Dogs of Ulaanbaatar
I love dogs. I grew up with a gentle giant of a yellow lab named Ben. He was a part of the family. Mongolia, like many developing countries, can be a heart-wrenching place to be a dog-lover, but things are changing fast.
Stray dogs are a common sight in Ulaanbaatar but they’re not nearly as common as they once were. Over the last twenty years numerous extermination campaigns have been launched to rid the city of feral canines, which can pose serious threats to humans. Dogs are not viewed in the same terms here as they are in the West. Attacks by rabid strays as well as the transmission of other dog-borne diseases and parasites makes man’s best friend a much larger risk to humans than in the developed world. While it’s a bit difficult at times to shed my bias, understanding the Mongolian cultural context is crucial to appreciate the complex relationship people here have with dogs.
Largely owing to Mongolia’s nomadic pastoralist heritage, there is a culture of viewing animals as commodities to be bought, sold, or eaten. Dogs have important traditional roles like guarding their owners’ gers (yurts) from raiding parties, helping with herding, and, most importantly, protecting the livestock from predators and thieves. The archetypal Mongolian dog, the massive, fearsome Mongol Bankhar, is even used to hunt steppe wolves that may prey on the herd! (Actually, it’s illegal to export the Mongolians’ prized canine, a close relative of the Tibetan Mastiff.)
(Photo courtesy of : http://www.dokhyi-bhairubshakti.nl/newsa.html)
Although revered for their loyalty and usefulness, dogs aren’t viewed with the same degree of anthropomorphism found in the West. In an environment without modern veterinary medicine, and, more recently in the countryside, where access to adequate care is difficult and treatments are expensive, injured dogs are killed with the understanding a new puppy will replace it in its duties.
However, in the quickly-modernizing capital city the traditional roles of dogs are absent and thus their utility is much less. On the contrary, they can be a major public nuisance and are often treated as such. Tales of animal rights abuses in Ulaanbaatar (as in many places in Asia) are not uncommon. Fellow foreigners have told me horror stories of drunken owners throwing massive rocks down from apartment windows onto tied-up dogs, killing them. Others have seen dogs kicked for fun by children in front of their parents. It appears reporting and enforcement of these offences is not a priority.
In fact, it’s believed that numerous illegal dog fighting rings operate in Mongolia. In 2013, there was a scandal for Heineken when pictures of a dogfight at a Mongolian club, where its banners were prominently displayed, went viral. Company representatives said there was previously a promotional event at the venue and the club owners negligently failed to take the materials down afterwards. Heineken cut all ties with the establishment and publicly denounced the animal rights abuses. Dog fights have been taking place in Mongolia for centuries for entertainment and gambling.
Aside from hostile humans, dogs in Ulaanbaatar must confront extreme cold. “Pupsicles” is a term coined by expats in Ulaanbaatar to describe the frozen dead puppies found occasionally on the dirt sidewalks, back alleys, and main streets during the depths of winter. Temperatures in December, January, and February routinely hover around -30 to -40 degrees Celsius, virtually the same as in Fahrenheit. For this reason, dogs are known to travel in packs in order to survive, taking shelter anywhere they can find in sewers and abandoned structures. Sadly, they compete with the homeless population at times leading to further human-animal conflict.
Still, there are plenty of reasons for hope! Cultural attitudes and norms towards dogs and pet ownership are changing very fast. Owning a dog is seen as a status symbol in the city. Many affluent Mongolian owners shy away from the brutish Mongol breeds, instead favoring lap dogs. While a decade and a half ago there were virtually no shelters or clinics for animals, there are now a handful of NGO-run establishments that provide veterinary services. Rising levels of wealth among the upper echelon also means owners will spend money to pay for the healthcare of their pets instead of choosing to euthanize them and adopt others.
