Down and Out in Ulaanbaatar — Part 2
This is a true story.
The events depicted in this account took place in Mongolia in 2014.
At the request of my sources, their names have been changed or omitted.
Out of respect for my colleagues, the rest has been told exactly as I remember it.
“HIT THE FUCKING GAS GANZO!”
I screamed, as our rust-matted, baby-blue VW Beetle narrowly missed an oncoming lorry. Horns blared as it flew past us, leaving smog and sand in its wake. The mud-paved highway was packed with speeding vehicles. Cars, bikes, and other diesel-fuelled monstrosities barrelled through the slipstream of dust and grit on all sides. It was like the set of a Mad Max film.
No lanes. No laws. No lily-livered cowards.
Behind us a chorus of sirens wailed, and pulsing blue lights flashed, lighting up our dust trail like summer lightning in a sandstorm.
“Oh ho ho ho ho.” Ganzorig chuckled through his cigarette, as he swerved through the red chaos at top speed. He was a short man with the girth and toughness of an ironwood tree trunk, clad in cobalt aviators, jeans, black leather jacket, and a stained wife beater. He was a stout, balding, Mongolian version of Ryan Gosling from Drive.
He was the coolest bastard I had ever seen.
Uyaangatar kicked the back of the drivers seat with both feet, swearing gutturally in Mongolian. She was my mentor, a fiery eyed 5-foot-2-inch valkyrie with steel nerves and ice in her veins.
She turned her gaze towards me with the collected calm of a warrior monk.
“Put your seatbelt on. Now.”
Before I could comply, we hit a massive pothole and my head almost went through the roof.
“OHHHH HOHOHOHOHOHO!” Ganzo roared with savage glee. Dazed and confused, I strapped myself in as quickly as I could. I looked up from the flaky leather seat, and saw the fast approaching shadow of our destination through the waves of dust.
- - -
“Vietnamese chop shops. They’re a major problem here in the city, providing a steady source of income for various crime rings.”
Ihbar turned to the whiteboard behind him and circled a word (written in Cyrillic) with a bright red marker. We sat in the upstairs newsroom, a dark but large office space furnished tastefully with cheap walnut desks and navy carpeting. A double-glazed window ran along the length of the left wall, revealing the sprawling mass of the city, and the slums that circled its centre.
Uyaanga sat to my left, her thick bangs pulled over her face like a curtain as she scrawled notes in a big black ledger. I sat on a desk, following along with the brief as best I could.
“We’ve scheduled this story for prime-time tomorrow night. The police have agreed to escort us, and only us, on an ‘inspection’ of as many shops as we can get to before they wise-up and close down. Any questions?”
I raised a tentative hand, which made Ihbar grin. “This isn’t a classroom man, just ask.”
I flushed, and hastily obliged. “What kind of footage are you expecting me to take? How much leeway do I have when it comes to using different camera techniques?”
He raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “Just do what Uyaanga tells you. Try to get some wide shots of the shop itself, and anything else you think will be interesting. You’ve got to be thinking about this all the time as a cameraman, about what clips you’ll use to stitch together the interviews. Trust your instincts, and take more footage than you need, got it?”
Nodding, I took that little tidbit of advice down on my iPhone. Uyaanga snapped her ledger shut as she stood, tucking it into her bag. She appraised me with a gaze I couldn’t read. This was my third day under her supervision, and I still couldn’t figure out what sort of impression I’d made.
“You ready to go?”
I answered in the affirmative, hoping that I could hide the abject terror I was feeling about how much responsibility I’d been given.
Ihbar clapped his hands, placing them on his hips and posing like some land-locked admiral standing on the prow of his ship.
“Alright. Let’s rock and roll.”
- - -
The chop shop zoomed into view. Its corrugated iron gates had a gantry, reinforced by steel girders and miscellaneous car parts which made it look like a post-apocalyptic bandit fortress. A wiry old man wearing nothing but a pair of faded jeans and an oil-cloth around his head stood on the walkway, viciously pumping the winch that controlled the gate. It began to close at an alarming rate.
Ganzo obviously took this as a challenge. He pumped the gas and the sick little Beetle spluttered as it was force-fed more gasoline. The engine suddenly let loose a primal belch, and we soared towards the ever-closing gap in the gate. The old geezer manning the winch realised what we were doing, and dove off the gantry as we plowed towards him.
We made it by inches, screeching into the courtyard of the garage like a starship exiting hyperspace. We slid to a halt, and there was a sudden silence as the dust began to settle. I let out a breath I didn’t realise I’d been holding, and felt a wetness on my palms. I looked down, realising that I’d clenched my fists so hard my nails had drawn blood.
Uyaanga slapped the back of Ganzo’s head, screaming obscenities at him. Ganzo being Ganzo, just chuckled and lit another cigarette.
We unbuckled ourselves and stepped out of the car, into the punishing summer heat. It smelt like dust, diesel, engine grease, and sweat. I was positively dripping with the latter. After wiping my face dry with my shirt collar, I surveyed the place with camera in hand.
I couldn’t help but get flashbacks of Watto’s junkyard from Star Wars. As a matter of fact, this whole section of the yurt slum looked strikingly similar to Mos Eisley, hairy banthas and adobe moisture farms replaced by corrugated iron dwellings and hardy steppe horses.
The rectangular courtyard buzzed with activity. Half-naked men scurried about, throwing tarps over a plethora of vehicles in various stages of de-construction. They glowered at us, but the sirens and blue lights shining through the gaps in the scrapyard wall gave them something more important to worry about. I flicked open the camera and started filming.
