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tea of ulaanbaatar a novel

CHRISTOPHER R. HOWARD

Seven Stories Press NEW YORK


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Copyright ©  by Christopher R. Howard A Seven Stories Press First Edition All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Seven Stories Press  Watts Street New York, NY  www.sevenstories.com College professors may order examination copies of Seven Stories Press titles for a free six-month trial period. To order, visit http://www.sevenstories.com/textbook or send a fax on school letterhead to () -. Book design by Jon Gilbert Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Howard, Christopher R. The tea of Ulaanbaatar : a novel / by Christopher R. Howard. -- A Seven Stories Press st ed. p. cm.  ---- (pbk.) . Volunteers--Fiction. . Americans--Mongolia--Fiction. . Peace Corps (U.S.)-Fiction. . Mongolia--Fiction. I. Title. .  .--dc  Printed in the United States 


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The author wishes to express his appreciation to CPL, JT, McS’s EH, and his friend JF.


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When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have gotten lost and died because of this. Sometimes in the night travelers hear a noise like the clatter of a great company of riders away from the road . . . Often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. —Marco Polo, Travels (c. ), on the Gobi


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  come to him then. After the ten-count, as he stands at the door, ready to purge all life from an apartment in the Nairamdal District. He pauses, boot drawn back. The words appear like the faintest light. Like a flash of knives in a cave. The words come to Warren in this high-altitude winter that has deadened the skin of his face and is now creeping inward, eating at his sinuses and teeth. The lines of the poem he had not been able to remember for months. The poem by Li Po she had taught him and which no amount of scrubbing and disinfecting had been able to drag from the depths of memory. Yes. That was it. How he had missed its easy rhythm. Funny that now, of all times, he would remember.

  Last Days, the frozen cities, the bombs that fall like hail, the speaking shadows and waking dreams of Tsus madness, there is a plane.


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A solitary speck. A silver MIAT Airlines plane banking over the contoured Khentii Mountains, lit by the rising sun. Pressed against the window glass, Warren thought the sky was a convex surface rolling under him. The muddy expanse below—featureless except for the occasional jeep tracks—was diving up to catch them, failing, diving again. When they landed, it was June. After the wheels ground to a halt, there was a long wait inside the plane. The air conditioner died when the turbines powered down. The Mongol pilot, copilot, and stewardess exited quickly and locked the door behind them. The American passengers looked at each other. They looked at the threadbare s pattern of the seat covers—a Moscow designer’s decades-old attempt at something futuristic. As the minutes passed, the recycled air in the fuselage became like old breath. The planeload of Americans shot nervous looks at each other. Pinpricks of sweat forming on skin, cool but quickly warming. Charlotte joked that they had been abandoned, left to suffocate on the tarmac as a message to all foreigners. They crowded around the windows to look at their new home. The skyline was made of Soviet-built apartment compounds, sooty smokestacks. They saw a man from the ground crew idling on the tarmac, his ruddy face like a cross between Chinese and Sioux. The man looked up, saw their faces pressed against the portholes. They slapped the glass and called to him. He smiled, revealing rotten teeth, but made no move to assist. The temperature soared. The Americans grew acutely conscious of --


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the workings of their own lungs. They debated what to do in hisses and whispers. Several proposals were tabled then spitefully shot down. It was all very American and democratic. Krakauer tried the cockpit door and it was also locked. He said he felt like he was underwater. It’s just a kiss away, just a kiss away, Clark quipped, quoting the Stones. His toothy grin amidst dense, lupine stubble. In response, nervous chitters. Space was cleared in the aisle for Charlotte and another old woman to lie down. They stopped talking. An electric charge shot through them, row by row, seat by seat, as they realized that if the old plane did not release them, something serious was going to happen. Warren’s pulse pounded in his skull. Then the door opened. A wave of cool, fresh oxygen rolled over them. Some of them attempted to salvage some dignity, to not suck at the air like guppies. Warren saw the sunlight pour across the curved wall of the fuselage, illuminating the swirling motes in the air. He watched a single particle twirl in the invisible current. Krakauer was right. The feeling in his chest was like surfacing from the deep end of a pool. The Americans deplaned in single file. Jokes about how nervous everyone had been. The vaguest taste of mortality. Warren paused atop the rolling stairs. The sun was white light everywhere. Scattered archipelagos of cloud in the dreamy blue void. They would not see many more warm days like this because winter comes early to the top of the world. They didn’t know this at the time. Crossing the taxiway to the terminal, Warren studied the crewman who had not moved, who had been entertained by their --


