Saturday, July 5, 2014

You Can Take the Kids Out of Japan...

Although school has been out for two weeks and three days, and I have been back from Khuvsgul for one week and two days, I am still in Mongolia.  At the time when my ticket home for the summer was graciously booked by the school, I had no clue how long the trip was going to take, so I made my best guess.  I knew I wanted to be home for my birthday at the end of the month, and I knew I didn't want to make myself "eligible" for the amazing fudge cluster that is Obamacare (I'm not considered a US resident if I'm out of the country more than 330 days out of the year), so I'm flying tomorrow.  While this hasn't been the most exciting week of my life, it has had its advantages:

1. Rosewood's Pop-Up Burrito Shop:  When I got to the internet oasis (aka, Murun airport), Wild Ass had tagged me in a UB Foodies post.  The evil genius behind Rosewood had a new plan for global - well, or at least local - domination...short term locations serving "street food" specialties.  They're doing three of these this summer, and this first featured tacos and burritos.  If - like my father - you're an armchair traveler, you can't really understand how hard it is to get good Mexican outside of the Americas.  Mexikhan is the closest we've managed so far, but they don't quite hit the mark.  However, the burritos and tacos at La Rosa, by the fountain outside of Central Tower are fantastic.  Enjoying them in the shade of a perfect 75 degree summer day (free of bugs and humidity)?  Absolutely sublime.  They should be there for a couple more weeks.
2. Shopping:  One does not appear before one's nieces and nephews empty handed.  Today I bought gifts for the Princess (I was very tempted to buy Dirt Devil his very first bow and arrows, but I'm pretty sure that buying a three year old pointy projectiles would make me persona non grata with my family).  I got her a genuine Mongolian princess dress, boots, and hat, and ordered a book from Barnes and Noble about a real Mongolian princess.  Summer's a good time for shopping here - Naadam is next week, which means big-time tourist season, so you can find some good stuff.  And it was neat to note that there was a sort of flea markety thing going on around the fountain between the State Department Store and the Circus. 
They're sheep anklebones - I had to actually look at this one from the correct place to figure it out.
3.  Street Art:  I don't know if the Alliance Francaise did their street art festival this year or not, but summer means sprucing up the city, and as part of the campaign this year students from the Mongolian University of Arts and Culture and Ikh Zasag University painted 3D perspective paintings around the downtown area.  There's 35 of them altogether, and they might be a little like Pokemon (ie, you gotta catch them all - I wish I could say I came up with that one, but actually it's Blondie's line).  And (finally) speaking of Pokemon...
Not taken at the event, but made an appearance.

4.  Japanese Pop Culture Day:  Kids love anime - it really doesn't matter where you are in the world.  I mentioned back in May that spending my days with teenagers has resulted in me "going native" by developing an addiction to anime.  At first it was revisiting just one show that I watched in my college years.  Then it involved a bunch of Studio Ghibli movies - Princess Mononoke hearkened, again, back to my college years, but I watched quite a few of those films that month.  Probably because I was going/went to Japan.  That's what I told myself, anyways.  But on May 16 I began watching Fairy Tail, and one month later I had seen the entire series, including the OVA's and the movie (and I may have started another series since then...)

I would like to be able to say that I'm doing this strictly to develop as a professional - since I teach teenagers I will always have students who are interested in anime, therefore it behooveth me as an art teacher to become knowledgeable.  Unfortunately for my already-shaky status as an adult, that's probably not the case.

So I went to Japanese Pop Culture Day at the circus, and while I am loath to admit this, in spite of the fact that I'm apparently going through my second adolescence I didn't stay for very long.  I was there long enough for my students to see me and say hi, and to have a look around the place and snap some photos.  I was totally jealous of the kids - ever since making Dirt Devil his Jake the Pirate outfit I've had a strong suspicion that perhaps under the right circumstances* I could get into the whole cosplay thing.  It looks fun.  And the day had potential, although if the drawing contest was what I think it was, I wish I'd known far enough in advance to get my students involved, because they would have rocked it.  See, five grand prize winners of the day's events get free trips to Japan, lucky bastards.  But the thing is...well, stuff.  For starters, I tripped going over one of the shin-high barriers around the circus.  It was actually not a bad fall, but it ripped up my arm which was FINALLY healing, and there were no less than four Mongolian men who very persistently tried to help me up, in spite of the fact that I needed to sit a moment.  Then there was the fact that - excuse the expression, I HAVE been hanging out with Blondie this week - hot as balls in the Circus. And finally, perhaps I might have felt a little out of place.  I must have been twice the age of pretty much everybody there, and I was alone.  Normally I don't have a problem with that, but under the circumstances I felt like a weirdo, so I high-tailed it out of there in search of coke.  And at that point I realized that I was missing 60,000 tugrugs out of my purse.  I'm not sure if I left it at Nagomi (yes, I had sushi - it may be the last time I have it for the next month!) or if it fell out when I tripped or if someone helped themselves to my purse in the confusion of the circus.  Whatever the case may be, I was done.  I needed to finish cleaning the APT, I had a hot (literally) dinner date with Blondie (in which we tried not to set the building on fire grilling in honor of the Fourth).

