Friday, October 18, 2019
This was my grand finale event, the night before catching my early morning flight home. A man at the Tourist Information Office had suggested catching a show at the Children’s Palace. He said they had a show every night, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., featuring traditional Mongolian singing, dancing, and theater. He said it was quite an extravaganza and people really liked the shows. Sounded good to me!
His English wasn’t that great, so I didn’t really know what to expect. The Children’s Palace is not really a “palace,” but rather an education center where children can study arts, sciences, and athletics. Would it be children’s choirs, dance recitals, and orchestras? I didn’t know. It didn’t really matter; I’m just as happy to see children performing as anyone else. And, I was happy to hear the show would be finished at 8:00 p.m. as I would be on foot, and the Palace was a little more than kilometer from my hotel. I didn’t want to be out on the streets in a strange city too late at night.
I got to the Palace at 5:30 p.m., just to be told the show didn’t start until 7:00. D’oh! I had an hour to kill and didn’t want to spend it sitting in the lobby, so I walked back to Sukhbaatar Square and found a spot on a bench. The square was filled with children playing and zooming around in rented battery-operated cars. Older children were riding bikes and skateboards. A group of boys was climbing on the statue in the center of the square. Vendors were selling trinkets and candy, while old and young people cuddled. Some sat alone, huddled over their phones.
I listened to the sounds of the city as I thought about my visit this past week. I was sad it was coming to an end. And yet, I was exhausted and ready for my own bed. I had crammed as much as possible into each day, and I was ready for my life to slow down a bit. I missed my cat. And my kayak. And, I was done eating Mongolian food. I missed vegetables.
I was also contemplating whether I really wanted to attend the show. A 7:00 start meant it would be getting out at 9:00, and I really didn’t want to be out that late. On the other hand, it was on my to-do list. I had checked off everything else; a show was the only thing left. In the end, I decided to go. I didn’t have to stay for the whole thing; I could leave after an hour. Besides, I still had a handful of cash. Once I left the country, it was useless to me. I had to spend it.
I went back an hour later and purchased my ticket, using my last ₮20,000 bill (US$7.50) and waited in the lobby. Finally, shortly before 7:00, the doors opened.
There was hardly anyone there, maybe a half dozen people. That didn’t look promising! I looked around the theater; it was pretty shabby. Some of the seats were broken, and all were covered with a stretchy knit orangish-red seventies retro fabric. But, whatever. I was there to watch a show, not to buy a theater. I had read a review online where someone complained the speakers were too loud, so I sat in the middle where they weren’t directed straight at me.
The show didn’t start at 7:00 p.m., and people were slowly trickling in. The show didn’t start at 7:15 p.m., either. Nor did it start at 7:30 p.m. By this point, I was concerned and wondering if I should just leave. I had to walk back to my hotel after dark. If the show started at 8:00, which was when I was planning to leave, then it wouldn’t be over until 10:00 p.m. at the earliest.
By now, the theater was about half full, with maybe 150 people in attendance. I looked around; not one person spoke English, so there was no one I could ask.
At 7:38 p.m., the lights dimmed, and the curtains pulled back. Finally! I really wanted to see this show, so I decided I would stay for an hour, which would put me back at the hotel at about 9:00 p.m. That wasn’t too late.
The emcee came out on stage and (I’m guessing!) introduced the first performer, a middle-age woman in traditional Mongolian garb–a bright green silk deel with a pointed hat. I was a little unsure about photography–I’d already had two camera incidents this trip!–but everyone around me was not only openly taking photos, but also taking videos. When in Rome, right? I pulled out my iPhone and hit the record button.
The woman sang two songs, accompanied by canned music. She had a beautiful, operatic voice. I have no idea what she was singing, but her music was happy and uplifting. A young man in a black suit followed her, probably singing more contemporary music, also uplifting and happy. And then an older man in a red deel and leather boots. One performer after another, each singing two songs to recorded music. It seemed to be a mixture: opera, contemporary, and traditional. All had beautiful voices, and the audience was really into the show, singing along, clapping, and chair dancing. I think I had as much fun watching the audience as I did the performers.
Forty-seven minutes into the show…a man came on stage with one of the most beautiful voices I’d ever heard. He had a wonderful, strong voice; it was rich and powerful and haunting. I was spellbound, hanging onto every word I couldn’t understand. There was no way I was leaving early; I was staying for the full show. Safety be damned!
Forty-eight minutes and thirteen seconds into the show, and…
iPhone storage full.
“Noooooooooooo!!!!!,” I screamed silently. Oh, iPhone, how could you do this to me?????
I frantically started dumping music to free up space. Sorry, Avenged Sevenfold and Nine Inch Nails! Gone! Bush? Gone! Drowning Pool? Gone! Delete! Delete! Delete! Five hundred megabytes freed. Was it enough? I didn’t know. I thought I had had 15GB available that morning. This is the first time I’ve ever used a phone for recording video; I wasn’t sure how much storage I would need.
And, it was too late; he was already off the stage. Another performer came on; she was equally captivating. Should I start recording again? I hesitated. What if I needed or wanted to record something on my way back to the hotel? What if something happened?
My “what ifs” got the better of me; I took a photo instead. And then another wonderful performer came on stage. He danced as he sang and interacted with the audience, really hamming it up. They loved him, and we all laughed. Another photo. I was disappointed I wasn’t recording it.
Three more performers, and the lights came on. The emcee came out and called three people out on stage. All three took turns with the mic, giving some kind of speech or talk. I have no idea what they were saying; I was pretty sure they weren’t comedians because no one was laughing. But, whatever they were saying, the audience was really into it, getting really excited and responding back at times.
It was a little awkward. I think I was the only foreigner in the audience, and everything was entirely in Mongolian. I was clueless. When they paused to call someone else out on stage, I took the opportunity to grab my jacket and make a break for the door. I don’t know what happened with the show after that; I could hear them still talking as I exited the Palace. In any event, it was almost 9:30, and I had an early flight. It was time to go.
I slowly made my way back to my hotel, taking in the sights one last time, trying to extend my visit as long as I could. I wandered through Chinggis Khan Garden and past the Walking Eyeball. One last look at Sukhbaatar Square, where I’d spent so much time this past week. One last photo of the brilliantly lit Parliament Building and State Opera and Academic Theater. The city streets were still filled with people out enjoying the evening. Men, women, kids; in groups and alone. My fears had been groundless. I had never once felt unsafe in the five days I’d spent in Ulaanbaatar, and I didn’t feel unsafe now.
I made my way through Ulaanbaatar Public Park, and then up the street to my hotel. There was no use delaying it. My bags were packed; I was ready to go. A few hours of sleep, and I would be on my way back home.
My list was complete. I had done everything I wanted to do on this trip, and more. And I had my 48 minutes and 13 seconds. I could relive the memory of this magical evening any time I wanted.
I love Mongolia. I will be back.