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plight. The man flashed his bad teeth again as they passed. It is not every day one has the opportunity to watch a planeload of Americans suffocate, after all. The man said something like, Haffa. Haffa? Half of ? What’d smiley say? Clark snapped a photo at this precise moment. In it, Warren, third from the left, is about to disappear into the shadow of the flat terminal building, his pale face above a wrinkled oxford, studying the crewman. His expression is tight, pensive, and—as it will later be pointed out, looking at the picture—vaguely wrathful. The eighth Peace Corps team ever granted access to Mongolia has arrived. A local TV news team filmed their progress through customs, though few will watch when the segment airs. Nobody will be impressed. The steppe was here before all human knowing and will endure long after these Ameriks expire. After the sons of their sons of their sons expire. The volunteers of Mongolia- were assigned to sites throughout the country. Most teach English and a few teach medicine. Six are stationed in the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

  classes on the Mongolian language. They took classes on Mongol culture. It was all in preparation for when they would be assigned their own classes, their own students. Before they knew it, winter hit Ulaanbaatar like some biblical calamity. Cars swerved on snowy roads. Ice formed on the overhead wires, hung like stalactites, as the electric trams slowed and died. The lethal cold permeated everything, snuck inside through broken --


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windows and flawed masonry. Nowhere was it warm. Radiators failed without explanation. The homeless disappeared from the sidewalks. At night, the crystalline layer of frozen everything glowed blue beneath rolling moonshadows in the dead metropolis. Ice sculptures were carved in Sukbaatar Square—a nomad caravan on a pilgrimage to nowhere. Pack-laden camels and yaks. The heads of the horses were blocky like chess pieces. The faces of the riders were blank. The temperature plummeted to negative thirty-five degrees Celsius and Warren realized, You can come to specialize in life kicking your ass.

  the following year. A British agricultural consultant was murdered last night. Warren reads about it on the front page of the Monitor, Ulaanbaatar’s lone English language newspaper. A .- round through the left temple, the article reports. The police believe it was fired from a ‘sawn-off rifle,’ whatever that was. Warren had heard of sawnoff shotguns, not rifles. Maybe it is a mistranslation. Or maybe the tsagda did, in fact, believe the bullet came from a rifle whose barrel had been sawn off. Maybe this is some Mongol invention that blows up in your hands half the time. Warren considers it. The Mongols operate by their own program and no one else’s, of this he has become certain. They found the Englishman dead on the kitchen linoleum of his apartment in the Sukbaatar District. They had to dislodge shards of his teeth from the cupboards. --


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Really it’s scary business, Charlotte murmurs over her third cup of coffee, hungover, nodding at the wilting newspaper. It’s not long now, now that they’re killing foreigners, she says. She unwraps a second pack of cigarettes. The truth of her words hangs in the air. Being shot in the head is becoming notably commonplace in the city. It has been a political tradition in Ulaanbaatar for some time, though. Finance Minister Danzan was shot. Prime Minister Bodoo and Provisional Chairman Chagdarjav were shot for a counterrevolutionary plot that probably never existed. Minister of Internal Affairs Puntsagdorj was shot for the same. Deputy Commander in Chief Darijav and Deputy Foreign Minister Sambuu. Malj, Ochirbat, and State Prosecutor Yadamsuren were shot for aiding imaginary Japanese spies. Ulzii. Ulzii-Ochir. Bat-Tumur. The list goes on. Warren has learned more than he expected about Mongolia’s history. The match flame curls around the tip of her L&M brand cigarette. Charlotte exhales. The smoke kinks upwards. Her wet pupils track the plume as it dissipates. Her face looks leathery beneath a layer of powder makeup. She eyes him. You hear Samantha psych evac’ed Krakauer? Yes. His plane left at ten, Warren says. For once Charlotte has not scooped him. To beat her at the gossip of the team, there was a feat. It hasn’t happened before in the fifteen months they’d been incountry. The old woman is like some mafia don with informants among the natives. He asks, I wonder what he was into? Into? --