There are other things going on this month.  July is a great time to be in Mongolia.  Last night we went to the ballet's "Night of Modern," which featured some amazing guest soloists from the Boston Ballet (Engrish, you missed a goooood one!) and there's a sculpture fair which will, sadly, be over by the time I get back.  But I can't be too sad because, hell, I'm going to 'Merica, bitches!  Shopping to do, niblings to spoil - life will be good, and I'm sure in three weeks or so I will be ECSTATIC to be back on the steppe.

*Halloween might be the right circumstance this year.  I might have an idea.  We shall see...

Friday, July 4, 2014

High Way to Heaven

(Alternate title: Getting Stoned)

So I've got one last post for my trip to Khuvsgul aimag.  See, I didn't go directly from Khatgal to the airport.  I asked my buddies at Garage 24 to help me arrange to have my driver that morning to take me to a place called Uushigiin Uver.  They had no idea what I was talking about, but luckily the driver was in the know. 

What is Uushigiin Uver?  It's part of Mongolia's long and varied history.  People have been living and dying here for thousands of years, and this Bronze Age site is one of the few records of their lives and beliefs.

The driver suggested we leave at 6 a.m., and since my "trusty" Lonely Planet seemed to think it takes 3 hours to get from Khatgal to Murun, I said I would be sure to be up by then - because I sure as HELL wasn't missing my flight!  I was a little shocked when we turned off the paved road around seven and could see Murun in the near distance, but I told myself it was all well and good - it just gave me more time to catch up on the interwebs when I got to the airport.  
Getting there so early had another advantage.  It was pissing rain when I got up that morning, and I made sure to have my raincoat and lens hood handy.  However, by the time we got to the site, the rain had let up and there was just enough light to give it a glowy, surreal quality.

I'd heard of deer stones before.  There are lots of stone records around Mongolia (including the balbals and petroglyphs that we saw in Bayan-Olgii), but deer stones are a little different.  They serve as burial markers, and the deer from which they get their name are the means by which the spirit is meant to make its way to the afterlife.  The site at Uushigiin Uver also has some sacrificial altars, and is probably the best collection of the stones in Mongolia (which - according to Lonely Planet - has 500 of the world's 700 stones).  There are fourteen here altogether, with the last one having the face of a woman (that apparently birds get a kick out of crapping on).  For me, this lonely, ancient place was the highlight of my time in Khuvsgul.  I guess it's the artist in me - I've never been much of a history buff, but the fact that people made some kind of tools and carved beautiful things 4000 years ago?  When their lives were otherwise so primitive?  I can't even imagine living here without heat* come winter, let alone creating beautiful things by hand when all I've got to make them are bronze tools.  I can totally admire them for it, though.

*I am talking, of course, about real heat, that comes in a nice piping hot radiator which I don't have to put any effort into, and hell, don't even have to pay for. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Nature Girl

 Well, I'm done writing about reindeer.  Veni, Vidi, Reliqui, as the saying (almost) goes.  In my mind I've already moved forward into the next year, which will see me in Southeast Asia at Christmas and Greece at Tsaagan Sar.  Today I bought tickets, and that makes everything real.  I'll be home in approximately a week, with a brief layover hanging out with whomever I can scare up in Seoul on a Sunday afternoon.

Countryside?  Bah.  I'm over it.  At least until I go to see the swans in Sukhbaatar with Engrish in October.
However, as mentioned, I did visit Khuvsgul Lake while I was out.  She was Nature in all her beautiful, barfy splendor.  Khuvsgul's the second oldest lake in the world (if you can believe your trusty Lonely Planet), Lake Baikal's very own Babysis. 

Hmmm.  I'm maybe understanding why my students have a hard time figuring out when I'm using sarcasm and when I'm not.

Khuvsgul is beautiful, don't get me wrong.  I went for a cruise around the lake on the boat pictured above, the Sukhbaatar, so that I could really get the scope of the lake's beauty, not to mention her size.  The water was so blue that I couldn't help taking a shload of pictures of the boat's wake, and how the light caught on (and in) the water.  I walked a ways along its shoreline (mostly because I was killing time before the cruise, which was NOT the cruise on Hakone - there was no first class for starters, no coke, and the lady selling khuushuur ran out just as I went to buy one.  My life is tough).  But I was pretty worn down by this point in my trip, and I really couldn't give a flying fig newton.

