Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Mystical Gobi Adventure

We're just back from an adventure in the Gobi Desert. On Monday morning we took a 12-hour train down to Sainshand, the capital of Dornogov Province and John's former Peace Corps home. We traveled with Urna and her aunt and spent the night in Sainshand at a small hotel located in the back of the provincial government building. On Tuesday morning we first went to a museum in Sainshand that houses many of the historical items of Danzan Ravjaa, a Red Hat Buddhist from the 19th century (sometimes called the "Terrible Noble Saint of the Gobi"). We were incredibly fortunate to meet Altangerel, the contemporary protector (descended from a long lineage of protectors) of Danzan Ravjaa's legacy. Zorigoo, my Mongolian dad, is a friend of Altangerel's and called ahead to arrange a private tour of the museum. It was really an amazing opportunity. Check out this article in the NY Times about Altangerel.

After visiting the museum, Altangerel arranged for his driver to take us out to Khamarin Khiid, a monastery re-established by followers of Danzan Ravjaa. It was an incredible day, filled with lamas reading prayers for the sick and recently departed in our family, an opportunity to see dinosaur bones and ancient caves where monks sealed themselves in and prayed for 108 days at a time, a chance to enter a recreation of Shambala, to honor women at a special set of stupas, and to ask for wishes at a mountain in the desert. There's so much to write about this experience, and I've barely got the words to do it now since I'm seriously sleep-deprived (the ride back was another 12-hour train ride, this one from 9 pm last night until 9 am this morning-- although the beds in our sleeper car were comfortable, it was cold in the coupe!) So I'll have to write a longer blog about the whole thing when I've got my wits about me. For now, enjoy these photos of our Gobi adventure.

John standing next to the main ovoo inside Shambala at Khamariin Khiid.

Stupas intended to honor women and the crucial role we play in feeding and nurturing the world.

Urna and I standing at a way station on a mountain that men climb to the top to send their wishes on the wind (and windy it was!)

John at the bottom of the mountain he climbed!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Happy Birthday, Alta!

Yesterday we had a birthday lunch with Altantsetseg, the Director of the Office of International Affairs at the National University of Mongolia and someone who's been incredibly helpful in my research. Accompanying us was Saraa (who's in the middle in the above photo; Alta's on the right and I'm on the left), a colleague and all-around wonderful person, too!

I'm really, really glad I've had the chance to meet these accomplished, hospitable, and generally great people on this trip to Mongolia. I hope this is just the beginning of fun and intellectually stimulating times together.

I'm also including a photo of John with our friend Bayara's daughter, who clearly wasn't as cold as John was yesterday! Regarding that: the weather here has gotten dramatically colder over the past week. Yesterday a jar of water we had on the windowsill near a slightly open window froze solid. Yes, it's that cold. According to, it's 14 degrees F in Ulaanbaatar at the moment. Note that it's 10:40 AM.

For those of you who have fond memories of the place, I'm also including a snapshot of the State Department Store. Check out all the cars-- and it was Saturday afternoon, so this is very, very light traffic. There are now nearly 100,000 cars in Ulaanbaatar. The traffic is horrendous much of the time.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Hip Hop and the Trip Back to Ulaanbaatar

On Thursday afternoon we said a fond farewell to our friends in Erdenet and hopped in a blue Honda CRV to head back to Ulaanbaatar. Given the excitement of our trip to Erdenet, we were hoping that the trip from Erdenet would be uneventful. Fortunately we experienced absolutely NO car trouble, and we even enjoyed a hip hop soundtrack the whole way back (it's a little surreal to take photos of camels while listening to Eminem, Public Enemy, Outkast, Busta Rhymes, etc.) One of our drivers (Chinzorig, pictured above on the right) has a small hip hop store here in Mongolia (he buys goods in China and resells them) and we discussed lots of interesting topics with him. He asked John questions about U.S. hip hop, like, "Who is the richest hip hop artist in the U.S.?" and he told us that his favorite vehicle is a 2006 Lincoln Navigator. I don't think he was very impressed when he learned that our car is a Honda Civic. Oh, well!