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The Brit agricultural consultant. He must have been into something, to get shot in his apartment like that. Plenty of vice here, she says. We’re in the asshole of the world. Plenty of things that could get you into scary business. Mongolia is among the last frontiers on the planet. A notable percentage of First Worlders who would have been boring citizens at home, Warren knows, invest themselves in questionable activities here. It was the impossibility of the place maybe. Charlotte’s teary pupils, housed in yellowing sclerae, search the tablecloth for answers. She shrugs. She snaps her ash into the ashtray and scans the far wall. Warren turns. The wall is all glass. Beyond the double doors is a tiled balcony with umbrella tables. The tables sit unused ten months of the year. Beyond the balcony, a panoramic view of the city. The Khentii cradle Ulaanbaatar in a basin that traps all the unregulated factory emissions in a flat haze at the tops of the tallest Soviet-built apartment compounds. Their flat roofs abut it like a ceiling. Below, two monstrous construction cranes rise from the industrial Azhilchin District. The towering hulks are remnants of some abandoned foreign investment venture. Even in their rusted, abandoned state, compared to the city they look like imports from some wondrous extraterrestrial civilization. Beyond, the Khentii are indifferent, eternal, capped by a carpet of the sickly gray-green Mongolian version of pine. I heard the Brit was friends with Samantha, Charlotte says. I heard the police came to the Peace Corps to question her. I heard they left shaking their heads. Warren lifts his eyebrows at the news. --


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Hmph, Charlotte grunts. Ulaanbaatar police. I wouldn’t want to talk to Samantha even if she did know something. It’s all that mascara. That’s a bad sign in itself. In theory, Samantha is the team medical officer—one of the salaried Peace Corps employees who supervise the volunteers. Warren motions to the waiter. A sexless Mongol boy with a fey face above a bleached white jacket glides across the red carpet, deftly maneuvering between tables. Warren looks at him. Ugh. Not him. He makes eyes at me every time I come here, Charlotte whispers, not softly enough. She cups her hand over her mouth. He looks like the Mongol version of a young Hitler, she says. The boy is probably the only one in his family who earns a wage. In his eyes is the managed fear of a serf. Warren knows it well by now. This is the sixth floor of the Hotel Chengis Ghan, off Peace Avenue. It is an unmistakable landmark in the skyline. A tower of black Plexiglas and marble and chrome—financed solely in yen—rising like a spaceship from the tenements along the river. A newer artifact from the same extraterrestrial civilization that spawned the cranes. Hoyer, Warren tells the boy, tapping his china cup. Cope a wee. They come here, he and Charlotte, to pay First World prices for coffee and to surround themselves in all the vacuumed cleanliness. And what’s an ‘agricultural consultant’ doing here anyway? Warren wonders aloud. The Mongols don’t farm. I’ve seen the reports. They literally do not farm. That would take time away from drinking and beating each other senseless. Plus what can you grow on the steppe? Charlotte offers, Greenhouses? That was how the American chargé d’affaires claimed she had --


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produced the iceberg lettuce at the embassy Fourth of July party. Charlotte reminds him of this. The crisp green leaves were gone two seconds after they hit the buffet table. A wild luxury. Warren shrugs and returns to the Monitor. Other headlines: ‘President promises Polish investors to revive economy’; ‘Sansar District apartments collapse, eight dead’; ‘Chinese gunship fires on Taiwanese freighter’; and ‘Backstreet Boys top pop charts.’ He grips the cheap paper carefully so the powdery newsprint bleeds on him as little as possible. What’re those on your hands? Charlotte asks. Bruises? I fell, Warren lies. As usual, the dining room of the Chengis Ghan is otherwise deserted. A vast cavern. It feels like some bubble broken off the nineteenth century. Charlotte flattens one of her tweezed eyebrows with a fingertip. She smiles and says, I heard you went to Hariet’s last night. That’s the second night in a row. I thought you guys were finished after that big scene at Jamison’s dinner. I should have known. She thrives on drama. Who did you hear this from? I have my sources. Charlotte waves her hand. That she had informants was an undisputed truth of the universe. Listen. Let me tell you something. She makes fierce eyes and aims at him with her smoldering L&M. That Hariet is trouble, she says. Last week I saw her sitting on the Ankhar terrace. She was staring at this photo. Of course I looked. It was a picture of her arm-in-arm with this big tattooed skinhead. She stared at it with no life in her; she looked like a stately corpse. You need to do what you need to do, Warren, Charlotte concludes. But stay away from trouble. --