Neighborhoods collectively adopt strays, particularly puppies, and care for them. During the frigid winter months, locals deposited food scraps and old torn clothing for a pair of puppies that had made their home in a crevice in a concrete wall along a popular walkway. Mysteriously, the two disappeared one day. I’m hoping that a kind soul adopted them until the warmer weather returned; an increasingly common occurrence. There were dozens of puppies I wanted to adopt for the winter but I knew my landlord would have thrown a fit!
Right now a litter of pups is yipping outside my window from their home in a small stand of trees near our building’s dumpster, where their parents teach them to scavenge. Springtime is here and the nights are much warmer; the river next to our building has thawed and is running. Locals continue to donate food scraps and even a jacket that serves as a bed for the cute youngsters. They don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon!
To contact a rescue shelter in Mongolia please see the information below:
Foundation of Protection Animals of Mongolia
For more information on Mongolia from other travelers, check out a favorite travel website of mine with some great articles from the land of the Eternal Blue Sky: http://www.gonomad.com/destinations-worldwide/asia-tags/tag/location-mongolia
A power plant smokestack, crows, and an ovoo, a traditional Mongolian shrine, made for an interesting shot on this weekend’s stormy hike.
Hair, Makeup, and Nails — Oh My!
I open the door and step into the sweaty gymnasium of the Rajiv Gandhi Polytechnic College of Arts and Production. The overwhelming odor of nail polish and hairspray is almost too much to bear. I wonder how long the dozens of participants and spectators have withstood the harsh fumes. Still, the action here is well worth the light-headedness.
The room is alive with colors and textures, a teeming mass of cosmetics students, hair design trainees, and nail artist apprentices rushing to finish their creations before the deadline. It feels like an episode of a fashion-based reality TV show. Tensions are high. The focus and intensity of the contestants is palpable. Rihanna, Swedish house Mafia, and rave music blast my ears. I imagine the models going to an epic after party following the contest, but I’m told there is none!
Glitter and dyed hair, cut by the stylists, litter the floor. Attendants with brooms and dustpans struggle to keep up with the debris showering the basketball court. Gracious and trusting volunteers in white smocks sit in rows of chairs as their classmates bring their creative experiments to life. Most are friends or classmates of the beauticians.
Long lines of tables ring the perimeter of the gymnasium, manicurists and hand models seated across from one another. The competitors painstakingly push back cuticles, paste on fake nails, and paint intricate designs in neon, black and white, silver, and gold. Models sport masks, tutus, dresses made of plastic trash bags, and even neon jumpsuits.
In a corner of the basketball court body paint is applied to two topless teenage students standing in nothing but booty shorts. On display for dozens of fellow classmates, teachers, and administrators I can’t believe the half nude spectacle! This would NEVER happen in the US!
As the time limits approach panicky stylists put the finishing touches on their designs. Models take off the smocks covering their outfits and volunteers hand out numbers. Judges slowly pace the aisles stopping to chat with one another and pointing, clipboards in hand.
Before the winners are declared the models practice their runway walk. In a long line they circle the rows of chairs as the crowds lining the walls snap photos with smart phones and murmur to one another. Groups of stylists stand back and compare their work with their classmates, anxiously awaiting the decisions. Models once again take their chairs and the judges hand out small slips of colored paper to the models of stylists who have placed in the top three.
A few minutes later the chosen models, dummies, and stylists are brought to the front of the gym. An announcer in a shimmery navy blue suit calls out the winners. The crowd cheers wildly, but not everyone is happy.
“Good job,” I congratulate a first-year hair stylist student from my English Club, passing her in the crowd as I try to get a better camera angle. I’d watched her work and was impressed. “No! Not good. No good,” she turns away, wiping tears from her eye. Oops!
At first I don’t realize how important this school event is but soon a co-teacher informs me that winning means advancing to the national competition and potentially gaining recognition among the top hair design studios and beauty salons in Mongolia. There are five students in the room who won the national competition last year for their respective events and traveled to Brazil. One student won two gold medals at the international competition for creative hair design in the men’s and women’s categories for her age group.
Good luck at nationals Rajiv Gandhi students!