See, attitude really is everything.
Besides the blueness of the water (you could say it blue itself!) my mind was blown by the size of it.  That kind of indistinct blur above the horizon?  Yeah, that's not the far's the island in the middle.  Khuvsgul isn't Mongolia's largest lake by surface area (that's Uvs, for you trivia fans), but it is biggest by volume, and contains 70% of Mongolia's fresh water.
But the actual highlight of coming to Khatgal (the town on the southern shore of the lake), was staying at Garage 24.  Khatgal used to be - basically - a truck stop on the way to Russia, and this was one of the service stations.  Well, some enterprising genius turned it into a hostel for visitors to the lake, and it is fantastic.  The owner had people ready to answer the phone when my driver pulled into Khatgal at oh-dark-hundred and explain how to get there.  The beds might not have been super soft, but I had a whole room to myself (I was the only person in a dorm made for eight), and the food was like a miracle unfolding in my mouth.  Chili Burrito.  Two words, neither of which implies mutton or noodles.  I ordered them for a late lunch, then woke up later to pay my bill and order them again for dinner.  My only complaint was that their selection of discarded books was lacking a bit - I was initially excited to see Dan Brown's Inferno sitting on the top of their piano, but it was in German, and the few books which were NOT in other languages were snooze worthy.  So maybe when the day comes that I finally leave Mongolia for good I will have to send them my leavings, just because them being there on this trip was amazing.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

People Smell Better Than Reindeer

The problem with pooping outside is not the fact that you are pooping outside.  It has nothing to do with the challenge of balancing long enough to evacuate the waste from your body (rather than daintily perching your ass on a porcelain throne).  It is not that you might get stuck without a supply of toilet paper, or that you're leaving behind a pile of dookie on the ground, rather than cleanly flushing it away, although, of course, all of those things are inconvenient, to say the least.

No.  The problem with pooping outside is the mosquitos, which will find your undefended pale white ass an irresistible target.  However, that's a temporary issue, and if you are lucky enough to be a once-in-three-days sort of regular, you may manage to get away with only a few bites.  On the other hand, a friend who will be unnamed because I'm not sure she would want me to mention this, once got her period while traveling in the Gobi.  Girls, can you imagine having to deal with that when you don't have real toilets or showers?  Or, for example, in an area where you are expected to pack out your own trash and "leave no trace?"  That would be hell, wouldn't it?  I hope you never have to experience it.
You have possibly all seen Frozen a bajillion times by now, so I hope you get the reference to Kristoff and Sven's duet I made in this post's title and the last.  (I like to think I'm clever with my titles.  Most of the time, this probably isn't true).  I thought it was funny, because although my nose seems to be getting more sensitive as I age (which I attribute to the possibility of becoming a werewolf), I didn't notice a strong smell from either the reindeer or their herders.  I did, on the other hand, pick up on the pong radiating from my own body, and if they thought the number of wet wipes I went through washing my hands was funny, they probably would have been even more amused to see me using them to give myself a sponge bath on the second day at camp.  My days-without-a-shower record is 8, by the way, but that was - damn - ten years ago, when I was a young and crazy twenty something working for a month and a half for Anasazi.
The way that the Tsataan live seems so amazing to me.  The kids still have chores (although rounding up the reindeer on reindeer-back seems even cooler than mowing the lawn on my family's riding lawnmower - lucky kids), and can amuse themselves without iPhones or video games.  Hell, I can't even do that, as evidenced by the fact that as soon as I got home I went into full-on internet addiction mode.
And the fact that I dislike cooking, in spite of all the modern conveniences and running water to wash up with, seems really ridiculous when I look at the Tsataan's lifestyle.  They milk the reindeer.  They make cheese, butter, yogurt, and of course, the trademark milk tea with the milk.  Using just a simple stove they make flat noodles and some of the most delicious bread I've ever eaten (seriously!  I could have and actually did live on that bread.  It blew my mind).  They can do so much with so little and it makes me ashamed that I do so little with so much.  Possibly it's time to change that.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Reindeer Are Better Than People