I'm also posting two photos of John's new best friend, Misheel. She is Urna's little cousin, and her name appropriately means "smile" in Mongolian.

The final photo is from our dinner tonight with a lovely, lovely friend and former Mongolian language instructor, Dorjoo! We laughed and talked for about two hours straight-- I was so happy to see her again and after so many years, it was like no time at all had passed! I learned from Dorjoo that my Mongolian host father from Peace Corps training in Zuun Mod has been a Parliament Member for the past 7 years. I no longer had his phone number, but Dorjoo was kind enough to provide it. I'm looking forward to calling him this weekend. I'm sure he's too busy to see me, but after all these years, I'm looking forward to at least saying hello!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Seeing Good Friends in Erdenet

Yesterday we had the opportunity to have dinner with two very special women- Erdenechimeg and Oyuntuya. Both of them were English teachers at School #5 in Erdenet when I worked here as a Peace Corps English teacher (many) years ago. Erdenechimeg is still at School #5, which is having its 20 year anniversary today. Oyuntuya has since moved to the Erdenet Technical Institute (a higher education institution for the Erdenet Copper Mining Company, GOK). It was really wonderful to catch up with both of them-- they're incredibly busy, accomplished women and it's inspirational to hear about all the work they do.

I'm also including a picture of me outside a new Russian restaurant in Erdenet, as well as an action shot of John playing basketball with some boys (including Urna's cousin Khongor) after school yesterday. There were 3 players on John's team and 4 on the other team but perhaps unsurprisingly, John's team still won. :)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Overheating on the Way to Erdenet, or Why I Left My Husband on the Side of the Road in the Middle of Nowhere

Yesterday we got a taxi from Ulaanbaatar to Erdenet. We left the city around 10 AM, and everything went smoothly for the first 4 ½ hours of the trip. John took Dramamine so he was sort of groggy in the front seat of our little white car; I was re-reading Morris Rossabi’s excellent book Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists in the backseat. We stopped for lunch around 12:30 PM at a little brick building somewhere near Darkhan, and then continued on. I asked our driver when we could expect to arrive in Erdenet and he told me around we should be there by 2:30 PM or so. I guess that was the jinx on our trip, because shortly thereafter we slowed down to a crawl and then stopped when smoke appeared from under the hood of the car.

As it turns out, the engine was overheating. I know very little about car maintenance and repair, but I knew this wasn’t good. We stopped for a while, used our two bottles of drinking water to feed the car, started again and made it a bit further. When the smoke appeared again, John and I both knew the chances of getting to Erdenet in this particular car were, well, less than good.

After 20 minutes or so, another car stopped to find out what was the matter. Our driver explained the situation, and that driver agreed to take one person in his (already full) car to Erdenet, which was approximately an hour’s drive away. Since my Mongolian language is stronger than John’s, I suggested that he go and that I stay with the car and catch the next ride in. The driver’s exact response to this was, “I’ll take the little one, I’ve got two grandmothers (i.e., elderly women) in my small car already and I can’t fit that big guy.” (See post My Husband is a Giant in Mongolia for more on this topic.) So, what to do? If we didn’t take advantage of this ride, there was no telling when the next one might come along. But the thought of leaving John stranded with a taxi driver in the middle of nowhere was not appealing, and I’m afraid it might become the stuff of legends (“Remember that time you left me on the side of the road in Mongolia?”). Despite my trepidation, I jumped in the tiny Korean car with the grandmothers and off we went.

