A Mongolian “Jigit" Driver Encounter
During the spring break of 2002, I went to Mongolia to lead training workshops for the Ulan Bator state university teachers and students on modern communication, public relations, and teaching methods. I was staying with my dear friend Valia who I knew from working together at American University in Central Asia. We co-chaired the Journalism Department there for almost two years and then she was transferred to Ulan Bator after the 9/11 attacks.
Valia’s apartment was about 6-7 blocks from the university, a good 40-45 min walk and I tried to walk whenever the weather allowed. I liked those walks as Ulan Bator reminded me of Bishkek. During the Soviet times, Mongolia was often referred to as the 16th republic, and the Soviet influence on the country was significant. The first thing I noticed was that Ulan Bator was similar to Bishkek in its socialist-realist and social classicist architecture and straight-line street planning. You couldn’t get lost there if you knew which street crossing you needed to get to.
Wide streets with five-story apartment blocks and marble column government buildings reminded me of home and I always felt safe walking in the streets. Except for the days when it was too cold, which is most of non-summer in Ulan Bator, the coldest capital in the world. Even though it was already March, there were still piles of dirty iced-up snow shoveled from the roads and pavements to the side. When the temperatures dropped the city was blown through by the winds coming from the surrounding steppe, so strong and cold that they chilled your bones. On those days we usually hired taxi rather than walk in the city streets.
What really surprised me in the Ulan Bator streets was the driving culture. I was no stranger to the drivers racing their cars and recklessly changing lanes in the city streets, as well as constant honking. They do that in Bishkek as well. There’s even a saying in Bishkek, “this jigit driver must have dismounted his horse just a couple of hours ago.” “Jigit” means a skillful stunt horse rider, so the saying alludes to many drivers driving their cars like they would ride their race horses. In terms of the number of reckless jigits in cars, Ulan Bator and Bishkek could probably compete with each other.
However, the culture of interaction between the drivers and pedestrians was completely different. While in Bishkek pedestrians still had the right of way and if the offending drivers made a mistake they would even apologize to the pedestrians, in Ulan Bator jigits seemed to think of themselves as kings of the road. I was warned about it, that even if the pedestrian crosses the street on green light, there might be some reckless drivers that would “shave your heels off with their tires” (I was quite amused to hear that phrase in Russian from one of the university teachers who spoke perfect Russian). But even this did not prepare me for an encounter I once had during my brief stay in the Mongolian capital.
I was walking on an unusually warm sunny day to Valia’s apartment after finishing my workshop, enjoying the weather and looking around at the buildings and people. Mongolians, especially the youth, like to wear colorful clothes, probably as a legacy to their history as the traditional Mongolian attire is very colorful. To me, it also made the gray cold city look more diverse and inviting, so observing the people was always fun. Another observation I made was about how few foreigners I saw in the streets. Mongolia is largely a mono-ethnic state, so on my walks many Mongolians looked at me in surprise, as if wondering, “Did this white woman get lost?” But they would also give me a broad smile when I smiled at them, and often a friendly wave.
On that sunny say, when I was crossing one of the broad city streets, I made sure to wait for the green light, remembering earlier warnings. However, the green light was too short and even before I crossed half of the street, I felt a car behind me turning to the right and almost brushing me off my feet.
“Where are you going, jigit?” I said loudly, annoyed and scared at the same time. “Can’t you see I’m walking here?” And then I noticed that his window was rolled down. He was probably enjoying the warm weather as well.
The driver, quite shocked, slowed down, and shouted at me in pure Russian, “And why are you walking so slow, like an old nag?” (А ты чего плетешься медленно, как старая кобыла?) He used a colloquial singular ‘you’ like he knew me for many years.
Now it was my turn to get surprised. Did not expect to hear perfect idiomatic Russian in the street from a Mongolian driver who by now parked his BMW at the curb. “I was crossing the street on green light!” I said affirmatively.
“Here it does not matter, if it’s green or red! You should run to cross the road, quickly!” he suddenly realized how absurd this situation looked as well, and asked, “Where did you, a brave soul, come from? From Russia, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m from Bishkek,” I responded, still bewildered.
“You’d better move from that road, lest someone runs you over for real,” the driver said in a more conciliatory tone. “Come over here, let’s talk!”
“I don’t think we have anything to talk about,” I said apprehensively, still standing in the middle of the empty road and looking around. “Murphy’s Law: where are all the people when you need them?” I thought to myself.
“Don’t be afraid, I don’t bite!” the driver said, laughing and demonstrating his virtuoso conversational Russian. “I haven’t spoken Russian in a long time, and here you are, such a surprise. Where are you heading? Let me give you a ride. Otherwise, if I hear from the news tomorrow that you were killed by some reckless driver, I’ll feel guilty.”
“It’s OK, I’m just a couple of blocks away, I’ll walk!” I lied because I was not even half-way to Valia’s apartment. “But thank you anyway,” I said in a conciliatory tone as well.
“Come on, get in! When else will I have such an opportunity to speak Russian again?” the driver convinced me. While I was getting into the passenger seat and buckling up, he chuckled (no one used seat belts in Mongolia then, just like in Bishkek) and said, “So, from Bishkek, aren’t you? And how are things in Kirghizia?” Again, his use of Kyrgyzstan’s Russified name suggested both the language mastery and that he probably learned Russian decades ago. He looked about 45-50, lean but strong, and with a mischievous spark in his eyes.
During the ride, we managed to talk about Kyrgyzstan and life in general. My new acquaintance told me that when he was young he went to an engineering school in Irkutsk, Russia, and even had a romantic relationship with a Russian girl. That’s why he knew Russian so well.
“In my generation, practically all educated Mongolians speak Russian because they went to study in the best higher institutions in the Soviet Union. They even had special quotas for us,” he said with a hint of nostalgia. “And today’s youth is mostly studying English. They are not interested in Russian at all.”
“That’s understandable,” I said. “The whole world is learning English now.”
I could confirm that through my own experience. Most of my workshops were designed to be delivered in English, and I had no problem conducting them in English for the Mongolian students. Their teachers, however, only one generation older than them, asked me to deliver the workshops in Russian because it was easier for them and they all longed to speak Russian again. I remember how I had to scramble to translate my handouts from English into Russian one day before the workshop. But the teachers were happy to speak Russian with me.
We’ve had quite an interesting discussion with my new Mongolian driver friend about the benefits of a second language for small nations. I was pleasantly surprised when he said wisely, “It’s quite silly of us to expect that the big outside world will learn Mongolian en mass to talk with us or to write for us modern textbooks in Mongolian, or bring new technological advances to us in Mongolian. It is up to us, Mongols, to learn at least one foreign language and do all those things for ourselves. Better yet, master two or three foreign languages. Danes and Norwegians speak 5-6 languages, why not us? This is the only chance for us as a small nation not to be lost, not to vanish in the modern world.”
It was quite amusing for me to hear someone, whose ancestors conquered almost all of Eurasia at one time centuries ago, refer to his nation as “small,” but I was also both educated and culturally enriched through this encounter. I was almost glad he nearly shaved off my heels with his tires.