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Warren says nothing. Across the river, a gang of Mongols on a tenement roof ignite a vat of tar. The flames lick at the sky, growing a tendril of oily smoke. Charlotte looks at him. She asks, Did you hear about Trey? Yes, Warren says. I mean, no. Some tsagda got a hold of him outside his ger in the Gobi. He’s been knocked around pretty good, I heard. Some of his teeth are loose. Samantha refused to drive down to Dalanzadgad to check on him. She’s convinced he’s trying to con painkillers from her. Is he? Who knows. I don’t think so. That would be an awful lot of trouble to go to. Plus it would involve interaction with Samantha on purpose. Charlotte stubs out her cigarette and lights another. She takes a drag and scowls. Her mouth puckers. I think I’m getting sick, she adds. She holds back a cough. I don’t know if it’s the food or these damn cigarettes. Is something going around? The flu or something? Warren finishes his coffee and looks outside. He follows the river with his eyes. The Selbe Gol. A steady trickle of silver-green mercury that bisects the city. The river is flanked by concrete embankments that guide it past the apartment compounds, around the back of the Chengis Ghan. He sees an old woman and three children bathing around a boulder in the middle of the water. They are naked, their skin blank muddy-gold forms in the distance. The woman is hunchbacked, globular. They wash and seem unaffected by the city raging around them. For some reason this stirs something in Warren. Suddenly he thinks of the poem Padma tried to teach him. The Taoist poem that she made --


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him promise never to forget. It had something to do with nature. Mountains? He scans the vaulted ceiling, the red carpet, the empty tables, the glass wall and the dirty sky beyond. Something about the wonder of nature. He has forgotten every word of it, he realizes. It will torture him until he remembers. Maybe he should search through the small library at Peace Corps headquarters. Doubtful they’d have anything that heavy, though. Most of the holdings there are Harlequin romances rerouted from undeliverable US military addresses. To the north, where the river leaves downtown and emerges from its concrete embankments, are the outlying ger districts in the foothills. The gers are dome tents insulated with blankets, hides, visquene, whatever can be scavenged. They are the traditional nomad dwellings, the same wagon wheel framework design Genghis Khan’s hordes had strapped to their mounts when they took Eurasia. But around Ulaanbaatar, the ger-dwellers are no longer nomadic. They have gravitated here from the far reaches of the steppe, most without a clear reason. Perhaps they figured their standard of living couldn’t get any worse. The domes collect on the foothills like blisters. Some splice electricity from the city lines. Some leak smoke from dung-burning stoves. None have running water. Some of the domes are clustered within makeshift scrapwood fences, hasha compounds housing families and battle-scarred dogs. There is something expectant about the outlying formations of tent neighborhoods, as if the inhabitants feel the building-dwellers might suddenly uproot themselves at any moment to launch another drive into Europe. The Beijing flu? Charlotte wonders aloud. Warren has forgotten what they were talking about but then --


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remembers. Could be, he says. Or trichinosis or botulism or salmonella. You haven’t eaten anything, have you? That’s not funny. That’s bad karma, you making fun like that. Warren was in the ger districts once when he missed his stop and rode the number fourteen bus for too long. It started raining and the bus windows fogged over. He had to continuously wipe the condensation away to see the tent town. Poverty and sickness and mud and children running with aluminum United Nations–issue water canisters. Mostly it’s a pain in my chest here, Charlotte explains, tapping her sternum. First I think I’m being followed and now this. Did you get that with your fevers? Oh God I hope it’s not going to be the fevers like you had, Warren. Maybe God is going to deliver me from this awful country. All these horrible savages. And this awful rainy season. And after the rains, winter. Clark will know if something is going around, Warren says. Thursday I’m having dinner with him at the Ankhar. I can ask, if you want. The weeks after their arrival, as they were besieged by a spectrum of new germs their immune systems had never encountered before, the joke became, Why don’t you go ask Samantha?—because it had taken them little time to learn that their medical officer was the last person who would be of assistance. Clark is trouble too, Warren, Charlotte says, shaking her head. Even worse than that hippie slut Hariet. I met men like him back before I met my first husband. They’re trouble. It’s the way he stares. It’s the badness in him. It’s too much money and it’s a taste for the bad side of things. She leans in. He fucks Mongol whores. --


