fawx by Erik Frey

Days 207-211, Kiev

“Haven’t you ever wondered why the Church doesn’t allow women to be preachers?”

“Not specifically,” I replied, throwing my pack on the bed. I sat down. Icelandic Pizza Chef sat down on the opposite bed.

“It makes God less attractive to women, so they all become whores and drug addicts.”

I blinked. I had nothing.

“So the Mafia profits!” He paused to let me connect the dots. I still had nothing. I proferred the blank look.

“And everyone knows that the Mafia and the Church work together. Don’t you see? It’s so simple.” Icelandic Pizza Chef settled his argument by clapping his hands together.

Taking a cue from Socrates, I asked “You, uh, think this is a big problem?

"Oh yes. I would say that probably 90% of all women are prostitutes and into drugs.”

Icelandic Pizza Chef had flown down to Kiev to meet a girl he’d found on an internet dating site. In fact, he’d had his first date with her the day I met him. Now he needed someone with whom to confer.

“Here, I will show you.” From out of a manilla envelope he pulled a stack of high quality, glossy printouts. He spread them out across our little desk. They looked like professional studio shots. Naturally, the subject was stunning and dressed in a fabric-economic fashion.

“She did not look anything like this in real life,” he commented, “maybe it was the makeup. I don’t know.”

The first hour and a half of the date they spent sitting a few tables apart, neither person recognizing the other. Icelandic Pizza Chef then walked to a phone booth, called the girl’s cell phone, and confirmed she was the one whose nervous glances he’d been avoiding. They spent the second hour and a half sitting at the same table, neither person having anything to say to the other.

“I think it went terribly,” Icelandic Pizza Chef told me, “she acted like she didn’t want to be there.”

“Well, what did you two talk about during your date?”

“Nothing. She speaks very little English, and I don’t know any Ukranian.”

She knew enough English to ask for 500 hryvnia (about 100 US dollars) to cover her train ticket back to Sumy, a nearby town. Actual cost of a ticket: 25 hryvnia.

“Don’t worry man - it happens to all of us,” I offered as meager consolation - sure, all men get taken in by Ukranian gold digging mail-order bride dropouts - “At least you’ve learned from the experience.”

“Yes, I have. I think tomorrow I will go to Sumy and find a cheap apartment. This way I will not have to pay for her train tickets.”

I laughed, although I don’t think he was joking. Godspeed, Icelandic Pizza Chef!

But who am I to criticize? Isn’t this simply a twist on value systems we all refer to when looking for a mate? Isn’t wealth just another facet of attraction? I saw this same culture of commercial relationships in both Russia and the Ukraine. It seems the fall of the old regime brought forth a whole new viciously status-conscious class of young people. Everybody wants it—that’s why they call it money.

Russia had some internal source of wealth upon which this new culture could cultivate. I lost count of the number of balding, plump officials I spotted in St. Petersburg, driving slick Volgas with black tinted windows, letting a fur coat-clad girl (who probably wasn’t his daughter) out of the passenger side. On the Moscow Metro, I sat next to an extremely fashionable girl holding a handbag with sequin lettering. It read, “If you’re rich, I’m single.”

But the Ukraine has had no such treasure trove, instead looking to the west for its future, waiting for the big payoff. There’s a strange sense of urgency and despair in Kiev. One afternoon I walked through a towering shopping complex, brand new, full of Guccis and Pradas, fluorescent escalators, Aston Martins spinning slowly inside impressive glass columns. All the stores were empty. Shopkeepers sat bored behind pristine counters. I sat down and had a coffee there, but I sort of felt like an asshole so I left not long after.

Rick was an American business consultant looking for investment opportunities in Kiev. He told me,

“So, these two Ukranian girls are at a cafe, having a chat over a cup of coffee.

One girl says to the other,‘You know, I could really use an extra 500 dollars a month,’

'That’s easy!’ replies the other. 'Just get another boyfriend!’

'But where do I find a boyfriend who will give me 500 dollars a month?’

'Hmm, how about finding two boyfriends who can each give you 250 dollars a month?’

'But that’s still so much!’

'Then find three boyfriends who can each give you 150 dollars a month!’

'Devushka,’ a man interrupts from a nearby table, 'when you get down to 5 dollars, let me know.’”