Leaving Tsaagan-Nuur I started to send a text to Blondie, asking if anyone had left their grill out, because I was pretty sure I was going to need to burn some clothes when I got back.  I've been back in the city for going on sixty hours now, and I've only JUST gotten around to my laundry.  See, I used up the last of my detergent before I left, and in spite of the fact that every day I've gone to the store, and every day I've thought, "I need a shitload of detergent to clean this mess up!" I still had to make a special trip out this evening to get it.  So my bag of clothes has sat next to the hallway door til just a few minutes ago, staring balefully at me and not getting any fresher.
Much like this young reindeer...
Sometimes in winter, you'll see reindeer in UB, but the only time I'd seen one before this trip was near Nailakh on our way back from Terelj on Chinggis Day Weekend.  Apparently there are reasons why the Tsataan keep their herds in such a remote place - the reindeer need very specific living conditions to be happy and healthy - and people taking them other places is a bit controversial in the community, to say the least.  As someone with similarly specific needs (such as internet, books, and food that involves something besides mutton and noodles), I can dig that, and didn't really mind going out of my way to see them - whining aside.
As I mentioned on Thursday, I did grow up in the country, and we have a saying dealing with the time when bovine animals make their way to their abodes (yeah.  When the cows come home).  I don't really remember our cows having a curfew, but these reindeer did, and I thought it was pretty interesting.  I'd be sitting in the urtz and hear their distinctive snorting huffs getting closer and closer.
During one evening I was standing in the road as they came past.  One deer walked right up to me - I am guessing he was looking for a treat, and I held out my hand so he could sniff it (I was not quite willing to let him lick it, although he tried).  In exchange, I got to touch his antlers, which were damp with the rain and velvety soft.  Some of the antlers were incredibly big, and made me wonder if they had a hard time keeping their heads up.
Communism is a funny thing.  Kazakh culture in Mongolia is more authentic than in Kazakhstan, largely because it was left alone.  The Tsataan, however, had their culture threatened by the government during those years.  Reindeer herds were taken away from private farmers and kept by the state, and while there were benefits, on the whole I can't imagine having what amounts to my livelihood and my culture taken away from me.  Thankfully, as an international educational mercenary, I'm unlikely to find out.

P.S. That river in the background was my water source for the three days I was at the Tsataan camp.  Shaggy - O Gearmeister Extraordinaire - gave me a fantastic Sawyer Squeeze Water Filtration kit, which meant I got to drink cool clean water instead of having to ask the family to boil water for me.  Imma have to give that brother of mine a big sloppy kiss when I get home!

Friday, June 27, 2014

The World's Most Remote Bronies

Part of what caught my imagination when it came to this trip was a project about remote tribes called "Before They Pass Away."  I'd already been to Bayan-Olgii to see the Kazakh eagle hunters and was hoping to make this trip when I stumbled on Jimmy Nelson's work.  The idea of seeing a culture that might disappear gave me extra desire to make it happen - although actually making it happen was easier said than done.

I was truly hoping to make the trip through the Tsataan Community Visitor's Center.  I wanted to do things the right way, and benefit the people as much as I can.  However, the price tags the tour companies were quoting me seemed ridiculous - one woman said the trip would cost $2500, which is more than I spent on the Tibet part of last summer's adventures.  Luckily for me Engrish has mad connections, and one of them had a Tsataan coworker with whom she'd traveled to the taiga before.  Together they managed to organize things for me.  I did contact the TCVC, both through email and phone, about helping me to organize the actual trek out to the camp, but I never heard back from them.  Maybe it's my lack of Mongolian; I don't know.  I stopped in the Visitor's Center while I was wandering in Tsaagan-Nuur, and made a donation.  Since the total cost of the entire trip (including my flights, the donation, and the non-Tsataan portion) was only a little more than a fifth of that original quote, it probably wasn't enough.  But I did try.
When I got into Tsaagan-Nuur my contact, Darima, gave me the traditional bowl of milk tea and showed me a place to rest before heading out to the camp.  I was a little startled that we'd be leaving for the camp that day.  I thought I had an eight-hour horse trip ahead of me, but in fact I stayed with a family that was a little more than an hour by jeep away from Tsaagan-Nuur.  In spite of my nap, I fell asleep on the ride there, and was only awakened just before getting there by Darima tapping me on the shoulder and directing my attention to the reindeer herd, chilling out on the ice.  Yes, there was still ice on the river at the end of June.  This is Mongolia, bitches.
After another obligatory bowl of tea (this one made with reindeer milk), I was showed to the "hotel," a spare urtz (teepee)...the very one that the reindeer is poking its head into.  I was happy enough with my new digs, but later they decided to move me in with the family, I believe because they thought I would get cold, since the stove in the urtz-buudal wasn't set up.  Or maybe it was because it also served as the garage for their motorcycle.  Whatever the case, sharing space with others isn't always my favorite thing, especially when we don't have a common language between us - it's a little awkward and I miss my privacy - but we got along okay.
My cousin asked me out of the blue this winter what Mongolia was like, and if I thought he'd like it.  It's a hard place, sometimes, but it's beautiful, and the way of life is so low-impact.  But even here on the edge of the taiga the Tsataan have some modern conveniences.  Solar panels collect power for light and even some entertainment.  The second evening I stayed here the two sons of the family powered up a very small portable tv and tuned the satellite dish to watch "My Little Ponies."  The younger boy was maybe four or five, but the other was old enough to be tooling around on the family motorcycle.  Here we were, within spitting distance of the Russian border, as "off the grid" as you can be in this day and age, and I was sacked out watching Rainbow Dash and company with the world's most remote bronies.