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Charlotte sips her coffee. She adds, There’s something bad with this team, if you ask me. I mean, not you, Warren. But the rest of them. Warren’s thoughts return to the dead agricultural consultant. He imagines a tall, pale, wiry body sprawled on black and white linoleum. Fingers curled around a spatula. A penny-sized entry wound in the back of his head leaking a ruby worm. His jaw missing. Warren wonders what the Englishman’s last thought was. A pale, wiry family back in Manchester? A bare Mongol princess? Warren realizes he must have passed the Englishman’s apartment as he walked home from Hariet’s along Peace Avenue last night. Maybe, he thinks, I passed his window as it happened. If I had looked up at the right instant, I might have seen a silhouette racing for the door or seen the flash of the shot. Warren? The waiter has returned with two steaming cups. The saucers emit barely audible clinks as he rests them sedately on the table. Then he clears the empties. Instead of leaving immediately, the boy pauses for an awkward moment, gripping their used china. He cocks his head and blinks bashfully at Charlotte. Perhaps he is indeed smitten. Tanas neg yum asuuj bolokhu? the boy asks her. Ogui, Charlotte says, waving him off. The coffee tastes suspiciously like NesCafé. Warren thinks again of his ride through the ger district. He remembers looking through the fogged bus window, taking in the sheer chaos of the place. Polymer mud. Garbage fires. The dome tents erected so haphazardly they were piled atop each other, interconnected like some monstrous hive. Waiting. He did it again, she says. Look at this. She lifts from her saucer a --


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piece of rice paper folded to the size of a stick of gum. That’s the second time he’s done that. What is this? She passes it to Warren. There are flakes of something inside of it. He gave you one of these before? Warren asks, turning it over in his hand. He checks his own saucer. I never got one before. The tiny envelope is folded with no small skill, the corner flaps tucked back inside the ends. He catches the center edge with his fingernail and splays it open slightly. Inside is a pinch of what looks like shredded tobacco that has had all of its chlorophyll turn red. The color is concentrated in the stems of the tiny fragments. Warren recalls the grade school science project of sticking celery in water dyed with food coloring. The alien color invading, fiber by fiber. Charlotte has her purse in her lap now and is rummaging through it. Here it is. She hands him another rice paper packet. Identical to the first. Why don’t you ask him? I don’t want to look like an idiot, Charlotte says. You ask. He didn’t give them to me. It could be an intimate gesture. She takes a hard puff on her third L&M. Ask him. Warren looks around. The boy is missing from his post beside the kitchen door. In fact, the entire cavelike dining room is once again otherwise lifeless. What the hell do you think it is? Charlotte asks. She leans forward. Does he want me to put it in the coffee? Mongol Sweet’N Low? It looks like tobacco, Warren says. Maybe you’re supposed to smoke it. Warren considers this. He looks at her. Can I keep these? Go ahead, Charlotte says. Now then, have you thought any more about grad school? --


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It’s certainly some sound advice, Charlotte. Maybe I should write to my alma mater about their programs. Now you’re talking, she says. Really it can’t hurt to try. You can’t remain only half-educated for the rest of your life, she says. Do you want to hear about Jamison? This is great. Do you want to hear how Samantha made him pack all of Krakauer’s things and . . . ? She pauses. You were patronizing me just then, weren’t you? Warren smoothes the bleached tablecloth with a palm. About writing your alma mater, you were humoring an old woman. She grins. She lights yet another cigarette, tilts her head to the side. Warren thinks Charlotte belongs immersed in the political machinations of a retirement community somewhere in Florida, attending AA meetings and trying her best to develop skin cancer, not here. In her prime she must have been beautiful in an angry way. She leans forward and asks softly, You’ve been thinking about that Indian girl again, haven’t you? How did that poem go?

