Six students from the University of Pittsburgh Honors College trek across Mongolia in search of illumination, perspective, and the perfect cup of Yak-milk tea.

Monday, September 12, 2005

There she is...

I spent a few of my early days watching beauty queens parade through the streets of rural Virginia (lessons that I'm sure come through in my smile and wave). Friday night, however, I took my beauty pageant experience to a whole new level. Enticed by the opportunity to take part in Mongolia's first year of participating in the Miss World pageant (and, for the boys in the group, enticed by the opportunity to encourage all the bathing-suit-clad women), a few friends and I watched the whole sordid thing unfold from the second row.
I guess Mongolia wasn't expecting the invite, because it seems they had to throw together the competition last-minute. Somewhere between half and all of the contestants were actually professional models for some of the sponsoring magazines or modeling agencies, I think. Though we initially expected to see 21 competitors representing each of Mongolia's aimags - the provinces or states into which the country is divided – I'm pretty sure that all 13 women who competed live in Ulaanbaatar.
In addition to giving out crowns to the winner and two runners-up, the judges awarded a slew of honors: "Miss Photogenic," "Miss Goodwill," "Miss Talent," and "Miss IQ" (Miss IQ looked understandably disappointed). For those of you good at math, you'll note that all these awards left only six of the contestants without a sash. Considering that only three women competed in the talent portion, I felt sure that my favorite, #6, had the talent honor sewn up. A circus performer by trade, #6 was joined onstage by a younger teenager as the two juggled bowling pins, rode unicycles while juggling bowling pins and then - be still my heart - juggled flaming torches. She also performed flips, revealing what I'm pretty sure were not circus-issue underpants. I was prepared to give her the crown just for bringing fire into the act, but I accept that some judges might have other criteria for selecting Miss Mongolia. Just seeing her get the "Miss Talent" award would have satisfied me.
Who won Miss Talent? The woman who performed a 60-second song on the Mongolian mouth harp. Trust me: it's not more impressive than a standard-issue mouth harp performance in the West, and it definitely doesn't involve fire or flashy underwear. I had previously suspected life might not fair, but Friday night delivered a pretty big blow to my faith in the presence of any universal justice.