Mongolia Week 2: Nausea

Travelling to the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar on a trip to verify myself to Mongolian Immigration Services, I felt sick. Our driver insisted on keeping the windows of his car open, and as the tiny, run-down Toyota bounced off of curbs and weaved itself in and out of the near-gridlock that had come to define inner-city driving in my mind, I became increasingly nauseous as exhaust belched from old two-stroke engines seeped into the cabin. Like increasingly-restricted arteries in an circulatory network, drivers moving out of the city found themselves jammed onto ramps and highways far too narrow to accommodate the sheer density of people. The sun filtered directly onto me, and with minimal movement, everything slowly became uncomfortably hot and stifling. In that moment, I wanted out of the car, out of the elements, and out of the city, into the vast, rolling foothills of the countryside that you could see peeking out between innumerable construction projects and towers that make up Ulaanbaatar.

It was in this very visceral reaction that I in turn experienced a brief moment of lucidity. In The Human Predicament, philosopher David Benatar outlines the perpetual discomfort that is inherent to human life. We are too hot, too cold, too tired, too anxious. Most of time, these things are inescapable, and we are forced to cope with what is ultimately a painful existence. As I watched several individuals walk towards Ulaanbaatar along the side of the highway, their faces obscured by scarves and other pieces of cloth to block out the swirling dust and noxious exhaust, I could not help but think that they were hurrying along, envisioning a time and place in which they could be free of the temporary discomfort of the traffic and heat, only to end up uncomfortable due to inescapable vices.

Ulaanbaatar feels so deeply human in this respect. Its immediate pains of over-immigration and perpetual congestion, rising unemployment and stagnating economy can be shifted, but the overall nausea of existence unto itself hangs like a shroud, often just outside of one’s periphery. According to NPR, alcoholism is one of the single biggest national issues facing Mongolia, with as much as one in five men being affected. As I walked along deep into the night, I saw signs of this being the case, as I was grabbed by the shoulder and urged to buy alcohol by a few elderly men in traditional outfits, and witnessed multiple individuals stumbling along as the bars that line so many streets slowly shut their doors for the night. I cannot help but to feel that this is all representative of an issue that reaches into this inherent discomfort and ennui. The expectations of late capitalism seem immutable, along with the pains inherent to our bodies. Ulaanbaatar holds some deep wounds, and like any city, I am unsure and worried as to how they could ever heal, regardless of how they are covered with near-weekly public events held at a street level, or government-funded exercises held on Sukhbaatar Square early every morning.