Saturday, November 15, 2014

Grub Club: Seoul Restaurant

I don't know what it is (a longing for my second home, perhaps?  Or maybe just the deeply ingrained belief that Korean food makes me skinny?), but I've been eating a lot of Korean food this fall.  Thus, it makes sense that we'd end up at a Korean restaurant for my first successful Grub Club pick of the school year.

Seoul Restaurant is not just any Korean restaurant, though - it was the #1 Korean place as chosen by UB Foodies, and the 12th restaurant out of 169 UB restaurants on TripAdvisor.  It is on the grounds of the Children's Park, just after Tumen Ekh, in an unassuming round building.

We were wowed from the beginning by the decor.  The central area of the restaurant is decorated in cool light and wedding palace grandeur, not to mention lots of naked people - I was a particular fan of the diving naked men fountain on the walls as you go up the stairs.  There's also a more rustic, hunting lodge seating area around the outside front, with a moose mounted on the wall at one end and a deer at the other, grills if you're there for galbi (we weren't), and much warmer light.
Once we were seated (at a table by a glass window that looked into the interior of the restaurant, where a young-ish couple sat and made googly eyes at each other for part of our meal), we were presented with five menus.  FIVE.  Seoul offers not only Korean but Chinese, Japanese, Western, and threw in a separate menu for side dishes.  The side dishes are also listed on the corresponding menus, so I had to wonder exactly why they needed their own menu, but hey, it is a Korean restaurant, and we all know how Koreans feel about the number 4, right?*
I was super excited to see one of my favorite anju (drinking snacks) on said side menu - dubu kimchi.  It's firm tofu, sliced and steamed, served with a fry-up of kimchi, peppers, and pork.  I ordered it for everyone but ended up eating most of it myself (everyone liked it - I was just greedy and scarfed most of it down myself, even before I could get a photo).
Blondie has a broccoli addiction, so this dish off the Chinese menu was right up her alley, in spite of the mushrooms in it.  She shared this one and the next with Engrish.
I sniped a bite of their crispy chicken dish, and it was perfection.  A lot of times when you order Chinese chicken it is a fatty mess, or filled with little bits of bone, so you can't just strap it on like a feedbag (one of Blondie's sayings, for those of you wondering).  The crispy chicken, though, was exactly what you would dream it to be - lots of savory little bites of chicken wrapped up in crunchy goodness.  Her dining experience was so good that Blondie gave me 10's across the board.
I also ordered the fried mandu and dolsot bibimbap (not pictured).  The mandu were tasty, but just a little too big.  The bibimbap...well, it was just okay.  I gave the food a 9, thanks to the bibimbap - I've had better, even here.  Champ and Lil' Miss Catwalk also ordered Korean food - ramyeon and kimbap for the former and bulgogi for the latter - and they seemed to like it alright, but were not as effusive as me and Blondie.  At any rate, it was a delicious meal and I can understand why Seoul ranks as highly as it does.  And now - off to brave the Black Market in search of silk and coffee cups.

*It's bad luck.  The word for death sounds very similar to the word for 4.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Beginner's Guide to Ger Camp

I am attempting to be all sorts of adult tonight, and let me tell you, it is exhausting.  I swept, swiffed, mopped, washed dishes, and now it is time for me to catch up the blog, when all I want is to see what happens next in Bleach (in part so I can finally move on to Naruto).  Check out how grown up I am.

Anyways.  Last weekend was Time Lady's birthday.  After more than a year she'd still never been ger camping, so Engrish and I took it upon ourselves to rectify the situation with a trip to Terelj.

