30th Jan 2008
Prohibition in Mongolia
As I have started writing this I can’t help but thinking; ‘why haven’t I written about this earlier? Maybe it is the trauma! Maybe only now have I recovered enough to go back over the events of the last month! No, that’s rubbish! It’s just that I have been very busy working and not had much reflective time to sit and write my blog! That’s not to say that it hasn’t been a traumatic month though!
So, Mongolia has been in the midst of an alcohol ban……gosh, it hurts just writing the words! On my last day of travel (Wednesday 2nd January) on the way back from Choibalsan we stopped in a little sum (village) outside of UB for breakfast. Here a family informed us of the breaking news: 10 people had died from drinking vodka. It turned out that the particular type of cheap Mongolian produced vodka that they had drunk was really poorly produced and contained pure methanol. The numbers of people arriving into the hospital with methanol (not alcohol) poisoning and dying increased and the last I heard I think it had got as high as 28 but don’t quote me on that!
What was the Governments response? To ban all alcohol! Everything. Even imported beers like Budweiser that are probably brewed on the other side of the world. It was a blanket ban on booze. I remember being slightly concerned but more in denial I think. I reckon out of all the volunteers I was the one that everyone expected to go the most funny in the head about the whole thing. I think it is fair to say that I coped quite well considering. It was definitely my buddy Sophie who went the most funny in the head about it all. It’s like my Dad always says ‘the grass is always greener on the other side.’ In other words you want it more when you can’t have it. I was quite shocked by Sophie’s reaction. Sophie is 28 and an occupational therapist by trade. She grew up in Venezuala, moved to France and has since lived in the UK, Belguim and Italy but probably not in that order. She speaks about 5 languages and is beautiful but that’s by the by. The point I’m trying to get to is that before the ban she would take or leave an alcoholic beverage, she didn’t appear o be that fussed with it. After the ban she was climbing the walls in panic and would take you up on any opportunity to go out scouting for booze! She even started drinking beer which she didn’t do before the ban. To be fair, so did I. I am now a drinker of lager! For years to come, when friends of mine ask me: “since when did you start drinking lager?” I’ll have an interesting story to tell them.
So how did Sophie and I cope? Well we found an Irishman with contacts in the vodka black market of course! We met Ray at dinner on the Sunday night. By Tuesday he had managed to purchase a bottle of Chinggis Black (nice Mongolian produced vodka, it’s won prizes and wasn’t one of the brands that had dangerous levels of methanol in). Apparently, he had met a Mongolian girl who said she thought she could arrange it if he would like to buy some vodka. On the Tuesday he was picked up by a guy and this girl and taken to the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar to a car park behind a Khaan buuz (the Mongolian equivalent to a dirty kebab place). After a few minutes another car arrived. The girl got into the back seat of the other car and after a few tense moments re emerged with two bottles of Chinggis Black hidden under her coat! Ray said it was about as tense as he’d imagine a drugs deal to be! That night (a work night I might add) we consumed the bottle of Chinggis Black and all the remnants of alcohol in the apartment.
We woke up feeling quite proud that we’d managed to get drunk during prohibition. What to do after that though? The ban looked set to be around until February and we were still only in the first week of January. We called on the British Embassy, like you do in such a crisis. The British Embassy is the only embassy in Mongolia to have its own bar. I don’t know about you but that makes complete sense to me! Every Friday night at 6.30pm the doors to the Steppe Inn open and for roughly three hours you can drink to your hearts content on technically British soil. During the ban Sophie and I (and many other concerned drinkers, mostly foreigners) arrived at the Steppe Inn promptly at 6.30pm. Sophie got held up at the door talking to some guy whereas I headed straight to the bar. “I’ll have two double vodka and apple juices please” I said to the British Ambassador who works behind the bar. To which he responded “we’re not serving vodka, sorry.” At this point Sophie arrived and I explained the situation to her. Our lifeline, the one thing that was to get us through this ban was “not serving vodka.” Apparently our faces were a picture, like two small children refused entry to a theme park. It must have worked anyway because at that point the Ambassadors other half disappeared and re appeared with none other than a bottle of Chinggis Black. It was all on the down low though! The assistant ambassador wouldn’t serve us because he didn’t want it on his conscience if we died of methanol poisoning.
After a week or two I got word that the big Irish bar (is there a pattern developing here?) and the German bar were serving lager again. Slowly but surely the bigger bars have followed suit. For weeks though in the shops there have just been sheets of paper separating the liquor and the customer. It was still on the shelves, you could kind of see it, you could almost touch it but oh no! You couldn’t buy it. About two weeks ago the big shopping markets started selling vodka and other spirits again. On realizing this Sophie bulk bought vodka! I think we’re past the worst of it now. There certainly wasn’t any lack of vodka at Tsagaan Sar (the Mongolian New Year). I might have to have a t-shirt made stating ‘I survived the alcohol ban, Mongolia, 2008!’
I received emails from New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Mexico. There was a consensus of opinion. ‘If there was an alcohol ban here there would be riots on the streets.’ The Mongolian people didn’t seem stirred by it at all. Maybe that’s because they were all buying it from the same dude as Ray did, in the car park behind the Khaan Buuz.
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