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Report From Mongolia: What Has The Philadelphia Orchestra Gotten Itself Into?

Jun 1, 2017

DAVID PATRICK STEARNS - Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia

ULAANBAATAR – Coming in for a landing at Genghis Khan Airport this week, a group of Philadelphia Orchestra musicians will be literally dropped into a parallel world where familiarity feels eerie and the exotic is oddly reassuring. The brown hills, dry heat, and brilliant blue skies here seem strangely like Southern California – except that a herdsman with a small group of cows is making his way up a steep incline near the airport. Outside the small but modern terminal, a half dozen presumably wild horses are grazing just beyond the taxi stand.”That wild horse was your taxi!” emailed one friend. “Did you not know?”

Very funny, and typical of how many Americans romanticize Mongolia as the ultimate “other.” The orchestra contingent will perform here Friday and Saturday as part of the Philadelphians’ 16-day Asian tour, which started May 23 in Shanghai and is now in Beijing.

It’s fun to imagine the 18-musician entourage (downsized from the originally scheduled full orchestra owing to Mongolia’s current economic crisis) playing in some dusty public square as nomads gallop up on their horses to hear a kind of music that has never previously reached their ears. Not at all.

Much of Mongolia is still nomadic, but not UB (as this capital city is nicknamed). Just beyond the airport’s wild horses, English-language signs proliferate, like “Cash and Carry.” Guide books advise you to never put your luggage in the trunk of an airport cab because you may be charged a high price to get it back.

Almost every Philadelphia Orchestra Asian tour anchors its concert schedule in Beijing and Shanghai, but also ventures into a new city, some of them far more backward than UB with its five-star hotels and Macy’s-like department stores. Yet UB is bewildering in its incongruity. Forget cabs — people hitchhike around the city. Street signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet. The ancient and modern co-exist, but so casually that even my cell phone is confused, insisting that it’s an hour later than it is because Mongolia opted out of daylight saving time.