MONGOLIA: The Project # 5, the Apricots and the Karate

The base was a square asphalted “oasis” in the middle of the east-central Mongolia. There were several five-story apartment buildings, children’s playground, a school, a kindergarten a store and a movie theater within its premises; in a word your typical military settlement. Only this one seemed different than all of the other settlements I’ve lived in. There was a feeling of something fragile about it, something unsure in the feet. It was a mask of Russia, covering up the fact that it was built in the midst of a very foreign land, a land our learned understanding could not comprehend. It wouldn’t have been surprising to me at the time if the entire settlement turned out to be a mirage and dissolved into thin air as soon as we’d approached it. In fact, it would make more sense.

However, my first impressions quickly dissipated as I began exploring the place and finding new friends. My sister and I met a girl at the playground who was of a “between age” for the both of us. She was two years older than my sister and two years younger than me. So we felt her to be a welcome little member in our “team.” She was an only child in her family and was very pleased to play with us. Our games were rarely traditional. We were usually either running away from mean powerful villains or surviving some impossible circumstances like a deserted island or the North Pole. Thus, yet again “running away” from some fictional characters that expressed itself in rattling the public swing set to the point of squeaking and whistling, the three of us were immersing into the world of the local oddities and gossip. It was normal in my life for the military kids to become friends easily and quickly. We understood each other much better than the “local” kids, who tended to regard us as “strangers,” with a degree of reserve and suspicion.

The new girl was just too happy to let us in on all of the details of the settlement’s life. As she was telling us about the movie theater and how to sneak into the R-rated flicks without being caught, about her favorite delicacies at the base store and other matters, she kept mentioning the word “project.” She would say something like: “this person from the project #1” or “that swing from the project #4.” I’d never heard that term used in an everyday language and became utterly fascinated with it. It soon turned out that the word just meant the apartment building number such and such, but said in a different vocabulary, it fused magic into an ordinary object.  The commonplace square concrete buildings suddenly acquired an exotic allure and I could no longer see them as less than special. Life in those buildings had to carry a new layer of meaning and a new flavor. It was Russian and yet, it was not.

Our new friend who lived at the base since she was very small, was excitedly and a bit nervously sharing her anticipation of traveling back to Russia after her father’s five-year term of service was to expire (in about six months.)

“They won’t understand me if I start talking about our ‘project #5,’ will they?” she asked.

“Probably not,” my sis and I agreed contemplatively.

We kept rattling the swing back and forth, reaching higher and higher and wondering if it would be possible to rotate the old thing around it’s axes. Luckily for us, it wasn’t…

The first trip to the local shopping center was very much anticipated. I personally liked going to the base stores, especially in a new city. They were all different in terms of the assortment of goods as opposed to the regular shops that seemed to offer the same old nothing. This store was doubly exciting because it was in a sense a “foreign place.” It had items I’d never seen or heard of before. There were beautiful ornate rugs, sheep coats, various sweets colorfully packaged and all kinds of canned food. I have to mention that aside from my grandmother’s place who had her own garden and lived in a prosperous Southern region, the best selection of foods I had been exposed to was mostly of a canned or dry variety. And this time was no exception.

In the settlement’s store we had discovered something very appealing. It was a relatively inexpensive jar of conserved apricots. They looked oh so yummy- whole golden fruits in the transparent juicy nectar! We had to have them. Surely, our entire family feasted on the honey golden deliciousness, spitting out the almond shaped pips and letting the juice run down our faces and our hands. All four of us were in ecstasy. Needless to say that we bought those coveted jars for the duration of our stay in Mongolia, to this day, tying the taste of sweet flavorful apricots to my memories of the sand filled military base in Choir…

My dad was not a permanent citizen of the base settlement and therefore did not live in the “projects.” Instead, he stayed at the military quarters, in one of the wooden barracks, and we were accommodated in his large furnished room. It had a great big window covered by a colored sheet for privacy and to keep the harsh sunlight out in the day time, a few chairs of various sizes and levels of sturdiness, a table, a hot plate, a proper bed for my parents and a couple of folding beds for us, kids. Though the furnishings were spare and plain, we were delighted. The room smelled of movement and new adventures. Besides, we were spending very little time in it- just eating and sleeping.