A few days before, Time Lady asked me, "What do you bring on a ger camp?" and it made me realize that although I've done a fair bit of ger camping in the last two years, I've never written the definitive guide to it.  Although it's a little late at this point, I'd like to dedicate this guide to her for her birthday (because who needs expensive geek gifts when your foul-mouthed blogging friend dedicates a post to you?!?)
What is a ger?  A ger is a felt hut (the same thing as a yurt), in which nomadic families live.  Camps of them have become a popular option for tourists both foreign and domestic in Mongolia, as they allow you to get out into the countryside and in touch with tradition.  Most gers have 3-4 beds (although there are bigger and smaller ones) and are heated by a stove that can burn wood, coal, or - if necessary - even dung.  There will also be a little table and a few other pieces of furniture.
What do you bring to a ger camp?  Time Lady asked about bedding and I told her that it wasn't necessary.  Then I realized I was thinking of sheets, blankets, and pillows, which aren't necessarily warm enough for cold Mongolian nights, so I had to chase her down and tell her that Engrish and I normally bring sleeping bags.  We always bring food - typically a sausage fest with cheese, bread, and crackers - although you can get more complex (Five made nachos once, and in Dariganga I made ger chili) and most ger camps have a restaurant, so you won't starve.  Games are a must, but my personal favorite thing to bring on a ger camp is FIRE!
This answer prompted some teasing from my students, but hell, building the fire is my favorite part of ger camping (not just because of the sound!), and I was especially proud of the new firestarters I made with cotton facial circles and wax.  I can't stress enough how important it is to bring someone who likes to play with fire.  Ger camps are supposed to send someone in the night to keep your fire going, but it never seems to work out that way, and I've developed a touch of pyromania to combat the cold of early mornings in the countryside.
What do you DO at ger camp?  I've mentioned before that Mongolia is a place to come for beautiful, rugged nature and the tradition of ger camping reflects that.  When you go, you have the chance to get OUT of the city, breathe some fresh air, marvel at the blue of the skies, and leave everything behind.  We usually bring books and some games - Guillotine being one of my favorites (you need more people for Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples).  I brought my sketchbook this time and some watercolor pencils.  We spent Saturday afternoon taking a long, Jane Austen walk along the river, and the late afternoon reading.  If you're more active you'd probably enjoy bringing a frisbee or a ball and glove, and a lot of ger camps seem to have basketball hoops.  If you can't live without your phone, ger camp might not be for you.  We went to UB2 last weekend, which had excellent reception (Engrish is a rock star and kept getting important calls while we were out walking) and electricity, not to mention the heated floors and a TV...we went really easy on Time Lady...but we've also stayed in ones where you had to walk 10 minutes up a mountain to get even the slightest service.  Besides, that's not really what it's about, is it?

Expect the Unexpected:
I think the most crucial thing you can do to enjoy a ger camp is be prepared.  The camp may not have water, so bring a few bottles or a good filtration system, as well as some wet wipes.  It may not have toilets, with or without running water so bring toilet paper and mentally prepare yourself to pop a squat.  If you know ahead of time that you are putting yourself in a situation that is supposed to be somewhat rough by nature and embrace that, you'll have a much better time.  Especially if you remind yourself that it's MUCH less rough than actual camping (or tenting, if you insist on calling it that like Engrish).

Happy Birthday, Time Lady!  Thanks for giving us an excuse to have such a great weekend!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Grub Club: Shibuya

Yes, I realize it took til November, but Grub Club is finally back.  We've been trying, since August, actually, but never got more than three of us together.  Finally, Lil' Miss Catwalk said she wouldn't be able to come on Thursday because of student council, which she facilitates, so we moved it to Tuesday, which has led us to be much more successful.  However, this was our first new restaurant, so this is the official first post of the new school year.

This week was Champ's pick, and she took us to Shibuya, a teppanyaki restaurant on Seoul Street.  I've been there a couple of times and found it to be decent, so I was copacetic (heh, these days when am I NOT copacetic when it comes to Japanese food?)

Champ, Lil' Miss Catwalk, Engrish, and Blondie all tried the yakitori, and seemed to think they were pretty good.  Blondie was a particular fan of the tofu salad (bottom right corner of the plate), which is good because she ended up getting a LOT of it.
I, on the other hand, decided to go with a ramen and some sushi.  The ramen had a nice flavor, and had a lot of vegetables in it - mushrooms, carrots, and bean sprouts - along with some tasty pork (albeit not the thin slices you normally expect to get in ramen).  I really enjoyed it.
The sushi, on the other hand...yeah, not so much.  The problem with Shibuya's sushi rolls is the fact that they give them names but don't actually tell you what is in them.  So I ordered the Lion King roll, which looked like a crab and cucumber with salmon on top.  And that would have been tasty.  Instead, it had something akin to coleslaw in it, and I still have no idea what kind of fish that is on top.  It's not salmon, that's for damn sure.  In between that hot mess is some overcooked rice.  I didn't notice the rice with everything else that's going on there, but my friends ordered spicy tuna rolls, which made it much more noticeable.  The rice had a gummy, almost kind of paste-ish consistency, and nobody was a big fan of it. 
Speaking of Japan, and fans...or fangirls, rather, Halloween was last Friday.  I was working on my Erza Scarlet costume until I went to bed last Thursday.  I decided I wanted to do this in June or July (after all, thanks to my red hair and huge...tracts of land...I'm halfway to being an anime character as it is), but my first couple of tries were failures.  I finally started looking at her different kinds of armor and figured if I was willing to sacrifice one of my "Little Chinese Seamstress" dresses I could just barely pull it off.  Student reviews were mixed, but my hardcore otakus approved, so I can live with that.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mongolian Royal

I was born in Kansas City, Missouri.  When I was three, my parents moved my brother and I about an hour away from the city, and although I spent my adolescence in Iowa, I always considered Kansas City my home, and moved back there as soon as I graduated from high school.  I don't consider myself much of an American, but I am Missourian, so it warmed the cockleburrs of my little heart to see the Royals make it to the World Series for the first time since I was an anklebiter.