Arriving in Erdenet an hour later, I discovered that my cell phone was dead (from trying to find service in the middle of nowhere, I guess) and so I hoofed it up a hill to the school my Mongolian family runs. Alta, my Mongolian mom/the school director, asked me if I had traveled well. I replied that I had but that John was another matter. After charging mine, we tried to call his cell phone several times but wherever he was, he still wasn’t getting service. Alta tried to figure out exactly where we got stranded but my photos were no help at all. I took pictures of the pretty mountains, John sitting in the car, a horse—but could not say specifically where we were. (In my defense, you’ll note that there really aren’t a ton of landmarks around or anything.) After about 10 minutes of trying to figure out what we should do (Should we try to drive out to where they were? What if John got a ride in another car and we unknowingly passed him on the way? Should we wait for his call and hope he was on his way in another vehicle? Argh!), we got a much anticipated phone call. John still hadn’t been able to hitch a ride with another car, as his size really precluded him from squishing in another taxi, but the driver of our taxi got some water from a passing truck, which allowed them to get to a small town, where the driver then filled 10 bottles with water, which allowed them to drive into cell phone range. Hurray for cell phones! Alta, Urna and I jumped in her car and drove about 25 minutes to meet them, picked up John and drove back to Erdenet. The taxi driver, Sukhe, apologized profusely for what had transpired. He had enough water to slowly drive his car back to Erdenet, where I hope he got it serviced for a new radiator or hose or whatever it needed.

So that was Monday. Fortunately, yesterday was much less eventful. In the morning I had several interviews with alumni of the National University of Mongolia who are now working in Erdenet, then John and I ate lunch at a little Russian cafĂ© (I had borsht and he had a beef cutlet), and then we went to visit the schools where I used to work (#1 and #8). I took some photos with fellow language teachers from back in the day and reconnected with my friend Suvdaa’s daughter Saucera. Then last night we went out to dinner with Urna and called it a night. It’s really great to be back in Erdenet; it’s still quite quiet and peaceful here compared to the hustle and bustle of UB.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

First Anniversary: Camel Wool?

Today is our first wedding anniversary. The funny thing about waiting so many years (6) to get married is that we feel like we should have started counting a long time ago. I don’t know much about traditions celebrating wedding anniversaries, but I do know that the first anniversary usually involves a gift of paper. We’re working on getting ourselves something paper-related (I’ll post more on that eventually) but in the interim, I think camel wool makes a fine substitute!

Yes, I finally managed to procure some camel wool yarn! It took three trips to the shop of a little old woman who sells knitted and felted goods, but I finally bought several skeins. Handmade and mass-produced camel wool products (vests, sweaters, socks, slippers, etc.) are now widely available in Ulaanbaatar but it’s next to impossible to find yarn. I was really happy to get it. I also learned recently that some companies are now producing yak wool garments (I’ve seen sweaters, sweater vests, and scarves). Yak wool seems quite soft- closer to cashmere than sheep or camel wool. I’d love to get my hands on some of the raw stuff, but I think the chances are slim. Maybe I should start a Mongolian yarn import company. Yak and camel yarn for all...

Also, below are some cool handmade products we bought at the black market as gifts. First is a baby vest, lined with (faux) fur and second is a pair of felt slippers. I love Mongolian felted products.

And, for those who were hankering for a photo of John in front of the Oakland Disco Bar, voila!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Making New Friends and Reuniting With Old Ones

The last couple of days have been very social for us-- in addition to meeting up with old friends (including Enkhtuya, Enkhbataar, Nadia, Chimgee, and Layton and Ally) and making new ones. I'm pictured above with Otgo, someone about whom I'd heard many amazing things and who I was very happy to finally meet.

Tomorrow won't be as social a day-- we're planning on keeping to ourselves to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary. It's really cool that we'll be doing so in Mongolia, the place we originally met back in 1998! All these years later, we're finally celebrating our first anniversary- isn't life funny?

Friday, October 19, 2007

My Husband is a Giant in Mongolia

We have a favorite cafe in Ulaanbaatar. It's called Modon, and it serves really fresh, hot food. My Mongolian dad Zorigoo took us there first, since it's right near the Natural History Museum (of which he's the director) and he eats lunch there very frequently.

Today we went to Modon for lunch, and I took some photos of John with the restaurant staff. Several of the women who work there mentioned that they wanted to take a photo with him the other day, so today he posed after we ate. Then we went and got the photos developed and brought them back, much to everyone's delight. I'm pretty sure John is going to get a LOT of free food the next time we go back to Modon for lunch!

