Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

The Nomadic Experiment of a Steppe Land Flâneuse

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

The Nomadic Experiment of a Steppe Land Flâneuse

Article excerpt

Ulaanbaatar is no Paris. Strolling is not a Mongolian gait. Speed and chaos animate the streets, and the metropolitan foreigner, however practiced in flânerie, stumbles before the onslaught of horses. Multi-horse-powered land-cruisers, that is, the vehicle of choice in this city of nomads. Even the main thoroughfare with traffic lights fails to channel and control the charge of wheels. The dubiously named Enk Taivny Örgön Chölöö, or "Peace Avenue," can be crossed on foot only one lane at a time, as drivers run the lights from all oncoming directions at every chance. With heartgulping trepidation, I watch from the Avenue's crumbling curb as an elderly woman in a luminous blue deel (an embroidered, calflength cloak) launches herself with her cane into the torrent. No one stops as she stumbles between islands of air to the Avenue's opposite bank. When she safely arrives, she kicks up her heels as if pursued by a wolf. How can I, a seasoned flâneuse, affect to follow her? To carry on walking with my usual languor and tactical inconspicuousness is blatantly undoable against this urban tsunami. Mobility is the soul of Mongolia, yet no place on earth so challenges my mobility as does its capital, the "Red Hero."

Unheroically, I teeter at the edge of Peace Avenue's commotion and absorb a turbulent rusticity unbecoming to postmodern urbanity. Most world cities, I muse while contemplating my next move, exhibit a fashion-model's cool glamour to lure the "global flâneur." Once the inner-city's arch non-conformist, the flâneur now sets the standard for inter-city cruising. A man-about-themegalopolis, he delights in global travel and he boosts his venture capital by becoming streetwise in emerging market centers, especially those of "developing" nations with novel technologies of urban self-aggrandizement. From Shanghai to Dubai, world cities solicit and display his tasteful cosmopolitanism; their bright lights fail, however, to allure the flâneuse, who lacks the flâneur's expense account and whose peripatetics entails the least expensive savoir faire. Ulaanbaatar, on the other hand, is so far removed from the society of the spectacle that it makes no overtures to the global flâneur. No urban design beckons his speculation. Yet its geopolitical obscurity, together with its rugged eccentricity, appeal precisely to the curiosity of the global flâneuse.

And more than curiosity spurs the flanks of my flânerie. The old woman's bold legwork incites my kinetic reflex to move, if not against the traffic with the flâneuse's characteristic dilatoriness, then astride it with exploratory acceleration. I retreat to the sidewalk and pick up my step, my aimlessness still intact. I feel open to this runaway calamity and oddly unhampered by my appearance, so obviously Western and female with my backpack and hesitant perambulation. As a pedestrian, I pass with readymade invisibility, whereas nothing excites the nomadic gaze so much as the racy SUVs lined up for sale on the few central parking lots. Land cruisers are hot; streetwalkers are not. If "UB," as the natives speed-speak Ulaanbaatar, lacks the commercial seductiveness of world cities, it also lacks the mannequins, models, movie stars, fetish body parts, and other simulacra of commodity femininity. The traffic in mobility trumps the traffic in sex, having driven prostitution off the street to somewhere less horse-powered. Unimpeded by wolf whistles, lewd glances, and opportune groping against which I customarily barricade myself, I let go my lust for pure mobilism. Yari! Welcome to the steppe.

Remote yet well connected with the outside world, UB maps an intense crossroads between nomad autonomy and sedentary modernity.

I see this directly on the streets before me, in the juncture-or collision-between a billboard advertisement posted by a local furniture-making company ("ANUN") and passers-by who look nothing like the people in the poster. The poster models sit sedately on a surreally elongated sofa, men at one end in suits and hard hats propped against UB's skyline and women at the other in skirts and blouses against some bland domestic interior. …

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