 . A subtle shift and he can feel her. Hariet. Her body soft, young, her pulse coming down her throat through her breast past her hip into her thigh. She is from North Carolina. He tilts his head back against the couch and can smell her. She wears the same perfume as Padma, who in college he thought he would marry. He also smells skin moisturizer and First World tobacco. A clean smell. Sterile, even. American. Not at all like the cinder block and decaying streets of this medieval city. A long-dead blues singer crackles like ice water through the Discman and the miniature speakers. Black plastic travel speakers --


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beside the arkhi bottle. Hariet tells him the story of this guy, how his recordings were discovered by grad students at Chapel Hill searching through a music archive. Now his music has achieved the notoriety that eluded him in a life filled with hardship. She asks him what he thought of the story. There’s a moral in there somewhere, Warren says. She asks him what he thinks of the song. He shrugs. This is her bedroom. Warren looks past the Discman, the speakers, the suitcase, through the open window. Storm clouds slink off the foothills. Even from this distance, he can see they bring a charcoal rain. Even if the pollution escapes into the atmosphere, he thinks, it always returns. This city is cursed. The low pressure ripple of the storm front surges through the window, enveloping them, disrupting the symmetry of the bead curtain hanging in the doorway, chit-chit. For this one second only it smells fresh like a clean rain and he knows this second must be savored. Soon the drizzle is washing over the squat Russian cars revving outside and the uneven sidewalk. No, tell me what you think, Warry, Hariet says. I want to know. He looks at her. She is like a lot of American girls. She sighs drunkenly and says, When we get this month’s living allowance, I’m going to buy a good hat. They have a bunch of them in the State Department Store. I saw one there that I like. It’s brown felt with a wide brim, like a ‘Press’ hat from the old movies. Twelve thousand toogs. I saw it there when Jamison and Krakauer showed me around. I need it to keep off the sun, and it’s going to get cold soon, and then I’ll need it for the cold. What do you think? --


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There are six low shops in a row on Partisan Street, she continues, taking the bottle from the windowsill. There’s a dope Beastie Boys T in one of them. How did they get something like that here? Sixtyfour hundred toogs. She refills first her then his china cup, both stolen from the Chengis Ghan. This shirt, it has a guy’s face here and an old Cadillac here, she says, plotting it out on her chest. Red letters across it like this. Don’t you think that would look nice? He dips his mouth toward his cup and catches the fumes wafting off the liquor. He feels slightly dizzy. Arkhi tastes like nickels but it works, especially at this altitude. It bites your mouth and throat but if you already have something in your stomach, it will eventually feel like a pleasant warmth spreading. Today they are cutting it with powdered Gatorade and iodine-treated water from the embassy. Supposedly before the Bolshevik Revolution spilled into Mongolia, the locals had only fermented mares’ milk, airag, to get themselves buzzed. The Cossacks introduced them to vodka— arkhi—and their fate was sealed. Now the liquor is ubiquitous in Mongol culture. Travel warnings are listed in all the regional guides, but the words never capture the scope of the epidemic. The standard American comprehension of alcoholism fails to grasp the sheer Mongol appetite for the substance. Provinces that have no other industry have at least one distillery. Grocery stores with otherwise empty shelves have a formation of fresh bottles of various brands. Staggering, seething drunk men are fixtures of the landscape. If the rumor about Trey is true, his beating is the most recent evidence of this. Oddly, Mongol arkhi bottles are sealed with a one-use pull tab, not a screw top like most vodkas. The reason for this, Clark --


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explained, was that once a bottle of arkhi is opened in Mongolia, there will never be a need to reseal it. Warry, don’t you think that would look nice? He barely registers the question. He kisses her to the white noise of the rain. He tastes Hariet and she reminds him of Padma. Do not think about Padma. It is always this way with girls, he tells himself. One reminds you of another. One reminds you of one you cannot have. Better men do not do this, he thinks. But I do. He remembers Padma wearing blue jeans in the sun. Hariet returns the kiss intently, too intently, like someone younger who is new to the experience. Then she slips her palm onto his shoulder and pushes away. It’s good you’re back from the dead, she says and perhaps means it. She meant the fevers. He had slept for a week and had sweated the germs out his pores and into the blankets. It was as ill as he had ever been. At times the fever was so hot it felt like his brain was cooking. A pod of whales sailed their leviathan forms serenely through the wall then through his bed. He also saw other, worse things. Do you know what this is? he asks, showing her one of Charlotte’s mysterious gifts from the waiter. Weird. I’ve no idea. Hariet examines it. I think that envelope is called a Fern Fold. Nice work. Where did you get it? Charlotte. She said I should avoid you, you know. That old bitch. Hariet makes a quick exhalation of disgust. We should go visit Trey sometime, she says. We should make sure he’s okay. You know he’s been beaten up? --