We also did a bit of shopping today, including the cool (little) tsam mask rug and felted ger potholders shown above. We bought some other things but since they're gifts and I don't want to ruin the surprise, I'm not posting them here. For all the crafters out there, aren't these potholders nice? I really like them. They cost a whopping $1.50. If you've ever felted by hand and know how much elbow grease goes into the process, you know how much more they're really worth, right?

We also visited the Mongolian Education Alliance (for some reason, Blogger won't let me insert links today, so please check today, where I reconnected with Enkhtuya, who M7s will remember as a Peace Corps Mongolian Language instructor. It's a small world...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Everything's Better With Glitter

My friend/former student Urna returned to Mongolia yesterday! She graduated with a bachelor's in business from the University of Liverpool and is now back home. I'm so proud of all her accomplishments, and I'm delighted that she's back to contribute her intelligence and energy to Mongolia. Above is a photo of me (on left), our friend Bayara (middle) and Urna (right) at the Ikh Mongol, a popular restaurant/brewery that is currently celebrating Oktoberfest! We also celebrated Urna's return with flowers and chocolate cake on Tuesday night.

A funny anecdote about buying the flowers shown above. On several occasions I have noticed a shop near our house that sells fresh flowers. Fresh flowers are a relative rarity here. But I decided to buy a small bouquet of roses (okay, three, they're kind of expensive) for Urna. The shop sells each element of the bouquet separately, so I picked out three orange roses, some babies' breath, a piece of paper in which to wrap them, and a ribbon. The shopkeeper then asked me if I wanted something else, but I couldn't understand what she was saying (my Mongolian vocabulary really has never been used for flower-arranging purposes before!) so she said, "Do you want me to make it more beautiful?" I said, "Okay, sure," thinking that maybe she would add another ribbon or something. All of a sudden she pulled out a little bottle of silver glitter and sprinkled it all over the roses! Now, those of you who know my penchant for all things sparkly will understand that this was an excellent surprise, but it's no wonder I didn't understand the question-- she was asking me if I wanted her to glitter the bouquet!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ballet and Wrestling: The Saturday Night Continuum

On Saturday afternoon, John and I first went together to a big wrestling match at the Wrestling Palace in Ulaanbaatar. We'd previously attended a wrestling event, but this was a big one: 256 wrestlers competed, including some very big names in the sport. Given the huge number of competitors, the event began at 2pm and lasted until 7pm. This was a conflict for me, as my Mongolian dad had arranged an evening at the National Ballet (he mercifully decided that John might prefer to stay and watch the wrestling...) So, around 4:45pm, John and I parted ways. I left the wrestling event (pictured above) and headed off to a cultured evening watching "Giselle" performed by the Mongolian National Ballet Company. I was not disappointed by the decision, as it was beautifully danced. Also, since I'd never been in the National Music and Dance Theater, I was delighted to get a view of the lovely interior. A photo of the chandelier is below- I generally love painted ceilings in theaters, but I think I love this one much more that usual. Isn't it beautful? The photos of the dancers are a bit blurry, as I obviously didn't think it prudent to use my camera flash.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Mongolian Countryside

Those of you who read this blog regularly will remember that we made a trip out to the countryside last weekend but, due to time and technical constraints, I haven’t been able to post pictures of the adventure until now. These photos were taken on a visit to a friend-of-a-friend in what Mongolians call the “far countryside”. In other words, the barren landscape that you see here accurately conveys the remoteness of this family’s lifestyle.

To set the scene: It was really, really cold last weekend. In fact, it started snowing on our Friday trip from Ulaanbaatar to Erdenet (via Amarbaysagalant Khiid, see post entitled Chasing Camels in the Snow for more) and when we awoke on Saturday morning in Erdenet there was snow on the ground. Unfortunately seven people died in the eastern part of Mongolia due to the unseasonably (i.e., early) cold weather (reaching about -15 degrees Celsius). Meanwhile, we were hearing from family and friends in Buffalo that the weather was reaching into the 80s Fahrenheit. Sigh.