Something slammed into the gate, and a guttural Mongolian shout resounded across the makeshift parapet. It sounded like a warning. The same wiry old man who’d narrowly escaped death just two minutes earlier clambered up to the gantry and opened the gate. The workmen had hidden their handiwork, and were lounging nonchalantly on stacks of tires and car bonnets. Their eyes blazed with white fire in the sunlight.
Five officers marched into the compound, walking walls of muscle and scar tissue swathed in ill-fitting blue uniforms. They were all unarmed, and apart from their clothing there was nothing that distinguished them from the criminals they hunted.
They parted, flanking the gateway on either side, and a sixth man entered. He was older and thinner than the others, dressed in a brass-buttoned black officer’s shirt and cap. A thick grey moustache perched atop his upper lip, like a meticulously waxed and curled caterpillar. A shiny black baton hung heavy on his belt.
Ganzo set the tripod up next to me, and I locked it into place. The sirens outside cut out, leaving the whole scene in an icy silence. He punched me lightly on the shoulder to get my attention, and pointed to the moustachioed man.
“Ohhhhhh fuck.” He intoned. It was one of the few English words he knew, as well as ‘Die Hard’, ‘Sandwich’, and other expletives.
The door to the office of the garage opened and a giant stepped into no-mans-land. His bald, bullet-shaped head sat atop a tank-topped, tattooed chassis of a chest, like a gun turret on a tank. He sidled into the courtyard, meeting Major Moustache in the centre of the scene.
“Tighten up the framing. Put the garage owner in the first-third and the major in the last-third.” Uyangaa whispered in my ear, placing a light hand on my shoulder. I blushed, and did just that.
Bullet-head towered over the Major; the wrestler and the nutcracker.
The framing was perfect. I adjusted the zoom slightly to get the gate and a police cruiser in view. Uyangaa stood behind me, monitoring my work.
The Major spoke first, his tone stern but nonchalant, like a teacher berating an upstart student. In reply, Bullet-head hacked up a massive loogie and spat, which landed squarely on the Major’s polished boot.
The silence was deafening, stretching the tension into a taut bowstring that could snap at any second. The Major smiled, then laughed. He asked Bullet-head a question, his tone now tinged with a veneer of respect. His gaze was razor-sharp.
Bullet-head’s eyes widened. He tried to utter something; a panicked response, an apology, but it was too late.
A bolt of black lightning struck him high in the temple with a sickening crack. He wavered for a moment, then sank heavily to his knees. The Major’s arm flashed, and a second crack issued forth, knocking Bullet-head into the dust like a sack of wet cement. Everyone looked on in stunned silence as the Major circled the broken, twitching giant, baton swaying lightly in his hand, scattering crimson droplets into the dust.
He strode a few steps toward the workers. They sat still as statues, blazing eyes and taut bodies just waiting to snap into violent action. Still smiling, the Major barked an ultimatum at them, something along the lines of; “This is what happens when you fuck with the law boys. And in this town, I am the law.”
He swivelled around, turning directly toward the camera with a flourish of his baton. He grinned, gave us a bow, and shot a wink at Uyangaa.
I felt her grip on my shoulder tighten, and suddenly I understood.
There was a definite reason why he could walk around this chop shop like he owned the place. He was putting on a show for us.
The Major whirled his hand upwards in a circular motion and a squad of fifteen officers entered the compound, who swiftly began to round up the barely-compliant workers. He strode over to where we were standing, and I immediately re-focused the camera on him.
Uyangaa forced a smile and started the interview.
- - -
We’d gone back to the office with our footage, only to be told that showing a senior government official beating an ‘innocent’ man senseless wasn’t suitable for the 9 o’clock news. The package that came out instead was a rather tame affair, ensuring the continued cooperation of the police. We were even invited to accompany them on a brothel raid later in the week.
I didn’t see much point in it. Ihbar had watched my footage with jaded eyes.
“That’s unfortunate”, was all he’d said.
Uyangaa told me his hands were tied. The police needed to keep up a positive public image, and if we made the truth public they would just support our competitors. A schism had formed in the newsroom, where maybe a third of the journalists valued integrity over a pay-check. Ihbar kept them in line through sheer force of will.
Uyangaa had his respect though. She had come to a compromise with him.
“I’m going undercover tomorrow. There’s a brothel downtown where I’m going to try to get some footage of minors being used as sex workers. You should come with me.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Almost everyone else had left the office and most of the lights were off. She sat across from me, cutting a small hole in the bottom of a cheap leather handbag.
“Are you sure? I don’t know how much help I’d be… I’ve only been with you guys for a week.”
I tried to sound nonchalant, but I’m sure she heard the quaver of uncertainty that slipped into my tone. Her eyes glinted from beneath her black bangs, clearly amused.
“You’ll be fine.”
We sat in silence for a while, as she slipped a GoPro camera into the handbag. The lens fit snugly into the hole she had cut, barely visible in the gloom. I tried to think of something to say.
“So… how do you think I’m doing? Was the quality of my footage ok?”
She continued to pack up her gear, setting the handbag aside. I fidgeted in my seat. Just as I was about to say something, she shot me a glance.
“You’re doing fine.”
My face was still red with blush when we shut the main office doors. The night air was uncharacteristically cold for the summer, and a few Soviet-era lorries drove past the darkened high street. We walked down the front steps, and I turned to follow the road home, too embarrassed to risk a ‘See you tomorrow’.
“I know I can trust you.”
I froze in my tracks, and willed myself to turn around. She was looking at me with the same steel in her eyes that she always had, but there was something different. She looked vulnerable, standing there alone under the glare of a streetlamp.
“I can’t count on Ganzorig to wait for me. You need to make sure that he does. See you tomorrow.”
And with that she left, melting into the midnight.