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Yes. We should go when we get this month’s living allowance maybe. She looks at him and fingers the high-tech-looking synthetic purple laces of her little hiking boots. They are boots marketed with ads of fit young executives ascending mesas. I’m going to visit Trey. He considers the rice paper packet, the size of a stick of gum. I never got along with Trey. You did. You got along with him fine. Be a nice boy and take me to the Gobi to go see Trey. You can be my chaperone. How can I be your chaperone when you always do what you want? I do. She nods tipsily, agreeing with herself. I always do exactly what I want. Two sinews run the soft skin of Hariet’s throat. He traces one with a fingertip. Promise you’ll take me to the Gobi. And you’ll go with me to get the hat, she says. He kisses her again and she licks his lips but then pulls away and eyes him sternly. His heart is not in it enough to pursue. What happened to your chin? she asks. Those are bad cuts. Did you cut yourself shaving? Yes, he lies. She climbs off the couch. She stands and lights a cigarette. She watches the sooty rain fall through the dying sunlight. Tell me, she says. What’s so bad about the Gobi? I can’t leave Ulaanbaatar. I have classes to teach at the Institute. You could get out of teaching for a week if you wanted to. They never check up on you. I think they check up on us all the time, Warren says. I think they have people watching us. He pauses. I know how that sounds. --


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Hariet looks at him like she realizes something. She stubs out the cigarette. You might be right, she murmurs. After dinner but before Jamison’s party, Hariet, stoned, had whispered to him again that she loved him more than her own father. He says, What were we talking about? She sits on the bed and unlaces her boots. Her hair falls over her face. What do you have against the Gobi? Hariet is lanky and blond and from a rich family. She recalls her summer jobs righteously in a way that only rich girls do, a manner of speaking that is tolerated only when they are pretty. She holds a bachelor’s degree in something intellectual and upon graduation found no work except as a waitress. She said she figured the Third World couldn’t be any worse than serving buffalo wings to frat boys. Ah yes. The Gobi is grit caked in layers on your clothes and horseflies trying to get in your mouth, he says. I don’t think you’d like it. Unwisely in August he had borrowed Boldbaatar’s jeep and driven to see the Gobi. He wanted to see the dinosaur bones, full skeletons sometimes eerily preserved. The desert spits them up then swallows them back. He’d seen a photo of a giraffelike herbivore locked in the jaws of a full Tarbosaurus. Predator and prey joined for millennia. He’d heard of nests of Mesozoic hatchlings eight to ten deep huddled pathetically against imminent death. Leaving Dalanzadgad he passed a handicapped girl lurching along the road. The winds surged and the dust rose to a sea that boiled at windshield-level and he didn’t stop because he knew he had come around the side of the storm. South of the city he was in the high desert and the storm turned directly on him. He parked at the edge of a shallow alkali lake --


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which had formed in an eroded crater. The wind was buffeting the water against the far rim. He saw the nexus of the duststorm approaching high over the earth, casting everything beneath into night. The air turned black, not sandy like he’d imagined. By sunset it still hadn’t cleared. When he woke in the night it had. He opened the door and a blanket of sand sloughed off the steel. The lake was gone. In the moonlight, hundreds of small silver fish were flapping in their death throes. It sounded like polite applause. Overhead, Draco pivoted serenely while Mars then Neptune shot along the ecliptic. Later he heard infant camels screaming in the void and they sounded like human babies. Are you finished being mean to me? Hariet pouts. She stretches on the mattress. That’s so culturally insensitive, she says with a grin. For a second he thinks she is going to recite Peace Corps doctrine. Her tiny, stiff breasts form inconspicuous mounds beneath her green polo. I’m not feeling very well, she confesses. Why don’t you come back tomorrow after classes? I’m supposed to have coffee with Charlotte at the Chengis again tomorrow, if she’s feeling better. That fossil, Hariet says, eyes narrowing. Maybe something’s going around. Come over Thursday. Thursday I need to cash my living allowance check and run some errands. But afterwards I may kiss you in my new hat. Thursday I’m having dinner with Clark at the Ankhar. Well aren’t you a socialite? You’re not really having dinner with Clark, are you? Everybody despises him. Not everybody. --


