Report from Mongolia: What has the Philadelphia Orchestra gotten itself into?

ULAANBAATAR – Coming in for a landing at Genghis Khan Airport this week, a group of Philadelphia Orchestra musicians will be literally dropped into a parallel world where familiarity feels eerie and the exotic is oddly reassuring. The brown hills, dry heat, and brilliant blue skies here seem strangely like Southern California – except that a herdsman with a small group of cows is making his way up a steep incline near the airport. Outside the small but modern terminal, a half dozen presumably wild horses are grazing just beyond the taxi stand.”That wild horse was your taxi!” emailed one friend. “Did you not know?”

Very funny, and typical of how many Americans romanticize Mongolia as the ultimate “other.” The orchestra contingent will perform here Friday and Saturday as part of the Philadelphians’ 16-day Asian tour, which started May 23 in Shanghai and is now in Beijing.

It’s fun to imagine the 18-musician entourage (downsized from the originally scheduled full orchestra owing to Mongolia’s current economic crisis) playing in some dusty public square as nomads gallop up on their horses to hear a kind of music that has never previously reached their ears. Not at all.

Much of Mongolia is still nomadic, but not UB (as this capital city is nicknamed). Just beyond the airport’s wild horses, English-language signs proliferate, like “Cash and Carry.” Guide books advise you to never put your luggage in the trunk of an airport cab because you may be charged a high price to get it back.

Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital where the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform this week.

Almost every Philadelphia Orchestra Asian tour anchors its concert schedule in Beijing and Shanghai, but also ventures into a new city, some of them far more backward than UB with its five-star hotels and Macy’s-like department stores. Yet UB is bewildering in its incongruity. Forget cabs — people hitchhike around the city. Street signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet. The ancient and modern co-exist, but so casually that even my cell phone is confused, insisting that it’s an hour later than it is because Mongolia opted out of daylight saving time.

Women in fancy designer sunglasses prostrate themselves on prayer ramps at the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, rebuilt after the Stalin-era religious purges of the 1930s. Monks sell blessed water seasoned with cloves in tiny zip-lock bags.The resurgence in Mongolian Buddhism is apparent in the statue of Avalokiteśvara, the goddess of compassion, said to be the largest indoor statue ever at 85 feet. An even larger religious statue is in the works, though that was delayed by the economic downturn (so the Philadelphia Orchestra is in good company).

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, May30, 2017: Avalokiteśvara, the goddess of compassion, said to be the largest indoor statue ever at 85 feet, in the rebuilt Gandantegchinlen Monastery. (Photo: David Patrick Stearns / Staff).

Even with the modern medicine in evidence, people still visit the spooky Centre of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication, whose tent-like interior dome is decorated with two taxidermied leopards and a vulture. The shamans ask a Delphic question to a special mirror (a small, round brass disc). Answers are said to echo back to them in ancient dialects from long-deceased prophets – and need translating.

The “Ger District” that covers hill after hill outside the city with brick and tent-like dwellings resembles a shantytown with dusty dirt roads – but only on the surface. The ger (sometimes called “yurt”) that I visited was a well-organized compound of three brick buildings, the main one having flat-screen TVs, state-of-art internet equipment, and nearby schools where children in natty uniforms pour out after classes. One ger dweller told me, “They’re trying to get us to move into apartments to cut down on air pollution [caused by coal-burning stoves], but they require a 20-year mortgage. Our life expectancy is around 65. Why do it?”

In tentative English, another ger dweller strikes up a conversation about Beethoven – not knowing that classical music has brought me to UB. In this child-oriented culture, expecting mothers listen to western classical music believing that their kids will come out smarter. Music of some sort is everywhere. The one English-alphabet sign you see in the Ger District is “karaoke.” When mini-van bus drivers stop to announce a destination, what sounds like a lustily-intoned secular chant is, in fact, the name of a well-known hospital.

This is the unassuming campus of the Centre of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication in Ulaanbatar. Atop the pole at right is a banner for the Centre. (Photo: David Patrick Stearns / Staff)

Skyscrapers in UB stand incomplete. The coal and copper industry in what was nicknamed “Minegolia” enjoyed double-digit growth until China cut its imports, which is why the city seems stopped in its tracks. Only in recent days has a $5.5 billion bailout gone through via the International Monetary Fund. But with all the consternation caused by this year’s bust – and the reason by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s $600,000 fee simply couldn’t be afforded, prompting the smaller 18-member contingent – Mongolia still has vast potential in un-mined wealth. And this isn’t the country’s first bailout. Life goes on, even with the enlightened president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, who championed the Philadelphia Orchestra appearance, leaving office in June after two terms. After all, he ain’t Genghis Khan.

This Buddhism-dominated culture makes UB a sweet-tempered place whose much-discussed petty-crime rate seems exaggerated. But aggressive motorists remind you that Mongolians once dominated the world. “Chinggis Khaan,” as he is known here, is memorialized in huge statues, even in graffiti. In that unstoppable spirit, modern Mongolians take vacations in the steppes where paved roads end, leaving no alternative but to forge ahead on no road at all.

The romance of Mongolia partly comes from its self-sufficient identity. Though Russia, China, and the U.S. have left their marks, Mongolian culture seems surprisingly undiluted. The attitude seems to be “We have our own stuff, thank you.”

Beijing has the Forbidden City, but the smaller Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan is also dazzling in its ornate red and gold woodwork and nest of green sloping roofs. Young Mongolians like American pop music, but rock group The Lemons has a new polished-pop release, Unplugged in UB, that has a higher profile here than anything imported. The famous Mongolian throat singers – whose rumbly vocalizations emit two pitches at once – make for nasty hip hop. My tour guides sang along with the radio – to high-energy songs about nature, family, romance and, of course, horses.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is the first U.S. ensemble to play in Ulaanbaatar, maybe because imports haven’t been all that prized. The Mongolian State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet has held forth for decades in a large, pink theater. However, recordings of the local Mongolian orchestras suggest they’re far from international caliber. Very far. Will UB audiences appreciate playing on Philadelphia’s level? They have the ears for it. And as much as the cut-back version of the tour visit has been a disappointment, it may still be historic.