Sometimes, when we all gathered for lunch and my father would come to get his portion of borsch that my mother concocted out of available ingredients and dry potatoes that she would soak in water over night (which still made them taste like saw dust but much better than what my father was used to at the time) we would overhear their conversations and learn about some local troubles. The military life in Mongolia must have been rather hard for some people, especially lower ranking officers and soldiers, maybe due to their youth and lack of experience, or due to abuses they would endure in their respective divisions. My father was the highest ranking officer in his settlement and therefore had complete command and control over the situation at the base. He had been educated in a Moscow Military Academy during the time when all the great generals and army leaders of the World War II were still alive and teaching from personal experience and integrity. His choice of profession was not accidental and he faithfully believed and identified with the Red Army code of honor. He also didn’t drink. However, many of his colleagues were not so vigilant at obeying the same “code of honor,” which was often the source of his great frustration.

As far as I remember this never took place at my father’s base but happened quite regularly at other settlements- now and again we would hear about soldiers breaking into an arsenal, stealing guns and escaping from their divisions. My parents speculated what could have caused them to do such an irrational thing, and they often concluded that it must have been the isolation, the harsh conditions or the cruel treatment by their superiors or some combination of the above. They also wondered where those soldiers were from originally, and my father assumed that at least some of them would have been from Moscow. For some reason he had especial disdain for the Muscovite recruits.

“They are such whiny mama’s boys,” he often complained, “can’t do anything by themselves, in shape only for lifting spoons but have mouths like gossipy women.”

Though the disciplinary mishaps were rare at my father’s base, we wondered how the order was maintained in such an isolated place. One night we got a glimpse of it. We were all woken up by some noises in the barrack’s hall. My father dressed up and went to check out what was happening.

“Be careful,” my mother whispered.

My sister and I tensed in alert. What could be happening out there? Our imagination sprinted into a million tracks, generating scenarios one more terrifying than another. As my father left, we heard screams and shouts that were very strange.

“Ki-i-iya-ya-yah!” someone yelled out there in the hall. “Ki-i-ya-ya-yah!”

There were rackets of furniture braking (or so we thought), of someone stomping and jumping, and overall hullaballoo of imminent chaos and destruction. The noises kept getting louder and louder but we never heard a pip from our father, concluding that he must been lying there unconscious, beaten by this karate-monster who was finishing him up and about to come for us. Our mother was picking through the sliver of our open door, and, not being able to withstand the mystery any longer, we finally peeped as well…

What we saw quickly restored our sense of safety, and we let out a sigh of relief. In the large empty hall, lit up by a single electric bulb, we saw the following: a junior lieutenant, dressed in his dark blue field uniform, drunk to such a degree that he was barely standing up, was yelling the “Ki-yah’s” while haphazardly throwing his limbs about, hitting chairs, empty air and pictures on the wall. We assumed that he was trying to fight with our father but could hardly see him through his drunken fog. Perhaps the Karate officer’s mind was playing tricks on him and he saw his opponent in multiple places at ones, which would explain his “fighting shadows,” but in any case we realized that he presented no danger. Our father, in a defense boxing position was mostly avoiding the officer’s “gesticulations,” only hitting him once. That one blow threw the drunken junior lieutenant to the floor skirting and we never heard any noise from him again.

The next morning, getting ready for a field trip, we overheard our father’s explanation of the incident:

“I guess this junior lieutenant decided he was a martial arts’ expert after a couple of bottles of vodka and wanted to prove it.”

“Do you know him? Where is he from?” Asked my mother.

“From Moscow, where else,” my father replied contemptuously.

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