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Don’t you notice he never gets invited when everybody goes out? He has Mongol whores, is what I hear. People talk too much. She rolls her eyes. There’re six of us. Well, five now. Under these conditions, people talk. She was right. There are of course more than five Americans in Ulaanbaatar. There is the embassy staff, whom they seldom associate with. There are the salaried Peace Corps employees, whom they seldom associate with. There are assorted Mormon missionaries and Caterpillar Tractor employees—a glimpse of Caucasian on a busy street corner—who keep to themselves. There are the M- volunteers scattered in the outlying provinces who intermittently rotate through the capital, whom they feel estranged from for perhaps the same bad reason the urban Mongols look down on their nomadic brethren. For the purposes of prolonged social interaction, yes, there are indeed five of them. Five of them and nine hundred thousand Mongols. And unless they are willing to pull themselves from the womb of the clique to find companionship among the natives as Clark has, they are stuck with each other, Warren thinks. As Westerners have always been stuck with each other in Ulaanbaatar, since the first Marco Polo family expedition blighted the court of the Great Khan’s grandson. Warren, Hariet says, rolling over, her feet kicked in the air. You think you’re a debutante vacationing in Paris, don’t you? Having coffee in bistros and attending cocktail parties and eating crepes in front of the Bastille? Maybe you should give some thought to the fact that you’re not in Paris. You eat the same boiled, half-rotten mutton I do. You drink the same water that smells like chemicals and piss. --


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Warren, she slurs, I am so sick of your shit. The words vaguely surprise him but sudden woundings are part of her nature and have long since ceased to attain maximum impact. What is disappointing is that being mean to her is not bringing her closer tonight, like usual. Warren finishes his last drop of arkhi and it burns all the way down. He smacks his lips and considers the unfortunate aftertaste. He looks at the coiled dragon painted on the inside of the china cup. Was she toying with him? Was she trying to work him up as she had before, teasing him until he rushed her, flipped her stomach down on that very same bed as she squealed in delight, yanked her khakis down over her ass—which can only be described as pert—and ran his hand across her? The Bastille was torn down a long time ago, Hariet, he sighs. He knows it’s useless now and he should leave. He looks down at his boots and realizes he did not reinspect them for any traces of Krakauer’s oatmeal and black tea and stomach bile from earlier. Globules of vomit, he realizes in a drunken rush, could be hiding in the stitching even now! He takes a deep breath. Tonight he will clean his boots thoroughly. He will check the steel-reinforced toes and stitched tongues and the sixteen metal eyeholes and twelve metal hooks for the laces. You know, after the party, when I was getting into the cab, you pulled my arm so hard it left a bruise, she says. See? She displays her bicep proudly, appraising it, appraising the unfurling ‘Liberate!’ tattoo across the center of the muscle. He inspects the area and sees maybe a slight discoloration. Hariet produces a second bottle from beneath her bed and refills her cup only. I wonder what would --


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happen to your reputation if I told everyone you attacked me? She concentrates intently on the pouring. I could tell them you forced yourself on me. You know I could be convincing. Her eyes gleam. Think what Samantha would do. Maybe they’d try you in whatever passes for a court system here. Maybe they’ll lock you in a cell with a fat Mongol herder to fall in love with. She opens a copy of Newsweek Asia and snickers into her cup. Tonight he will disinfect his bedroom carpet. Tonight he will bleach the sheets. Tonight he will boil water in the kettle and fill the sink and scour his hands and arms raw with a wire-bristle brush and two kinds of antibacterial soap. Tonight he will trim his fingernails precisely. The wind gusts as the cold rain falls in sheets on his long walk home.

  soaks his scalp then his shoulders then simultaneously soaks his chest and back, needlelike, then everything goes numb. In a few hours, he realizes, it will be October. Hands in pockets, hunched forward, Warren passes the Museum of National History and the Central Post Office. The last gaslight rays of the sun flare behind the storm. In the lengthening gloom, he dodges between the open sewer holes, the manhole covers stolen for scrap. His boots smack against the flooded pavement, the echoes reverberating off the deserted cinder block buildings and down the cramped alleyways. Thunder rattles the window panes. He crosses Sukbaatar Street. He passes Sukbaatar Square, the vast plane desolate except for the blackened bronze of Suk on his --

Tea of Ulaanbaatar  
Tea of Ulaanbaatar  

The story of disaffected Peace Corps volunteer Warren, who flees life in late-capitalist America to find himself stationed in the post-Sovie...

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