Add that one to the "Most Surreal Experiences" list, my friends.  It's gonna be hard to top.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stitch 'n Bitch

There are no words to describe the absolute ecstasy of being at home, in your own shower (that has great water pressure), with a pizza on the way.  Orgasmic?  Oh, buddy, you have no bloody idea.

So I survived my trip to Khuvsgul aimag - the wild northern reaches of the wild northern Mongolia.  I thought I was supposed to come back on Sunday the 29th, then I realized that my ticket said July 3rd.  I'm not sure what I was thinking, but the irony that the destination - Murun, phonetically - is often printed as Mörön is not lost on me, because that's exactly what I was, buying a ticket to the countryside for two weeks.  How do I begin to explain why this was a bad idea?  Let's start with the fact that I'm a city girl, through and through.  I don't know if you've realized this or not, but in spite of coming from the country, there are very few places I've traveled to that neither are city nor have been city.  Before Mongolia, there were a couple of hikes in Korea (and let's face it, so many people hike in Korea that even a mountain counts as a city) and Wadi Rum.  That's about it.  As a result, there's not much to do in the country.  Well, I don't think so - I'm sure there's all sorts of fun survival-ly shit Shaggy could come up with, but as previously mentioned, I'm a city girl.  I like to visit museums and climb over ruins and eat yummy food and take in the arts.  I brought one book with me.  ONE.  I guess I thought this would be a good time to knock that book off my list because I kept getting distracted at home, but without distractions it only lasted me two days into my camp with the Tsataan.  Then there's the fact that I was traveling alone.  Admittedly, that's my thing, but traveling alone when nobody around you speaks English and there's not much to do AND you have finished your ONLY book is a bit problematic.
The drive was another source of consternation for me.  According to the trusty Lonely Planet, it's a 12 hour drive to Tsagaan-nuur from Murun.  I figured that meant we'd drive out in the morning and get there in the evening, because what kind of idiot would drive though "bone-crunching" terrain in the dark?  I'm serious here.  Imagine the worst road you've ever driven on, and then figure out how to make it worse - maybe with some big ass boulders or crossing creeks two and a half feet deep.  Then make that half the trip, sometimes at inclines of 45 degrees or so.  And I had a good seat.  On the way to Tsagaan-nuur I was sitting in the front seat of a Russian van, and in spite of the fact that I had a good collection of knots on my head from bashing it against the metal strip along the edge of the window when the jostling of the van "woke me up," I was relatively comfortable.  On the way back, I rented a driver to take me to Khatgal - figuring a nice comfy jeep leaving at 2pm was much more the way to go.  Well, again, in spite of leaving on Mongolian time (nearly two hours late), I didn't have it too bad, but my "tour operator" decided to come along for the ride, with five of her nearest and dearest.  Yep, that's right - six people were wedged in the back seat of the jeep for that hellish ten and a half hour drive (we obviously made better time on the way back, probably because we didn't stop every half hour for pee/smoke breaks).  And the truly terrible thing is that the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.  Khuvsgul may very well be the best looking province in a country full of beautiful provinces, but much of the drive was in the dark, so you can't even enjoy it.

You may say to yourself, "I thought you were an optimist, oh mighty Great One.  Aren't you always spouting off about looking for rainbows?"  Well, first, no - I'm a cheerful (most of the time) pessimist, not an optimist.  Secondly, I thought about that, the last evening I was at the Tsataan camp.  Where were the rainbows?  I came up with a few, but then the next morning I slipped and came down hard coming back from the river to get water (soaking my boots for the second time that morning and the fifth time in three days), and again later that day (as I was finishing my first shower in four days, and that was a doozy in which I tore or stretched something in my arm that's apparently not supposed to go that way), after which I said, "F*CK THIS SHIT!"  I called AeroMongolia and changed my ticket to come back today.  One week in the wilderness is more than enough for this girl, and now that I've gotten the whining out of the way, hopefully I'll be able to be a little more objective about the experience.