The day before I left Kiev, I saw a man putting coins into a slot machine. A monkey was sitting on his shoulder, and the monkey was wearing a diaper. On the train back to Moscow, I met a Ukranian ex-soldier named Max. Max had coordinated joint operations with U.S. soldiers at Westpoint. Max, his friends, and I shared much too much vodka that evening, and they all agreed that I was a very nice fellow.

    Days 227-229, Ulaan Baatar

    Hi Mom!

    Remember when I called you from the post office in Ulaan Baatar? The conversation was short, and I probably sounded distracted. Here’s why:

    day 227

    Mongolains are a pretty friendly lot, kind of subdued for the most part, and not particularly prone to forming hordes, as far as I could tell. But just like any society, there’s a lower crust, and Claudia and I met a number of its representatives late one evening at the Ulaan Baatar post office, where we were making a few last minute phone calls before heading off to the Gobi.

    Remember during our phone conversation when I said, “Actually, hang on a sec…” and put the receiver down?

    Claudia had felt something, looked down, and saw an arm up to its elbow in her bag, searching for goodies. She yelled “HEY!” and I looked up just in time to see the guy attached to the arm spin around and duck into the adjoining phone booth. I dropped the receiver, looked over into the next booth, and saw him banging numbers on the keypad, with the receiver still on the hook.

    “Check your bag.” I said to Claudia, following the guy out into the lobby.

    She was on already on it. “Everything is here as far as I can tell.”

    He had nothing in his hands. I came back into the booth and picked up the phone. “Yeah Mom, we’re having a wonderful time here!”

    Another two of the guy’s friends walked up to us, fully baseball capped and bandana’d. At that same moment you said, “And what about the Ukraine? Did you reconnect with your ancestors there?”

    “Yeah uh…”

    They stopped at arm’s length, looking first at Claudia’s bag, then up at me.

    “Kiev was… nice.” I cracked my knuckles against my waist and stared back. “Really friendly people there ah, much more open than Russia.”

    They stood there for a few minutes while I told you about Kiev and asked how the dogs were doing. They spoke to eachother in Mongolian, I think trying to decide if they could take me on. Then they walked away, and a moment later the phone card ran out.

    So, sorry if I sounded distant! Next time I’ll call from a less distracting place, and I’ll not call so early. You sounded sleepy.

    day 228

    Claudia and I visited Naran Tuul (the “black market”), the wildest, loudest, most lawless flea market I’ve ever seen. Here’s what the Lonely Planet has to say about Naran Tuul:

    The market is notorious for pickpockets and bag slashers so don’t bring anything you don’t want to lose.

    Oh, good! All we brought were bags, a high-end Nikon camera, money, credit cards, and passports. Disembodied hands kept snaking out of the crowd and reaching for Claudia’s camera. She held onto it tightly.

    Don’t carry anything on your back, and strap your money belt to your body. If you feel a group of men blocking your way from the front, chances are their friends are probing your pockets from behind.

    Well, that certainly explains the big guy who kept annoyingly stepping in front of me, and how immediately after I got past him, the 4000 togrog I had in my pocket were gone.

    Some travellers have had rocks thrown at them for taking photos at the market.

    I occasionally found myself playing the “Oh, how much is that?” game while Claudia Candidly Clicked from a Corner.

    Sometimes people yelled at Claudia for taking pictures, but sometimes people smiled.

    Also, we went on a Sunday.

    Try to avoid Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when the crowds can be horrendous.

    Oops.

    Quick Overview of Traditional Mongolian Cuisine

    • Greasy mutton
    • Dough
    • Rice

    Combine the above in many exciting ways! Wrap dough around mutton and you have buuz, a sort of Mongolian dumpling. Cut dough into thin strips, drop into water left over from boiling the rice, add mutton, and you have shool, Mongolian soup.

    Put little bricks of refuse plant parts into the same dirty rice/mutton water, add a dollop of yak’s milk, and you have tsai, Mongolian tea: not too bad once you get used to the floating globules of fat.

    FUN FACT: Mongolian barbeque doesn’t exist anywhere in Mongolia, except for one tourist restaurant in Ulaan Baatar that caters to folks who step off the plane and proclaim, “Hey hey, show me the Mongolian barbeque!”