I am telling you all this because I had an experience over the weekend that brought back other Kansas City childhood memories...of the American Royal, specifically.  My Dad took Shaggy and I at least twice, and I remember the excitement of the rodeo.  When I went back as a college student, it wasn't quite the same, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, so when Engrish told me how she'd seen an advertisement for the Thousand Foal Festival in Altanbulag this past Sunday, I was all for it.
To call this festival a rodeo isn't quite accurate, but there's both ropin' and ridin', so close enough.  The day begins by capturing the young horses and tying them to a picket line.  You can probably imagine that they aren't exactly enthusiastic about this.  I'm not sure how young horses are brought up in other parts of the world, but these foals are a little like first graders...kinda feral.
It took quite a bit of doing to get the SoundCloud track embedded (I forgot how I did it when I came back from Tokyo in April), so I hope you enjoy it.  The real fun begins around 9 seconds, although you can hear the herders on their motorcycles at the beginning.
Well, there's only so long that you can wander up and down the picket lines taking adorable photos before you get hungry.  And fortunately, we tailgate on the steppe, too.  This family was running their khuushuur business out of the back of their van.  The lady in red made balls of dough with meat in the middle, the person inside the van rolled them out flat, and the other man cooked them on a ger stove (remind me to tell you about making ger chili in my next post...amazing...)  The meat was VERY dark.  I think it was actually horse meat, which might have been a little gauche under the circumstances but was also, as Blondie said, damn tasty.
You may be wondering why we drove all the way out into the countryside to see a bunch of baby horses.  The point of the day was that they eventually moved the mares to the other end of the field and raced the baby horses to see who would reach their mother first.  And of course it would be pathetic to have a horse race without betting.  Which brings me to my next point...I am totally going to Hell, because not only did I ditch church on Sunday, I went to a HORSE RACE where I bet on a baby horse.

I have a soul as black as night.  Good thing I'm such a sucker for my kids or I might never redeem myself...
After putting my 5,000T down on number 32, Engrish, Blondie, and I had Enkhaa drive us to the other end of the field, since that seemed like the thing to do.  The "winner's circle" was set up down there, and the herders were showing off their skills. 
One interesting skill they were showing off was picking their "lasso" up off the ground at a gallop.  Some were able to do it...and others weren't.  There was a scary moment when one rider overturned their horse - maybe he was too heavy for the angle required?  I don't know how well you can tell from the photos, but Mongolian horses are quite small, and the rider in question was fairly heavy.
Finally the mares were moved to the other end of the field, and people went to the picket lines so the foals could be released.  This was the moment we'd been waiting for...would number 32 prevail over 84 and 89 (Engrish and Blondie's picks)?
Well, yes.  Actually he did, although I didn't realize it until I went back and looked at the pictures after I'd gotten home.  But he didn't win the race; that honor went to a different foal, number 60, I think.  At least 32 went the right direction, unlike these shmucks. 
The majority of the foals followed their mothers' scent, which led them in a long arc away from us rather than straight across the field, and they needed a little help from the herders to figure out where they were going.  They got there in the end, though.
Where ya goin', Tiny Horse?
The Thousand Foals Festival was a nice trip out of the city (even if I underestimated the cold).  I'm not sure I would go again, if I had the chance, but I'm glad Engrish and Blondie were up for it, and that Enkhaa drove us (in spite of the fact that driving us to Sukhbaatar wrecked his "Land Cruiser").  Not just because it was unique and made a good blog post, but because it answered a very important question in my mind...why Twilight Sparkle and friends are animated running the way they do in My Little Ponies.  Answer: because that's how carefree young fillies actually run. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Chillin' With Chinggis

I continue to stand by my previous statement that getting there is NOT half the fun.  However, traveling with Engrish does have its charms, and in spite of the decidedly less attractive countryside, I enjoyed this trek a lot more than the one to Khuvsgul in June, largely thanks to her. 