Anyway, despite the snowy and icy conditions we set off for a destination somewhere in Bulgan Province. The family we visited is nomadic, often moving their ger several times a year in order to provide the best pasture for their animals and to secure a close and clean water source (usually the Orkhon River). I have always been amazed by Mongolian drivers’ uncanny sense of direction. The “roads” one follows on trips such as these are really nothing more than extremely bumpy dirt tracks. Although forks in the road don’t appear constantly, they occur with enough regularity to make me glad the navigation responsibilities are never mine.

We arrived at our destination in the early afternoon, and were immediately escorted inside the ger. Our hosts immediately offered us bowls of airag (the Mongolian national drink, made from fermented mare’s milk) and snacks of aaruul, a dried milk product that can be made with or without sugar. After many rounds of drinking airag (it’s very mildly alcoholic, but I think it would take massive amounts to make anyone tipsy), and eating aaruul and a kind of cream called tsotsgii, we went outside into the bitter cold to watch the children of the family milk the mares. They jokingly offered to let me do the milking, but it’s a rather difficult task, as they first allow the young foals to nurse for a few moments, then move the foal aside (still keeping it close to its mother) and reach down to milk. The 16 year-old girl in charge of milking had hands that were as quick as lightening. She also was walking around in a sweater and a pair of jeans, while I was freezing in my long underwear, Gore-Tex jacket, hat and gloves. So much for being a hardy Buffalonian- talk to a Mongolian nomad if you want to know the definition of hardy.

Aaruul is pictured above (this aaruul is drying in the family's ger)-- I chose this picture because I thought all you crafters out there might be interested in seeing the hand-embroidered decorations adorning the walls of the home.

After the milking was done, we went back into the ger while the men stayed outside and prepared the meat for our meal. Typically this would involve slaughtering a sheep or goat, but as we’d brought some goat meat with us, the process was shortened a bit. Women are not involved in the slaughtering process, and, in fact, are strongly discouraged from watching, so I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about it anyway. Our meal was horhog, a kind of pressurized meat and vegetables dish that is one of my favorite Mongolian meals. You usually use a large container that looks like it would be used to hold milk but we cooked ours over the fire in the ger. First you gather small rocks (about the size of a fist) and put them directly in the fire to heat them. Meanwhile, you prepare the meat and vegetables (in this case, potatoes, carrots and cabbage). When the rocks are burning hot, you remove them from the fire and put them in the cooking vessel. Then you add water, meat, vegetables and salt, and then more rocks. You put the lid on the vessel (and, in this case, since we weren’t using the typical pressure cooker container, we sealed the lid with rags to simulate a pressure cooker) and after 45 minutes to an hour, you very slowly and carefully remove the lid. The rocks that are used to cook the meat are distributed to everyone. You quickly move the rock from your right to left hand (again and again), the idea being that the heat from these rocks improves circulation and is otherwise likely to bring health benefits. Voila! A tasty goat meat lunch, with potential healing properties to boot!

After eating, we rode horses, and I taught an impromptu English lesson to the girls of the family at the request of their father. (They now know how to sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in English.) The Mongolian horses are known for having short legs—John looks like a real giant in the saddle!

I’m also posting a short video clip of a calf carcass being eaten by vultures on the way to Amarbaysagalant Khiid. It gives a good idea of what a dirt road is like here, as well as the real remoteness of the countryside.

Friday, October 12, 2007

International Boxing Tournament in Mongolia

We went to see an international amateur boxing tournament in Mongolia today, featuring fighters from Mongolia, Inner Mongolia (China), and Buryatia (Russia). It was interesting to talk with the elderly pensioners sitting in front of us; they were very knowledgeable about all the fighters and who was favored to win. When the fights were not of interest to the gentlemen, they pulled newspapers out of the front "pockets" of their dels and started to read.