and I out for a walk in the sunny -25 °C (-10 °F) weather Sunday afternoon to get a feel for the city and where shops and apartments are situated. Next thing we knew, Ron was going into apartments and talking to the cleaning ladies and security guards, asking if there was an apartment available.

Sometimes occupants that walked by would translate, other times no one had any idea what Ron was saying (in English). Then Ron complained of the cold and had ducked into a corner store, leaving Hannah and I utterly alone to continue our ridiculous search. Considering how futile this activity was, I asked her, “Are we seriously doing this?”

She gave me a knowing look and said, “It’s worth a try, let’s just go to one more place.”

So we walk into our last apartment of the day. I say, “Apartment?” and make gestures for sleeping and two bedrooms, and point upstairs. Keep in mind that at this time Hannah and I have a grand total of three Mongolian words in our arsenal: hello, goodbye and thank you (all perfectly pronounced and never mixed up, of course).

For all we know the cleaning lady could be interpreting this as, “We work at Macy’s department store and we need to move a bed to the second floor.” Next thing we know, the cleaning lady has us going to the 11th floor where we knock on some door and receive no answer. The cleaning lady then makes a phone call and we go downstairs.

We still don’t even know if she has understood the idea of anything we’ve communicated! So, I write down the current date and time and gesture that this is now. I gesture when she wants us to come back and she writes the same date but 2 hours later. I keep telling Hannah to keep her expectations low as I’ve learned from cross-cultural communication, especially with really high language barriers.

We come back half an hour later than she said, like true Mongolians, and within an hour we have talked to an English speaking Mongolian on the phone and are standing in a two-bedroom apartment with our landlady, a translator and the building manager.

This is Sunday night around 6:30 p.m. We talk and verbally agree to the rental details and payment timeframe. The next day we bring the deposit, get the paperwork notarized and move in! I ask questions about tenant and landlord duties and responsibilities with fixing plumbing and basic wear and tear, and what does my landlord say?

“We will address those issues as they arise, and apply common sense.”

I suppress a smile. Now I wish I had clarified this point completely because our toilet has leaked water everywhere and cannot flush anymore.

Hopefully the landlady paying to fix the toilet is common sense!

Hannah and I cannot believe what an amazing blessing it is to find an apartment to rent that meets all of our requirements, and has great Soviet charm to it to boot! Our landlady’s name is Suvd (which means Pearl, also the name of my favorite masseuse in Bohol, Philippines from my vacation last month. Coincidence? I think not!).

Our apartment faces north and west, and the smokestacks look wonderful with the sun setting in the background! Who knew the second most polluted city on earth could be beautiful. Seriously, I can really appreciate the smog with a view like this! The whole place is fully furnished, but of course my artist roommate says that warm curtains and mood lighting are at the top of the list of necessities.

Hannah has her sculpting and art studio in one of the bedrooms and she sleeps in the living room. We are right in the center of town near all the bars, restaurants and one of the famous fruit and vegetable markets, Mercury Market (which I hope they don’t spray the veggies with before they sell them).

So, I guess having a realtor, searching online, or networking through friends in the area are all ways NOT to get an apartment in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. If you ever find yourself here looking for a place to live, just walk into any building, gesture a sleeping position and say “Apartment?” and you’re sure to have a place within a day.

Sunset from my bedroom. Pollution really can look beautiful, but random wires still look ugly…

Jon Hiebert (KF 17) is a Kiva Fellow working with XacBank, Credit Mongol and Transcapital in Mongolia. Join the Mongolia Lending Team and lend to a Mongolian micro-entrepreneur now!

Entry filed under: KF17 (Kiva Fellows 17th Class), Kiva Team, Mongolia, XacBank. Tags: , , , .

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  • 1. alexkiva  |  12 March 2012 at 20:13

    Jon, I was trying to catch up on Fellow’s blogs when I stumbled over this post. I can’t tell you how deeply I relate to this, this is exactly how I felt while trying to navigate China. There’s nothing quite as humbling as being reduced to pantomime, haha. Hope things are working out well!

    • 2. jonhiebert  |  19 March 2012 at 21:07

      Oh, the miming! At least here in Mongolia they will try and help and mime back. I found in rural parts of Southern China they didn’t even attempt to understand mimes or mimes back, I could only attribute it to saving face!

  • 3. uyanga  |  8 March 2012 at 21:42

    There are plenty of good quality serviced apartments with excellent services in UB. Considering the view of power-plants, I suspect that current narrator was located somewhere in a rural and poor area of UB. Probably, his is one of these backpackers, expecting to get everything for 1 dollar in Mongolia. He got what he could afford… So, please don’t complain!

    • 4. jonhiebert  |  19 March 2012 at 21:08

      Hi Uyanga,
      I am not complaining in the least. I am so happy with my apartment and my view. I think it is amazing how pollution can be beautiful. I’m sorry that you misunderstood my post.

  • 5. dgorgani  |  29 February 2012 at 15:13

    I’ve never been to Mongolia and I know very little about the country, but somehow that Parliament building is exactly as I would expect it to look…

    Great post Jon!

  • […] Common sense in Mongolia: An evolving definition Jon Hiebert | KF 17 | Mongolia Head out on an apartment search with Jon in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where he successfully manages to find a place with limited language ability and knowledge of Mongolian culture. […]

  • 7. Jamie  |  26 February 2012 at 18:32

    Don’t you just love the small (well, in this case pretty big) victories when traveling and working in a country where you don’t speak the language? It’s so satisfying. Great job in taking me there; I felt like I was looking for the apartment with you guys. Enjoy!

  • 8. functionkey  |  26 February 2012 at 04:52

    Nice work plumber Jon!

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