For starters, she knows a helluva lot more Mongolian than I do, but she's even better at talking to people in English than I am.  As we left our luxury digs (that was sarcasm, there) in Baruun-Urt in search of adventure out on the town, we ran into a Peace Corps volunteer.  Pretty much every Peace Corps person I've ever met dresses pretty shabby, and I guess that goes with the territory, but I still thought Heath was just about the cutest thing I've seen all year, so when he invited himself to walk with us (apparently that's what you do when you're one of five English speakers living in a town - well, three times the size of Glenwood) we were happy to oblige him.  We did a pretty good circuit of the town, and he invited us to eat pizza with him and his four friends, but we ended up parting ways when we got back to where we met him.  At that point, a drunk Mongolian guy decided it was time to practice what little English he knew, and Heath tried to distract him as Engrish and I snuck off. 

Sadly, he was not a very good distraction, because the drunk guy kept trying to get our attention, and as a result, Engrish walked into a pole.  It made a nice "DONG!" and I would like to say I didn't laugh, but, well, I don't have an evil streak so much as an occasional good streak.
The most interesting parts of the journey I've already told you about.  After the aimag museum in Baruun-Urt there wasn't much left to do but roll over all the kilometers between us and UB.  We stayed in Khentii's capital the third night, in a ger camp that was actually closed for the season, but Enkhaa can apparently be pretty persuasive when he doesn't want me and Engrish to pay for a separate hotel room for him.  As we were driving out of town to it the sun started going down, and even my college drawing teacher, Gosnell, couldn't argue that this was "the big one."  I strong-armed Enkhaa into driving up to the ovoo on the top of the hill, with the above result.  Sometimes you get lucky and have perfect timing.
The capital used to be called Öndörkhaan, but thanks to Khentii being even more famous as the birthplace of Chinggis Khaan than it is for its bread, it was renamed Chinggis City in his honor.  Which seems like a bunch of dung (an excellent way to heat your ger in Sukhbaatar, by the way...) but it's kind of like Istanbul/'s nobody's business but the Turks.  Or in this case, the Mongols.  At any rate, we stopped by the Chinggis Colossus on our fourth and final day because while Engrish had been there before, after two years here I still hadn't.  If I believed in working for free, my TripAdvisor review would go something like this:

 Chinggis Colossus
Probably not worth driving two hours out of the city for, but an interesting way of breaking up the drive if you're on your way home.  7,000 tugs seems steep unless you desperately need to drop deuce and couldn't do it at the ger camp the night before due to a bird in the outhouse that just about gave you a heart attack (true story).  There's a giant boot inside made from about a billion cowhides, and you know what they say about men with big feet!

In fact, there is a large white statue of the hills somewhere between the statue and Terelj park, but I'm not sure where.  As much as I would love to find it, I've embarrassed Enkhaa enough the two times I made him take us to see the small one in Kharkhorin.  One of these days I may have to rent a car and go looking.  Hopefully Engrish will be up for a wild goose chase...or perhaps I should say a wild swan chase.  As much as I love her, though, I still can't talk anime with her, so it was pointless to compare the blue skies of Mongolia to that of the Seireitei (I've moved on from Fairy Tail to Bleach).  I guess that's still what students are for.  It's nice to have a job I actually look forward to going back to tomorrow.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Jojo's Roadside Cafe

In spite of the grasslands teeming with wildlife, getting bored on a roadtrip - particularly in Mongolia's Kansas - is inevitable.  On our way back from Swan Lake, Enkhaa pulled over and declared we were taking a break.  It is possible Engrish and I need to better explain what Western women need when it comes to answering the call of nature, because we had to walk about five minutes to get far enough away from him and each other to do our business.  That's how flat and bare the land was there.  After taking care of business and eating the last of our sausage and cheese, Enkhaa scattered the crumbs of our now-fragile Khentii bread on the ground, and told us he was marking the spot because Engrish was going to come back and open up a restaurant.  This led to us spending the next fifteen minutes coming up with a business plan for Jojo's Roadside Cafe.
Concept sketch by yours truly, inspired by Rukia Kuchiki
1. She will specialize in chocolate chip cookies.
2. She will sell the Sukhbaatar aimag vodka, in its collectable swan-decorated bottle because she knows her target market.
3. She will get a big ger dog to protect her from her target market.
4. I will purchase some chocolate molds in the shape of swans so she can sell swan chocolates.
5. I'll carve something out of the local volcanic rock...perhaps balbals, so we don't wear out the whole swan theme.
6. She will discount the cookies that get left over - day old, week old...month old...
7. Forget about chocolate chip cookies - we'll make swan-shaped decorated sugar cookies, and after they pass the month-old mark we'll market them as Christmas ornaments.  PURE GENIUS!
Of course, this begs the question of what she'll do for the rest of the year, since the swan migration only takes place in October.  There are only so many times you can bench-press boulders before it gets old.  It's possible that she would just keep the cafe open during the migration and focus on her travel agency - the Jojo and Enkhaa Express - the rest of the year.  As their inaugural customer, here's the review that I can't post on TripAdvisor due to the fact that she's a friend:

The Jojo and Enkhaa Express
I contacted this agency to organize my trip to Sukhbaatar aimag at the beginning of October.  My guide spoke excellent English in spite of the fact that she's Canadian - there was hardly a single sentence that she bastardized into a question by adding, "Eh?" on the end.  She was prepared for every eventuality, and had brought her own bevy of swans* in case the lake was empty.  Enkhaa's Land Cruiser was not exactly the car I was expecting, but since it was white it provided great camouflage and probably let us pass flying swans without them even being aware of our existence.  There was never a dull moment with Enkhaa's exciting driving, and he kept the mood in the car jovial with his witty banter.  On the way back to Ulaanbaatar I protested that I couldn't wait another 2 hours for lunch, and he took us to the best roadside khushuur stand and the mutton wasn't even a little muttony!

Lots of other things happened too.  Engrish is surprised I haven't told you about them yet.  Don't worry, Engrish...I still have at least one blog in me.....

*read: Rubber Duckies.  They weren't painted white, but Engrish and I both have vivid imaginations.  And - now that I'm back in UB - paint.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Sexism on the Steppe

 Mongolian women are the absolute best.  It's not enough that they be gorgeous (and they fact, they may be the most beautiful women in Asia.  As an objective observer with vast experience with aesthetics thanks to my training in the visual arts, I think they are).  They are also smart, and strong, and driven.  It was the women of Chinggis Khaan's family that kept the empire together as long as it was.  When I started teaching, I was disappointed to realize that I actually liked my boys better than my girls, whom I aspired to be a role model for.  In Mongolia, that's not a problem.  My girls are, for the most part, much more interesting and outspoken than my boys, and I love them for restoring my faith in our gender.

That's why I find it baffling that there are places that women can't visit here.  Not like a proper gentleman's club, but shamanist or Buddhist sites where they are not supposed to walk.  
We ran into this in June, when Wild Ass and our driver explained that we couldn't go to the top of Black Mountain, and regaled us with tales of women who had scoffed at this restriction to their regret.  I didn't think too much of it at the time.  As we neared Dariganga on Sunday and Enkhaa pointed out Altan Ovoo and explained that we could walk the kora around the mountain but not hike up it, I found myself a little insulted.
But whatever.  I wasn't that interested in hiking that hill - I needed to save my energy for Shiliin Bogd later that afternoon.  I was a little irked when Enkhaa explained that men who climbed the hill were supposed to leave refreshed, but that it didn't work for women.  However, I've visited the energy center in Sainshand - I didn't need this mountain to "refresh" me, and we were definitely allowed to climb this one. 

I've mentioned this before, but I'm not the fastest hiker; I prefer stopping to smell the roses (or shoot the pictures) to racing up stupid hills.  This is good, considering I am also not the most graceful person in the world and my family might be more than a little put off if I fell off the side of a mountain.  Unfortunately this meant that I was about 20 meters short of the top when some mean old Mongolian fart told Engrish (in perfect English - good for you, asshole) that we were not allowed up there.  He actually shooed us away.  And so now I was pissed.  It's possible that I mouthed off as we started trekking down the hill, about how we didn't need his stinking mountain and that I hoped he fell off the south side into China, f*ck you very much (I didn't realize he spoke English or it's possible I wouldn't have spoken quite so loudly.  Thankfully he never would have heard me over the wind, anyways).  Everyone we spoke to afterwards said that women were allowed on Shiliin Bogd, and that jackass was the only thing keeping us from checking out the view of China 3k away on the other side (it probably wasn't much of a view, but we didn't get the chance to find out).  It wasn't a wasted trip - it was still interesting to see the volcanic craters - but I would have been happy to stay at the nearby tourist camp and go up the next morning instead (for some reason, Enkhaa changed our plan when we got back down).  Engrish and I decided (in our first of many business plans for this trip) to come back and build our own tourist camp.  On another crater.  With the prettiest ovoo in Mongolia.  And only allow women to come.  And since there are so many volcanic craters we should be able to tap a hot spring SOMEWHERE, and that would definitely leave our guests feeling refreshed.